Violin: How to Guarantee Success

Young Violinist masters the Vivaldi concerto

New music students (and their families) often think learning violin is about soaking up the lessons. That the private teacher will give them those mad skills. So get some lessons, then go out into the world and use what you learned. Practice to refine it and to improve retention. All’s well and good, except…

What you can get out of a 30 minute lesson is just a skimpy slice of the pie. Surprisingly, the process of becoming a proficient musician is more like being a combination of an inventor, explorer and planner. Your teacher can only give you the raw ingredients of the  of the recipe; it’s up to you to actually make something of it.

So forget about coming to lessons and mindlessly spitting out what you’ve learned. Or watching videos on the internet and trying to copy other violinists playing your favorite songs. Learning violin requires that you engage your brain and your best powers of observation. It demands a patient attitude and a lot of curiosity.

If you’re proficient at music, it’s because you’ve learned how to solve these progressively more complex problems. But if you’re bored, stuck, frustrated and/or no longer making progress, it’s likely because you don’t have a solid strategy to improve your playing.

Repeating a song or musical passage over and over until you’re bored to tears is an almost certain recipe for failure. Instead let your sense of discomfort or frustration be your guidepost. Your mind is telling you that what you are doing isn’t going to produce the result you want. You need something more.

In my studio, once we get past the basics we kick into our “creative problem solving” mode. I demonstrate some simple strategies to fix a problem passage, and ask the student to do the same.

“Bobby, next week, show me three different ways to improve this weak spot” goes right into the homework assignment. “And playing it over and over until it sounds good doesn’t count.”

Surely a violin newbie will be hard pressed to come up with much of a list. So I supply a menu from which the student can select the most effective and appropriate choice. For example, here are some items from my “take away” menu for young violinists.

TAKE AWAY SOMETHING from a problem to make it simpler

  • Remove the rhythm and play it in quarter notes
  • Remove the bowings
  • Play it in an easier position/fingering
  • Work on a smaller section and expand to surroundings
  • Use a slower tempo, when improved, make a meaningful tempo increase and try again.
  • Use less tone or vibrato
  • Don’t play across syncopated ties (similar to remove bowings)
  • Use pizzicato instead of bow
  • Use the bow without the violin hand
  • Left hand only and bow 2″ above string
  • Left hand only and sing or count
  • Bow only and sing or count
  • Freeze time after every note and take stock of bow position

The concept behind the take away strategy is simple: problems become easy to solve once you’ve isolated them to their most basic components. This enables you to make visible progress in just minutes. That alone is super motivating for a student of any level.

What are your favorite practice strategies? Please help me grow the list by commenting, sharing or tweeting. Thanks!

Violin: Do You Find it “Touching?”

Grasping

Flop that fiddle on your shoulder and put your fingers on the fingerboard. Ready to go, yes? Well, actually… no!

Right out of the cradle we’re pre-programmed to play the violin wrong. Our very first instinct actually works against us.

Hand a baby a rattle, and she grasps it. Hand a five year old a violin, and she does pretty much the same thing with her left (violin) hand. That grasping motion works great; it’s extremely powerful.

The only problem is that this type of power actually works against the violinist. What a violinist really needs is exactly the opposite thing, a delicate touch, freedom of movement and a high degree of finesse.

In the violin studio, even the teacher’s simple choice of a word can influence success or failure. I work hard to remove words such as “bow grip” from my vocabulary. Similarly we need to find the right word to describe how the violin hand approaches the instrument.

Hand Position in Violin Image
Touch Typing

I like the word “touch” as in touch typing. The touch typist on a modern keyboard uses a light, fast motion. His fingers are curved and his knuckles are high. Playing the violin well is amazingly much the same.

Playing the violin is much the same as typing an e-mail to a friend on your PCs keyboard.

The First Time Ever You Touch a Violin

Do this right the first time, and you’re off to a great start. Do it wrong, and you’ve got a bad habit. Minutes or seconds can establish the habit. It could take months to re-learn it the correct way.

Because a picture (or in this case a video) is worth one thousand words, I’m creating a video demonstration to help you get started. As always, this can work best under the supervision of a qualified teacher. So I’m not going to say “don’t try this at home” but then again, self-taught violinists are a rare breed indeed.

If you find any part of this unclear, please let me know. It’s my endeavor to make this the best it can be!


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Is your Violin Chin Rest a Good Fit?

Analyzing Violin Chin Rest Setup - Artist Kyung-Wha-Chung

First of all, enjoy this video of Kyung-Wha-Chung, one of the great violin artists of our time. It’s a fabulous, world class and heartfelt performance by any standard.

Viewed from the perspective of a violin teacher, I feel obligated to point out that from a setup standpoint, the violin and the violinist may not be set up to best advantage, though I would be the last to suggest that Ms. Chung change anything about her playing.

On the other hand, when I see a fit or setup problem in a young student, I would always try to make things more comfortable and practical.

In this case notice that the player’s jaw bone isn’t aligned in the “groove” of the chin rest. Often in a case such as this, a chin rest that floats over the tailpiece of the violin might be more comfortable for the player. It won’t work for everyone as factors such as length of neck and arms also come into play. All of this can (and should) be analyzed by someone experienced in optimizing the violin/chin rest/shoulder rest combination.

So why does this work so well for Ms. Chung? Simply because her approach to the violin is dynamic, not rigid. The instrument isn’t locked into place. Rather, it floats, moves and adjusts along with the needs of the musical passage. The weight of the violin is balanced between multiple points, keeping the head and neck free of excess tension. It’s a great lesson for every player.

Why make things difficult when they can be simple?

For our younger Invincible Violinists and their families, know this: Never accept your instrument setup at face value. The size, lift and type of chin rest, the presence (or absence of) a shoulder rest, the way your instrument relates to your body and its movements, all of this, shouldn’t be left to chance.

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Violin String Broke! Now What?

Often heard from a panicked Violin Mom:

Bad news. Unfortunately while tuning the violin I snapped the e string. Can you fix it? Or does it go back to the violin shop?

First things first; don’t panic! Broken strings are common occurrences, and the fix is simple. Simply replace the string with a matching pitched string. Here is a recommendation for a good quality, inexpensive replacement string set:

Order D’Addario Prelude Violin String Set, 4/4

Order D’Addario Prelude Violin String Set, 1/2 size
Order D’Addario Prelude Violin String Set, 1/16 Size

As with all violin strings, be sure to order the correct size for your instrument; 4/4 is the choice for standard full size instruments, but all string instruments are made in a range of sizes. Check the label inside your instrument; it will usually show a size designation such as 4/4, 1/2, 1/8, etc.

Here are seven things you can do to prevent breaking strings prematurely and to minimize inconvenience when breaks occur:

1. As a violin parent, learn to tune the violin properly. The easiest way to break a string, especially an E string, is to tune it too high. Don’t ask your 5 year old student to perform this operation!

2. Before installing new strings, lubricate the 2 contact points at the bridge and nut of the violin with a small amount of pencil lead.

3. Be sure that your instrument has quality tuning pegs that operate smoothly. Pegs that slip make you tune the strings more frequently, adding stress and reducing their life.

4. When tuning, gradually raise the pitch of the string to the required note, but not more than a small amount above. On student violins, use the fine tuners to make small adjustments, in lieu of the tuning pegs, which can be more difficult to operate.

5. Use an electronic tuner when learning how to tune. Tuning by ear is risky, if you’re not trained in that approach.

6. Practice often, and tune at least once at the beginning of every practice session. A neglected violin is more likely to lose its tuning by a large amount.

7. Purchase quality strings that are correctly sized for your instrument. Keep a spare set in your case, and perhaps more than one spare on the E string.

The video below explain the proper way to change a string. Important: Change one string at a time. Never remove all your violin strings at once.

[leadplayer_vid id=”5237235948A84″] —

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The “Guitarra” exercise

Except from: Master Sequence for young beginner students.

1. Violin “setup” correctly and comfortable on the collar bone. This will be more fully described in the InvicibleViolinist.com Master Sequence.

2. Learn to properly position the left “violin” hand around the neck and fingerboard.

This is probably the source of more “screw ups” than any other element of early violin technique. If  you focus on mastering the left hand early in the game, everything that follows is relatively simple.

I created this exercise because this hand-violin relationship is much easier to learn when broken down in steps. When (and only when) your student can perform this simple movement in good form, do you move to the next step.

This “umbrella” of fingers over the fingerboard and hand astride the neck is simple to perform with the violin in a guitar like position. Note the elevated angle of the scroll.

3. Finally, move the violin with (hand and arm already in perfect position) into playing position. Once in position, our Master Sequence Practice Angel will test for correct posture and freedom of movement.

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