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Three ways to become a much better violinist.

September 2, 2011 at 5:38 AM


over the years it has seemed to me that there are,  in the case of many players,  three basic, uncomplicated things they can do to become seriously better players.  Here they are:

1)  Learn the even numbered positions.  If I could have a dollar for every player even up to and beyond intermediate level who is not comfortable in the even positions I would be able to buy up the applecorp.  What an earth is going on dudes (especially teachers!)?  Why are you not learning /teaching this fundamental thing?  If you don`t know these you don`t know the fingerboard. Yes,  you don`t actually know where certain notes are on that long black thing in front of your nose.   Do you realize how much better an orchestral player you would be with this simple knowledge?   How much better your sight reading would be? You could stop posting about sight reading....;)  How many more musical and expressive possibilities would become available?  Material:  Kreutzer no2 in 2nd/4th and 6th position everyday for a year;  the relevant sevcik;  Schradieck;  Paginini Barucaba Variation in 4th position etc.  

2)  Learn to play at the heel.

Admittedly this may be a little different (but not really) for the Russian bowing school, but most people use Franco Belgian type these days and it`s never been an excuse anyway.  My main teacher`s teacher,  Albert Sammons said `Master the heel and you`ve mastered to bow.` He may have had a point.   Don`t compromise!  Move under the thumb.  You are using six inches too short a bow. It`s just not good enough. 

BTW the heel does not automatically equate with `loud.` Some of the most delicate ,  refined and musical touces can only be done at the heel or in the lower third of the bow,  not faffing around at the point because that is supposed to be `the quiet part of the bow.`

Materials:  Kreutzer no2 and the f major separate bows and various combinations. Sevcik bowing exercises.  Casorti etc.  Scales!

3)  Handle your instrument like your loved one.

The way people handle instruments often makes me sick.  A month back a semi professional player asked to try my violin and took it from me by the bouts leaving sticky fingers on the violin.  I make a very harsh judgement about players based on this simple thing.  If you can`t  respect the beauty and elegance of your violin to the extent you are happy to smear oil on it you probably don`t have that last 0.1 percent of dedication necessary to be a pro.  Respecting,  indeed loving your instrunment is fundamental and it should be the first things teachers teach.  In the same way I have amateur students who put expensive instruments on the floor,  hang bows down so the point touches the ground while at the same time fumbling in their case for this weeks scores and my pay packet.  The same players leave instruments unattended almost anywhere during rehearsal breaks.  The big differnce between a pro and an amateur (in the judgmental sense rather than the regular employment distinction):  an amateur behaves in an amateur way towards their instrument irrespective of how good they are.

Materials: half a brain,  commonsense,  respect  and a teacher who insists on this from the beginning.

There you go. Three simple things.



From Ann Marie Cordial
Posted on September 2, 2011 at 10:51 AM

Buri -

I agree with your first two points, however I am a REAL STICKLER for your third.  If you look at my avatar, you'll see my instruments are lying on a soft bed of lambskin.  One of my instructors even commented,"You treat your instruments like they're children."

That's right.  I do.  I've seen semi-professional players mistreat their instruments, and after one of them commented to me,"Well you can't do anything to hurt your could run over them with a truck and they would be fine...." and in the next breath they're asking me to allow them to play my instrument? 

That's when I've done a quick excuse and a hasty getaway.  I don't understand mistreating the very thing you depend on to make beautiful music.

---Ann Marie

From Barry Nelson
Posted on September 2, 2011 at 4:43 PM

I spend at least 15 minutes cleaning my instrument after a session. After playing I'll flip on the TV and just sit there cleaning her up. Now, understand at this time I dont own an expensive violin, its a German trade worth about $800, but I treat it like a strad

From Zakey Faieq
Posted on September 2, 2011 at 5:52 PM

 Totally agree with your other two points, but what do you mean by "playing at the heel"?

From marjory lange
Posted on September 2, 2011 at 5:52 PM

 Very good points, and clearly, unequivocally stated.  One place violists may have an advantage: 2nd & 4th positions are "home" to that instrument the way third is to violin.  Thus when I switch, I've more 'tools' in my box than my stand partners often do.  It DOES help, tremendously.  You don't mention 1/2 position, though.  Do you find that only an extendable place, not a 'real' position?

The heel is becoming less terra incognita and it's interesting what's possible there.

Number 3 is SO obviously important, I'm sorry it was necessary to mention it.  

From David Christianson
Posted on September 2, 2011 at 6:19 PM

In the "Art of Violin" DVD, Oistrakh says (regarding capricious old Italian instruments): "One must treat them like a beloved child." True, regardless of the value. This is your creative conduit, an extension of your musical soul. How much more appropriate for a professional, as it's their livelihood!

As a kid I was over-protective of my rental. Mostly because I was afraid my parents would have me drawn and quartered if I was careless and damaged it, but also because it was my musical voice and I had a close emotional attachment. I felt bad even if a string broke.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on September 2, 2011 at 6:29 PM

Buri, thanks for the great tips as always!

Even positions are so cool and freeing. I wonder why most of us don't do them more often.  I guess one reason maybe that a lot of existing fingerings on scales and the pieces that we work on tend to be biased toward odd positions so the habits are built accordingly over the early years of learning.  One thing worked for me was that, when work out fingerings on pieces that I'm learning, my teacher will treat these odd positions as part of the routine positions whenever they are musically appropriate (same with using the frog). Her approach is no big deal and get use to it.  I find it is the best way for me to change habits and move forward in a matter-of-fact way.

In terms of treating the violin with care, to me it's a matter of necessity to always keep those individually wrapped travel wipes in my case as well as cloth for cleaning, as it always amazes me how people can play well with a sticky finger board.  In fact I think I can do more.  I heard about silk violin bags people use to protect their violins, but not sure whether they are truly beneficial. Any idea? I can sew and would love to make them for myself and my violin/viola friends.  



From Tara S.
Posted on September 2, 2011 at 8:03 PM

You are so right about even numbered positions! I never understood the point of them until I started playing orchestral music again. I'm now constantly using second position, and this latest batch of repertoire is getting me seriously accustomed to fourth!  (Second is indispensable with Bach too!)

From Ray Randall
Posted on September 2, 2011 at 11:07 PM

Agree, fourth position is extremely valuable in orchestral playing.

From John Cadd
Posted on September 3, 2011 at 12:22 AM

I found 2nd position awkward at first but never had the slightest problem with 4th etc. After about one week I stopped worrying about 2nd and it just became natural.  In a way it felt like mirror writing for a few days.  

I was surprised to see your connection with Albert Sammons through your teacher.  The little Welsh lady who lived next door to me , used to be a fine amateur soprano.  Her friend was a conductor of a local orchestra and his teacher was ---Albert Sammons.The lady passed away a few years ago but she kept an autograph book of the famous singers she had performed with. They used to write jokey notes like £9.99p--Almost a tenor.   Her younger sister sang at the funeral and , my word , her  voice was really beautiful .  So you are about 3 removed from Ysaye in the violin family tree .. That`s something to boast about.

From Christian Vachon
Posted on September 3, 2011 at 2:35 PM

Hi Buri,

Excellent post!  I agree with all three things.

If I may add...  One of the most valuable tools for positions learning is the two books by Whistler.  I find that this covers things well early enough in a student's learning to make them at ease with a lot of stuff.  It is efficient also, condensed and quite time saving.  Opus 8 by Sevcik is also a great tool!

As for instrument care, most people don't take care of their stuff well enough.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine.  Never understood why someone whose art revolves around sound would not take care of the one thing that enables them to produce it.



From elise stanley
Posted on September 3, 2011 at 4:44 PM


Terrific Buri.  On the fingering I'd make a couple of suggestions (but I'm open to be enlgihtened more :) ).  The first is that it is not sufficient to 'learn each position' you must also learn to be transparent between them - indeed rigourous learning of a new position (with exlclusion of the others) can actually undermine your fluidity accross the fingerboard.  I think a new position should be learned in conjunction with pieces/etudes that also emphasize the latter.] 

For me at least, I've found it even more useful to play pieces that demand a lot of position changes.  Of course it is possible to refinger to make it comfortable (teachers can sometimes be too prone to 'make it easy'  but if its comfortable you are not stretching yourself).  What helps is to not buy cheap editions but get music fingered by outstanding violinists - such as Kreisler, Galamian or Francesscatti where the fingering is to perfect the sound not make it easy.  Also, play music by composers for whom the violin was not their native instrument.  Mozart, Bach, even Beethoven etc all played the violin and my impression is that their music is written with the violin in mind making shifting a bit less taxing (OK a gross exaggeration but I think I still have a point).  Recently I've been playing one of the Brahms sonatas (I'm pretty sure he was not a violinist) fingered by Galamian that is the best position tutor I've come accross yet.


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 3, 2011 at 9:32 PM


Majory,  good point about half position.  the technique is the same but whether or not I think in terms of position or extension is based on the number of notes.  There wouldn`t be any point in calling one backward extension half position.

Elsie,  you are quite right,  there are two aspects to `knowing the positions,` of which the second is `getting there.`   In general,  it is more eficient to teach the position independently and then teahc getting there as the second stage.  More often than not the latter is taught first within the general contetx of `learning how to shift` whic leaves the former seriously neglected.

Playing pieces with a lot of shifting is indeed helpful.  I would take this to its extreme and play a simple piece with just one finger.



From Jim Hastings
Posted on September 4, 2011 at 6:46 PM

I second the recommendation of the two Whistler books.  My first teacher started me on Book 1 -- for positions III and V -- in the first year; and Book 2 -- for II, IV, VI, VII, and higher -- the next year.  Position-playing is something I took to quite easily.  As mentioned before, III is home position to me; I used it nearly from the start.

Interesting that this blog should come up at this time.  Over the last 6 months or so, I've been reviewing studies in II-IV-VI regularly -- things I played long ago.  Review is always more than worthwhile.

Playing at the heel?  I've spent an early part of each day's warm-up reviewing this for about the last year -- it feels good.

"Handle your instrument like your loved one. … Materials: half a brain, commonsense, respect and a teacher who insists on this from the beginning."

Thank goodness for teachers -- and parents -- who insist on this.  Mine did.

From Peter Charles
Posted on September 5, 2011 at 2:18 PM

Buri -

I don't disagree with any of that. However, I tend not to think too much about positions, and treat the fingerboard as one big position. I got around to this way of thinking at least in a conscious way (me, conscious!!) after reading some comments by Roger Rich, aka Rugerrio Ricci.

And I never spill beer or anything like that on my fiddle!! Well, beer is very expensive now in the UK!!

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on September 6, 2011 at 3:41 AM


Charles,  I concur.  Positions are something to leanr and then more or less forget about.  But they do have a function a sa sort of hook to hang the details on. For instance if I can see that  apassage runs for a long time in one psotion that is owrth making amentla note of.  then within that I may work on finge rpattern swhich are just a simportant.  But I did reach a point in my playing where I just knew where every note on the fingerboard was.   Whthe rI hit it or not is another matter. 

But if, like the othe rday I have a studnet and I say `this passage is in in seocnd position ,  and they cannot even make a half stab at it I don`t have abetter way of describing their incompetence than `wow! You don`t have a clue about second position.!` ;)



From Peter Charles
Posted on September 6, 2011 at 12:19 PM

Hi Buri

Yes, I do agree that it is important to know what the positions are, and their name. I must say though that once I get to and beyond 6th pos I have to think about which one I'm in! But up there it's the notes I'm like you, trying to hit. I probably use unconventional fingering up there too, like sliding a finger up and down for a semitone, as its such a small distance when in the frostbite area.

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