Violinist day 1 help!

Edited: September 14, 2017, 5:43 AM · Hello people,

Complete adult beginner here. I've only had my violin for a couple hours and I have several questions already! Any help with the following issues would be greatly appreciated.

1. My teacher emphasised the importance of a tension-free bow hold during the lesson. I find it difficult to maintain a relaxed right hand, especially my pinky which tends to lock at the first knuckle (I'm double jointed).
After some experimentation, I've finally managed to lose most of the tension and keep my pinky curved, but it feels like a lot of the bow weight rests on the strings now, which leads to significant bow bouncing whilst crossing non-adjacent strings. How do I fix it?

2. Notes that I play with my left hand sound dampened and squeaky, a sharp contrast to the resonant open string notes! Is this caused due to incorrect finger position? My teacher doesn't want me to use tapes or dots.

3. I've found that I have to press the string quite hard to produce a clear (relatively) sound, just as much as I would have had to on a guitar! Am I using too much pressure?

4. Part of my collar bone feels sore. Is this because I didn't use a shoulder rest, or is something wrong with the way I'm holding my violin?

5. Is it normal for the right shoulder and part of the left hand to get fatigued after only 20-30 minutes of playing or is my posture to blame?

7. My strings seem to go out of tune pretty quick. How often do you guys have to tune your violin?

8. What should I be practising that will help me fix these problems?

I apologise if these are super obvious questions. My next lesson isn't for quite some time and I don't want to practice something that's not correct. Thanks in advance!

Replies (16)

September 14, 2017, 7:27 AM · Bow Grip:

You can observe a dozen different successful professionals and see a dozen different bow grips. Part of finding a "tension-free" bow grip is coming to terms with the unique shape of your right hand. If it feels comfortable to extend and lock a double-jointed pinky, then do it.

The positions of the thumb and index finger on the stick are the defining features of the bow grip. Odds are your teacher told you to place the tip of the thumb in the space between the frog and the leatherette, and the index finger so that it touches the stick between the finger's tip joint and middle joint.

For an older adult who no longer benefits from wide joint flexibility, and maybe has the onset of osteoarthritis, the above placement of the thumb can be particularly problematic. Try sliding the thumb onto the leatherette with the hairs crossing more over the top of the thumb nail at an angle. Instead of the thumb tip resting against the stick, it will be more of the flat of the thumb.

Let the index finger fall naturally onto the stick. This will typically be closer to or across the middle joint. Avoid the temptation to have the stick rest somewhere between the middle and palm joint unless it is the only way to play pain-free.

What usually happens at this point is the tip of the pinky comfortably touches one diagonal flat of the stick (~45 degrees away from the top flat), and the ring finger touches the diagonal flat about 45 degrees on the other side of the top flat of the stick. These two fingers form natural stops that prevent the bow from wandering back and forth as you play, especially on an up-bow movement. Do not be surprised that as you do down-bows, the pinky lifts off the stick and the ring finger barely touches. That is how light the pressure should be on the stick with these two fingers.

The middle finger will fall naturally somewhere near the tip of the thumb. Do not force it to be on one side of the thumb tip or the other. Its sole purpose is to form a secure pivot point for the stick with the thumb. It can do this no matter which side of the thumb tip it rests.

You should be able to hold the bow with the tip pointing straight up and the rotate to a horizontal playing position and back to vertical with modest finger pressure without feeling like the bow is going to escape your grip.

Most times you will have a three point grip: index-thumb-pinky. If you can easily roll the stick almost 90 degrees using only the thumb, then you are good to go. This freedom of motion lets the stick adjust as you bow up and down to keep most of the hairs in contact with the strings.

Fingered Notes:

Open strings will always sound more resonant than most fingered notes. There are some fingered notes, known as ring tones, that can sound very resonant, even more so than an open string. If fingered notes sound dramatically weaker than open strings this is most likely a bowing issue. As you get a better command of bow pressure and speed, this should clear up.

With finger pressure = clearer tone, this is probably due to the bow hand unconsciously pressing harder into the strings to match what the fingering hand is doing. It is a frustrating feature of our hands when we first start to play. You have to learn how to dig into the strings with the bow hand while using a reasonable finger pressure on the strings.

In general, you do not have to drive the strings firmly against the fingerboard to get a clear tone.

String Tuning:

New synthetic strings can take up to a week, depending on brand, to stabilize, after which they should require just an occasional tweak. If you have metal core or steel strings, they should stay in tune from the first day you install them. This is usually most E strings unless you are using steel strings for the G-D-A strings also.

Big shifts in humidity can cause notice changes in string tuning as the violin wood expands and contracts.

Edited: September 14, 2017, 7:49 AM · This is a good place to get some thoughts, but mostly listen to your teacher. Here are a couple of mine.

1. Tension-free is the whole idea anywhere in your body. Your teacher is probably just starting with the bow grip. Develop muscles in the right pinky by doing 'wind shield wipers'. But do it over a sofa because you will drop the bow at some point. Bow bouncing happens because you have the wrong angle where the bow meets the string. Generally speaking your hand needs to be lower, but experiment. with your teacher - there are multiple possible causes.
3.You will develop left hand muscles, but the 1st rule is keep the left shoulder, arm, wrist, and hand relaxed - no death grips. It sounds conflicted, but it is not. It is the reason the violin is a difficult instrument.
4.Sounds like clamping with your chin. Relax. Simple head weight with no muscle tension will hold the violin in place.
5.Fatigue after 20 minutes says you are much too tense. Relax. Professionals practice for hours and don't have muscle soreness.
7.Get Zyex strings. They will stay in tune for days or weeks. Later, you can experiment with different tonal color from other strings.
8.Practice the things/challenges your teacher gives you. It takes months to get it right, and then get it "automatic" so you don't think about it any more. Clearly, you need to get much less tense. Treat tension as a bad habit. When you notice it, anywhere, stop. Think about proper technique. Then restart relaxed and correct. Train your mind and muscles that tension is not allowed.

September 14, 2017, 10:27 AM · Fatigue after 20 minutes doesn't surprise me for a first-timer. Take a break. "Don't have any tension" is easy to say, but you're a beginner, you have to teach yourself how to do that. It's easy to have a little minor tension somewhere and not realize it because you're thinking so damned hard about all the other stuff you're trying to do! So don't practice for more than 30 min at a stretch and take a break! For your right pinky, bring your middle and ring fingers farther over the back side of the frog, so that your bow is held a little more deeply into your hand. That will compel your pinky to curl a little more and it might give you a softer, more relaxed grip too. Look up Todd Ehle's youtube video on the beginning bow hold and watch that. If you are not getting a nice sound I recommend trying to use just the middle third of your bow for now and just go back and forth keeping it straight and even try to get a mezzo-forte kind of sound. Practice that on an open string and when you are happy with that, then just put your third finger down on the D and A strings to play G and D notes. When they are in tune they will take on a ringing/alive tone because they are resonating with the open strings. I recommend practicing in a mirror and be patient with yourself.
September 14, 2017, 10:28 AM · Re your bow hold, I would suggest starting out with your thumb *under* the frog, the way young children do in Suzuki classes, and move it up to its proper place under the stick only after you've developed a fairly relaxed hold with the beginner thumb placement.

September 14, 2017, 11:22 AM · Learning to play the violin as an adult is a little bit like a combination of kindergarten and physical therapy. What feels like tension right now might really be mostly lack of strength in certain finger, hand, and arm muscles that you've never had to develop before. Do the exercises your teacher has recommended, to the best of your ability, and don't overthink it! Let your teacher see how you're doing in a week.
September 14, 2017, 11:26 AM · Greetings Nick and welcome to

Your collar bone could be sore from part of the chin rest rubbing on it. So much good advice freely given here, such a great place to hangout.

September 14, 2017, 12:25 PM · I think Jeff meant the metal clamp that holds the chin rest in place. If it is a continuing problem then try wrapping a narrow strip of thin chamois leather round the metal part so prevent metal-to-skin contact with the collar bone area.
September 14, 2017, 3:36 PM · Trevor to my grammar rescue. Thanks for clarifying so Nick woukd know what I had meant.
September 14, 2017, 4:57 PM · Let the ease the thoughts of the OP with a simple suggestion: Decide on an amount that you're willing to practice each day, and stick to that. If that practice leads to 5 fixes in a week, great. If it leads to only 1, great. Whatever it leads to, it leads to. But take some pressure off of yourself by accepting that you'll improve that the pace you improve at, and worrying about fixing EVERYTHING AT ONCE will not help you. Learning is a 5-10 year project, and you must titrate your learning appropriately.

With all of that said, let me see:

1) No one has a perfect, soft bow hold within the first week. Give this several months of diligent, gentle effort to come to fruition. Your question has an answer, but a typed version of it would be useless. do your best this week, and write down the question to ask your teacher when you go back in.

#2, 3, and 7) Your violin probably sucks. How much did you pay for it? What type is it?

4) Playing without a shoulder rest is painful initially unless you have a very fleshy, flat collarbone. If you want to play without one, you'll have to get used to it.

5) Yes. Your fatigue is normal, regardless of posture. With that said, your posture certainly isn't perfect yet.

6) You don't have a 6.

7) Ask your teacher.

Now a question for you: what is the frequency of your lessons? You make it sound like they're not weekly, and that's a huge problem.

September 14, 2017, 5:44 PM · Nick, I would like to suggest that you copy/paste your list into word. You can then print it out, review it with your teacher perhaps by e-mail or in person at your next lesson, and periodically update as things arise. Keep a printed copy with your music and look it over before practice.
Edited: September 15, 2017, 6:25 AM · Thanks for the advice, everyone.

@Erik Williams, I'm taking lessons twice a month, two hour sessions. The violin I'm using is a Stentor I. I'm not sure how much it's worth, since I received it from a friend who has since upgraded to a better violin, but it's definitely a 'student quality' instrument, from what I've read of it. I suppose the quality of the strings makes a difference in how much finger pressure they require?

September 15, 2017, 8:03 AM · Nick,
Finger pressure is virtually the same on all strings because they are all strung at virtually the same tension. Its just physics. You will build muscles and callouses, as you practice.

On other thought re bow bounce. Your hand should move in a 'smile' shape in both up and down bow. Clearly, it not much of a 'smile', but experiment to get the proper movement.

September 15, 2017, 8:28 AM · record your practice and pay attention to how you are holding the instrument.

Other than that, try playing with a recording. It is not important if you have the exact right bow grip/violin grip as long as you are comfortable holding them.

Other than that, play play play and the squeaquiness/tension will disappear after some time. take regular breaks though.

September 15, 2017, 10:18 PM · Everyone has given great advice. Here's my thoughts:
1. Take it easy, try your best, be patient.
2. Take mental breaks when you lose mental energy.
3. Don't push the bow into the strings with hand pressure. Rather, keep your index, middle and ring fingers in as much contact with the stick of the bow as possible, and with a relaxed arm, your arm's natural energy will automatically be transmitted to the strings.
4. The chin rest clamp or part of the violin's body could be cutting into your collarbone. Either wrap something around the clamp (as Jeff suggested), place a towel to cover the collarbone during play, or wear clothing that covers the collarbone.
5. Violin strings are quite soft on the fingers. Minimally allowing them to contact the fingerboard should be enough pressure to produce a clear note.
6. Unless you have a particularly short neck, you're very likely going to need a shoulder rest.
Edited: September 16, 2017, 5:09 AM · My teacher tells me this: n playing position, place a finger (for instance the third) very lightly on the string (whichever). Increase pressure very slowly on the string. Youll first hear a harmonic (a high pitched whistle like effect) , then sound cracks, then when you first hear a clear sound emerging, this is the amount of finger pressure needed and not any more. Use that reference (approximatively)to calibre your finger pressure elsewhere on fingerboard.

Oh...and take cover, someone mentioned SR...Shoulder Rest Alert!!!

September 17, 2017, 11:50 AM · I also forgot to ask: how much does your violin go out of tune? If it goes a teeny bit out of tune during a practice session, that's normal, especially the E string. If it goes out of tune a lot very often, your pegs could be slipping, and you might want to put something like rosin or peg compound to stop the slipping. The fatigue you describe could be due to bad posture or non-playing-related muscular tension. The resonance issue you describe is probably due to bad bowing, but I would need to hear you play before I can confirm. Posting a short clip of your playing can help us forum members give you more specific, detailed and clearer suggestions.

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