Violin Technique: Whatever We Practice, We Learn. (For Better or Worse)

October 18, 2023, 3:12 PM · Perhaps the most important thing to teach our students is how to practice. Adult students in particular, are very passionate about the instrument and can be motivated to practice many hours right from the start. Unfortunately this is usually counter-productive because of the fundamental law of learning the violin: Whatever we practice, we learn.

Since the player is not practicing the technique 100 percent correctly, they are not learning the violin correctly. The logic of this is inescapable. Although it may be true that we can gradually move from something less correct to the correct state and "Voilà!" (French, not instrument!), the tragedy of the violin is that most of our practice time is spent not implementing this process. This is because the hardest thing about the violin is not the instrument but "how to practice." Something like the following:

"Imagine the sound you want to make. Listen to everything that comes out of the violin. If it does not match your concept, does not sound as good as you would like or sounds bad, then stop! Identify exactly where the problem is. Then figure out a way to improve it. Break the problem down into smaller steps and then rebuild."

Simply repeating the passage will take one right back to the "fundamental law of learning the violin." Every incorrect repetition you do will require three correct repetitions to undo the damage. Put it another way, you are increasing the necessary amount of practice time you need by 300 percent!

These days, some of my favourite practice materials can be found in the relatively recent book The Violin in 5ths: Developing Intonation and Sound by Rodney Friend. I have now given the basic first exercise to many of my students and the results are amazing. Most of these students are adults studying online with not much time to practice, often playing in amateur orchestras on the weekend. Very often they have not had much experience of double-stopping and have large gaps in their technical armory, in spite of their obvious talent and dedication to the instrument.

What follows is a rough outline of how I introduce this amazing exercise to such students. The goal is not only to have the students master a significant exercise, but in the process, subconsciously begin to understand how any problem can be broken down into manageable steps - which is the only way to follow the "fundamental law of learning the violin" I mention at the beginning.

Buri's fifths exercise

When asked to play (0) the majority of students will not do the double stop with 4th finger but rather automatically use the open strings (1). I gently point this out and then thank the student for finding a very fine practice opportunity. Although it wan’t Mr. Friend’s intention, this open string exercise is invaluable for bowing practice and warming up in general. I remind the students that they have to do the following:

  1. play two strings together evenly
  2. cross over inaudibly and play two strings together twice in a row. (Work on elbow or hand leading may be required)
  3. The bow speed needs to be doubled on the up bow without losing the sound
  4. The bow moves nearer to the bridge on the higher strings.

Having discussed and practiced this with the student as necessary the real version (0) is now worked on. This is fairly straightforward so let’s move on to the first variation (2). It’s not actually that hard, but to a relative newcomer to double stopping, who may have minor issues with shifting and 2nd position, it can be utterly confusing. We begin the step by step unraveling with (3). I make several points about this.

  1. I would like the students to use somewhat extreme intonation, that is, play as flat as is realistic.
  2. When moving across to higher strings the intonation will naturally become sharper as the angle of the fingertip changes. Care must be taken to ensure the second 5th is also flat enough.
  3. (4) , which uses a 2nd finger 5th, is not part of the original. I ask students to use it to learn the sound of where they are heading to when shifting into second position.
  4. Having learnt where they are aiming for the student uses the 1st finger (5) to slide back and forth from 1st to 2nd. They must learn how to release the pressure to make things really smooth and comfortable.
  5. (6) Now that they know where the 2nd position fifth is they can slowly trill 11/44/11/44. As a finger strengthening and intonation practice exercise.
  6. In (7) the student practices with the guide note as part of the study.
  7. In (8) the guide note becomes a ghost note and is made to disappear. This in itself will probably be a new technique in the sense of requiring a release of bow pressure and LH pressure. This is why I am such a strong advocate of Simon Fischer’s Warming Up, which includes fundamental exercises in releasing finger pressure and "ghosting."
  8. The student is now ready to play the exercises as written and can apply the practice method to the subsequent bars.

It is very important to discuss with the student why we do this kind of practice, as per the "fundamental law of learning the violin." This kind of work may be teacher-led at the beginning, but it may perhaps serve as a reminder to us to avoid just giving easy answers in our lessons. Instead, when a student is struggling, we can ask them where exactly the problem is and how they could break it down into manageable steps. In this way we really can foster learner independence which is one of the main goals of any violin lesson, anywhere, anytime.

Warmest regards,



October 19, 2023 at 03:49 AM · Greetings,

Also one in passing that these kinds of exercises should usually be done with vibrato as should pretty much all of our practice. Keeps the hand relaxed and I suppose it’s how we play most of the time.

Or not…



October 19, 2023 at 10:44 AM · Thank you!

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