Violin study

July 11, 2013 at 04:40 PM · Dear violinists,

How fast or far should one progress during the initial years of violin playing?

I saw many internet accounts saying both sides of idea.

First one is, to go fast as far as one can go without putting much emphasis on details like intonation. E.g. Through first four book of suzuki in one or one and half yr, playing through 5th or 8 or even 10th position.

Second one is, meticulously going through all details. Such as 2 or more years on Suzuki book 1 etc...

On youtube especially, I saw both types of student, young and adults. And one thing I notice is that, regardless of go slow or first(ie either first or second method or group of student), non of the violinists (adult and young) play beautifully till 2 or 3 years after which both of the group improve more or less.

My question is, if everyone (after 2 or 2.5 yr) can play good regardless of going fast or slow, why at least approximately half of teachers go so slow? Because for begineer, nomatter how many million times the teacher corrects intonation, it is just not much effect. Most like it will be eventually self-correct after 2 or 3 years. Any opinion?

Replies (26)

July 11, 2013 at 08:43 PM · Going "fast as far as one can go without putting much emphasis on details like intonation" -- this idea would have made any of my teachers wince. Intonation was one of my strong suits, even in the first lessons; but when my pitch was off, my teacher didn't let it pass unchallenged for the sake of getting ahead in the book. Faulty pitch may be more understandable in a beginner, but it's still not acceptable. If you don't fix poor technique right away, it's harder to unlearn later.

"How fast or far should one progress during the initial years of violin playing?"

There's no one best answer. Much depends on the learner. I did my first playing in elementary school before I had lessons, first playing by ear on a half-sized fiddle, then reading from my first instruction book, having watched two other kids play from the same book. Then I started lessons. My first teacher felt I was ready to start position-playing about 3 months in. On the heels of this, she felt I was ready to start vibrato. She was right on both counts.

Although I certainly wasn't playing Beethoven and Brahms in the first year, it didn't take me 2-3 years -- or even 2-3 months -- to play my assigned material well enough that family members, friends, and neighbors kept telling me they liked what they heard.

July 11, 2013 at 09:11 PM · "...what one studies fast, one forgets fast..."

(Itzak Perlman, "The art of violin" PBS)

There is a good reason why violin studies last so many years; there is so much to learn. This is not to say that one should plow through every single study ever written.

A good teacher should use his/her discretion to adjust the curriculum to student's individual needs, but the core of the education simply can not be skipped.

July 11, 2013 at 09:15 PM · "The slower I go, the faster I learn"

July 12, 2013 at 12:19 AM · Greetings,

anyone who disregards intonation in that way should leave the profession. Intonation is , according to Casals, a moral imperative. Why?

If you play out of tune you sound bloody awful.. No one wants to hear a chicken being strangled.

The idea that intonation is difficult and takes time to acquire is rubbish. It is a question of doing it properly. Also , play out of tune and you cannot learn how to use the bow either. The art of the bow is about listening for the correct kind of ringing sound right from the beginning. Not possible when out of tune.

Furthermore, anything you do on the violin becomes a habit within a few repetitions. So, yes'm, why not get the habit of playing out of tune and then relearn the instrument with a proper teacher later.

Excuse the rant but sloppy and irresponsible teachers make me gag.

Needs some prunes, need some prunes.....


incidentally, one should strive to produce beautiful sound from the first lesson. If it is taking 2 or 3 years something is wrong.

Isn't a ringing pizzicato beautiful?

July 12, 2013 at 12:26 AM · Perhaps the basis of the conclusion is flawed.

Both groups may be deemed "equal" at 2-3 years. But that is still considered a rather early, beginner stage of violin competency isn't it?

It would be more telling to take a look at ability of those same groups after ten years.

I'm betting the ones with the sturdy foundation will be able to build the highest.

July 12, 2013 at 01:01 AM · I've seen and heard many videos of professionals on you-tube. There are those whose intonation is compelling and those who still sound out of tune to me, even as they can obviously play.

What might be a major difference between their approaches to intonation (practice), assuming they all are trying their best?

July 12, 2013 at 01:24 AM · Greetings,

Eric, I know exactly what you mean. But I think the premise needs clarifying a little. Playing out of tune means playing a note wrongly in relation to something else. However, I think you are Probaly referring more to some Vilnius propensity for playing sharper or flatter overall. These players are not put of tune per se. They are simply displaying apersonal prerence.

I personally prefer violinist s that err on the lower side like Szernyg to players like Menuhin who went the other way. A recent example is the awesome player David Nadien. I bought a cd of maim playing ├ętude which was marvelous but I simply can't listen to slightly up sense of intonation, irrespective of how heavenly it all is.



July 12, 2013 at 02:11 AM · I think I mean relatively out of tune rather than a preference for sharper or flatter overall. They may not be the top professionals I mean but do still make a living playing and teaching. Perhaps its in the vibrato. I am really not sure. Or maybe (I hope) I am overly sensitive.

One Menuhin recording of Brahms moves me to tears (in a good way).

July 12, 2013 at 02:27 AM · I think it entirely depends on the student. However, it's been my experience that those who try to fly through repertoire without taking time to master the basic musical and physical skills of violin playing at some point run into a wall - perhaps when they apply for college.

If you want to only play for yourself, I suppose that whatever you want to do is fine. However, I can tell you that all music teachers, colleges, summer programs, and every professional organization highly values intonation and that you cannot expect to have a professional career without it.

July 12, 2013 at 03:49 AM · Claire : I play by myself and whatever I do is NOT fine. It has to sound right even if I am the only one who hears it. There is no point in picking up the violin unless you want to make it sound good. It is a very unforgiving instrument and you cannot hide sloppiness.

July 12, 2013 at 06:24 AM · The difficulty lies in quantifying how much in tune is in tune or how much out of tune is unacceptable for beginner. There seems to be no quantity and each of player defines their own subjective standard.

Currently I use Intonia software to correct my intonation. It provides calculation of deviation for the recording. In its manual, it says change from A=440 to 441 is 0.04 while a half-self corresponds to 1. I use its default setting i.e. A=440 with A maj scale, equal temparament. So there is no way to get confusion.

Here is some of the results with my experiments.

-for intermediate or adv student playing bach solo, their average accuracy of accuracy is around 0.16 to 0.20. (sound samples from youtube)

-I recorded my playings of suzuki book 1 pieces when I was abt 4 or 5 months into playing. Its accuracy is ~0.30.

-After 3,4 months of improving, now for average wohlfahrt etudes (first 10 in Bk 1), it improves to ~0.23 - 0.24, for slow scale studies (2 oct) is ~0.16.

-I just learnt 3rd position, for first few pieces of Wohlfahrt 2nd book, it still turn out to be ~0.23-0.24 with occasional wrosening to 0.28. (it may mean my ear is only that good for now, or my technique)

(NOTE, NO vibrato in the playings mentioned above)

Has any one is using this software for violin intonation? I am sharing this because someone online may be interested. For those uninterested, sorry for annoying you. And also I want to get some feedback from forum.

Of course, no one wants to play violin with unpleasent out-of-tune sound. The discussion about slow or fast progress is just how to arrange the training towards a decent perfection(again subjective here). It will be good if there is a standard way to quantify the intonation in every teaching studio. It is interesting because, in anology, most of use may have high school math background. But not everyone scored 100. Some get 40 out of 100 (just pass) with some perfect 100 score. If perfect 100 is a requirement, may be most of the ppl never will pass high school including those math genius :). Just curious what is lower limit of what is called acceptable intonation or upper limit of unacceptable intonation.

July 12, 2013 at 11:02 PM · Meantime over on the ludicrous christian violinist thread, which I am drawn to against my better judgement just because I can't believe that it keeps getting entries.....

Has this actually very relevant topic ever been studied by students finishing say violin ed degrees? Does the ability to learn follow a normal bell curve distribution? In which case do we expect that 2% at each end thereabouts will have particularly good and particularly awful intonation after X hours of instruction (or X hours of practise).

And despite what Buri says - that there is no reason why a student can't be producing beautiful tone - I personally do know A NUMBER of people (this is not just one person, or two people, but more than that); people who have a commitment to making beautiful music, they listen to beautiful music, they know what it sounds like, they have had very good instruction for more than a decade, I know of one teacher at least who has tried and tried with them to break phrases into musical phrases - why the bow needs to be used this way to produce this sound, how to use they arm, speed, sound point, posture, over years. These people do not make a beautiful tone for more than one or two notes, and never for a simple piece.

As the OP suggests, they have however progressed through various studies and books to be playing intermediate grade pieces (because what else would you have them do - a decade later they would still be playing AMEB or Suzuki 1, how would that help anything?).

After all this time, they just do not hear the difference between almost exactly on the note and not quite on the note. The bow is pulled at just that wrong speed at weight so it changes the pitch or it breaks the sound. Are some learners always going to be in the bottom of the bell curve. I think if its a normal distribution, that I'm in the good side of average, not above, in relation to intonation. Vaclav Hudecek and Hilary Hahn, above the 1% percentile. Joshua Bell probably in the upper 5th percentile. I wonder where you all put yourselves?

July 13, 2013 at 01:09 AM · Just back from posting a ludicrous entry on another thread :-| (for your reading pleasure, Sharelle....). Don't question, just believe...

The Bell curve or Gaussian distribution implies randomness in the variable. What would be its mean and standard deviation? Is it ability to learn, say intonation, or outcomes that would be measured?

July 13, 2013 at 02:29 AM · It would depend on the question, Eric. Welcome back, and glad you could make it over to the discussion ; ]

Personally, if I were to research, it would be outcomes. What people learn is entirely up to them, but behavioural change is the only reliable indicator that they have idneed learnt something. And in terms of playing the violin, I would not be intersted in a person's ability to identify a pitch, I'd be intersted in their ability to play the blasted pitch in the violin.

July 13, 2013 at 02:30 AM · But then , Myers Briggs pegs me as a task oriented.

July 13, 2013 at 02:52 AM · Sharelle, I think I just made it out alive, before the wrath

of a vengeful Angel (;-)) descended upon it.

I agree outcomes/improvement most important, so maybe how the distribution changes before and after instruction would be interesting.

July 13, 2013 at 03:20 AM · Hey, I heard that!


On this topic, though--

If you were going to rush through books 1-4, would it perhaps be just as *ahem* effective to skip the first three and just start in working away on whatever was presented in 4?

July 13, 2013 at 03:59 AM · Hi,

in my humble opinion, the students who play quite much out of tune simply do not have a good ear (or are too young to know better... ear training isn't invented for nothing!)

No matter how awful is the teacher or if you use tape or not (etc.) someone (except very young children maybe) with a good ear and some musical insight will be so annoyed with out of tune notes that they will quickly learn to play somehow in tune... (or talk about it to the teacher at least!)

Playing in tune by oneself and having a good ear are perhaps a very important component of musical talent and one of the things that will "filter" who sticks with it or not. (even if that may be kind of "rude" to say...)

And one must not forget to make the difference between an out of tune player and a player playing a very cheap instrument. Both sound bad and often, we see beginners out of tune on a cheap instrument!

Just my two cents...

July 13, 2013 at 04:48 AM · It has nothing to do with how much time it takes, fast or slow. It has everything to do with what is accomplished!

One of my teachers had a favorite expression: "work on it until it's right." For those who never figured out how to do it quickly enough either on their own or with help, they found something else to do besides play an instrument.

July 13, 2013 at 05:35 AM · Ahh, Eric, raise our hands and praise the (oops) Confronting though it may seem, I wonder if Richard is a teeny bit right with his first question. That despite taking the A approach - lets do this correctly and not move on until its as good as you can get it, and I'm going to draw your attention to it each time; or the B approach - okay, you can get your head hand and fingers more or less around this and so lets move on and i'll just try to correct it as best I can as we go - students will get intonation if they're going to get intonation. (I'm not so confident about other violin skills, though).

I suspect what he doesn't realise is that what he sees as a slack approach to the LEARNING of intonation for example, doesn't mean a slack approach to the TEACHING of that foundation.

The adults I talked about have been keeping up with their music for over a decade now, they have not been 'weeded out', despite intonation and other basic playing problems; they still have formal instruction; they love to play, they continue to do various amateur group things and I love to play with them when I have the opportunity because they love to play and they love music. So it doesn't fit the suggestions that Anne-marie and Gene are offering, although they both sound logical.

So there's another research project. And its already set up as an AB design.

July 13, 2013 at 08:12 AM · Greetings,

I think the problem with the argument that `student has been taught to play and tune,` but still doesn`t,` is based on two assumptions that may well not be true in the first place.

1) Have they really been taught how to play in tune?

2) Are they actually applying these ideas?

In the first case this means the teacher not only explains the technical and acoustic aspects of playing in tunes on the violin, but also how to apply them. It is quite possible this explanation is incomplete or it is just assumed that the student has understood. Then there may be a technical reason why a student finds it impossible to play in tune.

these kind of issues are the fault of the teacher.

In the second case the student simply does not apply what has been taught in the first place. For example, let us assume that the set up is good and the student understands and can apply intonation checking. This will include the -fundamental premises- that:

1) Whatever your level intonation must be prioritized in practice.

2) A note played out of tune must be unlearned by greater repetitions of the note played in tune. (repetition hits are an ideal solution)

3) The mental model of the passage in question must be looked at from different parts of the fingerboard or registers to undo incorrectly learned structures.

So I have to ask, if one videod the players cited who apparently cannot play in tune or produce a good sound what would one actually see? Is there any genuine and consistent application of real intonation work? Are the repetitions adequate?

I think the answer would be `no` , especially from players who just want to enjoy making music with others but are too busy too practice seriously and consistently.

So non of this refutes my point that whether the fault is the teacher or the student (or a combination of both) there are no reasons why a beginner should not learn to play well in tune right from the start and carry that through the rest of their playing life.

I have to say in all modesty that every single one of the players who I teach of any age from the beginning has played with excellent intonation from the beginning.

Sound is another aspect but pretty much the same points apply.

Eric, I get where you are coming from about the intonation of middle level orchestral players. Clayton Haslop wrote in a block some time okay that one of the nasty truths about playing in an orchestra is that it can seriously damage your intonation. I think very often the poor over worked musician who graduated college and entered directly into a pro orchestra is often a victim of this problem. Although there is no doubt about the playing ability or musical gains otherwise made the problem is very real , as you have noticed.



July 13, 2013 at 08:50 AM · Hi Buri, I fully get and I think I should agree with what you say. I know other students of the teachers of these students, they have lovely intonation and for want of a better word, musicality. But then, some of those (the latter) students were in fact passed over by the so called 'wonder teachers' who only wanted the easy to teach, clearly going to pass the exams, always had nice intonation, and always played like neat robots, students.

These latter ones, some of them at least, had all sorts of funny quirks, disorganisation, anxieties, but the teachers who really cared (not necessarily the strings teachers, but the ones who came across them in other contexts as well), always saw their little lights, the sparks of individuality and appreciated that they were slower to ignite and that they needed to be properly nurtured. I am not sure that they all had great intonation to begin with, I know in a few cases it had to be instructed in to them.

I think my first bunch fit the bell curve theory. Despite the instruction, they don't show the outcome. We can make all sorts of guestimates as to why they don't, but the bottom line is that they don't. I'm not saying they below the 2nd percentile necessarily (I need a bigger sample), but they are probably below the 16th.

Orchestra intonation - its like preschool grey play-doh.

July 13, 2013 at 09:53 AM · Greetings,

`But then, some of those (the latter) students were in fact passed over by the so called 'wonder teachers' who only wanted the easy to teach, clearly going to pass the exams, always had nice intonation, and always played like neat robots, students.`

Indeed. there is a lot of that about. Those teachers don`t know what they are missing.

There is inevitably some kind of bell curve I suppose but for me the question is where does it actually kick in? I think thier eis a basic standard that everyone should at least be given the opportunity to achieve. That is why Simon`s last blog rang so true with me. I wonder if people who genuinely have almost no musical ability (I suppose they exist) actually try to play the violin in the first place ? Where would such a desire come from to you think? Sibling rivalry, trying to impress an object of passion?



July 13, 2013 at 10:10 PM · Simon's blog is brilliant, but it made me laugh in an ironic dejavu-ie sort of way because it was what you had written in one of your old old things in like 2004 (and no, I'm not going to try to dredge it up now, but it is there in the archives, and it basically said the same thing. teach the bloody violin - technique and musical expression).

I'm pondering a masters / phd in the next year or so, based in information processing from Occupational Therapy frame work. Do we Perceive, Recall, Plan and Perform the task to expected mastery, and if not, where is the breakdown. In clinical work its usually people with disability but I am wanting to look at the other end of the spectrum - unexpected ABility and what fires forward. Simon's and your writing (and my teacher's musings) is where it starts.

I don't know where the chicken or the egg is hatched in regard to that lower end of the bell curve, don't ask me how the economy works (shrug).

On a related note, lack of musicality is interesting. I am mystified by the total lack of musical (waving hand here because I have no word for it) in my husband and his mother). They are utterly and totally without empathy for music. He is a fantastic and loyal and intelligent bloke with a wonderful sense of humour. He sat through a concert once which include Bach and Ashokan Farewell and Rogers and Hammerstein Highlights, and afterwards he said he couldn't tell the difference - it all sounded the same. I have never once in 28 years heard him hum or sing to himself. He leaves the radio on talk. His mother, when she has watched our group or the orchestra play, will comment on things like "your cheek seemed to get really tense toward the end", or "I wondered if you made a mistake when you smiled". At first I used to be a bit offended, but nowadays I realise, its because she's like her son, she has no idea what she's listening for, the only clue she gets is visual. It would never occur to them to learn a musical instrument (although he has dabbled on the banjo - and we had song 2 boil dem cabbages down for months, and the uke, where he couldn't progress past 2 chords with lots of assistance from my daughter).

July 14, 2013 at 12:30 AM · Sharelle and Buri, you are both right that motivation is perhaps the most important factor on how well a student will learn and that teachers can learn a great deal by teaching the "less talented" students. And by this term, I also include myself and many amateurs. i.e. those who are too old to make career in a good symphony etc.

But my point was that motivation and to stick with something often comes if one is somewhat good at something... If someone has strictly no musical ability or ear (as my brother...), they do not like to learn an instrument usually and will pass comments as the relatives Sharelle is refering too...

As for having a good ear, even if I beleive that this is an important factor that can "weed out" students (may it be the teacher or student's fault), those who play mostly out of tune and are happy with their musical hobby (possibly do not realise they play out of tune or are really easy going/forgiving on themselves) certainly have somewhere other musical (or not) abilities to stick with the study of an instrument (i.e. good rythm, great musical culture, a profound love of learning things, good coordination etc.)

In the end, I agree with Buri that a good teacher won't allow students to play out of tune (exception: I still think some students, even with all the violin and ear training of the world struggle way more than others with hearing things in tune.) Competent teachers will correct the source of the problem as soon as it appears. Furthermore, I think these teachers won't allow out of tune students to play in concerts... and that may also be for the teacher's reputation! I'm not saying it's fair... it's the way it works. Intonation accidents can happen... I am refering to this student who is very often out of tune!

Interesting discussion, I'm sorry if I maybe was slightly off topic though.


July 15, 2013 at 04:27 AM · If one is measuring intonation off of YouTube videos, make sure to allow for compression and distortion of pitch...

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