At our recent Concert Finale 2017, a student of mine came up to me and said that she would not perform again (this is her second performance on the violin) and may quit her violin… More
Before starting your daily practise routine, you should do a series of stretches just to lengthen your muscles and keep them flexible so as to prevent any unwanted injury. The stretching routine should consist of deep stretches not only for the fingers and arms which are directly involved, but also for your core and leg muscles because every part of your body is very much engaged in playing the violin. I would advocate practising Yoga or Pilates a few times a week as these are good exercises to stretch the entire body and to keep your mind calm which is an excellent condition to be in when called to do a performance.
- Practise Basic Technical Exercises, Scales and Etudes at every practice session.
Over the years of teaching, I have noticed that not every teacher would include basic right and left hand exercises or even Etudes to practise in the student’s repertoire. Focusing just on pieces would impede the student’s growth. Basic Technical Exercises, Scales and Etudes enable a Building Time for the students to develop their technical ability on the violin necessary for the skill later used in performance pieces. Having a good Right Hand and Left Hand exercise routine will help to focus on overall posture, tone production and intonation. Even the best of violinists would tell you the importance of practising Scales daily. If Building Time with the Basic Technical Exercises, Scales and Etudes are part of the practice routine, you would realize that that when called to learn a new piece, you would be able to grasp it quicker and there will be more time to be left to explore a Musical Interpretation of the piece which would be just as important as focusing on overall posture, tone production and intonation. Classroom time efficiency with the teacher would also be better as the daily practices on these would a establish a higher chance of being able to teach the student on every aspect of playing the violin and not just focusing on either technique or musical interpretation.
- Always start with slow practice
When embarking on a new piece, it is important not to be hasty and excited in learning it. Even if time is short and you need to learn a piece quickly due to a performance deadline, starting with slow practice would yield much better result for the performance than to rush through the piece at performance tempo. This process of slow practice enables you to be able to think of the piece carefully. It is also important to start with analyzing the form and structure of the piece to establish repetitions (the repetition could be in another key as well)
If a piece is already in a slow tempo, it would still be necessary to practice in an even slower tempo so that every expression can be even more thorough and thought out. So that when playing at the normal tempo as indicated a deeper depth of expression can be communicated to the audience.
- While learning a song for the first time, you must take into consideration and follow all markings that are written
Apart from some exceptions, for example the Bach Partitas and Sonatas where some of the movements need to be purposefully played in entirety in forte in order to get the right tone production before taking into account the other ranges of dynamics, performance directions should be followed carefully.
In fact, certain directions should also be played purposefully and intentionally during practise as a lot of dynamics and expressions are lost during the performance due to nerves or just the acoustics of the concert hall. Not only does volume or articulations have to be in utmost clarity, but also the physical expression (body movement) of playing the markings on the score can be acted out to match the markings intended in performance.
Only following markings written down after getting the notes right may result to developing your own expression which is not intended by the composer in the original score. Then taking into consideration the markings as a second thought, might tantamount to bad habits that need to be broken which may be less efficient than to apply the original markings written down from the start. As a Musician, there should be integrity in performing the piece as the composer intends it to be.
- Always have a pencil ready
Get a pencil ready during practice to note down any ideas or changes that you may want to make during the session. It is my own personal practice to have as little markings on my score as possible unless I wish to make essential changes to the fingerings or bowings then mark them down with a pencil. Here are some instances where I would make pencil markings of my own:
- If there is a fingering or another string that I would like to use which is different from what is indicated on the score;
- I keep repeating a mistake with the fingering on a certain note; and
- A particular bar or few bars that I find particularly difficult to play
– There are a lot of parts of the piece that have easy playability and need little to no practise but there are just some parts that need a lot of work and special attention. As I conquer these parts bit by bit, I erase the circles so that the score again looks tidy.
This will minimize mess on the page if referring during a performance it will be neat and tidy to use or if you had to memorize the piece, the score is clearer to you in your mind than a very untidy score. This can be likened to keeping your home neat and tidy where things would be more organized and will more likely to be able to recall where you have kept something quickly.
Another occasion which I would use the pencil would be to circle out parts that I keep making mistakes at.
- Try not to listen to recordings of pieces before you have mastered a piece of music.
It is important to listen to recordings and classical music generally, especially to recordings of violin repertoire. Being a violinist means that you should also be able to appreciate different interpretations and adapt them to your own style of performance. This heading may come as surprise to many that listening to a piece before learning it may not necessary be the best way to learn a piece. It is best to first try to learn the piece according to your own personal interpretation as at the end of the day you are an artiste trying to create something unique and not replicating anyone’s performance.
There is a greater importance these days to be able to learn a piece without listening to a prior recording due to new composers and commissioned violin concertos and pieces where there may be a limited number of performances and recordings done; or you may find that there have been no recordings that have been made at all because you are the first person to be performing the work for the first time. This method of learning from scratch would expand your ability to sight read music to develop all your senses needing to make the music. And from there, to explore a piece on your own which will carry far more depth instead of total reliance of learning a piece aurally and depending on that aural sense to replicate the same tune.
- Always break up the piece into smaller section and single out frequent errors to practise these separately.
When embarking on a new piece, always look at the structure and form of the piece. Some pieces may be in a ternary form (2 sections, A-B Parts) some in binary (3 Sections with repetition of one of the section A-B-A parts); or in Sonatas at the recapitulation section. Hence, always analyse the piece to check with sections repeat. You should ideally give the same weightage of practise to every section. If a section is repeated many times, if you follow the order of the score to practise, you would be practising one section more than other sections. So the other sections may feel less practised at the end of the week.
By analysing the score and breaking up the piece into smaller sections, you would also be able to understand the structure of the piece better and sight reading this way can be improved as you are essentially learning musical patterns and not just going about the piece at random as it comes. I like to use different colours to highlight the different sections to the younger students, so that the whole piece appears colourful and they are able to break up their practise according to the colours and sections to practise and learn each day or week.
Lastly as mentioned in Number 5 “Always have a Pencil Ready”, you would find playing some parts of the piece with more difficulty than others which would require more practice and attention, do circle out these parts with the pencil and pay special attention on ways to practice them.
- Pay Close attention to your posture
While practising, be conscious of your playing posture at all times. You should ideally feel like a tree, deeply rooted and planted down so that when playing exciting parts of the piece you do not appear wobbly but confident. The instrument should emanate from your soul which means physically, you should appear that the violin is not a separate instrument apparatus but part of your physique, like just an extension of you.
On closer scrutiny to impediments or difficulty while playing some pieces, you may find the root cause to be poor posture whether it is with your fingers or your standing posture itself.
At all times you should feel relaxed when playing the violin, the music should seamlessly flow from the violin. If you feel tense in any area while playing, you should check your posture as that should not be the case. Even at difficult sections of the piece instead of feeling a sense of tightness, you should feel relaxed even if your mind is working overtime. Being relaxed would heighten the probability of the notes coming out as practised and anticipated; the effect would look like effortless playing even at the most technically challenging of parts. Making music really does require one to be relaxed for all emotions and mental faculties to be at their best levels for a good performance.
- Choose Repertoire that is at your Level and Capability
I do not discredit the importance of having a thirst and hunger for improvement. As this motivation is the drive to aim for a higher standard of playing. But the repertoire chosen for the student or for yourself has to be digestible and appropriate for the level you are at. Making a student constantly play pieces that require several position changes when they have barely understood or grasped playing in the first position for example; may be damaging instead of helpful in due course. It may corrode their confidence with the instrument. This hurried teaching style may result to mental connections to be missed on basic foundations of posture, note reading and other violin technique like shifting, playing different positions, bowings etc. When learning the violin in a haphazard manner and not establishing fundamental violin technique is likened to not laying a proper foundation for a 100-storey skyscraper. This often shows up at more advanced levels, the student may feel frustrated or stuck due to the lack of skill to advance.
It would be definitely better and more efficient to follow a moderate climb, one that is at a suitable level of challenge, this challenge level will need to be constantly tested and gauged as it is unique for everyone. I have some students who are like sponges who can grasp concepts very quickly but there are also others who need more time to absorb new concepts of learning technique.
The foundations of good technique should never be belittled. The teacher should make sure that the student learns and practices good technique making use of the repertoire. Finding repertoire to achieve proper Violin Technique should take priority over selecting a piece at your whim and fancy and then working in Technique Building through these pieces. Learning Violin Technique should not be left at random. That is not to say that you should be selecting repertoire that is dry and unpopular, it just means that you have to be wiser at choosing. Be aware on what you can actually play: if it feels too easy, then find something more challenging; if it is too insurmountable, most likely the piece is too difficult and should be shelved for another later time. This will enable a more visible and structured improvement rather than a random one which may leave out certain important points about playing the violin at the more formative stage.
- Memorize Everything
It always looks better to perform a piece without looking at the score. The music stand can be viewed as is a barrier to communication with the audience during a performance. (In some cases, where the piano accompanist is using the music score, as a manner of style the violinist can also refer to a score.)
Knowing how Brain Memory works in the earlier section on devising a Practice Schedule Plan, will aid in understanding how to memorize a piece of music well. I personally find too that it is more effective and efficient to practice a piece trying to memorize the piece rather than to be practicing the piece reading off the music score always. This way, the non-reliance of the score makes me more sensitive to all aspects of the piece.
- Make a Goal for Learning every day
The mind should constantly be seeking out ways of improving and not be on an auto pilot mode while practicing. Time at hand during practice is not just a figure, especially for young children it may seem that time is an infinite concept, but the older you grow you realize the limited nature of time. Therefore, at any age or stage you are at do make a goal for learning every day. You can also make a goal based on the lesson that you have just had for the following lesson; these small objectives met will be one step closer to a larger improvement, thereby achieving a more efficient practice every day. Over a week and months of practice, these improvements will be both audible and visible.
- Do not get through the piece with a Get By attitude
You should always aim for excellence and put your best foot forward. It will pay off to have this tenacious spirit toward practise. Simply achieving goals set by your teacher is good but setting your own goals which exceed expectations would be better. The world is constantly looking for outstanding people and it is good to apply this to everything you do not just for the violin.
Rest should also not be underestimated, a well-rounded person will not be absolutely efficient without adequate rest that the body needs. The mind and the body need rest and adequate sleep to function at its best.
- The use of a Metronome
It is tempting to speed up at exciting parts of the piece. Or sometimes, with a series of confusing note values to attempt to aurally discern the time values and play by what you think is right. Because the violin is usually played as an accompanied instrument whether it is in a chamber group setting or with a piano or an orchestra, being able to be accurate in rhythm and timing is essential and should be developed during practise. Being as accurate as playing in a professional band may not be necessary but it is certainly necessary to follow the note values and develop a sense of rhythm for collaborating with other professionals or instruments. This area of development is just as important as having good intonation, being able to play in tune is just as important as having a good sense of rhythm.
Even where you are the only solo instrument, practising repertoire like Bach’s (Sonatas and Partitas) unaccompanied pieces for the Solo Violin are good opportunities of developing on your rhythms in perpetual motion or the slow movements where the rhythm values are very obscure, achieving accuracy, discerning their note values would definitely sharpen your skill on rhythm and timing.
For passages with runs where the notes are in a perpetual motion (of equal note value), to achieve a consistent rhythm, it would be essential to practise with the metronome from a slow tempo and using increments of two values for example, starting at 80, increase it to 82 then 84 and so on. At the next practise start off at the second fastest value you were at and then start the pattern again. If you would like to play a passage of runs quickly, it would be best to practise it on an even higher value than prescribed or perform. So that when you switch back to correct (slower) tempo, you would find playing the passage with ease.
- Practise pieces from the past frequently
It takes so many hours to get a piece of music polished and perfected to a performance standard. Often so much hard work is put into perfecting a piece, therefore before the memory of the piece diminishes completely, you should pick up the piece and play it once more. Each time playing the piece would rekindle the memory of it. Pieces from the past that have been mastered must be included in the Practise Schedule plan.
- Over-practising and Strain Injury
It is good to be conscientious and hardworking with practise but not overly zealous that it affects your health. Stretching before practise allows the muscles to expand and get ready for the range of motions that are to come during the practise. I strongly advocate resting in between practise: say for example your practise is 5 hours long, break it up to sessions that you have at least a 5-10 minute break every hour. This will ensure that you do not over strain yourself and give your mind time to rest and freshen up. Concentrating on one activity is actually counter-productive to trying to achieve your goal in practise
It is worth mentioning not to over stretch or over work the fourth finger (pinky) on the left hand. The fourth finger is a delicate finger and often the gap to stretch is too far for some hands. Take care especially when playing double-stops in tenths. It is a generally good practise to get the note right and just move on without dwelling too much on it which will cause a strain injury. There are some practises that are better with using your ears to figure out the intonation instead of over practising or over straining. Always remember it is the quality of the practise that counts and not the quantity of hours put in.
- Be Careful with your hands!
If you are playing the violin or learning the violin, it would be just be sensible to protect your fingers by not exposing them to activities which may injure your fingers such as ball games and some sports which may endanger your fingers into getting them hurt.
The body does heal itself but often times, the rehabilitation is a painful process and a sprained or broken finger or arm might not heal back to the original angle it was in. Prevention is always better than cure for sure.
If you do not play the violin or seen one up close, you may misconstrue that parts of the violin are not removable such as the bridge which can actually be moved rather easily and is just balanced in its place by the tension of the strings. Upon loosening the strings, the bridge will come off as it is not glued on.
Almost the entire violin can be taken apart just like it has been put together, which is why a very delicate part such as the neck needs to be well taken care of as without care, the violin’s neck can collapse and this would affect the string height and the violin being acoustically balanced or even in some more extreme cases, the violin would not be playable. Humidity plays a large role in the expansion and contraction process of the fingerboard/neck area. (For more on this, do read this article from Strings Magazine) As the neck is in constant pressure with the tightness of the strings pulled all the way from the end pin of the violin to the pegs at the other end, it is only a matter of time that the entire Neck angle is affected and not where it is supposed to be. And when the violin is played even more pressure is exerted with the fingers and the bow. That’s why it is important to keep the violin in an ideal environment. (A tip on care for this is to leave desiccant gels in the violin case if you live in a hot humid tropical country like me or during the more humid summer months.)
During the Baroque period (1600-1750), where the fingerboard was shorter, the neck angle was also in a kinder position that the strings could be closer to the fingerboard. However, when the concert halls became larger than just chambers or rooms where the violin was being performed, more projection was needed and sought after. The fingerboard was extended to take in a higher range of notes for the compositions in the Romantic Period of Music (late 18th and early 19th century) radically changed the angle and position of the neck of the violin. Inserting and setting the neck had to ensure a more stable method. Do read Michael Darnton’s article on how to set a violin’s neck, he goes into great detail on the specific measurements and method.
If you suspect that your violin neck was not set correctly as it is visible that it veers towards an angle or to one side; if you feel difficulty pressing the strings than previously felt when u first got your violin, this could be due to changes in the string height. If it is ruled out not due to your bridge, do not despair as this can be repaired by a good violin luthier such as Andrew Carruthers who has extensive knowledge and experience with neck repairs. This repair could really alter the sound of a violin and it could be a night and day effect! So do go and check on your necks, you never know how your violin (or you) may be suffering.
SassyMama is a one stop go to guide for parents in Singapore for stuff to do with their kids and important announcements and Schools recommendations. In their recent revamp to their website, they included us in their round up feature on the Best Music Schools in Singapore 😍. Even though I’m the only teacher at the Violin Studio at the moment and it is certainly counted as private learning! Well it is a vision at Belcanto Violins that we will become a full music school one day! Read the full article here
Over the years having performed and taught many students in different countries, I have had the privilege of playing violins in every size and lineage of American, Eastern European and European makers to the China makers and I even now sell my own line of violins. So what makes a good violin and why do violins differ from a meagre $100USD to $20million?
I recently have been on a journey to rediscover my own violin. My violin is a beautiful Guarneri Del Gesu remake by an Italian maker in 1966. I bought it at a hefty sum (well at least to me it was my entire savings at that time! Thankfully then I still lived with my parents so I didn’t have to become a starving artist as I had already quit my job as a lawyer at the time of buying the instrument.) This violin has brought me through my Journey from playing it in the early days for my boyfriend (now Husband) to impress him and then with my Professor in Beijing-with the tireless and grueling on some days, 10 hour practises and the meaningful time I had spent with him under his tutelage to understand so much more about playing and learning the violin. It has a lot of sentimental value and to me so predictable. Perhaps too predictable, that in this hot and humid climate where I live in at the moment in Singapore, the violin just sounds under the weather lately and I find myself on days too frustrated to work with it. Wood certainly doesn’t fair well in humidity and heat! It does something to the otherwise crisp tone.
So when a friend of mine told me that he could alter the acoustics of my instrument and make it come more alive, I jumped at the prospect that there could be a change without having to change my violin to an entirely different one. It has been hard, because I do love my violin so much even though it is not one of the Greats. I remember being in New York on Labor Day and had the whole music shop to myself, they brought out Strads, Guaneris and an Amati all for me to have a go. The cheapest violin that day I played had a price tag of $300,000USD. I remember being very disappointed as I left the shop I thought I’d be overwhelmed by playing such an expensive instrument commanding a priceless sum, just to discover it’s power to be the same as my ordinary violin just with a more historical tone color due to its aged wood. So since then, I’d been aware that my violin lacks this certain richness of tone color that comes automatically in an aged instrument dated in the 1700s, but not the playing experience and projection so I had no more excuses not to play as good on it as if it were one of these.
This same friend of mine has proved me completely wrong with the minute changes that he made to my violin (he did more than move my sound post and bridge and other movable parts but am not at liberty to disclose as he guards his brilliant skill and precision as one BIG secret). All I know is that my violin now sounds absolutely spectacular, I will not be selling or ditching it anytime soon. And I’m so excited to be rediscovering my Pieces and working through new ones with my more balanced and better acoustically attuned instrument. I am eternally grateful!
Incidentally this article from the Strings magazine resounds my new found understanding of the value of instruments and what makes a good violin. It is a myth that all old violins would sound better than a new one. As new violins these days by good experienced makers go through a lot of research and development to achieve better acoustically sounded violins with quality aged wood that they use.
To sum up what makes a good violin, Wood plays an important role, the maker plays an important role to gathering the wood and materials and the carving the violin out to precision, the luthier can play an important role too in restoring and upkeeping the violin, the violinist plays an important role in ensuring that the violin is well kept (sending it to the Luthier for periodic checkups) and preserved (buy a good case and keep it out of harsh elements such as the sun or rain and too much or too little humidity) as each violin is unique and some violins can be important historical pieces just like art, it is important to be sensible to keep your violin in good shape as you are responsible for its well-being. You will find that these people and factors surrounding the construction and upkeep of the violin would make a good violin. And if you are famous, the violin you own may also appreciate in its value. Although most incredible violinists have their expensive instruments sponsored and loaned to them including the great Maxim Vengerov!
Here are some pointers from Strings Notes for those of you with a budget to buy a violin at (USD) $10,000 to $15,000. This category price would also put you in what is classified as “Professional Instrument” category.
According to this article, this price range is very safe especially if you were to buy an instrument from a modern maker who made the violin from start to the very end. (as opposed to it being assembled by different hands) from experience, the violin would retain its value just in case you would like to resell your instrument in the future. This means, a cheaper violin may cost less but when selling it, it may be harder to change hands without incurring a loss. You will also get what you are paying for as the maker would have had the necessary experience, tried tested to incur a sale of his masterworks at this price range.
Buying old French and German Instruments at this price is also a safe value. Of course, do make sure your violin always comes with a valuation or maker’s authenticity certification and check for cracks and other flaws. Some maybe easily fixable while others may cost hefty sums to reinstate its condition. For such old instruments, it is advisable to seek help from an external Luthier to give you the correct advice before proceeding with your purchase. You may want to consider all costs before buying the instruments.
In this regard, a lot more players are turning to modern instruments as it is now well researched that modern instruments can sound as well or if not better than their older contemporaries. Ever wondered how much to spend on a violin? Now we know the price tag!
In my final year of law school in England, I had my dissertation paper on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and it’s relevance in the modern world. So this article from Strings Magazine really caught my eye in doing it in relation to music education being an educator of Music myself. Though this was all the way archive from September 2016, it still left me with a warm feeling that people were being helped by big corporations like Yamaha with their new Music Essentials programme.
This would help music educators to get funding in projects they are embarking on for their students. Music production events are always hefty costs (which I do every twice a year for my students) sometimes costing thousands just for venue rental and other ancillary costs. Wish I could get into this Music Essentials programme too since we do concerts twice a year!
However, at this point my contribution though small, I have priced our Violins and bows (Belcanto Violins) at a reasonable cost, made affordable for more to enjoy a good sounding instrument without a having to compromise on quality. I also donate some Violins to schools around Singapore to promote music education. Interested Schools with violin programs do contact us on this.
It is true and well known that antique violins fetch high prices for their antique value if made by a famous maker. It is well documented who these makers are and there is actually a guidebook with their names recorded in it. To think that that all violins that are old would be worth that sort of value though, is untrue. In fact many old violins that are kept for a long time are just old violins. To be of value, they must be made of fine pieces of wood and accurate craftsmanship.
Violins made today with these fine woods such as Tonewoods (The photograph taken above is by the supplier Tonewoods of fine quality European wood where Violin makers can get fine quality woods to make their violins) or other good sources can fetch high prices for the workmanship. The fame of the maker if he is well known, also attributes to the value of he instrument In some cases, much research and development into choosing the wood and developing the right sound through modern technology. I have tried modern instruments that sound and play as good as old ones. So the next time you do choose a violin, do give the modern instruments a chance as they can sound just as good for the value you are paying for and sometimes in fact better!
Though playing the violin is not a contact sport and it is classified as a mild activity, you can still get repetitive stress injuries or other injuries over time if not careful with your daily routine and posture.
I read an interesting strings magazine write up on a luthier that makes unorthodox shaped violas to prevent injuries. We are not talking about just removing a part of the upper bout of the viola so as to reach better on the fingerboard. But seriously funny odd shaped ones, some looking like a splat! Or that it had been initially made of playdoh in its perfect traditional hourglass shape and then sat on by an elephant. The review of the maker Luthier David Ravinus creations are good too: despite its odd and uncanny design, the violin is powerful and resonant and has gained popularity with many long standing viola players
For professional players who practise at least 3 hours and over each day, it would be a good idea to get an ergonomically designed instrument so that injuries like tendonitis at the elbows or finger/arm or back injuries will be cut down or not occur.
Unfortunately, there are currently no violin instruments in the market resembling Ravinus’ so for now being be cautious to take some steps against injury will be the only preventive action available. And here is my personal list of how:
1. Warm up by Moving your Body
I do stretches especially for the arms fingers and back and tend to do a short workout before actually going into violin practise for the day. (The two pose charts above are some of the stretches that I would do that you could also find useful.) Some Yoga poses to stretch out your body would also be useful in maintaining a good balance and helps your mind to be calm before practise.
2. Work at strengthening your Core Muscles
At my gym work out I work to strengthen not only my arms and shoulders but my core muscles as well because playing the violin as a solo instrument requires a lot standing up and movement around the core, you would want your core to be stengthened in order to build endurance for playing the violin. With strength, there will also be endurance and less stress on the muscles to do the work.
3. Always checking my posture
At all times while playing the violin, I work at checking that I have a good posture. In standing, I stand upright and not slouch as that will cause undue stress to the back. In sitting I make sure that my feet are in a 90 degree angle and that I am not sitting completely into my seat but a little more towards the edge. To help me with this, I use Backjoy, a nifty contraption that enables me to sit with less strain on my back.
I also check that my fingers are in the correct position and that my thumb is not pressed too tightly against the neck. When I am playing the different strings, I coincide the angle of my elbows and arms accordingly and not use my back or neck to compensate the movement instead.
4. Practising with the 4th finger
Finger no.4 which is our pinky is often overstretched when doing 10ths or playing octaves with alternating 1-3 and 2-4 fingerings. Sometimes to avoid an entire change in position, we can also stretch out 4th finger to reach the note (for example a C on E string in the first position). When encountering rigorous practise involving a lot of stretching of the 4th finger it is best to be cautious to do the practise efficiently only for a very short while and not to dwell too long in over stretching this.
5. Take breaks
If having a five hour practise schedule, it is not advisable to practise all five hours at a go. Personally, I do one and a half hours at a go but it would be more realistic usually to break the praictise up into one hour routines-55minutes practise and then take at least a 5 minute break before moving on to the next section of practise. This gives your body a break and stretch in between, your eyes and mind will also thank you for this short breather. And you can find your practise a lot more effective than to have gone on the whole duration at one go without stopping.
6. Go for periodic massages
For hard to stretch areas, massage is a good way to prevent injury and to make sure the muscle knots are dealt with regularly and not left for a long time as there can be acid build up and poor circulation for healing. The best places to go for massages would be shops specializing in sports injuries they tend to be less therapeutic and soothing but they do get to the painful roots of my aches and pains on my arms, hands and back.
Hope these six tips will revolutionalize your violin practise before an ergonomically designed violin is available for sale.
In this post, I shall endeavor to cover the differences you will encounter with the two instruments as this is a popular question I get, “Which should I start my child with first? The Piano or the Violin?” So hopefully after discussing some differences in learning and playing the two in this blog post, there can be some conclusion to this matter
- Size matters
This would be the first difference between the Piano and Violin, a Piano no matter at what age, is a “one size fits all” instrument. Whereas a Violin grows in size as you grow starting as small as a 1/32 size for a 2 year old. For a good article on sizing Violins please refer to my other blog article about Violin sizing. This means that proportionally, if you have really small hands like I do, the piano would be more daunting to achieve than a Violin would. It is also not as portable so for example when you travel you would have to leave your piano behind or if you do concerts, you will always need to get used to the key touch and resonance of the instrument…constantly. The violin once chosen by you is yours and follows you like a beloved pet or favorite pillow wherever you would like it to go and whenever you would like to be with you. Which is why choosing a violin that you like to play and hear is so important!
- Precise Intonation, playing the Right notes
On the Piano, you are not in control of intonation, one just merely hits the right notes and the sounds come out as the notes. On the Violin, the notes are more obscure and you are in charge of the intonation, likened to knife thrower, a small minute misplacement of the finger even in a millimeter would render the target out, disqualifying the player from a perfect rendition of a piece. Hence, constant ear training to be sensitive to intonation- being able to play immediately the true pitch of a note should be paramount in learning the violin. You need to even differentiate between enharmonic notes such as a B flat and an A sharp. On the Piano they would be regarded and struck on the same note. On the Violin, this is not so and would require the player to know the subtle difference of pitch even between these two enharmonic notes. (For example, the B flat would be placed lower on the fingerboard than an A sharp)
- Right and Left Hand functions
On the Piano, most of the time the Right hand plays the melodic line while the left plays an accompaniment (e.g. Alberti Bass common with Sonatinas or Sonatas). While sometimes where there is a more polyphonic texture like in playing Bach pieces, the Left hand would be playing a counter melody as well. Or both hands could take turns playing the accompaniment and melody. On the Violin, the Left hand plays the notes, while the Right hand bows or plucks (pizzicato) the strings, they work hand in hand to produce a melodic line with accompaniment or polyphonic parts. As Solo Violin Music is usually just a melody and lacks accompaniment, (except for Bach’s composition of the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin and other rare compositions that feature the Violin as a Solo instrument) a Piano accompaniment is usually written for its performance of the piece. So most of the time, the Violinist does not perform by himself or herself but with an accompanist on the piano (or an orchestra). However, a Solo Pianist usually is able to have a music performance without any form of accompaniment necessary since the Right and Left hand has enough harmonic structure to support a range of music for the listener. The concept of harmony for the Pianist would be more important than the Violinist (though it should be as important) as the Pianist will have to consider his Left hand harmonising with his Right hand (especially for the process of memorization) and the different importance and voices of the two almost always. The Violinist will also need to think about the Harmony and how his part would fit and harmonize with the accompaniment, but less for sure (though it should be just the same).
- Range of the Piano Vs Violin
The range of the Piano is 7+octaves (a group of 8 notes), whereas a Violin is only a range from G (just before middle C) to a High C about 3 octaves up. The Violin has a more limited range of notes that it can play, and only requires reading in the treble clef with all the lower notes on the ledger lines being played on the G string (the lowest string on the violin). The Piano on the other hand, has typically the Left hand reading the Bass clef and the Right hand reading the treble clef. This means there is another clef for the Pianist to learn. There are also more notes to learn as there are about 4 more extra octaves both higher and lower in registers that a Pianist will have to encounter. The Pianist also can play cool melodic structures like contrary motion, whereas the Violinist will only encounter this upon harmonizing with another instrument like in a trio, quartet or piano, orchestra.
- Violin Invisible Notes Part 1 – (Harmonics) and Piano Pedals
On the Violin, one can play magical sounding notes where you do not depress your finger on the string and play “harmonics” when bowed. These notes have an ethereal effect and are widely used in many compositions to create this angelic tonal quality that is peculiar to the Violin but impossible to do on a Piano Keyboard. The Piano usually has three pedals (if not two) the right pedal sustains any note or notes played on the keyboard. It gives an effect that even though you may be in a small room with sound proof padding, it can give an acoustical effect that you are in a large hall with a lot of echo. Some music in Piano playing will require this maneuver.
- Violin Invisible Notes Part 2 – just a black fingerboard? No black or white Keys!
The notes on Violin on the ebony fingerboard can be said to be intangible and cannot be seen where to press to a layperson who has no idea how to work a Violin. The Piano on the other hand, is more welcoming and even babies which are starting out to grasp coordination of their limbs are able to hit the notes and produce different notes and sounds. The Violin relies mostly on muscle memory to grasp the distance and situation of the notes on the fingerboard. This is where I would say if one has learnt the Piano first, would have the advantage of grasping the concept of the note distances clearer and faster. The fingerboard of the Violin is simply just the same keyboard as the Piano and would have the white and black keys in the exact situation with the exact semitones and tones. So to play a scale, someone with prior knowledge of how a keyboard looks like will be able to press the strings of the violin and bow just by working out the tones and semitones (distances) on the Violin fingerboard. This is the same where grasping concepts of the accidentals (namely flats, naturals and sharps), where sliding your finger along the fingerboard toward your face while holding the violin would achieve a higher note than the notes toward the scroll of the violin.
- Moving Up and Down the Registers Easier on the Violin
As the Violin has strings in perfect 5ths, one is able to play and jump notes easier than on the Piano. Therefore, Violin music and composition will often be more “acrobatic” in texture than Piano music there are often notes in 10ths on the Violin as it is possible to stretch that far and most virtuosic pieces would feature 10ths as part of their scoring. But you will not see a Pianist practising scales in 10ths on the Piano.
- Musical Key Patterns make a bigger difference
As music Key moves in a circle of 5ths (C-G-D-A-E major etc.) and the Violin is also in string intervals on open strings of a perfect 5th. Transpositions and patterns are slightly more recognizable and similar on the Violin than on the Piano where the piano is only a lateral movement up and down the keyboard. Whereas the Violin is able to move a 5th up simply by changing the strings they are playing. A case in point is that you can have the exact position and fingering playing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the D-A strings Vs A-E strings of the Violin. Whereas on the Piano you would need to consider finger positions on the black keys depending on which key you are in. Intervals and semitones are therefore harder to count. Violinists think of positions of their finger patterns, i.e. playing in the first position to the tenth position but there are not really such finger patterns on the Piano, you simply need to understand a good concept of maximising your finger range and different ways to achieve good seamless fingering to go with the music.
This is purely out of experience that I am writing this, so it may not be as founded ^_^ I find that as a Violin student, a little goes a long way. When my teacher told me to be louder on the piano, I needed a great deal of energy to strike the keys, whereas on the Violin, just a slight forceful and more added pressure or speed with the bow will go a long way.
- The Bow
There seem to be 101 ways you can play with your bow on the Violin which is almost true! You can play a detache bow, a martele bow, a ricochet bow, a colle bow, a mixture the list goes on. You will also have to learn that slurs and bowing are directly related. On the Piano, you will not need to use anything but your fingers and hands to play the instrument. This usage of the bow has to be grasped as part of violin technique. The bow also produces the tone of every note so much practise is needed to concentrate on just Right hand technique on the Violin to achieve a good sound. I would say that the Violin could be equated more to a sport than the Piano. I actually give my students physical exercise to do with their bows. (like sword wielding!)
This list of 10 differences isn’t exhaustive and I’m definitely biased as the violin is my major instrument though I have played the piano since I was three and nothing is more satisfying than digging into the harmonies of Chopin or playing the ethereal Grieg Piano Concerto! Violins tend to start cheaper than Piano, by miles, The cheapest violin in my shop in a full set is $150. I think with $150 you will not be able to buy a Piano unless perhaps second hand. Piano classes are also thought to be less costly than Violin classes as the Violin teachers are usually rarer to find. A very important consideration to make is also the true interest of the child or student learning. If the child gravitates to liking one instrument over the other, I’m of the opinion that upon fulfilling a certain aptitude with the less liked instrument, they should concentrate and specialise in just one.
Lastly, the piano is an important instrument to learn if in all doubt as to what instrument you should do. It features the entire keyboard perception clearly with the white and black keys. You would find most instruments collaborating with the piano (like in Sonatas) and most orchstral scores are reduced into a piano score for accompaniment with the violin. So having prior knowledge about the collaborating instrument does make a difference to how you want your performance to turn out as a whole. Nothing is wasted in music learning. And most importantly, try to keep the passion for learning alive!