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A birthday present to myself.

April 13, 2011 at 1:58 AM

I turned 50 recently, March 1st in fact, and it occurred to me that though I have no regrets over never having not studied violin before, it was something I truly wanted now. 

This is a little peculiar. I have been aware all my life that the violin is the most difficult of instruments, and that good players begin young, and never stop working to keep good. Why would I begin a difficult journey like this, so late in life, and with so little prospect of success, of even becoming a moderately competent player? The answers are many and personal, and perhaps of little interest to others. But nevertheless... (I love a scene in the film of Betrayal by Harold Pinter in which a drunken Jeremy Irons professes his admiration for Patricia Hodge. 'You're drunk!" she declares. Irons pauses (of course!) and says with determination: "Nevertheless...").

My grandfather was a professional player, and my mother was preparing to be when marriage changed her life's course. Her father's violins were always a family legend. The Vuillaume and the Gagliano. Fakes? Possibly. But one was eventually accepted by Beares as original. She loved her instruments, but rarely played them. Her musical experience was soured by too much pressure when young. When I first showed interest in music (at about 3 I believe - I do recall picking out tunes on my grandmother's piano) there was no pressure, in fact no encouragement to study music.

Fortunately my love of drawing developed at 7 and since there were no issues over that there was at least no discouragement. At school I was reserved, unsporty, poor socially. The teachers wisely saw music as a way to encourage a group activity. The flute was chosen for me. 6 months of lessons with a teacher I did not much like, and I was ready to quit. I was 10. My parents didn't mind, but the school were determined to make me persist. This decision, reluctantly accepted by myself and my parents, and probably firmly at odds with all modern ideas of education was one of the most fortunate events of my life.

Very soon after I returned to lessons, my teacher taught me Gluck's Dance of the Blessed Spirits, and it was as if a light was switched on. I don't know why or how it happened this way, but the phrase that ends with a  fall of a 7th moved me deeply. I can still vividly hear the way my teacher sung that phrase to me, with such eloquence and passion. After that I adored playing, practicing and enriching my life with music. My feelings were given an opportunity of expression. I did not however become focussed exclusively on music, or indeed on anything, to the exclusion of all else. And my life has progressed with music as a theme, sometimes in the foreground, often as accompaniment. My exposure to Chopin was life-changing again. At 16 I all but abandoned flute to study piano.  Later revelations were the Mendelssohn Octet and the Siegfried Idyll, yet though I always kept my mum's books of Kreutzer, Flesch and Sevcik, I never thought of seriously applying myself to them.

After school I had become in turn an art student, a medical student, a flute teacher, a medical student once more, a part-time GP, a full-time music student, and thus a player of flute, piano, baroque flute, a dabbler in jazz improvisation and composition, a very mediocre clarinetist and saxophonist, an obsessive fan of Glenn Gould, (and of Nietzsche) and as if by accident: a sculptor in bronze and marble. My artwork is all centred around musical themes and ideas. I'll talk about this on some later post, perhaps.

Now moved from Australia to London, and working as a medical researcher, I am revelling in the oppotunities here. There is no interest so obscure that one cannot find a person, many people even, who share that interest. So it has been unexpectedly easy to find a flute-maker prepared to teach me some of his craft. And eventually I realised. It should be easy to find a good violin teacher.

That may sound a bit arrogant. Why wouldn't there be good violin teachers elsewhere? Well of course there are; but to explain: I think I've reached an age and have the experience such that I can assess teachers almost as well as they can assess me. Really good teachers have to have so many attributes. My experience as a flute player taught me much about this, as did the other fields I've pursued.

An aside about the flute. There is far less history of good flute teaching as there is for the violin. There is no true 'school of the flute' although the nearest that exists is a French tradition. My teacher learnt from Geoffrey Gilbert who studied in this tradition and also taught such great players Sir James Galway and William Bennett. In my later years, my studies with Galway have clarified so many of the fundamentals - that were unfortunately glossed over in my youth, largely because I was a 'natural' player. This meant that I got good effects by incorrect means, but with time these problems mounted up. I eventually recognised that much was wrong. Tension in my shoulder, variable embouchure, imperfect intonation, etc etc.

At the 'right time' for me, when I began to seriously reassess my playing and try to analyse all these issues, Sir James set up an internet chat-group for flute-players. Almost every conceivable flute-related technical and musical question I had has now been resolved by careful attention to what Galway says. In his masterclasses he demonstrates the methods he uses, and with which he maintains his form in an exceptionally busy performing and touring schedule. One of his idols is Heifetz, for obvious reasons.

Currently, with the freedom and flexibility in my work to allow some hours a day of focussed practice, my thoughts turned to the violin. I found a teacher, and have no hesitation after 8 lessons in saying she is wonderful. We are working on the Suzuki Book 1 and I am working as purposefully as at any task I have ever attempted.

I love being a beginner. There are discoveries to be made, and insights to be drawn, connections to be made and perceptions to be enhanced.

One of the first is the way the stable balancing of the instrument sets up a reference or 'fixed target' for the actions of the bow. This is precisely the same issue as flute players have in setting the instrument up properly so that the embouchure is firmly related to the flute, allowing all the nuances of the airstream to impinge on the edge of the blowhole (much like the bow on a string).Yet it is a topic in flute-playing that is much neglected or confused by misunderstandings of fundamental mechanics.

Another is the relative difficulty of some scales. Eb minor is notoriously tricky on flute. Well I see it is no picnic on the fiddle either. Interesting! I suppose this is because the flute's fingering arose to favour the keys with minimal cross-fingerings and accidentals, and for ease of playing with violinists in 1st position - and this might be why the early flute was so pitched to favour G and D major.

Anyway, after 8 lessons I am beginning to feel comfortable with Suzuki Book 1, and have enjoyed every single piece and every single note. I am secretly going above 3rd position at times, doing a page of Sevcik now and again, attempting some easier kreutzer studies and looking at Bach sonatas and partitas. These will be a destination I look forward to travelling towards for the remainder of my life.

I do not enjoy the squeaks when I make a mess of changing strings. A friend has kindly lent me a lovely instrument from the 1850's. It seems his family all play and have spare violins to loan. I am so very grateful.

After lesson 7 I thought about all that one must consider before playing one note correctly on this fascinating instrument. Pray forgive a Joycian touch:

OK it all makes sense now: While keeping the bow at the right distance from the bridge and perfectly parallel to it at all times, one glides in an unwavering line, smoothly tracking an imaginary line in 3d space, missing the adjacent strings at all times unless deliberately playing double-stops, so as to maintain a tone of the chosen dynamic, applying variable force along the whole length, from light at the frog to firmer at the tip to account for the difference iin leverage, and this being just for a note of fixed dynamic, with further changes of pressure for crescendo or diminuendo affected by the region of the bow used at the time, and using just the right length of bow for the note in question, with due regard to those before and after, and whether, when one reverses direction one will have reached a point close enough to tip or frog to permit a long enough bow for the next long note (or slur over multiple notes), sometimes while changing strings at the change from up-bow to down-bow and sometimes changing string within a slurred sequence, and also taking account of the dead-zone of the bow due to string-crossings, the angle of the string and the corresponding position of right shoulder and elbow and always without rasps, scratches, slides or fluttering, using arm weight, a feather-light bow grip allowing appropriate pressure from the right index, a well rounded 5th finger and a suitable loose but controlled position of the other two fingers, the balance struck perfectly between the thumb (which must be flexed at the IP joint) and the 5th finger, with flexibility at the wrist to enable slight alterations and facilitate smooth changes during string-crossing and bowing direction reversal, yet mindful always of the role of forearm movement from elbow, or whole arm movement from shoulder, or combined movents of both in the transition zone, initiating and ending notes with a certain slight pinching or contraction of the fingers, and allowing a fluid arc of movement to get a clear staccato, ending with a ringing tone, not a scratching, and matching the change of angle of the bow required for each string with a corresponding movement of the left elbow, medially for the lower pitche strings, lateral for the higher, so as to maintain identical relationships of the left hand and fingers to the string in current use, and these fingertips must be brought down firmly, always flexed at the tip and pointing precisely down, but not too firm or there will be excess tension when shifting position, a process that must carry the whole hand, and thus the thumb glides along the violin neck, yet at other times steadies the direction of the violin counteracting the left index base, and these positions are the references for the change in angles of the left hand and subsequent contact points of the hand with the violin body in shifting position, and the changes must be memorized for each shift combination, of which there are a great number of possibilities, and this is after mastering all the notes in first position, which then must be completely relearned in each and every position, with different fingers, such that every note and interval is reassigned to different fingers, and of course these new relationships are based on a contraction of all intervals in higher positions due to the physics of vibrating strings, whereby each semitone is larger than its higher pitched predecessor by a factor of the 12th root of 2, and of course the violin must be balanced between chin and shoulder (and rest in the 'v' between thumb and index of the left hand, but not low touching the web, but high enough to allow a mouse to fit through the gap) and without tension in any of these, yet firm enough to provide a fixed focus or target, the strings, so as to allow the learning and memorization of all the precise movements of both arms and fingers wich should then develop perfectly reliable movements to create the desired effects, including the rotation of the left arm underneath the violin to match the string in use (which is often rapidlly changing), the flexion of the elbow and movement of the arm towards the body in shifting to the higher positions, the coordination also of the same finger consecutively used on adjacent (or non-adjacent) strings, the accurate placement of two fingers at once for all the myriad double stops, the additional changes of bow angle to play these, and the change in bow pressure whereby the lower string of a double-stop receives much greater pressure than the other, and the complex movements of wrist and forearm to effect vibrato, which can only affect pitch if the finger is not pressed down too firmly, yet must not be so loose as to mar the tone, which musn't be dampened either by excess contact or pressure on the violin body from the neck and shoulder, nor should the bow be too tight or too loose, and finally, one places every finger precisely so that every note is always perfectly in tune.

Now back to practice.

From Millie Bartlett
Posted on April 13, 2011 at 6:52 AM

Exactly Andrew! 

I enjoyed reading all the little nuances of violin learning, how true it is, luckily we don't have to learn all this at once.   I feel breathless now from reading your blog, and not from playing the flute,either.  Like you, I have also spent a few years breezing through the fundamentals of flute, mostly on raw talent. Unlike you I haven't been fortunate enough to come across a talented and experienced flute teacher, so I guess I'll have to stumble along the rest of the way.  If you can recommend any self help resources, I would be most interested to hear.  Living in a regional area in Australia doesn't help though, even to get my 'babies' serviced usually means sending them away.

Your article is a fine and true description of all the difficulties faced by beginners learning violin. If I had known what I was in for, in picking up the violin, I probably never would have done it, at first believing that it 'wouldn't be much harder than flute'.  How wrong I was.  But I am persevering as a mature age student and am just now (at about grade 5 level) beginning to feel more confident and as though I am finally getting somewhere, but for this I am very lucky, I have an excellent teacher with performance experience.   It has taken several years though, and I am still nowhere near 'flute standard' as an equivalent!

From Christina C.
Posted on April 13, 2011 at 4:56 PM

Was that last paragraph really just one sentence? Wow! ;-)


Congratulations on taking the plunge, it sounds like you're doing it for all the right reasons. For many folks who start late, the goal either starts out as or eventually becomes to play with others. If you feel the same way then I hope you know that you're ideally located for this. Have you looked into the Late Staters Orchestra yet?  .  Also the ACMP/Chamber Music Network ( has a strong membership in London & they organize events. Great ways to network  with other adult beginners & get yourself playing with others.



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