Beginner Guide How to Play the Violin

07/02/2020
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Often regarded as the archetype of the classical lead instrument….

The violin has also always been regarded as THE virtuoso’s musical instrument…

And is therefore also considered by many, the single MOST DIFFICULT instrument to play.

Just think about names such as:

  • Paganini
  • Flight of the Bumblebee

One was a composer that was famous for his “inhuman” technique…

And the second is one of the most famous piece of classical music due to its extremely high level of technique. And yes, it was originally written for the violin.

But whether you want to become the next Paganini…

Or want to play:

  • Bluegrass
  • Country music
  • Traditional Irish music
  • Folk music
  • Gypsy music

The truth is that the violin is not limited to classical music anymore and is a center piece of many other music genres.

And with so much resources available on the internet nowadays, reaching a decent level on the violin is now easier AND quicker than ever.

So for today’s post, I compiled everything you need to know in order to get started on this beautiful instrument.

Sounds good?

Then read on.

 

First off…

A little bit of history

The violin as we know it today is believed to have been created during the 16th century in Italy, during the Renaissance period.

And, funnily enough, it has remained virtually unchanged since then.

Now, before we get to the heart of the matter, I’d like to start by answering a question many musician, or wannabe musicians often ask themselves:

Why the Violin?

We often read how the violin is such a difficult instrument…

Which is absolutely true, to some extent. But why is that? And why do so many kids choose it as their first instrument if it’s so difficult to learn?

Well, here are the two main reasons:

  1. It’s difficult because you have to find the right note all by yourself using only your own hearing abilities, without any visual cue, unlike most other instruments.
  2. It’s a popular choice among kids exactly because of reason 1, and it’s an instrument known to help develop their hearing and pitch perception.

But even though it might be tough in the beginning, being able to play the violin is rewarding as it’ll set you apart in the music scene…

Providing you with something MANY musicians actually lack: a true musical ear and exceptional pitch perception.

Next up…

1. Sizes

Obviously, the very first thing to do is to choose the right size for your violin.

If you’re an adult then it’s a no-brainer, go with a full size 4/4 violin.

However, if the violin is intended for a child you’ll need to choose between several different sizes.

And rather than looking at how tall the player is, it’s the arm length you need to measure.

Take a measuring tape, straighten your arm and start measuring from the middle of the palm all the way up to the neck.

And so:

  • For arm lengths under 16 in choose a 1/10 violin
  • For arm lengths of 16 in, choose a 1/8 violin
  • For arm lengths between 16.5 and 18 in choose a 1/4 violin
  • For arm lengths between 18.5 and 20 in choose a 1/2 violin
  • For arm lengths between 20.5 and 22 in choose a 3/4 violin
  • For arm lengths 23 in and above go with a full sieze violin

Got it? Good.

Next up…

2. Woods

With violins, the choice is pretty simple when it comes to woods since you only really have 2 options:

  • Spruce – mainly used for the top table because of its strength yet good workability 
  • Maple – which is a denser wood and is mainly chosen for its looks since it almost doesn’t contribute to shaping the sound

You might occasionally stumble upon a poplar-made violin, but that’s it.

Next up…

3. Violin Anatomy

So although we won’t cover each and every part of the violin (it’s made of over 70 different ones), I’d like to talk about the ones that have the BIGGEST influence on the outcoming sound…

Excluding the bow, of course which we’ll cover further down.

On the image on the right you can see a very basic anatomy of the violin.

Now, INSIDE the violin, there are 2 parts that influence the sound a lot.

They are:

  • The soundpost, and…
  • The bassbar

And these 2 parts are actually pretty much the same, the only difference is that one is used for the bass “side” of the violin, and the other for the treble “side”.

Take a look at the image on the right

See? The bassbar is right under the leftside of the bridge, which is the bass sidesince it’s the side right under the G string.

And the soundpost is placed right under the right side of the bridge, wich is the treble side, since it’s right under the E string.

So, first off…

The Soundpost

Fun fact: in many languages, the soundpost is called the “soul” of the violin, which should actually tell you how important this little piece of wood is.

So although this little rod might not seem like much, it actually has 2 essential roles:

  • Preventing the “belly” of the violin’s top plate from collapsing under the pressure applied by the strings, and…
  • Transmitting the vibrations received by the top plate to the back plate, so as to produce a richerfuller sound.

The sound of the violin will change dramatically depending on the soundpost position…

Of course different luthiers have different opinions on the perfect placement of the soundpost, BUT the general consensus is that:

  • The closer to the G string, the darker the sound
  • For a brighter sound, you’ll want your post to be a little bit on the right of the E string.

So that’s for the soundpost.

Now, on to…

The Bassbar

Just like the soundpost, the bassbar has essentially the same 2 roles:

  • Providing support to the top plate
  • Transmitting low frequencies to the back plate

And factors such as:

  • Its thickness
  • Its height
  • How well glued to the top plate it is…

…All influence the sound of the violin.

On the image above you can notice the bass bar is actually tapered out on both ends. This is done in order to prevent the bar from falling over.

Stradivarius Violins

Alard Stradivarius, considered as the best Stradivarius ever made.

I think it’s pretty safe to assume virtually EVERYBODY has heard the name Stradivarius at least once in their life, even if they’re not musicians…

And everybody knows they are synonyms with “tens of millions of dollars“…

The thing is, NOBODY really knows why they are so expensive, or even why they’re so special, construction wise.

A lot of scientists, musicians and engineers have tried to analyze, study and understand the building method of Antonio Stradivari…

But nothing truly conclusive ever came out of it.

And so, the only thing we know for sure is that:

  • It kind of makes sense that a 300 years old violin would have a pretty high price tag.
  • There are only around 650 models available worldwide
  • They have been played by many famous musicians throughout history

In fact, some blind tests have been done, and many of the participants said they preferred the sound of the newer violins to the ones of Stradivarius violins…

Anyway, since you’ll probably never come across a genuine Stradivarius, no need to really rack your brain around it!

Next up…

4. The Bow

If the violin itself is obviously the most important when it comes to sound…

People often mistakenly disregard the importance of the bow when it comes to tone-shaping.

And, in fact, bows’ prices can range all the way from a few hundred bucks… To several dozens thousands of dollars.

So what makes a good bow exactly? Well, essentially these few characteristics:

  • The quality of the horse hair – White mongolian horses are said to give the best hair for violin bows
  • The quality of the wood – Pernambuco wood is considered as the best wood for violin bows
  • The balance – different bows have different balance points. The closer to the tip the balance point is, the heavier the bow will feel. The closer to the frog the balance point is, the lighter it will feel.

Here are the wooden bows I recommend:

However, since the 2 first resources are so limited and expensive, new alternatives have recently emerged…

Such as carbonfiber bows.

Carbonfiber bows are:

  • Durable – they’re made of synthetic material as opposed to organic for wood
  • Lightweight – on top of being resistant, carbon fiber is light
  • Produce a great sound – They might not sound as good as high end pernambuco bows, but some of them sound very good
  • A great value for the money – on top of being durable, they’re also inexpensive, which can be a decisive factor for begginers.

All in all they keep getting more popular and they’re pretty much a safe bet.

Check out the ones I recommend here:

  • Kmise Carbon Fiber – (Amazon)
  • VingoBow Carbon Fiber – (Amazon)
  • Fiddlerman Carbon Fiber  – (Amazon)
  • CodaBow Diamond GX – (Amazon)

As for fiberglass, they’re the cheapest bows available because fiberglass is a very fragile material.

They’re usually used by kids or students, but if you’d like to try one out, here are the ones I recommend:

  • Artino Fiberglass bow – (Thomann)
  • P&H Fiberglass bow – (Thomann)

How to prepare your bow before playing

The bow need some maintenance, or preparation before you use it. You’ll need to:

  1. Tighten the hair – by turning the screw clockwise, and loosen it after you’re done playing.
  2. Rosin it – which means apply some rosin to the hair. If you don’t do that, you won’t get any sound out of your bow.
  3. Here are the rosins I recommend:

5. The Shoulder Rest

Here’s an accessory that is actually crucial, not only for beginners, but even for professional violinists.

The shoulder rest is a kind of cushion that is attached to the violin’s back as seen on the image on the right.

It has 2 main purposes:

  1. Increase comfort while playing
  2. Preventing the violin from sleeping off the shoulder of the musician

Now, all beginners are advised to use one and the truth is, it is really difficult to play without one…

Your clavicle will hurt and you will end up griping your violin way too strong because of the fear of letting it fall down.

And even professional violinists who don’t use one always use some sort of padding.

So don’t overlook the shoulder rest and just get one at the same time you purchase your first violin.

Here are the best ones I recommend:

Got it? Next up…

6. Violin Tuning

Violins are tuned in perfect fifths, starting from G, which gives G D A E.

Occasionally, a slightly different tuning can be used such as A D A E,  G D A E♭or G D A E♭.

Respectively, these last 2 examples were used in two famous classical pieces so as to emphasize the dissonance wanted by the composer.

In most classical, jazz and folk music though, the standard G D A E tuning is used.

As for tuning your instrument, it will definitely be pretty challenging in the beginning.

Just know that you should use both he tuning pegs AND the fine tuners to tune your violin.

 

And so to help you in this extremely important and crucial process, here are a few tuners options I recommend:

  • Snark SN5X (Clip-on for guitar/bass/violin/cello) – (Amazon/B&H/Thomann)
  • D’Addario Micro NS (Clamp-on specifically designed for violin) – (Amazon)
  • Peterson StroboClip HD (High accuracy strobe tuner) – (Amazon)

To learn more about tuners in general, check out this article:

Next up…

7. Rent or Buy?

Renting a violin has always been a rather popular decision, unlike other instruments for which you wouldn’t even consider it.

So why is that? Well, mainly for these reasons:

  • You can get a decently made violin for much cheaper than it really costs
  • You can return it in case you don’t want to play anymore
  • It’s a popular choice among parents choosing a violin for their kid, exactly because of the previous reason.

The thing is, violins have NEVER been cheaper than they are nowadays, with models costing as low as $40. So is renting really justifiable?

Well, it really depends on what you’re looking. If you want a quality model you can’t afford buying right now, then yes.

But if you’re just looking to save money, just buy a cheap model. Because trust me, any good violinist will make a cheap violin sound good.

Got it? Then let’s move on…

8. Strings

When it comes to violin strings, they are usually 3 questions people ask themselves:

  1. When should I replace them?
  2. What strings should I choose?
  3. How do I replace them?

So let’s answer all of these questions now, starting with…

1. When to replace your violin strings

There are several ways a string will let you know it’s worn out:

  • If it keeps falling out of tune
  • If you notice inconsistencies in the pitch and if it just generally doesn’t sound as good as it should
  • If it’s obviously damaged (that is if you can see the string is worn out)

If you notice any of these happening, it’s time to replace your strings.

Got it? Next up…

2. What strings should I choose?

Once you’ve decided it’s time to replace your strings, comes the difficult task to actually CHOOSE a string set.

The 2 main factors to take into consideration when choosing a violin string-set are:

  • The material
  • The gauge

And so, for materials you’ll find the next 3:

  1. Gut – which is the oldest material and produces a rich tone but wears out quickly
  2. Steel – which is much more durable than gut but doesn’t produce as rich a sound, and finally…
  3. Synthetic nylon – which combines the sound of gut-made strings with the durability of steel-made strings

And then you also have some string sets with different winding depending on the string (like platinum plated E, aluminum wound A, silver wound D & G for example). These are generally only found on the high-end though.

If you are a lead violinist in an orchestra or playing chamber music these might be a good option…

But if you’re not, they’re definitely overkill.

As for the gaugeit is usually advised that beginners use light gauge, and advanced players medium to high gauge.

Now, to be honest gauge is not nearly as important as material choice. And even then, if you listen to videos comparing different strings…

You’ll really have to listen hard to hear a real, significant difference between different models.

Now, I’m not saying you won’t hear small differences and variations, but if you listen to the video without looking at it, can you really tell he’s playing through a dozen different string sets?

And have no doubt these small differences might be very important for professional or advanced violinists, but they definitely aren’t for beginners

Next up…

3. How to replace your strings?

After you’ve chosen the right set of strings, you’ll need to mount them on your violin.

Recommended Strings

Now that you’ve probably decided which strings are the best for you, here are the string sets I recommend:

Next up…

9. Electric Violins

Remember the first time you saw someone play an electric violin? Didn’t you think: “Woah, that’s a really cool looking violin!”? I know I did.

But beyond their peculiar look, what exactly sets electric violins apart from their acoustic counterpart? Well, a bunch of features as you’ll see:

  • They’re silent – You can plug in some headphones and practice silently
  • You can use a regular guitar amp to amplify them 
  • You can shape their sound – whether it’s with integrated effects, or with with pedals.
  • Some of them come in 5 strings models – they have an extra low C string, basically turning them into hybrid violin/viola instruments

So electric violins are definitely not the high end, unaffordable instruments they used to be 15 or 20 years ago (although these high-end models still exist)…

And it’s therefore normal to ask yourself whether you should choose an electric or acoustic violin as your first instrument.

But based on all the advantages I listed up above, I’m sure you’ll manage to figure it out…

And so if you choose to buy an electric violin, here are the best ones I recommend:

10. Online Lessons

Let’s be clear: learning the violin on your own is NOT EASY. Unlike the guitar, you won’t be able to strum a nice sounding chord after just a few minutes of effort…

And so taking lessons is almost indispensable. The good news is, finding lessons, paid OR free on the internet is nowadays easier than ever.

But how do you sort the good ressources from the bad ones?

Well, first of all remember what the old saying says: You get what you pay for.

Now, although that is true to some extent, there are in fact some quality FREE lessons out there. However, what you WON’T get with these is a dedicated, personal teacher.

And so for this list I decided to create 2 categories:

  1. Free online lessons
  2. Paid online lessons

First up…

1. Free Online Lessons

  • fiddlerman.com – Pierre Holstein aka Fiddlerman has been a reference on free online violin lessons for almost 10 years now. He stands out as a very versatile player who doesn’t only focus on classical music. On top of that all his lessons are available as videos on youtube and he usually answers questions there too.
  • violinonline.com – For those of you who feel more comfortable reading, this website is probably the most comprehensive one in terms of ressources. It will actually take you all the way from beginner level to very advanced. And all of this completely free of charges.

2. Paid Online Lessons

  • Itzhak Perlman – Here’s a name many of us know, even if you’re not a classical music enthusiast. One of the most famous classical violinist of our times, Itzhak Perlman is now part of the MasterClass website. In case you didn’t know it, MasterClass.com is a website where famous people from all areas teach their skills.
  • Artistworks.com – This website specializes in online music courses, and their violin instructor happens to be Richard Amoroso, a respected classical violinist. The difference with the previous website is that here you get to send your own video to the instructor and he will send his in return to guide you through your mistakes.
  • Violinlounge.com – Holland born classical violinist Zlata Brouwer is the teacher behind this website and she actually offers a lot of free content for beginners. However, if you want to take your playing to the next level she has also got you covered with more advanced material.
  • Fiverr.com – Well, yeah, the biggest online freelancer platform also offers music lessons. And although you probably won’t find any big name there, the advantage of Fiverr is that there is a gig for absolutely every budget.

11. A few accessories for beginners

Before we end this long post, I’d like to mention a few helpful accessories for beginners I’ve found.

As I was saying earlier, one of the reasons the violin is so difficult to play is that it has no visual cue whatsoever…

And when you’re starting out, it can be frustrating taking really long to play a simple note. That’s why the brand Don’t Fret developed this sticker that shows where to press your fingers on the fingerboard.

Check it out:

Also check out this model which, although a bit more expensive has much more information on it:

  • Fretless Finger Guide – (Amazon)

Another very useful tool for practicing is a practice mute. Just like what you’d find for a trumpet, violins can be played lower by using a practice mute.

Check these out:

  • eBoot Rubber – (Amazon)
  • Otto Musica Artino – (Amazon)