The circle of fifths is a musical theory tool that has its roots firmly in mathematics. It explores the relationships between those musical intervals that are most pleasing to the ear, based on discoveries made by the mathematician Pythagoras two and a half thousand years ago.
Pythagoras discovered and investigated the most basic facts about frequency and pitch. He found that there were mathematical ratios between notes. The octave, which is the most basic interval, the point at which pitches seem to duplicate, has a natural 2:1 ratio. If a string of a certain length is set in vibration it will produce a particular note. The shorter the string is, the more times it will vibrate per second, once it is set in vibration. When a string vibrates more times per second, the pitch of the note produced is higher. Therefore, if the string is kept at the same tension but its length is halved, it will produce a note one octave higher than the first. The same happens when you blow through a tube of air. A tube twice the length will produce a note an octave lower.
The circle of fifths, sometimes called the Pythagorean circle, is a diagram with twelve points that represent the twelve semitones within an octave. It is a chart rather like a clock face that organises all the keys into a system and can be used to relate them to one another. It is called a circle of fifths because each step of the circle is a perfect fifth from the next. The fifth is the interval that is closest in character to the octave, in that it is more consonant (less dissonant) or stable than any interval except the octave (or the unison).
A perfect interval is one where natural overtones occur. If you play a note on your violin and listen closely, you will hear the pitch you are playing. You will also hear overtones sounding. The most significant of these, or the easiest to hear, is usually the fifth. Where the ratio of frequencies between octaves is 2:1, the ratio of the frequencies of the fundamental to the fifth is 2:3. A perfect fifth is an interval of seven semitones. These seven semitones represent the building blocks from the first note of a scale to the fifth.
Watch this video for a clear description of how the circle of fifths is built.
The circle of fifths is useful because it shows the relationship between the keys, key signatures and chords.
It can be used to:
Now you’ve watched the video on how to make a circle of fifths, have a look at this interactive circle of fifths. You can use it to look at the relationships between chords in any key.
So what is the circle of fifths useful for?
It is possible to learn the order of sharps and flats as they occur in music by using the circle of fifths. You can work out how many sharps or flats are in a key, and also which notes are sharpened or flattened.
If you look clockwise around the circle you will see the order in which the sharps appear in the key signature. When there is one sharp, it is F#. When there are two, they are F# and C#. Three sharps will be F#, C# and G# and so on.
Looking round the circle in an anticlockwise direction shows the order of flats. If there is one flat it is Bb. Two flats are Bb and Eb. Three are always Bb, Eb and Ab, and so on.
In a circle of fifths in the major keys, C major appears at the top of the circle. C major has no sharps or flats. The next key in a clockwise direction is G major. G major has one sharp, which we now know is F#. Then comes D major which has F# and C#. Going in the other direction, F major has one flat, Bb. Bb major has two flats, Eb major has three flats.
Use the interactive circle of fifths above to notice the enharmonic changes this creates in flat keys between, for example F# and Gb. Look at the circle in D major and then in Db major to see how the pitches are renamed. Two notes that have the same pitch but are represented by different letter names and accidentals are described as enharmonic.
The circle of fifths can also be used to work out which keys are related to each other. You can see that the keys on either side of C are F and G. Therefore, the two closest keys to C, which has no sharps or flats, are F, which has one flat, and G, which has one sharp. F and G therefore make up the primary chords in C major. F is chord IV, the subdominant, and G is chord V, the dominant. Using these three chords you can build the standard chord progression IV V I.
The secondary chords are those further away from the note of your key, so in C major, D, A and E would be secondary chords, which means they may appear in the harmony of your piece but are not as strong as the primary chords.
Watch these two clips. They explain how the circle of fifths works in major and minor keys:
The circle of fifths is also useful for understanding chord progressions such as those from dominant seventh chords. Dominant seventh chords have a tendency to want to go towards another chord. They contain a dissonance that melodically and harmonically needs to resolve. The chord that the dominant seventh resolves to is one fifth lower, so A7 resolves to D major, F7 resolves to Bb major, and so on. If you are asked to play a dominant seventh in the key of D, you will start on the note A.
Here is another clip explaining how to use the circle of fifths to understand your scales.
The model of a circle of fifths, with the consequent understanding of chord progressions and harmony and the hierarchy and relationships between keys, has played a hugely important part in Western music.
The articulation of sounds on the violin is much like the production of different consonants and vowels in speech, and the nuance in expression of tone. The many ways of articulating notes with the bow makes them speak in different ways.
Articulation in violin music is created using range of bowing gestures. These can give the violin an array of different sounds on any one pitch. These differences are mainly in the transient sounds at the beginning and end of the note, and in the length of the note and the attack of the bow. Various techniques of bow pressure, position of the bow (point of contact), angle of the bow and position and movement of the wrist, fingers and elbow are used to create different shapes in with the sound.
These techniques can be described as bowing patterns, or thought of in terms of tone qualities, speed, pressure and position of the bow.
The first articulations the violinist will encounter are the simple ideas of separate bows and legato. In separate bows, the direction of the bow is changed for each note, so each note occurs up bow, down bow, up bow, down bow and so on. In legato bowing, two or more notes are played in one bow stroke. Sometimes separately articulated notes are played within one bow stroke.
Legato bowing creates two main challenges. Firstly, the sound of the bow must not be disturbed by what the left hand is doing. An exercise such as the first study in the Schradieck School of Violin Technique is helpful for coordination of the left hand within a slur. This can be more complicated when a fingering during a slur involves a substantial change of position. A change of position not only requires a change in sounding point, the violinist will have to use the bow to help the left hand make the shift. By slowing down the bow stroke slightly and lifting the pressure whilst the left hand is shifting, a shift can be camouflaged without disrupting the legato flow.
The second challenge of legato bowing is where the slur involves any string crossing. A slight pressure of the bow as the string crossing is made will help bind the tone of the first and second note. Generally, the best technique for smooth string crossings within legato is to approach the second string gradually, so as the first note is slurred to the second, a double stop will sound momentarily. This double stop happens so subtly it is not possible to distinguish it, and only the desired note, aided by the slight bow pressure, is heard.
Where the bow changes back and forth between two strings several times in one bow stroke, it is easiest to keep the bow as close as possible to both strings at once whilst still making sure each note sounds clearly. String crossings like this are hardest at the heel of the bow because they require a subtle and active use of the right hand fingers. Practice studies for legato string crossings can be found in Exercise IV of the Schradieck tutor.
Détaché bowing can, in its simplest form, be described as playing with separate bows. However, the more advanced détaché stroke has a slight swelling at the beginning of the note, followed by a gradual lightening. This is created by adding a slight pressure at the beginning of the note without accenting it. When the stroke is played continuously the infection gives the impression of separation between the notes.
Portato bowing is very similar to détaché bowing and performed using almost the same technique. However, portato is a series of détaché strokes played with one bow stroke. This articulation is used to bring more expression to slurred legato notes.
There are many more advanced and subtle bow techniques, all of which create different articulation in the sound of the violin. Some of the more unusual and distinctive include:
Other more advanced bowing techniques can be learned to produce a huge variety of articulation, character and sound.
The Forty Variations opus 3 by Otakar Ševčík is a compact introduction to many bow strokes including collé and spiccato. Collé is a very important practice bowing, invaluable for developing control of the bow in all its parts. It is also musically useful, being incisive and short.
Spiccato is a bow stroke in which the bow is dropped from the air above the string and leaves the string again after each note. It is played mainly in the lower two thirds of the bow and can range from very short to fairly broad.
Articulation markings in music are indicated by various dots, lines and shapes attached to the note. Generally, a note with a dot above or below is played short, and one with a line is played long. These markings inform which gesture the violinist will make with the bow. A passage of quavers, for example, all articulated with dots, might be played with a spiccato bow stroke. The symbol > above or below a note indicates that the note is played with an accent.
A list of common articulation markings can be found here.
The extent of articulation and nuance possible with advanced study of bowing techniques is as broad as the range of language and expression of a skilled singer. This exploration of some of the basic concepts is only an introduction to the possibilities of violin articulation. Ask your teacher to show you some of the more detailed bowing skills, and use studies and repertoire to develop your vocabulary of sounds.
For more ideas on right hand technique and how the bow arm produces sound, read the ViolinSchool article on Tone Production.
Listening is one of the most important skills you can have. How well you listen has a major impact on your effectiveness at work, your relationships and your musical practice.
Listening enables you to learn, to obtain information, to understand and to enjoy, yet it can often feel like an abstract ability. Research suggests that most people remember only 25 to 50 percent of what they hear, meaning that whether you’re talking to a friend, listening to your violin teacher or listening to your violin practice, you’re paying attention to at most, half of what’s going on.
By becoming a better listener, paying attention to how you listen and what you are listening for, violin practice will improve, but good listening and its application in violin practice requires a high level of self-awareness, attention, positive attitude, flow concentration and critical thinking skills.
Listening in violin playing comes in many different guises:
First, prepare yourself to listen. Put other things out of your mind. If you notice you are thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, allow the mind to re-focus on the music you are about to play, the sound you want to make and the shape of the musical phrase you would like to express. It is very easy to allow the brain to drift into autopilot.
Warm up by playing some long notes and slow scales. Really engage with the sound you are producing. Try to do so non-judgementally, just enjoying the variations of vibration and tone. As your body warms up, give yourself some images of colour, texture or objects, for example, a smooth piece of dark blue velvet. Visualise the feeling and the colour, and then play some notes with the same feeling. Really listen to your tone and the feelings you produce from the notes.
Practice focussed concentration. Break your violin practice into short bursts so you can really listen. The mental state in which you are fully immersed in what you are doing, known as flow or being in the zone, represents the deepest levels of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are positive, energised and aligned with the task in hand. This level of positive focus is most likely to occur when you are practising with purpose; with a clear set of goals and progress, giving direction and structure to the practice, and with clear feedback; so having actually really listened to what you’ve just played.
It is important to find a balance between the perceived challenges of the music or technique you are practising, and your level of skill as you perceive it: You must feel confident in your ability to achieve what you want.
Broken down, this level of concentration can be achieved when you know:
If you are bored or anxious, it is very difficult to concentrate properly, and to listen to what you are really playing without negative preconceptions. Use visualisation, listen in your mind to what you want to do, listen to the results and enjoy the process. This is where your critical thinking skills will come in. Use the information gathered from listening fully to what you are doing to evaluate what you are doing and how you might develop it.
Full concentration, really listening to what you are doing, is more likely to produce the information and results you want than simply hearing what you’re playing.
Try breaking down what you hear into separate parts so you can listen more closely. Work on the rhythm, intonation, tone, phrasing and other musical ideas individually, and then start to put everything back together. Sometimes when you concentrate on the rhythm, the tuning will go funny, for example. Don’t worry about this; your brain is focussed on integrating your understanding of the rhythm. You can go back to the intonation later.
Allow your ears to listen to the sound in the whole room, not just to the sound coming from your violin. Imagine you have one ear at each side of the room. Sometimes it can be interesting to put an earplug in your left ear to hear the sound that is going into the space rather than the noise under your earhole!
Read the article about visualisation skills for more ideas and practice techniques.
You can use the ViolinSchool Auralia ear training software (included free with your ViolinSchool membership) to practice your listening skills and deepen your understanding of the music you are learning. Most music has three main ideas to notice: new melodies, repetition and variation. You can also look for colour, balance and texture, key (major or minor), rhythms and accompaniment. The more you understand about how your piece is put together, the easier it is to feel confident in how you want it to sound.
Listening to someone you admire playing the piece you are learning is one of the best ways to motivate yourself and understand the music. You can develop a mental map of the characters, colours and energies that make up your piece.
Listen to the piece as a whole and in small sections. It can be fun to listen to a phrase and then try to recreate the sounds and shapes you heard on the recording. Many beginner violin books and graded exam books now come with CDs. For children learning the Suzuki method, listening is one of the first skills learned. Suzuki encouraged his young students to listen to recordings of great violinists, and his method is based on the mother tongue ideal of repetition and imitation. Suzuki children normally start off playing the violin with a beautiful tone because they have listened so much to the sound of the violin. Ultimately, listening to the piece before and during study allows you to build a concept and an ideal of the music, and motivates your listening and your practice.
Recording your violin practice and performances and listening back is an extremely useful practice tool. Don’t listen back immediately if you feel it might be a negative experience. Record one day and listen back the next so you have a little distance from the process of “doing”. Often you will pick up on all sorts of things you missed. The violin is right under the ear and it can be difficult when you’re actually playing to pick up on things that are obvious when you are focussed solely on listening.
It can be easy to go into a lesson with a preconceived idea of what you can and cannot do. Your teacher will have a completely fresh perspective on what you are playing and will hear positive things and aspects you can work on, some of which you may think didn’t sound so good, or which you hadn’t noticed weren’t working. When your teacher is explaining something, don’t talk. Listen. Don’t interrupt or talk over them or you will miss vital information. You already know what you think; this is the time to take advice.
Listen to feedback in a positive way. Feedback that tells you why something isn’t working and how you can make it better is incredibly valuable; don’t let it depress you if your teacher isn’t constantly complimentary. Listen to the feedback and add it to your information banks. It would be much worse if nobody in your support network ever told you something didn’t work and it was only picked up in an important concert.
Playing with other people requires a whole new level of listening. Suddenly you aren’t just listening to your own sound, tuning and rhythm, you’re listening to the group sound and required to play in time and in tune with other people.
Have a look at the article about Ensemble Playing for some in depth ideas for playing with other musicians.
The whole point of playing the violin is to enjoy its sound. Without listening, there is no function to the music. Developing the conscious listening skills in practice that enable you to really express the music in performance is a really important part of practice and learning. Learning to listen when you practice, and to hear the elements of music as it’s performed, will heighten your enjoyment when you go to a concert, or when you hear birdsong, the wind in the chimney or the waves on the beach. You might even find you are listening and communicating better with others.
Start noticing your listening when you practice and see what else comes into your awareness through practising this essential skill.
One of the most crucial decisions to the performance and interpretation of any piece of music is the speed. Getting the speed right allows room for all the intricate levels of technique and expression to work; it creates the mood, tells the story and allows the music to dance.
When we play in an orchestra, the conductor indicates the speed of the piece with his upbeat and subsequent arm movements. In smaller ensembles, the speed of a piece must be decided between the musicians, and somebody has to lead. This is helped by everybody breathing together as the upbeat is given. In violin practice, we can use a metronome or our own sense of pulse, and choose a practice speed that allows us to work effectively.
The speed of a piece of music is called the tempo, which is just the Italian word for time. In fact, most of the words we need to learn in order to understand the speed and feel of the music we play are Italian. In the 17th century, when tempo indications were first used extensively, defined and standardised, many of the important composers were Italian, and these terms have remained widely used in music to the present day.
There tends to be no tempo indication in music written before this method came into common use. In Baroque music, conventions governing composition were so strong that the speed of the music is hardly ever indicated. When Bach wrote a Giga, it was understood what speed that Giga, or jig, was meant to go.
In Renaissance music, most pieces were understood to flow at a speed roughly the same as the human heart rate. The note value which corresponded to this pulse, known as the tactus, was defined by the time signature, so 3/4, 2/2 and 6/4 would indicate different speeds as much as a different musical emphasis.
Many musical forms, particularly those derived from dances, have their own tempo too, so no instruction is given in the music. When we see a waltz, minuet or tango, we understand the speed and mood from our knowledge of the dance, period and style.
The tempo of a piece of music is sometimes indicated by a metronome marking which is measured in beats per minute (BPM). The note value that gives the beat is specified by the time signature. For example in 4/4, the beat is a crotchet. The speed is dictated by the amount of time between beats, specified as a fraction of a minute. A metronome marking of crotchet = 60 means there is one crotchet beat per second, and a metronome marking of crotchet = 120 means there are two crotchet beats per second; so crotchet = 120 is twice as fast as crotchet = 60.
The metronome was invented by Johann Maelzel in 1816. Music written before the metronome became popular will only have metronome markings if they are editorial. One of the first composers to include these mathematical tempo indications himself was Beethoven, but his markings create more questions than answers; they are inconsistent or sometimes impractical, leading to the theory that his metronome didn’t work very well! The modern digital metronomes are much more reliable.
Despite appearing very specific, metronome markings are nearly always only an approximate guide. Depending on the time signature, your musical interpretation and even the acoustic where you are performing, the markings may not always be appropriate.
Most pieces of music are given Italian words as tempo indications. These words are much more specific in their descriptions of how a piece should go than a metronome mark, as they often give an indication not only of speed, but of the character and mood of the music. For example, whilst Presto means fast and Allegro also means fast, the Italian meaning of the word Allegro is joyous or gleeful, giving a new intention to the music.
Tempo markings are also frequently accompanied by descriptive words which give a deeper indication of how the music should sound.
The understanding and interpretation of tempo markings must be affected by when the music was written. Tempos have changed over the course of time, and some of the terms have switched places. A modern Largo is slower than an Adagio, but in Baroque music it was faster.
Let’s have a look at some of the most common words you will see:
Grave – slow and solemn
Lento – slow
Largo – slow and broad
Larghetto – quite slow and broad
Adagio – slow and stately, meaning “at ease” in Italian
Andante moderato – a bit slower than Andante
Andante – at a walking pace
Moderato – at a moderate tempo
Allegretto – moderately fast
Allegro – fast, quickly and bright
Vivace – lively and fast, from the Latin, vīvāx, literally meaning full of life
Presto – extremely fast (168–177 BPM)
As with dynamics, basic tempo markings can be adjusted in various ways:
Tempo can often fluctuate through a movement to give musical interest. Tempo changes are often written into the music, and there are specific terms for these too.
Composers often use expressive marks to adjust the tempo in the middle of a piece. Elgar is famous for his exacting instructions and some of his works have a different tempo marking every few bars!
Here’s what they all mean:
The overall tempo indication will always appear in large type above the stave, whereas tempo adjustments such as accelerandos or ritenutos generally appear below the stave.
After a change of speed, a composer may indicate the return to a previous tempo by marking a tempo or tempo primo. These terms indicate an immediate return to the main tempo of the piece.
Alongside the instructions which exist purely to give an idea of the speed, composers use a huge variety of descriptive words. The slow movement of Elgar’s String Quartet is given a metronome marking alongside which it is simply marked piacevole, which means peacefully. Given the context of Elgar’s music, this word conjures up bucolic interpretations of this peace and gives a clear idea of his intention for the mood. It would mean something different from another composer.
The number of words used to give the character sometimes precludes understanding without the aid of an Italian dictionary, but many of them are quite similar to English words. Here are a few examples of descriptions that often accompany tempo markings:
Although Italian is the most common language for tempo and expression markings, many composers write in their own language. Debussy, Ravel and Rameau wrote their instructions in French, and Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss used German.
Take time to learn as many tempo words as you can, and notice which other words regularly appear at the top of your music. Listen to the music you are learning, and to other music by the same composer or from the same period of musical history. Watch dancers performing modern and ancient dances and listen to folk music.
Tempo markings give a clear academic definition to the speed of a piece, but only practice, immersion in listening and experience will really help you to choose the speed which makes the music work best for you and your audience.
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The beneficial effects of learning a musical instrument are well documented in young children, and the violin has seen its share of child prodigies, but how does the relationship with the instrument change as the player gets older, and is it ever too late to start learning?
Even the youngest children will respond to music. Shinichi Suzuki, Japanese violinist and father of the Suzuki method of teaching, tells a story in his book Nurtured by Love, about a five-month-old baby called Hiromi.
Hiromi had grown up listening to her older sister learning the violin, and her sister had been practising the Vivaldi A-minor concerto. Suzuki recalls, “When everyone was quiet, I started playing a minuet by Bach. While I played, my eyes did not leave Hiromi’s face. The five-month-old already knew the sound of the violin well, and her eyes shone while she listened to this piece that she was hearing for the first time. A little while later, I switched from the minuet to the Vivaldi A-minor concerto, music that was played and heard continuously in her home. I had no sooner started the piece when an amazing thing happened.
“Hiromi’s expression suddenly changed. She smiled and laughed, and turned her happy face to her mother, who held her in her arms. “See – that’s my music,” she unmistakeably wanted to tell her mother. Soon again, her face turned in my direction, and she moved her body up and down in rhythm.”
Suzuki’s method of teaching the violin begins in infancy. Based on the observation that every child is fluent in his or her own language, Suzuki believed that ability is not a matter of inherited talent, but of correct teaching, environment and encouragement.
According to Carolyn Phillips, former Executive Director of the Norwalk Youth Symphony Orchestra, learning music in childhood helps develop the areas of the brain which are involved in language and reasoning. Musical training physically develops the part of the left-brain that is known to be involved with language. It also increases the capacity of the memory. The parts of the brain that control motor skills and memory actually grow.
Phillips also explains in her article, Twelve Benefits of Music Education, that there is a causal link between music learning and spatial intelligence, which is the ability to perceive the world accurately and to form mental pictures of things.
Children who learn a musical instrument have been proven to be better creative learners and problem solvers. In his book Always Playing, Violinist Nigel Kennedy, former enfant terrible of the Classical Music world, describes his feelings about his early schooling: “I guess something like 80 per cent of what I was formally taught at my schools, particularly at the Menuhin [School], I reacted to badly, but that reaction led me to trying my own alternatives and it is always such a buzz when you see your thinking work out.”
Music also gives the player an internal glimpse of other cultures and teaches empathy with people from those cultures. Every piece of music has a cultural and historical back-story. When children come to understand different cultures through music, their development of empathy and compassion, rather than a selfishly orientated motivation, provides a bridge across cultures and leads to an early respect for people of different races.
Learning an instrument teaches the value of sustained effort. It teaches teamwork, responsibility and discipline. In an ensemble of any size, players must work together for a common goal and commit to turning up to rehearsals on time, having prepared the music. This requires time management, organisational skills and social skills, a focus on doing rather than simply observing and a willingness to conquer personal fears and take risks.
Most of all, learning a musical instrument is a means of self-expression. In Western society the basics of existence are fairly secure. The challenge is to make life meaningful and to reach for a higher state of development. Every human being needs at some point in his or her life to be in touch with his core, with what he is and what he feels. Having an outlet for self-expression leads inevitably to higher levels of self-esteem.
A child will start learning the violin for many reasons, but the violin is an instrument that can appeal greatly. It is small and lightweight, immediately accessible and available in different sizes so even a tiny child can pick up his violin easily. The violin is also a very personal instrument. Each violin looks similar, but no two sound the same, and even the same violin played by two people will sound different. This physical attraction to the violin is what leads a small child who has just begun learning to take his violin to bed with him like a teddy bear.
The violin is also an instrument that seems to attract child prodigies. Mozart was a child prodigy, as were Menuhin, Zukerman, Perlman and so many others. The pressure on these children can be enormous. Many don’t have normal childhoods. Paganini was apparently often locked in his room for hours by his father and forced to practice; a discipline which led him to serious problems with alcohol by the time he was 16.
Child “genius”, violinist Chloe Hanslip, interviewed in the Telegraph in 2007, commented, “I couldn’t be a normal child. Not properly normal, because I’m a classical violinist.” In the same article, Jennifer Pike, who won the BBC Young Musician of the Year on violin in 2002, aged just 12, explained in a more balanced way that an intensive musical education doesn’t suit everybody.
This comment is borne out by the experiences of Julian Rachlin, who won the Eurovision Young Musician of the Year in 1988, when he was 13. He went on to become the youngest ever soloist to perform with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. By the time he was 20, Rachlin had lost his confidence so badly it nearly ended his career. He went to study with Pinchas Zukerman, himself a former child prodigy. Zukerman helped him understand he had to develop his career path at his own pace.
Although in the instance of child prodigies, the motivation for progress often comes from the child, the conventional view is that they often end up as adults with broken lives and unfulfilled dreams. The American violin virtuoso, Itzhak Perlman, said in an interview with the New York Times that many things could go wrong with prodigies, particularly those whose parents had suspect agendas, that is, they wanted to achieve success through their child.
Shinichi Suzuki had a poor view of such parents. In Nurtured by Love he tells the story of a child whose mother had come to him with the question, “ Will my child amount to something?” Suzuki felt this was an offensive question and replied, “No. He will not become ‘something’.” He explains, “It seems to be the tendency in modern times for parents to entertain thoughts of this kind. It is an undisguisedly cold and calculating educational attitude.”
Suzuki told the child’s mother, “He will become a noble person through his violin playing… You should stop wanting your child to become a professional, a good money earner... A person with a fine and pure heart will find happiness. The only concern for parents should be to bring up their children as noble human beings. That is sufficient. If this is not their greatest hope, in the end the child may take a road contrary to their expectations. Your son plays the violin very well. We must try to make him splendid in mind and heart also.”
The ideal, as Julian Rachlin found, is that musical development should compliment personal growth; that is, not just educational growth but the development of the whole person. The relationship with creativity is intrinsic to the relationship with the self. As one grows, the other will become surer.
Watch this video of 11-year-old Sirena Huang, presenting a TED Talk on the technology of the violin, in between beautiful, accomplished performances. She has worked very hard to reach this level, but the main aspect that shines through is her enjoyment of what she is doing, and the need to share it; the fundamental human need to communicate.
A child might begin the violin because he likes the sound, knows someone else who plays or because his parents decide he should learn. But what if you are considering learning as an adult? Is it too late?
In her book Making Music for the Joy of It, Stephanie Judy sets out to encourage adult beginners. The first sentence in the book reads, “Welcome! You’ve chosen a wonderful time to start making music.”
Judy explains, “As an adult beginning musician you have many advantages over a child in the same situation. Your primary advantage is that you are in charge…Maybe you’ll regret that you didn’t start sooner, but that regret is a pale rival to your freshness and enthusiasm. You are not just fulfilling a personal fantasy; you are answering a great human longing.”
The most important prerequisite to beginning the violin later in life is to feel at ease with making music. Many adult beginners feel awkward and overwhelmed by the physical challenge of learning, but feeling at ease has more to do with clearing away self-doubts than it does with holding the instrument. Once you begin to get rid of doubts about your musical self, you have cleared the path for progress.
This is not only true for beginners, it is very pertinent for players who have been playing for many years, perhaps since childhood, but whose relationship with their instrument has always been guided by someone else; a teacher or a parent. Even at a professional level, as a violinist continues to develop, old self-doubts must be cleared in order to free the way for new musical expression and integrity. This then begins to work in the other direction. As you begin to understand your musical and creative self and free up mental blocks, this understanding transfers in a positive way into other aspects of your life. Even at a professional level, a violinist never stops learning.
As an adult beginner you may feel you should have started as a child, but the fact is, for whatever reason, you didn’t. It’s also true that all your experience to this point in your life has brought you to wanting to play. You must begin where you are today.
Playing the violin is a holistic activity. It involves the whole body but also the deeper self, self-doubt and complex experiences and emotions.
Judy says, “Adults often help themselves along the road of musical understanding more quickly than children because of their deeper experiences, both of music and of life.”
The reasons an adult might want to start learning the violin are very different from the reasons a child might have. Adults often get to a point where they want something that makes new demands on them. Sometimes it’s a need to express artistic energy and communicate. It can be a yearning for some activity that needs total mind and body focus, total involvement in a world where we constantly multitask. Learning the violin can offer stress relief and perspective as the music draws you into the present moment. It is a social activity, with the chance to play fantastic orchestral and chamber music repertoire at any level.
Whatever age you are, five or 75, the important ingredients to success are the same: Passion, patience, time to practice and perseverance. We would never ask if it is too late to learn to paint, or to learn a language yet somehow there is a belief that unless you begin the violin as a toddler it is too late. Not so. There is an enormous benefit to engaging the brain in new activities throughout all the stages of life.
Here is an example from www.uncorneredmarket.com, from a selection of inspiring stories for elderly people.
“You are never too old to learn.
Andrew, one of my grandfather’s colleagues from when they both worked in India in the 1960s, now lives in my grandfather’s retirement complex.
He had to give up his violin lessons when he escaped Hungary in 1937 as his family began facing persecution for being Jewish.
“It had been 75 years since my last violin lesson. I wanted to play violin again, but I sounded awful. I decided I needed lessons.”
Earlier this year, he began taking violin lessons again. We asked how things are going.
“I’m progressing pretty well. It’s fun to play again,” Andrew chuckled.
He’s scheduled to play a Christmas concert this week. I imagine there are many more in his future, too.”
Finally, whatever your age, it’s important to maintain your physical wellbeing in order to keep playing at your best. Read the article on the body for some ideas and tips.
Never practice without warming up, and take regular, gentle exercise such as yoga to keep your joints mobile. The DVD Yoga for Musicians shows some simple and effective stretches to release tension and build muscle tone.
The British Association for Performing Arts Medicine has lots of information about health resources for musicians on their website, including a useful chart of warm up exercises.
So whatever your age, keep playing, keep learning and keep enjoying all that the violin has to offer.
The word dynamics in music refers to the volume of the sound or note. Dynamics are part of the vast array of musical expression and interpretation marks written into music. Dynamic markings do not represent specific values of volume; they are relative, depending on many factors, from the size of the room in which you are performing to the style or historic context of the piece.
Dynamic markings are generally written as shortened Italian terms. The basic volumes are quiet, which is written as the letter p, representing the Italian word piano, and loud, the Italian word forte, written as f. Within piano and forte there are grades of volume, including mezzo piano which is louder than piano and mezzo forte which is quieter than forte. Sometimes you might see other descriptive words with the dynamic marking, for example the word più, which means more. When you see più piano it literally means more quiet. At the extremes of dynamic are pp, pianissimo, which is very quiet, and ff, fortissimo, which is very loud. You can see multiples of the p or f, such as fff or ppp when the composer wants a really strong volume effect.
Changes of dynamic are also marked in Italian. Subito forte, for example, means suddenly loud. A forte piano, written fp, is where a note begins forte and suddenly becomes quiet. Sforzandos and accents are notes which have strong beginnings. Crescendos and diminuendos, which are where the music gets louder or softer, are marked as shortened terms, cresc. or dim, or as ‘hairpins,’ which look like this:
The elements of violin technique relevant to the successful realisation of dynamics are the same as the three fundamentals of tone production.
Starting with the basics, this video shows how the dynamic movement of the body; arm weight and back muscles; can be applied to the violin to make a good tone:
The way the bow arm is used affects the tone quality and the volume of sound. The three factors that interplay are the amount of weight placed into the bow, the speed at which the bow is used and at which position between the fingerboard and bridge the bow is drawn.
Within these parameters, the mechanics of playing forte and piano on the violin are very different from each other. The bow hold must alter subtly to effect every change in volume.
In piano, where you might want to create a transparent, quiet sound, the first finger moves towards its base joint in the way it touches the bow stick, and the other fingers come slightly off the stick. When the bow needs to settle into the string more to play forte, where more breadth of sound is required, the index finger readjusts. The wrist will have a feeling of pulling the bow and the first finger will slightly spread away from the second and feel a closer contact with the stick, nearer to its middle joint.
Greater speed in the bow stroke per beat means greater energy transmitted into the violin. If the pressure, which is the other energy-producing factor, remains the same, a change in speed will alter the dynamic. Increasing the speed of the bow makes the sound louder; decreasing it creates a softer sound.
For a note that requires the same dynamic throughout, the best and simplest way to use the bow is with an equal speed for its whole length. Equal speed means equal bow division. For example, if there are four quavers (quarter notes) to be played within one bow stroke, each note should be played with one quarter of the bow. If there is a dotted crotchet (dotted half note) and a single quaver (quarter note), the dotted note will be played with three quarters of the bow and the quaver with the remaining quarter. It is tempting to set off with too fast a bow stroke which means that the bow runs out towards the end of the stroke. This makes sustaining an even dynamic impossible. Practice long notes of four beats with the metronome at crotchet = 60, dividing the bow equally into quarters with the beat. Make sure that after two beats you have not passed the halfway point. Another way to practice slow bows is to gradually work up with a metronome to long notes of 30 seconds per bow.
The volume of the violin also depends on the weight of the bow into the strings. The bow is not equal at each end. The frog is much heavier than the tip, and also supported by the weight of the arm, whereas the tip of the bow is much lighter and used by the arm in almost full extension. When an even dynamic is required, the pressure used must be uneven to compensate for this difference. At the frog, the volume comes from the weight of the arm into the thumb and the third and fourth fingers. In the middle of the bow, the weight comes from the arm into the middle fingers and thumb, which requires a free upper arm and shoulder without excessive tension. To get extra volume at the tip of the bow where the arm is extended, use flatter bow hair, so there is more hair in contact with the string, and transfer additional weight from the middle and fourth fingers into the first and second fingers. The wrist and hand move down slightly and help the weight transfer.
There is a constant fluctuation and balance within the hand with every bow stroke, between the first and second, middle, and third and fourth fingers and the thumb. See if you can draw a long slow bow, starting at the frog with only the thumb and fourth finger on the bow. As you move towards the tip, transfer the weight into the middle fingers, lift off the fourth, and let the weight gradually transfer into the index finger, until you are at the tip of the bow holding it between only the index finger and thumb. Reverse the process, ending back at the frog with only your fourth finger and thumb on the stick.
One tricky aspect of technique is where bow division is not straightforward, for example where there is a recurring rhythmic pattern of long and short notes. To stay in the same part of the bow whilst playing a long, short, long, short rhythm, the speed of the bow for the short note will have to increase. This change of speed will create an increase in sound, so the shorter note is louder. To make the dynamic even between the two note lengths, it is necessary to adjust the pressure. By lightening the pressure of the bow on the short note, you can maintain a steady tone.
Often though, the dynamic is not meant to be even. Accents, crescendos and other expressive dynamics give subtle nuance to phasing and interpretation. Constant tiny manipulations of the bow occur to produce changes in speed and pressure.
Experiment with different degrees of pressure. Notice that too much pressure actually prevents the string from vibrating and crushes the sound. Extreme pressure can also have the affect of altering the pitch, and if you press really hard you will hear a sound an octave lower than the note you are playing.
A sforzando, written sfz, is an accent at the start of a note, followed by a sustained draw for the value of the note. It is a similar stroke to martelé, which is a strong, expressive detached stroke. The volume of the sforzando depends on the dynamic level in the phrase where it is played. The weight for the accent comes from a first and second finger bite on the bow and thumb pressure against the frog.
An accent, shown with this symbol > above or below a note, is a similar articulation to the sforzando, but with a lighter accent at the beginning of the note. Immediately after the accent, the weight is released and the bow drawn in a legato style for the rest of the note. Again, the amount of accent depends on the dynamic level. A loud accent will naturally be stronger than one in piano. The weight comes from the first and second fingers on the bow and thumb pressure against the frog.
The third element of technique that determines the creation of dynamics is the sounding point; the position of the bow on the string between the bridge and the fingerboard. The violin will produce a louder, more vibrant tone closer to the bridge, and a softer, less distinct sound near the fingerboard. A flat bow, pulled parallel to and near the bridge will bring out a full, loud sound.
As explained in Simon Fischer’s book Basics, the two famous violin teachers, Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian, both divided the area between the bridge and the fingerboard into five sound points. Flesch called them:
Different sound points combined with different bow speeds and pressures create more subtle variations of tone and dynamics. Whatever amount of speed and pressure you are using, there is a sound point where the string will vibrate more and the note will sound more vibrant.
Slower, heavy bows on sound point 2, which is near the bridge, will produce lots of volume. Fast, light bows on sound point 5 will be quiet.
It is possible to use the sound points to crescendo and diminuendo with rich and expressive tone. Glide the bow towards the fingerboard or pull it towards the bridge in such a way that it never loses its right angle relationship to the string, like the gramophone needle gently moving from one ring of the record to the next. An alternative method is to slightly angle the bow, using the non-parallel angle to move nearer to the bridge or fingerboard within the bow stroke.
The performance of dynamics, which are relative and not absolute, depends on many factors. Galamian explains in his book, Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, “Anybody who talks to a few people in a small room need not even raise his voice…Speaking in a large auditorium, however, to an audience of thousands, is obviously an entirely different matter. The speaker will have to speak louder, slower and more clearly. These are obvious things, yet it is strange how few are the instrumentalists who realize that the same things apply to them when they perform in public.”
The way dynamics work within a piece change depending on the size of the hall and audience, and on the acoustic. If the hall is very resonant and not too big, not much needs to be done, but if the acoustic is dead and dry, or the hall is very large, all of the dynamics need to be upgraded. This is easy enough in the piano and pianissimo passages, but when loud dynamics such as forte and fortissimo occur, you need to be flexible with bowings, so you can change the bow as much as necessary to get the required volume without forcing the tone.
Dynamics are also relative depending on your role in a performance. As the soloist in front of an orchestra, your dynamics will be augmented, whereas if you are sitting in the orchestra, you should never play louder than the other players or your sound will not blend. As the second violinist in a quartet, you need to project your sound through that of the first violinist and cellist who are not only sitting further forward, they are playing at pitches which naturally project better on their instruments. It is important in chamber music to know the score; to understand what role your part has. If you have a melody or important countermelody, the relative dynamic of your part may be more than someone else’s, even though you both have the same dynamic marking. The same goes if your part is accompanying. You may need to play more quietly.
Let’s recap with a short video demonstration of different dynamics on the violin:
You might also find this printable worksheet helpful (courtesy of www.teachervision.com) to make sure you recognise the dynamics in your own music.
Sight Reading for Violin
“The ability to sight-read fluently is a most important part of your training as a violinist, whether you intend to play professionally or simply for enjoyment. Yet the study of sight-reading is often badly neglected by young players and is frequently regarded as no more than an unpleasant sideline. If you become a good sight-reader you will be able to learn pieces more quickly and play in ensembles and orchestras with confidence and assurance.” Paul Harris, author of the Improve your sight-reading series.
Sight-reading is a really important skill. We sight-read new pieces in orchestra and duet rehearsals, we get sight-reading tests in exams and auditions; if you can’t sight-read, learning a new piece, or even choosing which piece to learn, is an arduous task. An ability to sight-read well opens up opportunities to enjoy ensemble playing and take charge of your own learning. Good sight-readers are more versatile performers because they are able to assimilate new music and diverse styles very quickly, and to perform with minimal rehearsal time. Learning to sight-read well should be at the top of every violinist’s list of priorities.
The main problem with sight-reading is that we start to see it as separate from our other musical skills and even our basic musicianship. Faced with a piece of sight-reading, we shut down our brain to all of the things we have learned and enjoy about the instrument, and panic.
Fundamentally, sight-reading is the skill of reading music, and how that reading transfers into movement and sound. Sight-reading is a skill, and it is true that the more you do it, the more fluent you will become, but there is no point spending hours trying to improve unless you understand the elements of the skill. It is essentially a mental activity, the message travelling from eyes to brain to fingers, and it is important not to try too hard or you’ll get in your own way! Really successful sight-reading is relaxed, calm and musical.
It is important to practice sight-reading regularly as part of your practice. Once you have grasped the basic concepts, the skill needs constant reinforcement to instil good habits. If you can’t bear to practice on your own every day, arrange to meet friends for ensemble playing and read through new pieces with them.
Only accessible material enables you to acquire the habits that will lead to fluency. Don’t choose to sight-read complex material, start with really basic music and build up to more complicated pieces gradually. Get as many sight-reading books as you can so you don’t run out of material. Paul Harris’s graded series, Improve Your Sight-reading is excellent, because it starts by breaking down the basic components of pulse, rhythm and melody, and the exam boards have books of specimen tests available. You could even use the pieces or sections of pieces you don’t know in any book you are working from. As a rough guide, it’s an idea to start learning to sight-read using music which is much easier than your current repertoire.
Practice sight-reading slowly; learn the positions of the notes on the stave and how they relate to your left hand finger patterns. Scales are great for learning finger placement. Make sure you know some basic theory concepts such as key and time signatures. Don’t be fazed if you come across something you’ve not seen before. That happens to everyone. Just find out what it is.
The first thing to do when faced with a piece of music you haven’t seen before, because that’s all sight-reading is, is to prepare the piece.
As you become more experienced, this process will speed up and you will be able to gauge most of the information you need by visually scanning the music before you start.
Successful sight-reading is largely a matter of good quality concentration. Your mindset and focus as you look at the page is the most important factor. Notice your eyes. Visual steadiness is crucial. Relax your eyes and don’t let them fidget and flit about, losing connection with what you are doing. Instead of going through the motions of reading, really focus. True concentration is difficult to maintain for long, but you don’t have to work hard, merely practice awareness. The second you notice your concentration has gone, you have already refocused yourself.
Problems generally arise when we are not ready for the notes as they arrive. Your eyes are looking at a note and you are also playing that note, and sometimes it’s happening so fast that your brain can’t process the information. Then you start to feel that blind panic which makes you hate sight-reading. The trick is to continually read ahead. Keep your eyes moving a few beats in front of where you are playing. Sight-reading in this respect is actually the process of visually memorising short snippets of music you are about to play whilst playing something else. This allows the fingers to be ready for the notes as they arrive, and suddenly you are playing fluently.
Reading ahead enables you to look at the music in bigger chunks. Instead of looking at each note as a separate event, you start to see how its rhythm fits into the beat, and melodically where scale and arpeggio patterns appear and how other intervals fit in.
Don’t react to mistakes. As soon as you give too much attention to a mistake, your concentration is no longer on what you are doing, and the chances are you are just about to make another mistake, and another. Decide to play all the way through without stopping. Keep going at a steady tempo and don’t worry about a dropped note. Imagine how quickly an orchestra would fall apart if every player who made a mistake hesitated or went back to correct it. Soon nobody would be in the same place at all. Prioritise. If on your first try you are able to keep the pulse but play all of the wrong notes, that’s a good start.
So as you prepare to play the piece remember:
Sight-reading is simply the process of playing a piece of music you haven’t seen before. Don’t separate it from your other musical skills in your mind; approach it with enthusiasm, curiosity and confidence. And now you have the tools to learn how to sight-read, never dismiss sight-reading practice as dull and unnecessary. It is one of the most fundamental skills a violinist needs.
For at least the last two thousand years, the majority of composed art music in the Western world has been made up of two or more simultaneous musical sounds or pitches. The name given to this combination of sounds is harmony.
Most descriptions of harmony focus on Western music but harmony exists in music from other cultures too. In the art music of Southern Asia the underlying harmonic foundation is a drone; a held tone, the pitch of which does not change throughout the piece. Drones have also been common in folk music for centuries, particularly with instruments such as the bagpipes. Combinations of sounds also appear in Indian classical music or rãgas, but whereas in Indian music improvisation takes a major role in the structure, improvisation has not been common in Western classical music since the late 19th century. Prior to that, improvisation often involved embellishment on written lines rather than the free melodic expression we associate with the word today.
The earliest forms of Western harmony have their origins in church music, when the chants sung by monks were sung in two parts, with a fixed tone, or tones moving parallel to the melody, accompanying the chant. This added depth and colour to the music, where previously a single stark line had existed. This single line chant is called plainchant, and was an ancient monophonic form of music influenced by the Greek modal system.
Harmony has the same function today; when a vocalist is accompanied by a guitar, the right hand of the piano is accompanied by the left hand or when we sing hymns along with an organ, the melody is given depth and interest.
In these instances, the guitar, organ or left hand part of the piano will normally play a combination of several notes at once. A combination of notes played together is called a chord. If you are absolutely new to the idea of harmony and music theory, take a look at this video where the basics are explained right from the start.
And here is a great resource introducing the idea of harmony for children.
Over the centuries, ideas have changed about which chords and combinations of notes make a good harmony. In the 10th century, the interval of a fourth (two notes, four notes apart) was very popular. Other early harmonies moved in fifths, five notes apart. Parallel fifths, where several chords of pitches five notes apart happen in succession, were also used in folk singing but by the 18th century parallel fifths were considered undesirable. By the Renaissance, harmony had developed, and the commonest chord was the triad.
A triad is a three-note chord built up in thirds, or where the interval of a fifth is filled out by its central note. It is used both with the notes in their basic order, 1, 3, 5 and in various inversions where the same notes are placed in a different vertical order.
The triad remained the basic harmonic unit in Western music until well into the 20th century; hence as violinists we practice arpeggios, which are no more than the notes of the triad in each key. It is possible to make a good harmony for many melodies just by using two or three triads, normally the triads of the first, fourth and fifth notes of the scale. These are known as the tonic, subdominant and dominant triads and often written as I, IV and V. More developed melodies sound better with a wider range of harmonies since the way a note is harmonised can change the sense of a piece of music.
Some chords are made up of notes that are dissonant. These are called dissonances, and a dissonance needs to be resolved. Dissonant chords are resolved by consonant chords, which naturally succeed them, creating a smoother sound. The tension generated by dissonant chords can provide a feeling of impetus and energy in music. Wagner used dissonance to great effect in his operas, sometimes moving from one dissonant chord to another, sustaining the resultant tension without resolution, for entire acts which could be as long as two hours of music.
Ideas have altered over the centuries as to which chords and intervals are dissonant and which are consonant. The interval of two notes a semitone, or minor second, apart or their inversion, a major 7th, forms the strongest dissonance in Western triadic music. The interval of a fourth can be quite dissonant but was not considered so in the 10th century.
By the early 20th century, composers were introducing new ideas that replaced the traditional triadic harmony. In modern music, tension and dissonance may be less prepared and less formally structured than in Baroque and Classical music.
Another function of harmony is to punctuate musical phrases. Music has natural stopping places or called cadences, with strong cadences at the end of phrases and weaker ones at other parts in the musical line. Cadences with a clear finality are called perfect cadences and often lead from the dominant or fifth triad to the tonic or first triad, V-I. Imperfect cadences are less final and lead to the dominant.
Harmony is not just chords. As violinists we tend to think melodically or horizontally and harmony can seem quite vertical, but harmony works in the way each successive chord relates to the previous one. It is useful to have an understanding of harmony, particularly if you want to be able to improvise, but also to deepen your understanding of intonation in solo lines and as an ensemble player.
Music theory creates a distinction between harmony and counterpoint. Harmony is understood to occur where there is a melody with accompaniment. Counterpoint is where melodic lines are heard against each other, weaving together so that their notes harmonise. Music using counterpoint is called contrapuntal. Another useful word meaning music made up of several strands is polyphony, from the Greek for many sounds.
Counterpoint was a very important technique for composers in the late Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, when it was used widely in church music.
The concept of imitative counterpoint, a favourite device of composers such as Palestrina, is familiar to anyone who has every sung Three Blind Mice or Frère Jacques as a round.
When music is written, there is an interdependence and integration between vertical and horizontal musical lines. Counterpoint was not succeeded by harmony; harmony developed out of counterpoint and comprises both vertical and horizontal movement. Harmony is a process involving not only the notes which make up a chord, but also the overall flow and progression of chords throughout a composition and the resultant countermelodies which occur.
In Western music, improvisational styles such as jazz have in the past been considered to be inferior to art music, which is pre-composed. Music that exists in oral traditions is separated from notated music, largely because the evolution of harmony has been facilitated by the process of prior composition, which allows for the analysis and study of harmonic techniques.
Jazz and pop harmonies are presented differently and are the basis for improvised melody, rather than being an accompaniment for a pre-composed tune. Have a look at this demonstration of basic jazz harmony. You will see that the chords are shown in the same way, named by their root (bottom note) as IV, V, I and so on, but they are also described by various terms and characters which determine and define the qualities of the chord. Jazz musicians have to develop a really deep understanding of the notes in each chord and how they operate within the chord in order to be able to improvise with apparent freedom.
If you would like to learn more about harmony, check out our free music theory programme Musition, which comes free with your Violin School subscription.
The violin is traditionally built as an acoustic instrument. The shape of the body is designed purely to produce and amplify the sound created by the vibrations of the strings. However, since the American jazz clubs of the 1920s, modern popular music genres have created the need for violins that can be amplified beyond the normal capabilities of the instrument.
There are various different ways to create an electronically amplified sound for the violin. Some musicians argue that the best tone is produced with an acoustic violin and a specialised microphone, but this can sometimes create feedback and amplify unwanted sounds, as noise from a loud room will resonate inside the body of the violin and pass back into the microphone.
Another way to amplify the violin is with an electric piezo pickup, which is a small transducer in contact with the body or bridge of the violin, designed to amplify only the sound created by the violin. A violin modified with a pickup is referred to as an electro-acoustic violin.
Electro-acoustic violins are often custom built, as most violinists are nervous of applying a contact pickup to the varnish or bridge of their best instrument. They can still be played as acoustic instruments, although the extra weight of the pickup can make them less comfortable to use, and the pickup itself on the body of the violin can mute the sound slightly by dampening the vibrations.
The first use of electronically amplified violins was in jazz music. The jazz violinist Stuff Smith (1909 -1967) who is featured in several trio numbers on Nat King Cole’s album After Midnight, is thought to have been the first violinist to experiment with adapting the violin with pickups. His better-known counterpart, Stephane Grappelli (1908 – 1997) apparently struggled to find a solution to the need for amplification.
There is a gap of fifteen years between 1956 and 1971 in Grappelli’s discography; a time when he barely recorded anything. This is thought to be due to the technical developments in jazz music at the time. Electric guitars, improved microphones and bigger brass sections made it hard for the violin to compete, and Grappelli was dissatisfied with the results of his experiments with amplification as they had a destructive effect on the unique, gentle timbres of the violin. He tried out lots of different things, one of which was an early electric violin.
In an interview with Max Jones of the London Melody Maker in November of 1952, Grappelli declares of the electric violin, "Now the Violin Can Find a Real Place in Jazz . . ." It possible he was either testing or endorsing the instrument as his enthusiasm is not followed up with any noted performances or recordings on the violin. The article continues:
"In his Variety act with pianist Yorke de Sousa, Grappelly [he often used this misspelling as it was preferable to the alternative mispronunciation] still uses his standard violin. But for dances and jazz sessions his improvisations are now amplified directly he puts bow to steel strings. He is an enthusiastic exponent of the electric violin - an American instrument that radio listeners heard for the first time in World of Jazz on November 1.
'Of course the instrument's full value cannot be realized from a record or broadcast, because the amplifier isn't really needed then. The tone sounds different, yes; but you must hear this violin in a hall to get the whole effect. It is wonderful.'
The wonder instrument is a curious sawn-off looking thing, visually unimpressive and extraordinarily heavy. We wanted to know if it demanded a special technique.
'The fingerboard is the same, but it has to have metal strings. For me, the finger- pressure is about the same as I normally use, but the bowing is different. This needs great control. You must have very steady bowing, for every little sound is enlarged through the loudspeaker. Each time I am going to use the electric fiddle I must get used to it again; I must play all day. It isn't easy to play well at first, but once you have mastered this fiddle it is fantastic. This fiddle is definitely better than the normal one for jazz playing; there is no comparison. For solos it is powerful and exciting. It means that the violin can take a full part in the jazz orchestra at last. It's no longer a little voice; it's more like four fiddles. I mean, I may play louder than four fiddles, but, of course, the sound is not the same. In fact, it is an entirely new sound, and eventually it will add new tone colour to jazz recordings, too.’”
Melody Maker November 15th 1952
The instrument Grappelli was talking about was made by the American company Vega, who were manufacturing electric violins from as early as 1939.
The American company, Fender, which is famous for its electric guitars, also produced some of the early electric violins, with the first model appearing in 1958.
As we can see from this interview with Grappelli, and from the Vega advert, even by 1939, the electric violin was a very heavily modified version of the violin.
The modern electric violin, most accurately described, is an instrument almost entirely distinct from the violin, with built-in pickups and a solid body.
The body of the electric violin is solid for three reasons:
The shape of the electric violin is modified to be as minimalistic as possible, to keep the weight of the body from becoming too great. Materials used to build the body include carbon fibre, Kevlar and glass, although performers increasingly customise and embellish their instruments, as demonstrated by these two Swarovski Crystal encrusted instruments belonging to electric violin duo Fuse. For more information please visit www.fuseofficial.com or www.electricstringquartet.com"
Fuse also commissioned two 24 carat gold plated violins, which are each insured for £1.35 million.
The electric violin is still seen as a somewhat experimental instrument. It is much less established than the electric guitar or bass, and produces very different results from the best acoustic violins. There are many variations on the standard design. Some instruments have frets, extra strings, guitar heads instead of violin pegs and sympathetic strings.
It is also not unusual for an electric violin to have five, six, seven or more strings. Dutch violinmaker Yuri Landman built a 12 string electric violin for the Belgian band DAAU. The strings on this instrument are clustered in four groups of three strings tuned unison creating a chorus.
The extra strings on these multiple-stringed violins are usually a low C string on a five-string, which gives an instrument which can serve simultaneously as a violin and viola, a low C and low F on a six-string, and a low C, F and B♭ for strings.
The amplification signals for the electric violin pass through electronic processing in the same way for the electric guitar. The audio output is transferred through an audio cable into an amp or PA. Most electric violinists use a standard guitar amp, which will be reliable but may not give the best tone for the violin. Few amps exist specifically for the electric violin. Effects pedals that create delay, reverb, chorus and distortion can be used to create variations on the traditional sound. Electric violins may use magnetic, piezoelectric, or electrodynamic pickups, the most common and inexpensive of which are the piezoelectric pickups. Piezo elements detect physical vibrations directly. They are placed in or on the body of the violin, or more commonly they take their output from the vibrations of the bridge. These pickups have a high output impedance, which means they must be plugged into a high impedance input stage in the amplifier, or go through a powered preamp. This matches the signal to avoid any problems with low frequency loss and microphone noise pickup.
There are increasing numbers of electric violins to choose from, and various companies that produce their own version of the instruments. They are ideal for pop and rock music. With the correct pedals and equipment they produce a huge range of sounds and effects, and they also create a modern image, which fits better than a traditional violin in certain settings. The sound is not as sophisticated as the acoustic violin, and levels of expression and nuance are more electronic than imitative of the human voice. However, the electric violin particularly gives the opportunity to experiment with multiple combinations of strings and instrumentation, which is not possible on an acoustic instrument. It is also great for silent practice.
For those purists who love the sound of the violin, the electric violin is a long way from replacing the violin’s sheer beauty of sound, but there is an increasing market for electric violin music, and several popular artists and groups have based their careers entirely around the versatilities of the instruments, as well as many musicians who have integrated the range of the electric violin into their repertoire. In fact, electric violin makers often work with violinists to produce newer and better solutions to the musician’s needs. Instruments can be really personalised.
The electric violin is still an instrument in the developmental stages, but the demands of musicians wanting the perfect combination of versatility and sound quality will continue to improve its status and desirability. It will never replace the violin, but the electric violin is gaining its own place in music.
“To rely on muscular habit, which so many of us do in technique, is indeed fatal. A little nervousness, a muscle bewildered and unable to direct itself, and where are you? For technique is truly a matter of the brain.” Fritz Kreizler, violinist and composer 1875 -1962
Visualisation, the process of creating compelling images in the mind, is one of the most valuable tools for learning and integrating skill, building confidence and achieving success, yet we constantly underuse it in our lives and our violin practice.
Visualisation accelerates the learning of any skill by activating the power of the subconscious mind, focussing the brain by programming the reticular activating system - the filter which mediates information and regulates brain states - to seek out and use available resources, and by raising the level of expectation, motivating a better result.
Scientists have found that the same regions of the brain are stimulated when we perform an action and when we visualise performing that action: If you vividly imagine placing your left hand fingers on the fingerboard of your violin, your brain activates in exactly the same way as if you were actually doing it – your brain sees no difference between visualising and doing. This research is used to great effect to help stroke patients reactivate muscles that have lost their facility: It has been found to be possible to build strength in a muscle that is too weak to move by simply repeatedly imagining the movement.
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The process of visualisation, which was initially dismissed by many as unfounded, is described in W Timothy Gallwey’s 1974 book, The Inner Game of Tennis.
“There is a far more natural and effective process for learning and doing almost anything than most of us realize. It is similar to the process we all used, but soon forgot, as we learned to walk and talk. It uses the so-called unconscious mind more than the deliberate "self-conscious" mind, the spinal and midbrain areas of the nervous system more than the cerebral cortex. This process doesn't have to be learned; we already know it. All that is needed is to unlearn those habits which interfere with it and then to just let it happen.
Visualisation simply makes the brain achieve more. Sports psychologists and peak performance experts have been popularising the technique since the 1980s, and it has been integrated into almost all mainstream sports and performance coaching, success programmes and business training.
Athletes using guided imagery and mental rehearsal techniques can enhance their performance by creating mental images to intend the outcome of a race. With mental rehearsal the body and mind become trained to actively perform the skill imagined. Repeated use of visualisation builds experience and confidence under pressure, maximising both the efficiency of training and the effectiveness of practice. This principle applies to learning anything new. According to Jack Canfield, in his 2004 book, The Success Principles, Harvard University researchers found that students who visualised tasks before performing them, performed with nearly 100% accuracy, where those who didn’t use visualisation achieved only 55% accuracy. This is also true when applied to the process of learning the violin, both during practice time and performance.
“Fortune favours the prepared mind.” Louis Pasteur, chemist and microbiologist, 1822 - 1895
Most of us are familiar with the idea of reading ahead in the music, or of hearing a note or pitch before playing it. Visualisation - not only conceiving of a phrase before playing it, but vividly imagining the sound, how it feels, where the fingers will fall, how the hand will move in a certain shift and even how the performance will go - is a much deeper way of mentally absorbing and preparing the information. It is also one of the best ways to rid your practice of monotonous repetition and develop awareness of your musical actions.
It’s all very well knowing how great visualisation can be, but how do you go about it? What happens if you close your eyes and don’t seem to be able to see anything?
There are two different ways of visualising, depending on your brain type, both of which are absolutely legitimate. Some people are what psychologists refer to as eidetic visualisers. When they close their eyes they see things in bright, clear, three-dimensional, colour images. The majority of people, however, are noneidetic visualisers. This means they don’t really see an image as much as think it. THIS WORKS JUST AS WELL!
Before we look at how we can apply visualisation techniques in violin practice, let’s look at an example exercise from The Inner Game of Tennis, in which the aim is to hit a stationary target with a tennis ball:
“Place a tennis-ball can in the backhand corner of one of the service courts. Then figure out how you should swing your racket in order to hit the can. Think about how high to toss the ball, about the proper angle of your racket at impact, the proper weight flow, and so forth. Now aim at the can and attempt to hit it. If you miss, try again. If you hit it, try to repeat whatever you did so that you can hit it again. If you follow this procedure for a few minutes, you will experience what I mean by "trying hard" and making yourself serve. After you have absorbed this experience, move the can to the backhand corner of the other service court for the second half of the experiment. This time stand on the base line, breathe deeply a few times and relax. Look at the can. Then visualize the path of the ball from your racket to the can. See the ball hitting the can right on the label. If you like, shut your eyes and imagine yourself serving, and the ball hitting the can. Do this several times. If in your imagination the ball misses the can, that's all right; repeat the image a few times until the ball hits the target. Now, take no thought of how you should hit the ball. Don't try to hit the target. Ask your body, Self 2, to do whatever is necessary to hit the can, then let it do it. Exercise no control; correct for no imagined bad habits. Having programmed yourself with the desired flight of the ball, simply trust your body to do it. When you toss the ball up, focus your attention on its seams, then let the serve serve itself. The ball will either hit or miss the target. Notice exactly where it lands. You should free yourself from any emotional reaction to success or failure; simply know your goal and take objective interest in the results. Then serve again. If you have missed the can, don't be surprised and don't try to correct for your error. This is most important. Again focus your attention on the can; then let the serve serve itself. If you faithfully do not try to hit the can, and do not attempt to correct for your misses, but put full confidence in your body and its computer, you will soon see that the serve is correcting itself. You will experience that there really is a Self 2 who is acting and learning without being told what to do. Observe this process; observe your body making the changes necessary in order to come nearer and nearer to the can, Of course, Self 1 is very tricky and it is most difficult to keep him from interfering a little, but if you quiet him a bit, you will begin to see Self 2 at work, and you will be as amazed as I have been at what it can do, and how effortlessly.”
You can already see how this same exercise might be applied to practising a particular shift or bow stroke, any specific element of your piece that requires a certain physical movement to gain a result.
Here are some more practice and performance ideas from The Musician’s Way, A Guide to Practice, Performance and Wellness by Gerald Klickstein, 2009
Start using visualisation in your practice. You will find you achieve much better results and increased confidence, you can practice at antisocial hours of the day or night, you can save tired muscles, and you will develop a much deeper, intuitive understanding of the instrument and the music. Visualise, imagine and mentally prepare at least as much as you physically play. As you practice visualising it will become easier to integrate it at speed and under pressure.
Visualisation is counter-intuitive in a culture where we are taught to try, try, try again, but it is without doubt the single most powerful practice technique that most of us don’t use!
“If you cannot visualise what it is you wish to become, then the brain doesn’t have the first clue how to get you there." Chris Murray, Author of The Extremely Successful Salesman’s Club
“When everyone else has finished playing, you should not play any notes you have left over. Please play those on the way home.” Anon.
Making music with other people is one of the best ways to enjoy playing the violin and an important part of developing your skills as a musician. The benefits of playing as part of a group or ensemble include improvement in every aspect of general musicianship, a better sense of pulse, rhythm and intonation, a heightened awareness and a chance to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
A chamber music ensemble plays without a conductor. This is a small group such as a string trio or quartet with one person playing each part. A larger ensemble where many people are playing the same part, normally guided by a conductor, is called an orchestra.
When you are learning to play in an ensemble of any size, there are important skills you must develop and practicalities to consider.
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As Christmas approaches, it is always a nice chance to learn some festive music to get into the seasonal spirit.
There is loads of Christmas music available, from carols to favourite pop songs, but before we delve into the Christmas goodies, here’s some improvised fiddle fun from Peter Lee Johnson to get you in the mood…
If you want to try something less complicated, there is a wealth of music for beginner and intermediate level violinists. Perhaps the best book for adults and children is by Kathy and David Blackwell, authors of the Fiddle Time series. They have put together a great selection in Fiddle Time Christmas (Oxford University Press). It’s available on Amazon, where it has five star customer reviews.
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