Bowed string instruments have been played all over the world for many thousands of years.
Medieval instruments including the Chinese erhu, the Finnish bowed lyre and the Indian sarangi all had the same basic mechanics as the modern violin, using the principle of a continually resonating string amplified by a hollow body.
In 7th century Greece, there was an instrument called the kithara, a seven stringed lyre, the features of which were very different from the violin.
The development of a musical instrument is rather like the process of evolution. It is gradual and complex, with many of its stages indistinct or undocumented. The history of the violin can be traced back more or less to the 9th century.
One plausible ancestor for the violin is the rabãb, an ancient Persian fiddle which was common in Islamic empires. The rabãb had two strings made of silk which were attached to an endpin and tuning pegs.
These strings were tuned in fifths. The instrument was fretless, its body made from a pear shaped gourd and a long neck.
It was introduced to Western Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, and the influence of both the rabãb and lyre, along with a constant search for perfection and refinement and the demands of increasingly complex repertoire, led to the development of various European bowed instruments.
Ancestors of the Violin
Forerunners of the violin include the rebec, an instrument based on the rabãb, which appeared in Spain, most likely as a result of the Crusades.
The rebec had three strings and a wooden body and was played by resting it on the shoulder.
There were also Polish fiddles, the Bulgarian gadulka and Russian instruments called gudok and smyk, which are portrayed in frescos from the 11th century.
The 13th century French vielle was very different from the rebec. It had five strings and a larger body, which was closer in shape and size to the modern violin, with ribs shaped to allow for easier bowing.
Confusingly, the name vielle later came to refer to a different instrument, the vielle á rue, which we know as the hurdy-gurdy.
Emergence and Early Variants
There is no reference to the word violin until the reign of Henry VIII, but something very much like the violin existed, and its name was fydyl.
This instrument was played with a fydylstyck, proof that it was bowed and not plucked.
It had only three strings and a fretless fingerboard, and it was used for dancing, in banquets and social events; occasions which required an instrument with a strong sound, held shoulder height for projection.
In 15th century Italy, two distinct kinds of bowed instruments emerged. One was fairly square in shape and held in the arms and was called a lira da braccio or viola da braccio, meaning viol of the arm.
This instrument had three strings and was the same general size and shape as the vielle, but the C-shaped sound holes in the body had been replaced by the now familiar F-holes.
The other bowed instrument was a viola da gamba, meaning viol for the leg.
The Rise of the Modern Violin
These gambas were important instruments during the Renaissance period, but were gradually replaced by the louder instruments of the less aristocratic lira da braccio family as the modern violin developed.
The violin first appeared in the Brescia area of Northern Italy in the early sixteenth century.
From around 1485, Brescia was home to a school of highly prized string players and famous for makers of all the string instruments of the Renaissance; the viola da gamba, violone, lyra, lyrone, violetta and viola da brazzo.
The word violin appears in Brescian documents for the first time in 1530, and whilst no instruments from the first decades of the fifteenth century survive, violins are shown in several paintings from the period.
Violins vs Viols
The first clear description of the violin, depicting its fretless appearance and tuning, was in the 1556 Epitome Musicale by Jambe de Fer.
By this time the violin had begun to spread throughout Europe. It was mainly used to perform dance music but was introduced into the upper classes as an ensemble instrument.
Where the viol, which was preferred in aristocratic circles, had been perfect for contrapuntal music and for accompanying the voice, the violin was normally played by professional musicians, servants and illiterate folk musicians.
|"The violin is very different from the viol. First, it has only four strings, which are tuned at a fifth from one to the other, and each of the said strings has four pitches in such wise that on four strings it has just as many pitches as the viol has on five.
It is smaller and flatter in form and very much harsher in sound, and it has no frets because the fingers almost touch each other from tone to tone in all the parts. Why do you call the former Viols, the latter Violins?
We call viols those upon which gentlemen, merchants, and other persons of culture pass their time.The Italians call them "viole da gambe,” because they hold them at the bottom, some between the legs, others upon some seat or stool; others [support them] right on the knees of the said Italians, [but] the French make very little use of this method.
The other kind [of instrument] is called "violin", and it is this that is commonly used for dance music [dancerie], and for good reason: for it is easier to tune, because the fifth is sweeter to the ear than the fourth is" It is, also easier to carry, which is a very necessary thing, especially in accompanying some wedding or mummery.
The Italian calls it "violon da braccia" or "violone" because it is held upon the arms, some with a scarf, cord, or other thing. I did not put the said violin in a diagram, for you can consider it upon [the one for] the viol, joined [to the fact] that few persons are found who make use of it other than those who, by their labour on it, make their living."
- Jambe de Fer from the Journal of the Viola Da Gamba Society of America, November 1967.
The Evolution of the Modern Violin
The viola and cello developed alongside the violin in early 16th century Italy. This new family of stringed instruments gradually took the place of the gambas and viols as new ideas of sound emerged.
It is commonly accepted that the first modern violin was built by Andrea Amati, one of the famous luthiers (lute makers) of Cremona, in the first half of the 16th century.
The first four-stringed violin by Amati was dated 1555 and the oldest surviving of his instruments is from around 1560, but between 1542 and 1546, Amati also made several three-stringed violins.
Amati built his violins using a mould, which meant the measurements became much more precise. He developed a more vaulted shape for the body of the instrument rather than the flat soundboards of the early stringed instruments.
It is speculated that Amati may have studied with Gesparo da Salo in Brescia, but some records show that he was well established in Cremona long before he began making violins, and was in fact older than da Salo.
The Brescian school of luthiers had existed for 50 years before violin making began in Cremona, but the Cremona school gained prominence after 1630, when the bubonic plague swept Northern Italy and eliminated much of the Brescian competition.
Italy had managed to avoid the thirty-year war and development of the instrument continued in a golden age of culture.
Andrea Amati mastered many apprentices, and produced a dynasty of violinmakers, including the Guarneris, Bergonzis, and Rugeris.
His own sons followed him into the trade, and his grandson, Nicoló Amati, the most famous Amati, trained Antonio Stradivarius.
Stradivarius made over 100 instruments, of which roughly two thirds survive. His violins are some of the most imitated by modern makers today.
18th and 19th Century Transformations
The violin, originally an instrument of the lower classes, continued to gain popularity, becoming integral in the orchestra during the seventeenth century as composers such as Monteverdi began writing for the new string family.
The instrument continued to develop between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the surviving historic violins have all undergone alterations.
The violin bow changed dramatically in around 1786, when Françoise Xavier Tourte invented the modern violin bow by changing the bend to arch backwards and standardising the length and weight.
The violin fingerboard was lengthened in the 19th century, to enable the violinist to be able to play the highest notes. The fingerboard was also tilted to allow more volume.
The neck of the modern violin was lengthened by one centimetre to accommodate the raising of pitch in the 19th century and the bass bar was made heavier to allow for greater string tension.
Where classical luthiers would fix the neck to the instrument by nailing and gluing it to the upper block of the body before attaching the soundboard, the neck of the modern violin is mortised to the body once it is completely assembled.
By the 18th and 19th century the violin had become extremely popular. By the late 18th century, makers had begun to use varnished developed to dry more quickly.
This had an impact on the quality of instruments produced. The quality of the wood used in violin making has been affected by the lack of purity of modern water as nearly all substances dissolved in water permanently penetrate wood.
By the 19th century violins were being mass-produced all over Europe. Millions were made in France, Saxony and the Mittenwald, in what is now Germany, Austria, Italy and Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.
It is partly for this reason that the violins of the early Italian masters are so prized, so well regarded and so expensive. A Stradivarius violin will now sell for many millions, the most expensive so far on record sold for $16million in 2011.
More recently, new violins were invented for modern use. The Romanian Stroh violin used amplification like that of a gramophone to boost the volume.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, before electronic amplification became common, these violins with trumpet-like bells were used in the recording studio where a violin with a directional horn suited the demands of early recording technology better than a traditional acoustic instrument.
Electric and electro-acoustic violins have also been developed. An electro-acoustic violin may be played with or without amplification, but a solid bodied electric violin makes little or no sound without electronic sound reinforcement.
Electric violins can have as many as seven strings and can be used with equalisers and even sound effects pedals, a far cry from the exacting acoustic knowledge which created the great violins of the Italian Renaissance.
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.
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.Click here to see all the benefits of becoming a member, and to join today![/MM_Member_Decision][MM_Member_Decision membershipId='1']You currently have a free account! To read the rest of this article, you will need to register for ViolinSchool membership. Click here to see all the benefits of becoming a member, and to join today![/MM_Member_Decision][MM_Member_Decision membershipId='2|3']
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.
Say you’re playing your violin in an orchestra for the first time. What things do you need to know?
Chamber music playing is different from orchestral playing. Communication is intensified because there is no conductor. To play one to a part gives more interpretive freedom but means you have to really communicate to form expressive unity. Playing in a small group is more individual and personal than playing in an orchestral section but still requires the musicians to merge their ideas. In some ways, chamber music is a solo activity because you are the only person playing your musical line. It’s also a social activity in which you are making music with friends and have to be perpetually responsive to what they are doing. It doesn’t work unless you are listening and responding to each other, not only when you are playing, but also in the discussions that inevitably arise during rehearsal.
Here are some tips and ideas for playing in a chamber ensemble:
Enjoy the experience of playing with other musicians and discovering great music together. There is nothing better than the exhilaration of creating something that is greater than the sum of its musical parts, and of extending your own technique and creativity along the way. You will learn musicality, diplomacy, how your friends take their tea, and most of all, you will open yourself up to a world of great music.
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.[MM_Member_Decision isMember='false']You will need to register for ViolinSchool membership in order to read the rest of this article! Click here to see all the benefits of becoming a member, and to join today![/MM_Member_Decision][MM_Member_Decision membershipId='1']You currently have a free account! To read the rest of this article, you will need to register for ViolinSchool membership. Click here to see all the benefits of becoming a member, and to join today![/MM_Member_Decision][MM_Member_Decision membershipId='2|3']
Their book contains 32 Christmas tunes, some well known favourites and some lesser known songs, many of which have the words to sing along to; there’s a selection of solo and duet pieces and easy chord symbols for piano or guitar accompaniment. The arrangements are nice and easy with simple finger patterns and the book even comes with a CD to listen or play along to.
Let’s take a quick look through the book.
The first song is the Christmas carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing, which is a lovely tune by Mendelssohn. This version is in G major and has simple rhythms. Look out for the C naturals on the A string, which need a low second finger, and try singing the words to help with the dotted rhythms. The dynamics increase as the song draws to a triumphant close.
The first duet piece is the traditional English melody The Holly and the Ivy. This song has three beats in a bar. Most of the rhythms move together between the top and bottom parts, but look out for places where one player has two quavers and the other has a crotchet. Much of the harmony is quite close so listen to make sure your tuning works together.
The same is true of Silent Night, a bit further on in the book. Close harmony needs good intonation so that the song sounds really beautiful. Notice the dynamics in Silent Night. There are ‘hairpins;’ crescendos and diminuendos marked to shape each phrase in the same way that you would sing it. Listen to the way the phrases are sung by these choristers.
The next duet is I Saw Three Ships. This is in a compound time signature, 6/8, which sounds like a jig or sea shanty. This recording gives a strong sense of the dance-like rhythm from an unlikely source.
The book continues with the carol Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, and the Trinidadian carol Christmas Calypso. Again this is a more complicated rhythm. Sing the words and notice where the strong beats fall. The bow distribution is slightly tricky in this song as there are notes of different lengths mixed up in each phrase. Try using slightly less bow for the quavers and more for the crotchets to help divide up the bow and to give the swinging calypso rhythm. Listen to this Christmas Calypso to hear the gentle sway and emphasis of the beat.
The next few songs are Once In Royal David’s City, again in G major, so look out for those C naturals, then Go Tell it on the Mountain and O Christmas Tree. O Christmas Tree is another duet which will be great fun to play with a friend. Playing Christmas songs together is great fun for adults and children. Although the children in this video are playing in D major, their performance gives a great idea of the rhythm of the song.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas, While Shepherds Watched and We Three Kings are next. Many of these songs will be familiar to even young children who will have heard them or sung them at school. It’s always nice to start with the songs you know. Listen to them all on the CD and you’ll discover plenty of new songs too.
Next come plenty more favourite carols including Away in a Manger and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, before the carols are interrupted by a simple version of the famous Skaters’ Waltz by Waldteufel. Listen to the full orchestral version and imagine the skaters gliding over the ice! Waldteufel’s name is pretty fun too. It’s German for Forest Devil.
The next tune is from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, which is a huge Christmas favourite with a surreal surfeit of dancing mice and sweets. Watch these dancers performing Dance of the Reed Pipes. Notice how the shape of the dance follows the shape of the music.
The book ends with some more famous melodies, including Jingle Bells, and two Hogmanay tunes. Hogmanay is Scots for the last day of the year, and the Hogmanay Reel is a Scottish dance tune. Auld Lang Syne is a song traditionally sung on New Year’s Eve and also at the very end of any decent Scottish party when everyone is feeling sentimental about having to go home.
Fiddle Time Christmas is a really great place to start learning Christmas music, but there are also plenty of Christmas songs available as free downloads. There is a nice selection of carols at www.violinonline.com. They all come with sheet music, scores and sound files. Some are perfect for beginners, and others more suitable for the intermediate player. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear has some more advanced accidentals and the Messiah Medley is quite challenging but great if you like Handel’s music.
Fiddlerman.com has a downloadable version of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, suitable for intermediate players. There’s no sound file and it’s not in the original key because vocal scores are often in very difficult keys, but if you love the song, here it is.
Christmas only comes once a year, so dive into the seasonal repertoire, have fun, and happy Christmas!
How the Violin Makes Sound
The body of the violin is a hollow space that functions as an amplifier for vibration. The strings are suspended above the body by a bridge, a small piece of maple wood, which stands on the belly of the violin between the F holes and which is secured to the belly by the tension of the strings. The vibration from the stings is transferred through the bridge to the body of the instrument via the internal sound post. Vibrations are amplified as they meet the hard wood at the back of the instrument and come out through the soft front body and the F holes.
The F holes serve to connect the air on the inside of the instrument to the air outside. As a result of their length and shape, they allow the part of the belly between the holes to move more easily and to vibrate more freely than the other parts of the instrument.
The sound-post, the small upright piece of wood inside the violin, prevents the belly from collapsing under the tension of the strings and couples the vibrations between the stiffer back plate and the bridge. The position of the sound-post is critical to the sound of the instrument. The bass-bar sits inside the belly on the bass-foot side of the bridge, the side under the G-string or bass end of the instrument. This extends beyond the length of the F holes and transmits the motion of the bridge over a large area of the belly.
The air inside the instrument vibrates, exactly like the air in a bottle vibrates when you blow across the top of it.
The violin does not work like an electric amplifier. An electric amp takes a signal with a small amount of power and uses electricity to turn it into a more powerful signal. On the violin, the sound produced by the body of the instrument is created entirely with energy put into the string from the bow. The body of the violin is designed to make the conversion process of vibration to sound optimally efficient. A string on its own makes little sound.
Vibration of the violin strings can be achieved by plucking the strings, which is called pizzicato, or by drawing a bow across them, which is called arco. There are several other ways of making sound, known as extended techniques, which include col legno playing -hitting the string with the wood of the bow- or even tapping on the body of the instrument to make percussive noises.
The bow is strung with horsehair, normally about 150 to 200 hairs from a horse’s tail. Rosin, tree resin mixed with wax, is applied to the hair to increase friction. The surface of the hair shaft looks a little like the tiles on a roof, and the rosin adheres to the raised areas on the surface. Without rosin the hair is too smooth and will slide over the string with virtually no sound.
As the bow is drawn across the string, the air molecules in and around the violin move backwards and forwards, varying the air pressure by tiny amounts. The number of oscillations or vibrations of air pressure per second is called the frequency and is measured in cycles called Hertz (Hz). The pitch of a note is determined by the frequency, for example, 440 Hz, or 440 vibrations per second is the note A in the treble clef, the pitch of the A string. 220 Hz is exactly one octave lower, the A played with the first finger on the G-string.
The pitch of the vibrating string also depends on its thickness. A thicker string will sound lower than a thin one. The tension of the string also determines pitch: the higher the tension, the higher the note. Another differentiation is the length of the string that is free to vibrate. As fingers are added to the string on the fingerboard, the pitch of the note gets higher as the string is effectively shortened. Harmonics produce another mode of vibration, in which the sound waves produced by the string are a fraction of the length of those normally produced.
Here Mark Wood demonstrates the physics of sound on his seven string electric fiddle. This is an extreme example of how the pitch works across the instrument, but it is also clear that the resonance created with electrical signals is very different to that of an acoustic violin with all its nuances of shape.
Tone Production with the Bow
The three main points of violin technique that have an impact on the sound are the weight, speed and point of contact with the bow. The bow must always be drawn at a right angle to the bridge, in a straight line between bridge and fingerboard. Simon Fischer describes this constant point of contact like the needle of a record player in the groove of a vinyl record.
Once the bow technique is developed to allow the flexible, spring-like action in the right arm and bow, the three aspects of tone production and nuance can be explored.
Speed of Bow
The faster the bow stroke, the greater the energy that is transmitted to the violin. If bow pressure remains constant, a change in speed will produce an increase in volume. Decreasing the speed will mean the sound gets quieter. For a musical phrase that requires a constant dynamic, therefore, an equal bow speed should be maintained throughout. A frequent mistake is to use too much bow at the beginning of the stroke and run out towards the end.
The pressure of the bow on the strings comes from the weight of the bow itself, the weight of the arm and hand, controlled muscular action, or a combination of the these factors. The bow is heaviest at the frog and therefore whenever an even dynamic is required the pressure must be stronger towards the point. The amount of pressure helps determine the volume of the sound, but the quality of pressure is also important. Too much pressure crushes the string and actually prevents it from vibrating, and can even result in a change of note if the string is pulled too hard. The weight of the hand and arm and the pressure from the muscles must be transferred with freedom of movement and without tension. For example, a rigid right shoulder detracts from the ability to properly use the weight of the arm to apply pressure to the string.
Watch this tutorial by Yehudi Menuhin in which he demonstrates a series of exercises for developing a fluent, flexible right hand:
The third factor in tone production is the sounding point or point of contact. This is the point in relation to the bridge where the bow has contact with the strings. The optimal sounding point changes in relation to the varying speeds and pressures of the bow, and to the length and thickness of the string. On thinner strings the sounding point is nearer to the bridge than on thicker strings; in higher positions it is closer to the bridge than in lower positions.
A further acoustic phenomenon, which Giuseppe Tartini used in his compositions to great effect, also has an impact on tone production. When thirds or sixths are played on the violin, especially on the A and E strings, a third note sounds well below the pitch of the two written notes. These resultant tones, also known as Tartini tones, exist when any two notes are played simultaneously. The pitch of the third tone should be consonant with the double stop. By awareness of these tones, intonation and resonance reach a new level.
Here is Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata. Listen the depth of tone in the double stops.
The sound of the violin is as close as any instrument to the human voice. The ideal for the violinist is that the instrument is almost an extension of the body; it is the violinist’s voice. In order to create this sense, the violinist must learn to use the body without the interference of mental blocks and physical tensions. Mind and body are engaged in practice, and every practice is an opportunity to learn and relearn and to build a healthy relationship between the body and the violin.
Most focus in practice tends to be on performance. Often the means by which performance is achieved are ignored or taken for granted until injury or pain impedes progress.
Since the sound on the violin is created with the whole body, and the whole body is engaged in the techniques needed to express the music, it is worth spending some time paying attention to the body.
When we practice, all conscious learning takes place within the working memory. This is a limited resource. Nothing can be learned properly if there are too many points of focus at once. Teaching the body to recognise correct postures stretches the working memory and it is not possible to fully focus on the music until the body is comfortable and balanced.
A coordinated body is fundamental for all musical skill and technique to develop.
In his book Life Class, Yehudi Menuhin explains, “My main principle in playing is all-embracing and straightforward: a striving for equilibrium. Perfect equilibrium is, of course, an unattainable ideal, a complex and infinitely multifaceted thing. None the less, one can approach something like right equilibrium when one realises that no part of the body moves without some corresponding reaction or compensation in some other part, in the same sense that not a leaf falls without altering the equilibrium of the earth.”
The engagement with the body therefore becomes an awakening of awareness as to the subtle shifting and balance, the release of tension and the development of mindfulness, which will deepen musicianship, connection and expression in performance.
The subject of how to use the body in violin playing is huge, and different approaches suit different people. Some students find the Alexander Technique helpful, some focus on general wellbeing. There are as many approaches as there are violinists.
Let’s look some of the first points to think about.
- Basic Posture -
Often when playing the violin it’s easy to focus on the upper body but the root of a balanced alignment comes from the feet, legs and pelvis, and from good breathing.
Good posture is about more than standing up straight. Babies instinctively know how to balance as they learn to sit, crawl, stand and walk, but as we get older we often lose this ability and fall into inefficient postures, which we then bring to our violin playing.
The pelvis is integral to correct posture, as it is directly connected to the legs through the hip joints, and connected via muscles to the arms and shoulders. If you think of the pelvis as being the body’s centre of gravity, its positioning becomes vital to good posture whether sitting or standing to play. It should not be either tilted forward or back.
To help achieve balance in the pelvis, the feet should be placed directly under the thigh sockets with toes facing more or less forwards. The knees should be relaxed and in line with the thigh and ankle joints. Then the pelvis rests on the top of the thighs and the trunk is balanced, the chest floats upwards, the rib cage hangs down towards the pelvis and the shoulder girdle rests on top of the rib cage. Think of the head not as a separate entity, as we are encouraged to do with the idea of disparity between mind and body. Instead, include the head as part of the body in your thinking. Your mind is not confined in the space within your skull any more than your body stops at your neck.
To find a good sitting posture, sit balancing upright on your sit bones. You can feel them when you shift your weight from side to side. Think of these sit bones as ‘feet’ that support your torso. Once you have found this solid base, let the spine lengthen up naturally. The knees should be lower than the hips, so if you need to adjust your chair, do so. You can buy blocks to raise the back of chairs which slope backwards, or a wedge cushion to help with posture.
Once you are happy that your posture is comfortable and balanced, bring the instrument to the body, rather than compensating with the body and moving to meet the instrument.
- Positioning the Head -
The head represents about 10% of the body weight. When the neck is not positioned correctly to support the head, the shoulders take the strain. This tension is transferred to the elbows, wrists and hands.
Make sure you have the best shoulder rest and chin rest combination for your body to eliminate unnecessary tension in the neck.
Notice too what is happening with your eyes. Are you under or over focussing, or are you straining your eyes to read the music? Relax the muscles around your eyes and forehead and you will notice a corresponding release of tension in the neck muscles.
Hunching the neck and shoulders is a common habit, and it’s easy to press too hard with the head on the chinrest. Experiment with gripping the violin between the shoulder and chin and notice how the less freedom you have in your head and neck, the more negative emotions may surface. Stiffening the neck stiffens all of the joints of the body.
Hunching the shoulders also limits the movement in the collarbones and shoulder blades, which should float freely from the shoulder girdle. It results in the ribs lifting which gives the heart and lungs less space to work.
See here how the shoulder muscles are attached to the ribs, the collarbone and the arms, and travel right down the body to the pelvis.
Each part of the body moves best when it moves in harmony with the other bones, muscles and limbs. Menuhin describes the process of learning to play the violin as one whereby, “the body of the player becomes aware of itself.” He says, “The principle is grasped not intellectually, but through sensations, through becoming aware of the subtle checks and balances which, when properly understood, permit ease of technique.”
- The Arms -
In playing the violin, the arms function both as a system of levers and as a channel for visceral energy. They carry a charge of energy and emotions from the player to the instrument. For musical expression to be free this route from the torso to the fingers must be without unnecessary tension and the posture must allow energy to flow.
Tension in the neck and shoulders can put pressure on the nerves that lead into the hand, creating pain, pins and needles, numbness and even loss of facility in the fingers.
See from this picture of the human skeleton how the arms and shoulders balance on the body in a free, open way. Try to imagine this space in your own shoulder girdle and feel your spine lengthening as your head floats upwards from your pelvis.
It is also worth observing the range of movement in your wrists. The body works best in the middle of its range of movement. When your wrist is bent forward or backward it is extended beyond this optimal point and this causes tension. This is why a flat left wrist, which leans against the neck of the violin, is not good technique. The hand and wrist are locked in an extended part of the wrist’s range of movement, and this impedes intonation, shifting and vibrato.
- Exercise -
Physical exercise is an important tool in maintaining and developing a healthy body, which in turn has a positive impact on violin practice.
A practice such as yoga is helpful in diminishing anxiety and improving strength and flexibility, and will also teach awareness and knowledge of the muscles.
Yoga based exercises must be approached gently and by no means forced. Find a good teacher. There are a lot of classes run by inexperienced teachers and musicians report suffering two months of tennis elbow, pulled muscles and other disasters after attending classes where the teacher pushes them too fast.
Exercising the body in the right way keeps it supple and adaptable, just as exercising the mind strengthens character and musicianship.
Warm up the body before you practice. A useful selection of stretches is available from the British Performing Arts Medicine Trust. Integrate them to your daily routine.
- Breathing -
Posture is dynamic, not static. Subtle movements such as breathing constantly occur, even when we are still.
Noticing your breathing is also the first practice of mindfulness meditation, which begins to incorporate mind and body in a holistic way. It is not possible to practice the violin without working on the body, and it is not possible to engage the body without using the mind. The violin practice in itself then becomes a holistic and far reaching experience.
Begin where you are today, and begin noticing how you use your body to create your sound on the violin.
Watch other violinists to see how they use the whole body to play and express the music. Here is Joshua Bell playing from his feet:
Make time in your practice to develop this physical learning with a sense of childlike exploration.
Karl Jenkins is a Welsh composer and musician, born in 1944. He started his musical career as an oboist in the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and studied as a postgraduate at the Royal Academy of Music. He went on to work mainly in jazz and jazz-rock bands, on baritone and soprano saxophone, keyboard, and oboe; an unusual instrument in jazz music.
Jenkins’ compositions are amongst some of the most popular around. His choral work The Armed Man was listed no.1 in Classic FM's Top 10 by Living Composers, 2008 and his work has featured in adverts for international companies including Levi Jeans, Renault and De Beers.
The Palladio Suite, one of Jenkins’ most famous works, is written in the Concerto Grosso style more commonly associated with Baroque music. It is made up of three movements; Allegretto, Largo and Vivace; and harks back to the writing of Venetian composers such as Vivaldi and Albinoni. It is conventional and unchallenging, its techniques and harmonies remaining firmly based in the 18th Century, a feature which is unusual for Jenkins who often combines a mixture of modern and traditional musical styles in his work.
Palladio was inspired by the architect Andrea Palladio, who designed many beautiful villas and churches in the Venice region in the 16th Century, and who gives his name to the London Palladium. The piece mirrors the idea of artistic beauty within a defined architectural framework.
This is not the only time Jenkins has found a connection between his music and visual aesthetics. On the front page of his website he tells the following story:
“Very late one night in 1997, across a dark and deserted St. Mark’s Square, Venice, I saw a painting, lit like a beacon, drawing me inexorably to the window of Galleria Ravagnan. It made a deep impression on me and as my wife and fellow musician, Carol, remarked, it looked like my music sounded. I simply had to have it so I returned the next day, bought the painting and began a long friendship with gallery owner Luciano Ravagnan. On a return visit, a year or so later, I met and befriended the artist only for us both to discover that he, not knowing who had bought his painting, had been painting to my music!”
The first movement of the Palladio Suite, Allegretto, is the most frequently performed. It became well known initially as the music for the 1994 De Beers Diamond advert. It has been recorded by the electric string quartets, Bond and Escala, and has established a permanent position in Classic FM’s Hall of Fame.
The movement is constructed from rigid, repetitive string lines, which exist as building blocks over a staccato bass line, driving an ever-developing sense of drama and intensity.
It is important when playing this movement to subdivide the bars so as not to rush. You can hear how the parts interject and answer each other, but do so within a tight rhythmic framework. The rests are just as important as the notes and a combination of good counting, strong pulse and listening will help the ensemble. Try listening along with the score to see how the parts weave together and bounce off each other.
The bow-stroke in this movement should be clean, with plenty of contact, in the middle to lower-middle part of the bow. Each gesture of the main rhythmic figure works well from an up-bow. The tightly interwoven harmonies require clear intonation and a ringing tone to recreate the openness of the Venetian Baroque sound world.
The Suite has two further movements, both of which are immediately reminiscent of Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto, Winter from The Four Seasons.
The Largo features a pulsating accompaniment and a soaring, wistful violin solo, in which parallels with Vivaldi’s Largo are strongly apparent.
The Vivace is much lighter and more delicate than the Allegretto, with an immediately Baroque sound. Imagine how a lighter baroque bow would feel. You can do this by holding your own bow higher up the stick away from the frog. This will give you an idea of the lightness and vivacity of bow stroke necessary to bring the Vivace to life.
Again, it is easy to recall the nervous energy of the third movement of Vivaldi’s Winter. The insistent quality in the staccato, accompanying figure, the use of ostinato, which Jenkins frequently favours, and the minor tonality are common to both the Vivaldi and the third movement of Palladio.
The popular first movement has been recorded countless times by a diverse spectrum of musicians, given thousands of minutes of airtime on Classic FM and even remixed as a Dubstep song, but which recording is the best?
Classic FM recommends The Smith Quartet: London Philharmonic Strings Conducted by Karl Jenkins – Sony SK62276, or if you fancy something more up-tempo, try the recording by electric string quartet Escala.
Interestingly, both versions only feature the first movement. The complete suite is available on Jenkins’ 1996 album, the aptly named Diamond Music, featuring the Smith Quartet and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Recordings on YouTube are also mainly restricted to the famous first movement, neglecting the others, despite their rather delicate beauty. This echoes another phenomenon of popular Baroque music whereby one movement becomes favoured, perhaps due to exposure in television, film or advertising. The first movement of Vivaldi’s Spring has become more popular than its other movements, and everybody thinks Pachelbel only wrote one tune.
Scales are basic patterns of notes, ordered by pitch, most often in ascending then descending order. Each major or minor scale covers all of the notes of the key in which it is played; a chromatic scale contains every semitone within an octave span. There are double-stopped scales in thirds, sixths and octaves, arpeggios, pentatonic scales, scales in harmonics, scales of three, even four octaves, lengthy violin scale systems, intimidating Germanic directories of scales displaying every key, every position and every conceivable bowing. Every piece of music composed between the Baroque and Romantic periods; that’s three hundred years’ worth of repertoire; is made up of scale and arpeggio patterns.
But scales are not music. Unless you are taking an exam you will never be expected to perform them. Who wants to go to a scale recital, after all? It is easy to understand why many of us consider scale practice a chore to be avoided, yet we are encouraged every lesson to spend time practising our scales.
The famous violin virtuoso and teacher Yehudi Menuhin, who made his first public appearance aged just 7, explains in his autobiography, Unfinished Journey, that as a child he considered learning an imposed method of scales, arpeggios and theory a waste of time. He learned instead by doing, acquiring the techniques for each piece as he studied it; wishing only to make music. Menuhin describes the journey he then undertook when, as he got older, determined to maintain his high performance level and also become a great teacher, he began to realise that he had skipped the basics. He had no idea how he did what he did.
To fully understand the way his fingers moved, Menuhin decided to go back, even at the risk of losing the skill he had acquired, and learned every scale there is at every speed. He learned the anatomy of the muscles in his back; he studied yoga; he sought advice from violin teachers, dancers and even gymnasts to understand how his body worked when he played the violin. Menuhin writes, “There is an advantage in establishing the top story of one's constructions first: One has seen the heights; one knows what one is building for and what must be sustained,” but “'Undoubtedly I had lost time in balking at scales and arpeggios.”
The truth is, scale practice is crucial to your violin technique, and, as Menuhin’s detailed explorations show, it doesn’t have to be boring.
Scale practice is repetitive by nature. Scale systems like those by Carl Flesch and Ivan Galamian offer a comprehensive study guide, often with three octave scales using the same fingering in each key. Instructions for study are included, but these can seem unrealistic to a modern student with little time to practice. The best way to practice is therefore to tackle scales with full concentration and musical intent, essentially condensing the fundamentals of music into a daily routine.
The reason scale practice works is because the brain needs repetition to learn. Neurologists have discovered that when a new neural pathway is created, which happens every time you do something new, for example when you play D major scale for the first time, insulating fibres grow around that neural pathway. When the pathway is used repeatedly, the insulating layer increases, embedding the action in your long-term memory. It takes between 30 and 50 perfect repetitions of an action to imbed it in your nervous system where it becomes a habit or skill. When we are emotionally engaged in learning, this process is much more effective. Learning the placing of first and second fingers on the A string with a mediocre tone and little enthusiasm will therefore not produce the same results as engaging fully in the idea of a ringing tone and musical outcome.
Played with full concentration and a musical approach, scales build a consistent practice routine in which you become familiar with the proper spacing of intervals on the instrument. Slow scales can be used as a physical warm up, but above and beyond this initial function, scale practice is invaluable in maintaining and developing every aspect of your violin technique.
Scale practice gives you a chance to acquire a really firm left hand technique. It builds strength, independence and dexterity in the left hand fingers. Co-ordination of left hand and bow hand improve. Touch control and sensitivity of the left hand fingers can be developed within a familiar practice pattern to avoid over-pressing, as can secure knowledge of the fingerboard and perfect intonation, a rhythmic left hand, tidy shifting and shifting with the whole hand. Mastering scales allows the fingers to learn the correct spacing in every position on the violin.
Scale practice can also be used to work on ease of playing, with focus on a relaxed bow arm, different bowing styles, full bows and purity of tone.
Ease of playing decreases risk of injury and stress, and a genuine understanding of how your technique works leads to consistent, secure performances. Familiarity with scales in every key gives a new ease to note reading and improves sight-reading, as well as improving knowledge of key signatures and tonality.
Start slowly, with the metronome, focussing on your sound, purity of pitch and beauty of tone. Enjoy the experience of listening to your own violin. Work out a clear goal or intention for this section of your practice, and engage with the process of full concentration for a short period of time. Use your scale practice mindfully and creatively. Challenge yourself to expand your technique and your understanding of how scales work for you.
So... why play scales? Because they are interesting, musical, challenging and really, really useful!