Experiences of Pro Musician Taking Up Violin

February 2, 2009 at 08:04 PM ·

I've been lurking this site for a long time and have picked up invaluable tips, for which thanks. I'm a bit unusual because for 30 years I have been a professional musician, pianist and arranger/composer but wasn't a violinist, most of my work having been arranging for all sorts of orchestras and ensembles including two prominent London orchestras, but only recently I discovered that the violin, which I love, should have been the instrument I took up in the first place. I understand about writing/arranging for the violin, but that is a long way from playing it!

I first encountered the violin as a player with some rundimentary lessons at the age of 40, but I gave up after grade 3, mainly because I could not find a teacher who could cope with an already knowledgable adult musician taking up the fiddle from scratch and I also became despondant at what I saw was poor progress. One teacher was reasonably empathetic but talked to me like I was an idiot, assuming I was a complete beginner in music as well! The other was helpful but I found that she didn't really demand much and I think assumed I was always going to be pretty hopeless, presumably thinking my joints and hands were too "old".

At the advance age of 57 I have taken the violin up again and I thought I would share some of my experiences so far. The first thing I must emphasise is that I have made pretty good progress simply by doing an awful lot of research on the internet, YouTube and sites like this, and then applying it as though it was a lesson. I also bought all the DVD's I could: Art of Violin, Perlman, Vengerov, Hahn, Menuhin, Milstein etc, and sat for hours and hours just watching their techniques, occasionally slowing down the video so I could see exactly what they were doing.There is no doubt I have made more progress this time through determination and acute observation with the now wonderful internet resources, than I ever did through previous lessons.  But, I have been utterly humbled by the violin, since previously I had assumed I could pretty much pick up any instrument and make reasonable progress, and having achieved a high standard on Piano and Flute. But the violin is altogether different! I don't think I have ever encountered such a challenging and difficult instrument.

I also spent some time in my 40's teaching piano and composition with a local music service and I have to say that I felt the standard of teaching strings generally was pretty dire. I'm sure there were noble exceptions but it seemed to me that so little of the passion and ambition to play well was communicated to the students. Vibrato, for example, was left out completely as a concept, with the students often left to their own devices when trying to develop this very difficult technique. It seems to me that teaching in the USA is way ahead of string teaching in the UK, at least at a local level, but maybe things have improved.

While I have my favourite players, the two that stand out as being most compelling to watch are Perlamn and Hahn: Perlman because, like so many beginners, I developed a hand vibrato at first and he seems to be one of the few contemporary players exclusively using it. Hilary Hahn's DVDs and YouTube videos have been enormously helpful because in my view she has the closest to a flawless contemporary technique and is an outstanding example of what to watch: Everything is so right.....wonderful control of the bow, exquisite arm vibrato (even in very high positions which others seem to tackle with a hand/finger vibrato), fantastic control of the left hand and an unbelievably controlled 4th finger...but most of all the sweetest sound I think I've ever heard, even if sometimes she lacks the demonic quality of other players.

A couple of things somewhat baffle me as being issues which other relative newcomers must surely experience but I see rarely discussed here or other places: Firstly, control of semitones between 3rd and 4th finger in positions 3 to 6. Going up the scale (A string in 3rd Pos) an F sharp 3rd finger to G natural 4th finger is ok because I can keep the two fingers close together. On the way down it is MUCH more difficult since the 4th finger is so much harder to keep close to the anticipated 3rd finger. I would say these 4-3 semitone down runs are easily the most difficult thing to keep in tune and I would welcome any tips.

Secondly, by far the hardest thing for an adult (or maybe all) beginner/s is convincing playing of the G string. When you are a beginner it doesn't matter how relaxed you are and how much you twist and shift the elbow, playing the G string is excruciatingly uncomfortable. At times I have utterly despaired that I would ever get comfortable here, let alone get a half decent vibrato. Gradually though, it has got easier day by day but has required enormous concentration and effort, with hours and hours of practice. I don't think I am ever going to get that "gap" of air between the side of the hand and the right side of the fingerboard here, but I notice that many of the great players also do not have a discernable gap, although obviously there is no undue tension or pressure. (Watch Kung Wa Chung playing Air on a G string using JUST the G string throughout....marvellous).

I have also learned that watching some of the acclaimed virtuosi is not always useful,. For instance Vengerov seems to shift his thumb into bizarre positions and his particular arm vibrato approach is not something my hands would benefit from. Other players like Joshua Bell, who has a nice sound but to my mind a really awkward looking stance, is probably not a great example to follow. Generally speaking though, nearly all of the great players impart at least one, if not several, exemplary visual signs which I have found extremely helpful.

I must also mention ViolinMasterClass.com since this site has a wealth of fantastic videos and info which I have found invaluable. The only issue I find strange here is where Sassmannhaus recommends only arm vibrato in very high positions, explaining that in these positions there is no room to "extend" the hand using wrist vibrato. This makes no sense to me since hand vibrato is a BACKWARDS movement, not an extension, and therefore moves away from the violin body, not towards it, so surely there IS room for manoeuvre?

One of the biggest challenges I have encountered is vibrato of ANY kind above  A on the E string (I mean above high A with 3rd/4th finger 1 octave above 1st position A on E string). Up here and beyond to the 4th octave my left hand thumb (I have a relatively small left hand) has to shift around the side a little (I notice Ida Haendel does this too) with the thumb moving to the right supporting  the body rather than neck  (with elbow pointing right, drawn inwards and twisted somewhat). With the more "sideways" angle of the fingers to the board, there is not so much room to curve the two joints of the fingers using vibrato, and it baffles me how other players manage to get incredible flexibility up here. Any tips on this would also be appreciated. Note: For my age my hands are in good condition and I have few problems with joint flexibility, although the 4th finger is not as it was when I was thirty years younger.

Apologies for long post but I though I would mention everything on my mind in one go!

Replies (32)

February 2, 2009 at 08:51 PM ·

Welcome to v.com.  I teach adult beginners.  I enjoyed reading your perspective, and I look forward to reading more.  I plan to write more blogs on the subject of teaching adult beginners, and I'd welcome your suggestions on topics.

It sounds like you've had some bad luck with teachers.  They seem to teach from a rigid plan in their heads, rather than learning about each student and tailoring their teaching to the individual's background, needs, and goals.

I can make a suggestion about your difficulty in putting down your fourth finger without the third finger there to guide it.  When you are about to play with the fourth finger, put down fingers 1, 2, and 3.  That way you have your mile posts to guide you.  I teach this from the very beginning with Twinkle.

Check out my website mysite.verizon.net/paulinefiddle/vft.html and follow the link to the page on adult beginners.

I look forward to hearing more from you.

February 2, 2009 at 11:07 PM ·

Thanks for your response Pauline. You might like to check that link to your page because it draws a blank. Maybe there is a missing letter?

February 2, 2009 at 11:28 PM ·


Leonard I think it helps to fit the finger spacing issue into a broader technical context.  In the later part of the 20c (in my opinion) became much more alert to the importnace of systematically teaching finger patterns rather than just moving from supposedly simple scales to more difficult ones.  The first book that made this iseeu central to left hand technique was a book by Robert Gerle called `The Art of Practicing.` I strongly reocmmend you buy  copy.   The childrens system that uses this approach I am familair with is `Adventures in Violin Land.`  The most recent bok on technique ,  which i perosnally consider one of the most vluable around,  is Drew Lechers Manual.  He also sysetamtically spells ou the hand groupings which one then applie across the whole range of violin technique thoughout the book. 

The value of this approahc is he brain does not beocme cluttere dor the hand sconfused.  One is wrking only wth one pattern and it has the ime and space to become establishe dbefore choosing to work on the next after a week or a month or whatever.  At an advanced level this analysis of finger patterns becomes automatic and the most seemngly dificult works cn become amazingly simple a sone sees them in terms of large chunks tyhat the brain is trianed to proces without raising a sweat. Consider for example the first page of the Bach Prelude in e major. Except for a couple of bars the actuly spacing betwene the fingers doe snot change unti one gets to he bariolage section.  Knowing this kind of thing gives one great technical seurity and is an importnat memory aid.

So geting back to your issue. Although you have and clearly will continue to do remarkably well as you are doing you are missing one aspect of learning by avoiding a teacher.  That is, a copetent teacher would be able to help you decide in wha order to build up yur technique so that the finger patter in question might have been introduce latetr after the concrete establishment of 1space23spce4   which is a lot more comfortable;)    

The dwn side of workong the way you are can be hat without a systematic construction of a technical edifice things can be a little harder and take longer.  n the other hand it soudns like you are havign more fun .  More power to you!



February 3, 2009 at 06:42 PM ·

Hi Stephen,

Thanks for your intelligent response regarding finger patterns. Yes I have noticed how patterns are important and I recognise that they occur often enough to need muscle memory of them. My point was where you have 123 in tones and 4 as a semitone. That is a pattern which regularly occurs and I find the descending part of it difficult because my 3rd finger is reluctant to squeeze up close to the 4th. However just in the last couple of days it has improved remarkably and a certain kind of relaxation of the had has helped this.

As to finding a teacher, as a former teacher myself I recognise that one cannot go on forever without one, provided I find the right one for me. In the meantime, I set a structured regime of practice and try to stick to it. Determination and self-discipline goes a long way. The biggest fear I have is of establishing a bad habit which later is difficult to get rid of, but I look at videos of many pro players and observe live ones and see that they all have at least a couple of "bad" technique habits too, and I am very aware of checking everything in a mirror: stance, arm position, hands, bow arm etc etc.

So far I am please with progress and have given myself until the summer to assess whether it is worth continuing at the same current intensity or whether to lighten up and accept defeat. One thing I didn't mention is that the single excercise which has most improved me is connected with basic control of LONG....LONG notes. Playing the longest note I can with full bow (both directions) on ONE note with stable vibrato, then moving to the next note on any scale, has solved an awful lot of other problems which can be traced to lack of fundamental control.

February 3, 2009 at 10:28 PM ·


>I look at videos of many pro players and observe live ones and see that they all have at least a couple of "bad" technique habits too,

 You have mastered understatement;)

Practicing of long bows,  (son file) is extraordinarily helpful. I have written a few blogs on this topic you might find interesitng .   Auer reocmmed the exercise you describe with the addition of a crescendo on the down bow and the revers eon the up so one leanrs from the beginnign to equalize tone.  One of the danger sof htis pracitc eis thta one develops one sided control and muscular inertai.  Flesch actually pointed this out in his book `The Art of Violin Playing.`  To compensate,  even at this stage, you would be well advised to immediately follow with rapid whole bows.   This is also wonderufl for developing control of the bow.


February 3, 2009 at 11:33 PM ·

Leonard, I find this a fascinating thread. I have started some adult students on violin and cello. One was a life-long piano teacher with a studio of 60 to 70 students every week. That music background was really no help in his learning to play cello - in fact, even though he (obviously) knew how to "count" there are so many other things to get in the way of cello (or violin) playing that that didn't help much either.

The advantage beginning adult violinists have over the vast majority of beginning children is they actually have functioning brains that can help guide their thoughts about playing. 

The disadvantage they have is that they have functioning brains that have successfully reasoned out many things on the path to and through adulthood and they rely on the reasoning power of their brains to undertake this new activity. And I suppose it is of some help - about as much as it would be to learning adult gymnastics.

The reason having a good teacher is so important is that the teacher can actually see what the student is doing with his muscles, see where the strains are and try to help the student find alternative postures. The teacher can prioritize learning activities, something you are trying to do yourself - with success that you are questioning.

I think it is good that you are carefully studying all these great violinists. I make DVDs of many great players and supply them to my students as inspiration, etc. and to watch other people do it.

It is hard for a new player to know how much discomfort it is acceptable to feel when doing certain things. Some of this discomfort/pain can be serious, some may just bhe training.  I recall thinking I was developing arthritis in my late 30s-early 40s when I undertook some improvement on the violin and the first 30 minutes of my daily routine of scales, etudes, and Paganini caprices actually did hurt. But since the pain routinely abated after those 30 minutes (provided I continued past the 30-minute mark), I continued on that program for 5 years. My playing actually did improve on both the daily routine and the various music I worked on in the hour our two that followed the daily routine. That was about 35 years ago. I still play both instruments every day - including practice (maintaining a solo repertoire), giving lessons, chamber music and one community orchestra and a few solo and ensemble concerts every year.

I look upon the various "postures" of other players on film, video and in concerts as guidance for considering alternatives, not as "how to do it's."  HOW TO DO IT is between one's own brain, other body parts, instrument, and bow.

The only experience I had as an "adult beginner" was as a 14-year old cello student. But because I had 10 previous years of violin study (8 of them with teachers), it took almost no time for me to incorporate the differences involved in cello playing into a routine of making music with and for other people. I do know from my conscious memories of teen-cello studies and near-infant violin studies that it is the practice, practice, practice - the repetitions it took to develop the "muscle memory" that I still use on both instruments every day. And from this I realize that I do not look at things the way you (someone trying to learn by "reason") when it comes to finger placement.

One of the things I recall learning from a life-long professional violinist (and teacher and violin coach) is that it is very helpful to go up the positions being mindful of the placement of the 1st finger - and if you do it right the other fingers should follow from the discipline developed by hard work (scales, arpeggios, etudes, etc.) in the lower positions.

Another thing I have learned (on my own) - after considering all the ways one holds the instrument and the bow: the two important points (i.e. physical locations) are where and how the bow touches the string and where and how the finger touches the string. All things your body parts do when  you play are focused on those two points. Every player is doing this, and because we only see (at best) the physical "posture" of their doing it, we do not know the internal neuro-physical link to those critical points - so the "studying from videos for beginners" breaks down right there.

And the final thing I've learned: it is much easier to do what you are trying to do at your age on the CELLO than on the violin.  Not that the cello is easier, it takes a lot more brain work, not only because there are (effectively) 4 clefs that cello music is often written in. Also, there is a lot of ensemble music that is much easier to play than typical 1st violin parts, even if virtuoso cello music is probably more difficult to play (partly because it typically goes about a fifth higher "up" the strings).

1. Playing posture on the cello is completely natural, unlike the violin.

2. Older people can usually continue quite servicably on cello about 20 years longer than they could on violin - because there are no awkward arm bends.

3. If it hurts when you are playing the cello you ARE definitely doing something wrong so you know you shouldn't do it that way.

4. The mental approaches you are trying to use on violin work better on cello because the spacings between the fingers are larger- and you can actually watch your fingers in the higher positions.

5. Vibrato on cello is as natural and easy as you would like it to be (but it never will be) on violin.



February 4, 2009 at 12:44 AM ·

... not to forget that a cello is so much easier to carry around than the bulky violin, that alone should convince Leonard to stop his efforts on the violin right now and learn cello instead, should it not?! 

February 5, 2009 at 12:54 AM ·

Hi Andy,

>>The advantage beginning adult violinists have over the vast majority of beginning children is they actually have functioning brains that can help guide their thoughts about playing. 

The disadvantage they have is that they have functioning brains that have successfully reasoned out many things on the path to and through adulthood and they rely on the reasoning power of their brains to undertake this new activity. <<

I agree there are disadvantages and that "prejudice" as to approach, and perhaps also a certain stubborness can hold an adult back. As I said in my opener, the violin has quite humbled me because in a long professional career I had a facility to "pick" up quite a range of instruments with little effort and make a musical sound quite quickly (being also a flautist I also played clarinet, oboe and saxophone to a reasonably standard). But the violin is so different and uses such different muscles it completely floored me. 

I guard against excessive tension by every now and then deliberately and completely relaxing (even going quite "floppy") and playing a few scales with no thumb support at all. This has ensured that finger pressure does not become too great when returning the thumb to its place. 

On most days of intense practice I see at least one triumph of progress, and I get very despondent when occasionally I feel I moved backwards instead of forwards. I do find that motivation and a "desire" to make a musical sound is a huge advantage, and Perlman and others have stated that any student needs to have a "picture" of the sound he or she aspires to in their head. This to my mind is absolutely true. Without a vision or rather a desired sound in one's head there is no focus about what to achieve. For almost this reason alone I find the DVD's and better YouTube clips incredibly inspirational. There have been times when I've seen a wonderful passage being played and I immediately pick up the violin and try (usually in vain) to immitate it. It is this distillation of all the lovely playing I see and hear which serves as a really strong motivator.

Particularly with vibrato I see such a large range of techniques, some of then clearly strategies to overcome limitations where the "perfect" flex of fingers and arm vib cannot be achieved. All of them have an interesting sound and generally speaking they all seem to work. I doubt I am ever going to achieve Hilary Hahn's fabulous control in this aspect but as long as the sound I am making is musical that is something to be grateful for!

February 5, 2009 at 01:32 AM ·


it`s interesting. Everytime I read your stuff I keep thinking that youb might really appreciate and enjoy the teachign approach of Clayton Haslop.    It`s not everyone`s cup of tead but I have found it to be very efficacious in stripping things down and working well from the beginning.   I don`t know his Allegro group material but I have seen enough of his stuff to think he is an exceptional teahcer of beginner adults,  especially ones with the background to explore the apparent simplicity of what he preaches,  which actually isn`t thta simple!

His present blog is very interesing and might give you some food for thought. Incidentally, its not actually an original idea. I mwa sa war of a few teacher sin Europe (esp Vienna) who teach shifting by the much more enjoyable method than usual of having a stuent play a simple piec eon one finger.   I borrowed this approach and use it with adults much of the time.



February 5, 2009 at 02:27 AM ·

>So far I am please with progress and have given myself until the summer to assess whether it is worth continuing at the same current intensity or whether to lighten up and accept defeat.<

Hi Leonard,

I think you are being a bit hard on yourself, especially since it is the violin we are talking about.  And with due respect, I think you may be missing the point.  You are obviously very analytical in your approach and have an incredible sense of your own ability as well as your limitations -- surely a result of your broad musical background.  You have also made incredible progress in a short time.  Even being able to vibrato, much less do it in 7th position, is not something that most beginners are even thinking about.

But, I feel that you may be too hung up on the end result, rather than the journey itself.  Learning the violin is an infinite process and therein lies the beauty.  My violin teacher, who is himself a prodigy, thinks that all violinists in recent history with the exception of Fritz Kreisler were slaves to the instrument.  In his words, only Kreisler "owned" the instrument and was truly able to command it at will.  I dont want to start a big debate over the validity of that statement, but it does speak to the difficulty of the instrument.

Sure it would be great to be able to play like HIllary Hahn, and sure the goal is to make beautiful music, but the real enjoyment of playing any instrument are all the little improvements along the way.  And with violin, there are a lot more areas to improve than with other instruments.  So your decision to "accept defeat" or not should not be based on your progress, but whether or not you are enjoying the process itself. 

After reading your posts, I have learned a lot from your personal introspection, so I would love to see you continue your violin journey and be an active member of this forum.  I look forward to your future postings.


February 5, 2009 at 02:52 AM ·

leonard, great thread.  there are lots of adult beginners lurking on this site, so this thread may provide lots of interesting info for everyone.

i think many can identify with you how it is like having not found a teacher that you can relate to or trust.    in a way, it probably forces you to be more self reliant, more so since you are already an accomplished musician.  as some have suggested,  given your unique background, it would be nice a good teacher can mentor you and provide better direction and develop a suitable system/sequence.  good luck with that, because many adult beginners seem to have less luck in that department.

couple things come to mind...

you mentioned vibrato, that wrist vibrato is more like or should be a "backward" motion.  i am not a violinist, but have played around on the violin just enough to have developed some dangerous opinions and have also encountered this vibrato issue.  my suggestion is to be more open minded in terms of how you personally feel despite others'  wisdom.  for instance, some have also suggested that the vibrato motion is like shaking a soda bottle.   i wonder if you can grab something and pretend you are shaking a soda bottle (in that violin pose).  for me, to shake it in that posture, i do not necessarily feel i have to shake it "backward"  in order to shake it pretty darn well.   it is rather balanced, relaxed, going back and forth.  when i wrist vibrato (cough, cough:), that feel and motion on the violin  is very similar to the soda shake.  not trying hard on anything.  just let it happen, at least that is what i think beginners should do.  notice that IF your knuckles are tight, esp the one next to the nail (DIP joint),  the said motion/feel does not come out.    imo, one tight joint can tense up the entire chain.  play around with it....often our body reacts negatively to too much intellect:)

the second point i would like to make is about getting feedback under the circumstance, before you find a qualified teacher.  if you have a videocam,  study and review your own playing.  what you think you are doing often is not so if viewed objectively.  my family have grown to use videos on a daily basis because the kids play golf,,,there are just so much to learn from ourselves if we know where to look and how to look,,,it is all there!  yes, if you are tense, you can see that too:)

of course, if you are adventurous, you can let others view them and chime in.  i have often asked others to view my kid's playing (violin and golf) and despite the fact that we have teachers,   the feedback experiences from opinions from "strangers" are just invaluable.   you can always learn something from someone, even if  the opinions are questionable, because we have to learn why they are questionable.   there was a saying,,,it takes a village to raise a kid.  we say, it takes a lot people to help out beginners:)

lastly, given you are a musician and your realization that violin is quite "different", deep inside, you may have that i -came- i -saw- i- conquered urge to quickly get things under control.   consumed to excel.  to that, i say, working smart is better than working hard.   get the right mentor and take the short cut that way.  every time my family gets a new appliance, i usually do not bother with the instruction booklets.   it is not always ok:)

best regards!


February 5, 2009 at 01:39 PM ·

Hi Smiley,

>>>I think you are being a bit hard on yourself, especially since it is the violin we are talking about.  And with due respect, I think you may be missing the point.  You are obviously very analytical in your approach and have an incredible sense of your own ability as well as your limitations -- surely a result of your broad musical background.  You have also made incredible progress in a short time.  Even being able to vibrato, much less do it in 7th position, is not something that most beginners are even thinking about.<<<

Yes, points taken, but I do really enjoy the journey too - it's just that I see no point in putting in the effort unless there is distinct progress...and there is! So I have a lot to be happy about. At some moments I feel so keen that I just want to almost give up doing anything else and play the violin......I tend to be very tunnel visioned about things like this, which has downfalls but on the other hand if I wasn't so motivated the progress wouldn't come. At 57 one doesn't have the luxury of a long life left to let achievements come over a long period!

When I was younger I used to conduct a youth orchestra at an arts centre with mostly under-graduate college level students. What struck me was the chasm between even the best of them and the standard of playing in some of the professional orchestras I used to conduct. Of course now I know why....the violin IS surely the most difficult of all instruments (although possibly the Horn is a contender among the brass) and no doubt the viola , cello and double bass are extremely challenging too.

It is not my ambition to play anywhere near virtuosic pieces, but to be able to achieve reliable intonation, a good tone and a musical sound that is pleasing to the ear. I don't think I have a problem with fundamental musicality, it is ALL about control!

February 5, 2009 at 01:44 PM ·

Hi "Buri",

>>>Everytime I read your stuff I keep thinking that youb might really appreciate and enjoy the teachign approach of Clayton Haslop.    It`s not everyone`s cup of tead but I have found it to be very efficacious in stripping things down and working well from the beginning.<<<

I've seen a few of Clayton's sample videos and they do seem quite illuminating. I might consider subscribing to his course. I was sligtly put off by his claims in the advertising blurb that he can "help you master the violin in a few weeks" !! I find that a very bizarre claim given that the average vioinist takes several years to achieve a decent sound, in tune and in time!

But I will have another look and see if it is up my street. Thanks.


February 5, 2009 at 01:51 PM ·

Hi Al Ku,

>>>it is rather balanced, relaxed, going back and forth.  when i wrist vibrato (cough, cough:), that feel and motion on the violin  is very similar to the soda shake.  not trying hard on anything.  just let it happen, at least that is what i think beginners should do.  notice that IF your knuckles are tight, esp the one next to the nail (DIP joint),  the said motion/feel does not come out.    imo, one tight joint can tense up the entire chain.<<<

I know exactly what you mean here. Sometimes, for no explicable reason I pick up the fiddle and the finger joints are locked. The only solution has been to put the instrument down, have a rest, then pick it up again with a fresh attitude. Other times there is a wonderful relaxation and freedom there, and the joints are flexible. It is not a physical thing....it's coming from inside my head and I know it!

But as with other reported progress, overall it gets better day by day, and those little triumphs are wonderful to experience. My current goal is to really loosening up the two joints in the 4th finger which are more stubborn than on the other fingers. I was watching Idal Haendel again today on YouTube, and her 4th finger joints are amazingly flexible and no doubt contribute to her very nice vibrato. It would be great to get even half that flexibility.



February 5, 2009 at 02:39 PM ·

if i were a teacher, i would have found someone like you much much more stimulating to teach than most kids since you can bring to the table deeper and wider perspectives. 

through helping my kids with sports and music, i have come to appreciate this: simply put, there may be 2 major types of students, one that can do exactly what you suggest if you are very explicit and the other tends to do better if you can circumvent the direct route.   in sports, there is the "feel" school vs the "mechanical" school.  with music, i am not sure if the distinctiion is talked about much.

for instance, with wrist vibrato, if you say, just move your wrist and let the hand shake on its own.  type 1 will do fine with it because they just "get" it.  type 2 may not---a simple suggestion of just moving the wrist immediately kicks in some sort of defense reflex leading to the tightening of the wrist,  just the opposite of the intention.  imagine ask them not to think of a big elephant in the sky:). 

i have noticed that a lot with students in golf .  with some, it is much easier to discuss with them where you want them to go, instead of the components.  with the destination in mind, somehow their body figures it out the routes.  but if they focus early on the components, the mind locks up and the body freezes.   smart folks all of a sudden become "stupid".  often, if this group sets off in the wrong direction under the "helpful" guidance of becoming well versed in components,  it takes a lot of effort and time to undo this guardedness, to rid of the mechanics, to regain fluidity, and the joy and confidence that should come along with learning.

February 5, 2009 at 11:17 PM ·


>I find that a very bizarre claim given that the average vioinist takes several years to achieve a decent sound, in tune and in time!

I know this is out iof ciontext and what you say from experience is largely true but I find it so frustrating when I see this happenign over and over. Its so unnecessary.  With a good teacher none of the above factors need be deficinet -right from the beginning-.

Fotr example,  why pick up the isnturment at all if one has yet to understand and conttrol the rythm.  Clapping,  dancing,  tappuing a pencil has as big a plac ein violin practice as the tool itself at virtually any level.   In the same vein,  if the stduent has no cocnept of pitch or intonation why pick up the insturment?  In the greta traditions of the past exemplified by teacher ssuch a Balliol a studnet wa srequired to have a good grasp of solfege or similar before pickign up the isntruemnt. If such a contionion is true and the beginner is shown very clealry how to take the first very sinmple steps then they can and will play in tune from the beginning.   I have never accpeted the premise thta one start with bad intonation and slowly improves it.   This is not to be confuse dwith consistency of accuracy whihc is a slightly differnet but related issue.

Neither is it true that one need produce a bad sound fromt he start. The novice is guided to imagine what a beautiful sound is and the first palcing of the bow on the string should produce a good sound. The prelimnary mechnaics of bowing need noot be mastered with the violin itslef.

Thank you for the opportunity of letting me get my favorite rant in once agian.



 PS Just had anotehr cup of half decent coffee so here is an example that an experienced msucian like you could be doing that would give you an incredible techncial kick start.  Tune your violin (!)  Play a pizzicato a.  Listen carefully and memorize the pitch while removing both hands form the instrument and waiting for about four seconds. During the wait hear pprecisely the same pitch in your head. Now, without preparation of any kind play(pizz) an a with any finger on the d string.   Decide if it sharp or flat and to what degree. Do not adjuts it.  Repeat the procedure until you can get the note with precision.  Vary the finger you use,  the string and the octave.

Also,  practice playign complex rythms with and without mm with hand in fourth psoiton using left hand pizz -  3rd and 4th finger only.

February 5, 2009 at 11:46 PM ·

Hi Buri,

I kind of agree with your main thrust. It is absurd that it should take months, or years, to make a decent sound on a fiddle. I alluded to string teaching in the UK a few posts back, and I don't want to tread on too many toes here, but I was really staggered by how little was expected from the local teaching I saw, and therefore equally not surprised by what was delivered.

Actually, I think one of Clayton's Blogs mentions the fact that, after all, producing a decent note on a violin is simply placing a finger in the right bit of the fingerboard and drawing the bow! (maybe a little vibrato helps it along). so the challenge is not single notes - it is the voyage of many notes in succession that is the challenge and the left and right hands of the average human being are simply not constructed to do this immediately.

That is why I am restricting myself to simple pieces played well, for the moment, because it is the triumph of basic control and a MUSICAL sound that inspires me to move on, rather than a chaotic and unmusical rendition of a pile of semiquavers beyond my skill. Of course one needs to tackle the latter too now and again, and order will come out of chaos.

If I had the power to revamp beginner student exam pieces I would make at least half of them ridiculously easy to play but require a MUSICAL and SOULFUL performance of them to attain a pass.




February 6, 2009 at 12:36 AM ·


>it is the voyage of many notes in succession that is the challenge and the left and right hands of the average human being are simply not constructed to do this immediately.

Depends on how you look at it.   A succession of notes is simply a seris of isolated notes with the space between them gradually reduced.   One of the most profound aspects not only of the violin but of all music making. And soemthign that adults are very capabler of grasping.

>I alluded to string teaching in the UK a few posts back, and I don't want to tread on too many toes here, but I was really staggered by how little was expected from the local teaching I saw,

It seems alas that nothign has changed since my day.  aside from the odd oasis of hope the majority of talented kids in Britain had no access to a competent teacher. It all boiled down to money for travel.



February 6, 2009 at 04:03 AM ·

It is a pleasure to read these accounts of progress, set backs, suggestions, observations and encouragements.   

Leonard, I am in the same decade as you and am similarly enchanted with the violin.  I don't know when one crosses the line from beginner to intermediate, but I imagine the cusp is a very wide line that we linger in for some time. 

I taught myself simple fiddle tunes for a few years, but stopped 25 years ago.  Three years ago, it dawned on me that music is a language, an expression that we experience more intimately than words.  I starting reading music theory books.  Captivated with what I was learning, the theory led me to retrieve my old fiddle from deep storage.  This time I went straight to a teacher (traditional) and started learning the fundamentals. 

Sure, I was a raw beginner when I first stratched the strings 30 years ago.  And I was still very much a beginner when I took my first lesson in 2006.  After a few years of playing traditional fiddle tunes for 10+ hours a week and playing regularly with friends, I felt like I was approaching something closer to intermediate.  When I went to an Irish music workshop my teacher told me to attend the advance sessions, I wasn't head of the class, but I kept pace.  In less than a year, my teacher sent me on my way.  I tried a few other teachers and workshops. 

Somehow, I keep finding a way to siphon off at least 10 hours a week away from work and family to spend time playing.  Some time last year, I got frustrated with my progress and my teachers.  In September, I started with a classical teacher and wow!  I found myself back across that divide to the beginner.  But his style of teaching, the scales, the exercises and his prescriptions of what to work on are helping me break through barriers. 

My biggest challenge now is psychological -- I can hear where I'm falling short.  My mind understands what I should be doing differently.  But my muscles, dexterity, and coordination trail behind my understanding.  Patience has to be my constant companion.  I remember to appreciate small accomplishments. The pleasure is in the journey.  Thank you for sharing yours.

February 6, 2009 at 05:38 AM ·

I too am an older beginner for one year.  Once I finally got over the idea that learning this instrument takes time and requires much patience, then my frustrations melted away (not that I don't occassionally say a few choice words when no one is around).  I think when you read about players like Menuhin playing at an advanced level when just a 'pup' you might come into this instrument thinking I should be able to learn this somewhat easily.  But it takes time and only few whip through without time and work (I guess come to think of it no one plays this instrument well without lots of work)  I practice only 2 hours per day (which is no mean feat with work and all) and I am amazed to see good violinists at an early age putting in 5 to 6 hours per dayt!  It is like expecting to play golf well and getting upset at scores of 90+ after a whole year of concentrated effort.  All PGA golfers have put in the time and work.   I would recommend, however, that learning this instrument well is nearly impossible without a teacher.   Hunt down a good teacher!    The do-it-yourselfer in this arena is like pushing a rope uphill.  Patience, work and a good teacher are the keys for playing this instrument well.  good luck.

February 6, 2009 at 06:32 AM ·

I have a few adult students who are new to the violin (or viola), and two of them are quite accomplished performers on their "primary" instruments.

What I've found is that since they are already such good *musicians* the technical aspects of teaching the instrument, while complicated, are really not as daunting because I don't have to spend any time explaining things like the length of a half note, or the use of a tie. They advance freakishly quickly compared to my average elementary students (from nothing to a good, solid, Vivaldi A Minor Concerto in well under a year).

I'm a believer in violin playing being a matter of motivation and available time, for anyone who wants to play. I even had a college student who started with me at age eighteen (violin was a graduation present from high school), and after three years was playing (well) Mozart G Major, movements from Bach Partitas 2/3, and even attended a chamber music festival playing second violin in some Mozart Quintets! She had a bit of piano background, but nothing to indicate that she would do so much in so little time...I am so proud of her. When she first came to me, she said "I love the unaccompanied works of Bach. It's my goal to learn violin to be able to play some of them." When she finally did break open the pages to come up with a lovely Allemande, it just made all the time we had spent working so meaningful!

Have a wonderful violin journey. :)

February 6, 2009 at 03:31 PM ·

Many years ago, my son at age 12, already a keyboard, trumpet, and very accomplished guitar player, decided one Easter week that he wanted to learn to play the violin. We had daily violin lessons that week and it made it through all but 2 pieces in Suzuki Book 1. I was very impressed, butt the end of the week he decided to stop playing violin - but continued for decades with his other instruments, singing, and adding some more instruments (sax, mandolin, etc.) and writing songs and composing music and making recordings.

During a visit to us one Christmas 24 years later, my son wanted to try the violin again. This time, he made it all the way through Book 1 in that week and decided he wanted to do this thing. Since he spends a lot of time on the road and away from home, I bought him a sturdy Chinese-made violin for about $400 and snet him on his way with a few Suzuki books and CDs. That was 8 years ago - he still plays - and various kinds of music with other people - mostly on fiddle, guitar, or electric bass. He picks up violin lessons and pointers (coaching, etc.) from other violiniists and fiddlers wherever he can - and sometimes he lays a violin track into his recordings (did I mention he also has a capable recording studio now [Gang of Hair]?

Another one, I had a cello student last year (a young woman who sang and had played clarinet and sax through HS) who made it from nothing to Suzuki Book 6 on cello (with me as her teacher) in 10 months (then moved away). Her boyfriend, with some, but much less woodwind experience, took up violin at the same time and got halfway through Suzuki Book 4 in the same 10 months. I ahd them playing nice duets together by the 6 month mark.

Thinking adults can really do it!!   But I think it is important to have a teacher to guide them along the properly progressive path.

I love to get them as students.


February 6, 2009 at 07:40 PM ·

I am in my late 30's. I am not a professional musician but I have played the piano all my life, flirted briefly with the violin in childhood and have more recently taken the violin up in earnest.

As an adult, I have struggled with some things that would probably have come much more naturally to a child. However, in many ways this has been compensated for by the advantages of my previous musical education and life experience. My piano playing has also improved in subtle ways since I started up the violin again. In my opinion, there are enormous advantages to playing more than one instrument, and learning a new [or, in my case, an old) instrument as an adult can be hugely rewarding.

February 6, 2009 at 09:31 PM ·

What has occured too me is teachers that lay a corner stone, begin the foundation yet try to finish the cap stone all at once. However, adult beginners being taught this way seem to be too impatient for the due progress of building the ability. Corner stone, foundation, skeleton, level after level, etc. So much waste in worry about the next step rather than the focus of what you are doing now! Granted, a little foresight is useful, knowing where you need to go is another. We get there by putting one foot in front of the other..... one stone on top of the other and always find the joy in the Now!


February 7, 2009 at 02:37 PM ·

>you mentioned vibrato, that wrist vibrato is more like or should be a "backward" motion.

Al Ku, interesing discussion on vibrato. I am pushing 50 yrs old and played guitar on and off for 30 years. I just started playing violin three weeks ago and just read what you said about starting a vibrato with a backward motion and realized I was trying to do it starting with a forward motion and was having problems keeping the note from going sharp.

A habit from playing a guitar, for a vibrato I would bend the note up in pitch.  The only time I go flat in pitch is when you bend the string one whole step and hold at that note and relax/flatten the note and bend back up to the correct pitch.  All of my vibrato on guitar starts by pushing forward or up within the fret.

As I sit here with a coke bottle in my hand, the vibrato seems easier to start by pulling my hand backward first.

I had my first violin lesson this week and my instuctor first thing, played my new chinese violin and I almost started crying as he wailed on it as it came alive for the first time.  Just kidding about crying, but he is a pro who plays for the  state philharmonic and imagine he could make any violin sound good. I was thinking of just taking an introductory lesson and just learn by ear/books/youtube/cd's. Just hearing my violin come alive was worth the introduction lesson, but  the whole lesson was inspirational and ended up signing for the next three months.

Before the lesson, I was thinking about purchasing a new bow or better quality bow hair because I was not happy with the tone I was getting when I was near the frog, the pitch would actually bend and go flat around 6-8" up from the frog as I was bowing up. After my instructor finished playing my violin, the first thing he said was pretty nice bow as he seemed impressed as he looked at it. I was like, oh well I guess it was not the bow giving me problems. You know where I'm coming from. The lesson was only a half hour and I failed to discuss any issues I had with the bow, but he did say that my tools were good for now.

I agree with taking lessons even though someone may by proficient with other instruments and able to learn by ear.  It is better to learn the right way first than have to change bad habits later.

My first half hour lesson was very valuable learning the basics of standing while relaxed with the violin in position, the proper bow hold, and an assigned goal of what to do for next week. Practice #1 position scale with up/down bow on each note.

What is a good time to start teaching a student vibrato? Has anyone heard of the pitch going flat through a bow stroke?

I am a few weeks new to this site and would like to at least one time thank violinist.com and everyone who replies to these valuable discussions,


February 7, 2009 at 03:11 PM ·

YES- If Begin bowing with too much preasure / speed on a contact point then as the stroke continues the preasure / speed lightens and the pitch sinks. The string is vibrating faster at the begining than towards the middle to end of the stroke. I use to do this intentionaly as kid to be funny.

February 7, 2009 at 03:42 PM ·

hello jerry!

people of different calibre and nuttiness inhabit this wonderful site.  since i am not a musician, but a violin dad, among other detours in life, my disclosure is that i am of the low calibre and extreme nutty type.  what i say or suggest, most of the time not facetious but always genuine, can be totally false or misleading:).

the coke bottle saying has been in circulation for a long time, not mine.  the reason i brought it up is to illustrate a point, which is, if out of the blue i ask you to shake the bottle, you probably just shake it, in fact very well, as well as a professional bottle shaker:), without necessarily analyzing how you are doing it.  what i have found in music and sports is that when you tell some people, you first do this, then do that and then you will be shaking the bottle, the outcome may not be that ideal.  to some that works fine, to others, it may impedes progress surprisingly.  imo, the job of a teacher is to sort people out and manage accordingly.  this is something even the multimedia teaching machine these days cannot provide.  the accuracy, efficiency , direction and faith from a good teacher cannot be replaced,,,ever, methink:)

on vibrato, i suggest you search that word on this site and you should be able to access many threads on that, specifically, backward vs forward motion.  i hate to dwell on that because it can be misleading--a simple word of backward may mean different things to different people.  as you get better with your listening ability through exposure to the good, bad and ugly:), you will learn to appreciate finer differences in vibrato among players and in you as you progress.    at least to me,,vibrato is like a signature to a player but it may take years to fully develop its depth and range. or the subtlety.

on vibrato early: my understanding is that all teachers are concernd about their students making a pure tone first before adding things to it like vibrato.  and you will realize later that you can use vibrato to hide mistakes:).  so i think most teachers prefer their students to be honest to start:)

 couple weeks after starting and you are already exposed to the good stuff,,,good for you. good luck.  a great site to waste time!

February 7, 2009 at 04:36 PM ·

Somewhat disagree here about when vibrato should be introduced. Having taught flute some years ago, I see parallels here. Most beginner students are capable, in my opinion, of making a decent sound at the same time as producing some sort of vibrato. Since most of flute vibrato comes from the diaphragm, the earlier you can train it the better, otherwise you get quite competent flautists who nevertheless struggle later to introduce vibrato and find the whole thing a mystery. It is perfectly possible to develop embouchure, fingering, tone and general competence at the same time as encouraging vibrato as early as possible.

The UK is full of grade 8 pass students who do not know how to use vibrato and have a thin shakey wobble which passes as vibrato. They have often arrived at this point because the teacher kept saying "lets leave vibrato until you can produce a sure tone", and then never got around to it.

I disagree, except for maybe the first few lessons, that vibrato should be in anyway delayed if the student desires it. I think most are perfectly capable of producing some kind of vibrato and a good solid tone at once.

A good analogy which I have often used when arguing this point is how babies and toddlers grow and learn. After all, you do not say to a baby (assuming he or she understood language!) "right, you can only learn to walk when you've learned to crawl perfectly, and you're only allowed to run when you've completely mastered walking, and by the way, you can only learn to write or draw when you can speak properly", and so on.

The fact is that most people learn things in their own way, and do so in a DESIRABLY somewhat chaotic way too. To restrict one thing when there is palpable motivation to do it, until ANOTHER thing is fully mastered is to my mind not only repressive, but an interference with the naturally multi-tasking nature of all learning. At some point all the rather shakey beginner tasks come together, not in an ordered or imposed linear fashion, but according to the individual characteristics of that particular student.

I emphasise and agree of course that vibrato on any instrument should never be used as an excuse for a poor fundamental tone quality, but  I have proved it for myself that an early onset of vibrato does not in the least detract from my fundamental sound, as long as I am aware of the two separate qualities. Furthermore, any perceived "disadvantage" of early vibrato can often be outweighed by the rewards of achieving vibrato itself, which in my case and I think the case of many relative beginners is a fantastic motivator to improve in other aspects.


February 7, 2009 at 06:18 PM ·

I took vocal lessons years ago and asked about working on vibrato. My instructor said it would come. Well I quit after a year later and  learned about vibrato on my own. I guess it could be a way to prolong the training from the instructor. It seemed easier to control vibrato on my diaphram than my left hand on the guitar string.

Learning vibrato on guitar was a long process for me since I never practiced it. I was instructed to do it slow but found it boring. Eventually it came but I thought by playing in bands and learning songs it would always improve on its own. Well it did, but it was like 10 years to get fluid where I was content with it. Today I am much wiser and know to practice everything slowly to make it happen, cleaner, and faster.  Knowing this, I hope the vibrato will come sooner than expected on the violin.

The hardest thing I found for me was trying to slow the vibrato down to make it fluid. I find that with guitar, most beginners will tend to play a vibrato fast and uncontrolled.  If I would take the guitar and turn it around and play left handed, I could bend the string smooth and slow almost from day one. Building the nerve in my left hand was hard, I wish I would have practiced slow in the begining. I also believe it is a natural thing for some people to be able to control the nerve in the playing hand and not have to work that hard on controlling speed of the vibrato.

I find some pro classical violinist on youtube tend to play a fast vibrato, almost on top of the beat and gives a slightly rushed feel or maybe playing triplets instead of 1/16th notes or the other way around depending on the tempo.

I hope this makes sense, I am sure someone can explain this better.



February 8, 2009 at 12:33 AM ·

>>>I took vocal lessons years ago and asked about working on vibrato. My instructor said it would come. Well I quit after a year later <<<

Well, that just about sums up my point too, and thank you for illustrating the point so well. So many teachers say about vibrato that "it will come", EVEN when you've requested information about HOW it will come, they leave it to a lottery. This is absolutely nonsensical. If you desire vibrato but cannot achieve it, it is a betrayal to fob you off with a vague statement that somehow it will come of its own accord. It won't! In some cases it needs to be taught and needs to be acquired through nurturing and positive encouragement.

I think you made the right decision to leave.


February 8, 2009 at 12:59 PM ·

leonard, you are from UK?

got a teacher for you in london! :)



February 8, 2009 at 11:14 PM ·

>>>leonard, you are from UK?got a teacher for you in london! :)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=st4-CcO4XwM  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Y7GLMRkCUg  <<

Hi Al Ku,

Ha, ha, Actually I 'm a big fan of most of Vengerov's performances. I think he is very musical. However the RAM masterclasses as seen here are not good examples. Indeed I really like the student's Mozart approach and I feel he is bullying her a little to change her style, which in my view is perfectly valid for this particularly piece, and it's interesting that, politely, she is resisting his attempts to change her approach, which I think is very elegant and every bit as good as his, if not better!

I fear that at this early stage I might not be accepted on his Masterclass timetable.


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