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Corey Washbourne

Starting out right (or when you finally have the right tools)

June 23, 2008 at 8:49 AM

These past few days learning the viola have really emphasised to me the importance of either having the right tools to learning a string instrument, or a teacher to teach you these tools. The difference between my experiences of starting violin and viola are worlds apart.

When I decided to learn the violin last year, I went along to a local music school in the next suburb and signed up for a month's lessons with a girl one year older than I was. After trying out the violin, holding it and bowing the open strings, it was decided I could bow and and I was to start work on the piece I had shown her: a simple arrangement in C Major of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

To find E on the D string, she stuck a star sticker under the string for me to place my finger. Of course, the problem was the violin went out of tune. Not realising and not having anyone to supervise me to hear this meant that I carried on for a week playing the wrong note. While I can imagine the visual reference is useful to younger kids who can have an adult to tune their violins, I was an 18 year old banished to his room because his parents didn't want to hear him bowing a hacksaw across steel cables!

It wasn't until I took lessons with Mike that I learnt about tuning to A440, finding perfect fifths and tuning the E on D to the G or A string depending on the key I was playing in. My bow hold had to be fixed and tension released from my hands.

In contrast, I have come to viola with these tuning tools. I can check if the third finger is in tune by seeing if an octave is produced when I play the third finger against the string below. I don't need a sticker to find A or E, because I know the resonance of the note, or the consonance of the double stop, telling me the note is in tune. I remind myself of the need to relax, so when I stretch with the fourth finger during scales and my fingers dig in to the fingerboard, I experiment to find a more balanced and relaxed hand shape.

The result, with careful practise, should be that I play viola relaxed and in tune.

Perhaps I am being to harsh on my newbie self from a year ago? It's easy to stand here a year later and criticise when I couldn't even read treble clef back then. The hard work gained and skills learnt on violin have largely been transferrable to viola too.

But I can't help wondering. I wonder if a lot of the problems I experienced with violin in the early weeks could have been avoided if I was told to watch out for tension at all times and just taught how to properly tune my notes from the very beginning so I learned good intonation.

It's just a shame that it has taken until learning the viola to strongly incorporate a correct E on D into my head.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 24, 2008 at 4:18 AM
Your early experience with the violin sounds like a nightmare. Don't blame yourself for it. You were a novice, and you should have had a good teacher from the start.

I'm glad that you're playing the violin and viola correctly now. You must be making a pretty sound, and that will motivate and please you.

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