What Are Some Things You Wish You Knew When You Started Playing Violin?

Edited: January 30, 2019, 2:26 AM · Hi,

I'm brand new to violin and brand new to this site, so I thought I would introduce myself and throw out a simple icebreaker question to see if I can get some wisdom from some of you lovely people.

I'm in my early 30's, disabled Navy vet (bipolar) coming from playing concert and jazz trombone in high school and college. I had a semester of double bass in high school, but I didn't really take it seriously at the time.

I'm trying to get back into music even if it's just for fun, and the violin just caught my attention out of nowhere last week, so I thought I would give it a go.

I have picked out and reserved my instrument at my local music shop, just have to go pick it up when I get paid this Friday. A simple student model around $300 professionally set up.

I've even booked my first lesson for next Tuesday with a teacher who was once the executive director and principal player in our city's symphonic orchestra.

So that's my introduction, now for the question:

What are some things you wish you knew when you started playing violin?

Replies (33)

January 30, 2019, 2:57 AM · I was pretty young when I started, but looking back, what I lacked (and probably still lack) was a "learner's mentality.". The willingness to take instruction from someone else without pride getting in the way. Not trying to always do it in a way that I thought was better. Basically, just allowing yourself to be a student, and not feeling like you have to be anything but that.
Edited: January 30, 2019, 4:19 AM · General observation, not particularly relevant to the OP: -
When you are young, you assume, without arrogance, that you are capable of anything. When you are older, you know you aren't, and that holds you back. Try not to let it.

I started violin 2 years ago on my own with a $50 violin (which had no problems at all other than a high nut action), but the sound of my bowing was so excruciating that I quickly fell into the habit of only playing it pizzicato. I didn't start bowing until September last year, then in October I bought let's say the same violin as the OP and started taking lessons from a professional violist friend at mate's rates. With a good teacher, you bow pleasantly after a short while, and so you need to know that no matter how bad you are to start with, you can improve quickly with a good teacher. But that's a problem, as you need to find a good teacher you can afford. I started on monthly lessons, and now I have them every 3 weeks.

January 30, 2019, 4:43 AM · I am also an adult learner. From my recent experience, these are the things that I would keep in mind if I restarted:

-Forget about goals, short term or long term. Maybe the main problem of adults starting with the violin it's that we know what we want and want to get there asap, whilst children usually take it one step (class) at a time and don't look too far ahead. There is an efficiency obsession of the adult learners which you don't find in kids. And I am not sure that it is of any benefit, at least in the first years.

-Once again, stay in your step and don't get sidetracked. Don't try vibratto on your own, don't look for alternative sheet music and don't be all around the place in methods and books. Follow a path (usually your teachers') and stay there.

-This is a game of patience and stamina. Violin has incredibly slow returns for the amount of time spent in practice. You must acknowledge this fact and stay on course and in pace. Learn to enjoy the practice itself.

-Ignore the equipment bling. For years, and I mean years, a better bow, soloist strings, rosin made from dragon earwax, and so on, are negligent in the sound you produce compared to some more hours of practice. Use that money, instead, for more classes, a masterclass or something like that. The only things that matter are your perseverance and practice and a good teacher to direct it.

Enjoy the torture...

January 30, 2019, 6:17 AM · I wish I knew then how much fun it will be today.
January 30, 2019, 6:20 AM · How to practice efficiently. Lets you use your time and not waste it.
I'm glad I learned how to now.
January 30, 2019, 6:35 AM · I wish I'd known I didn't need a shoulder rest and that my first teacher was a total shill.

January 30, 2019, 8:39 AM · Welcome, Russell.

I'm also a beginner (just over a year and a half now) and played trombone professionally in my 20s (which was decades ago), so I thought I'd answer from the viewpoint of comparing those two instruments.

Fortunately, you've probably already developed a good ear from playing another instrument that has infinitely variable pitch. Just like the slide on the trombone, you need to be precise with where you place your fingers on violin, and it will take some time to develop the precision. But having had to deal with this on another instrument puts you ahead in the game. However, beyond that everything is different...

First, and probably the hardest to adjust to, is that the sound source is external: instead of making a sound with your lips and having the instrument amplify it, you scrape a bow across strings. This to me is still a difficult adjustment. On trombone you don't have to worry about coordination between your two hands, but on violin they're often doing distinct things.

Changing registers is also different. On violin, you change registers by shifting your left hand higher up the string. This requires more precision than simply buzzing your lips faster to move up the overtone series on trombone(even though you need to vary slide position as you change fundamentals).

This leads to another difference between the two. On trombone, I'd just read the music and play. Sure, I might look at my embouchure in a mirror occasionally, but that was it. On violin, you need to grow some extra sets of eyes. You not only look at the music, but you need to look at your left hand to make sure your finger placement is precise, and look at your bow to make sure it's straight, and look in the mirror to see what you're doing wrong with your shoulder or some other body part that making everything go wrong. You can't see any of this on trombone, so it takes some getting used to on a different instrument.

Hopefully you've found a good teacher who can get you well-grounded in the fundamentals. Just like any other instrument, it's important to suffer through the details early and learn the right way before you instill any bad habits.

January 30, 2019, 8:48 AM · I think Carlos hits on a major point:

"-This is a game of patience and stamina. Violin has incredibly slow returns for the amount of time spent in practice. You must acknowledge this fact and stay on course and in pace. Learn to enjoy the practice itself."

It takes a looong time to get some appreciable facility with this instrument. But stick with it, day by day, and a year or two later you will be amazed at the progress you have made.

January 30, 2019, 9:30 AM · That there are no limits to what you can accomplish, *within reason*. When one is a beginner, the difficulties of the instrument may seem "too much", and one can develop a mental (as in: "I will never be able to do that!") barrier . It's important that, while not underestimating the difficulties of our instrument, we start to patiently "problem-solve" our different needs, rather than succumbing to mediocrity (unless one is happy intentionally playing at a lower level.)

(The above is meant for the less confident players, however. There are the arrogant ones, that do not play well or need improvement and "can't do any wrong." Those need a big dose of humility, reality, and a smart teacher that can bring them down a little, so they can really advance.)

I do agree with the advice above akin to enjoying the journey, and to later marvel at what you have been able to achieve-and never stop learning.

January 30, 2019, 9:35 AM · I wish I knew I'd never make a career as a pro, so I could get into a paying line of work.
January 30, 2019, 12:48 PM · I'm with Nina. I play/have played several instruments in my life and am recently getting more serious about one of them. Everything would have gone better for me on all of them had I really understood how to practice! I don't know what to say about this except that there is a lot of advice on the web about this topic, and I learn something new every time I find a new source.
January 30, 2019, 12:55 PM · Marty has a good point. Not so long ago I was talking to a friend about wasted potential and I commented that if I'd worked incredibly hard and gone to music college, I could have ended up as an oboist in a professional orchestra, but I'd be worse off than I am now.
Edited: January 30, 2019, 3:24 PM · All great advice here but I have a disagreement with the advice to not look at other sheet music or violin method books. I am an adult starter and I have found it valuable to look at different violin method books as I progressed. Some method books can progress too fast/slow and you will want alternatives to play. Of course, you need to complete the assigned material so you stay on course but as an adult you can benefit from a wider view after say ~6 months of lessons..

What type of music do you want to play say 2 years from now is a good question to ask yourself: classical, folk, bluegrass, Irish, popular, jazz, country, show tunes.... You may find once the basics are introduced that the best violin method book for your musical growth is not the one you started with. Then you need to have a discussion with your teacher. As an adult it is too expensive and not fulfilling to practice and play musical styles that you don’t like.

January 30, 2019, 7:22 PM · My advice to my former self--get good gear. Carlos, above, cautioned--"ignore the equipment bling..." I understand that it could become a problem, but I played on a cranky fiddle for thirty years with a stiff bow that didn't do anything for me. I did OK; I mean, I worked, but I didn't EVER get the sound/playability I wanted, and sort of let it slide as I concentrated on musical pursuits where I could get what I wanted aesthetically.

First, I was advised to get a decent bow, and I ended up with a GREAT bow. That was a start... and then I got a great violin about five years ago. Wow. I can't wait to get on this thing every day. So, yeah, you've got to practice, practice, practice, but if you are hungry for practice and you love it, you will make dramatic progress, as happened to me.

January 30, 2019, 7:32 PM · Don't be afraid to change teachers if its not working out. I hope you picked the right one. Many pros started playing way before they can remember its challenges or solutions. While teaching skills are in part a talent, they are like most things better learned and a pro concertmaster probably got his skills honed by practice and performance and not by learning the subtleties of playing for any person (size, attitude, background, musical experience etc).

The other thing to look out for is how invested your teacher is in you - and the key for me has been whether they can remember what you are currently working on. If you have to go back to square one every lesson or if it starts with 'lets see what you can do' be just a bit aware.

Teaching adults is a unique branch of violin pedagogy and many teachers simply don't realize it. But when you find one that does, and that values you as a future musician and not an hours lesson time its marvelous.

Edited: January 30, 2019, 10:29 PM · +1 to Elise ... she nailed it. I agree with Tony also.

I'm glad I also studied the piano.

January 30, 2019, 10:13 PM · "Teaching adults is a unique branch of violin pedagogy and many teachers simply don't realize it."

OMG yes to this! Adult beginners are a different breed altogether. And also, as I found out the hard way, not my strength as a teacher. I think 'adult beginners' is a vastly understudied branch of violin pedagogy. (for any readers looking for some sort of thesis project, hint hint)

January 30, 2019, 10:33 PM · I don't think there is a more rewarding and flexible instrument out there... and I don't think there is a more challenging instrument either, that sums it all.
Edited: January 31, 2019, 9:15 AM · I think Erik's post summed up the essence of what a beginning adult needs to keep in mind. Learning a bowed string instrument is like learning a new language, your previous knowledge and experience do not really prepare you for the child-like learning necessary at the beginning.

I started playing so young that my only experience related to this question came from teaching "conscious beings" for 20 to 60 years after my first lessons (as an avocation, not my profession). Adult learners have problems with the patience and discipline required to start playing violin or viola (cello too, but not as much because it is more ergonomic).

I had adult beginners who came with a single goal (for example: learn to play "Devil's Dream," or "Ashokan Farewell," or "Amazing Grace" - really!). Now, many teachers might have said "you will get there," but I thought "what the heck" and from the first lesson I aimed them right at their goal. After all, there are hardly different notes in any of these songs than there are on the first few pages of Suzuki Book 1, and they already knew the melodies and rhythms.

So within a very few weeks, each of these new students had already reached their "goals," felt some confidence and were ready to go to work on my goals for them and trust me to lead them correctly.

It is fair to add that in addition to my violin lessons from a very young age, I also started cello lessons as a conscious being, at age 14, but because of my violin experience my teacher and I were able to skip years ahead from the first day and I always did everything my teacher directed without question, although I did add a few performance pieces on my own after the first few months. Back in those days one could buy a new thick book of music for about $1.25.

Edited: February 3, 2019, 6:22 AM · @paul and Carlos. Yes, buy a good violin, good strings, good bow and then forget it, and assume all your problems are your fault.

When I was learning guitar, I felt that a lot of my piano skills had translated well to the guitar. I can't quite say that with fiddle, except indirectly via guitar. Piano doesn't teach you things like how to remove a finger quickly from a string.

Edited: January 31, 2019, 2:50 PM · To relax - really.

As a type A adult, relaxing is not part of my M.O. and this has been a huge obstacle between posture/ease, patience, and so on with the instrument.

Things are going to take longer than you think, and that's okay.

Relax and enjoy the moment. This is a life-long process, no getting around it.

Edit:
Good advice Elise!

February 3, 2019, 6:19 AM · I wish I knew there were teachers who were willing to accept beginners at double-digit ages. Having been rejected by several teachers who said I was too old to learn a string instrument when I was 12, I didn't realize until I'd been playing for over a decade that it was possible for me to get lessons at all.

On a very closely related note: the teachers regarded as the "best" in the area may not be the best for late starters. Often their reputation comes entirely from teaching students who started at very early ages, and they may not have ever taught a late starter before. It turned out that I'd been asking the wrong teachers.

Other than that, I'm going to echo a bunch of people and say that patience is extremely important. The learning curve is much steeper than for any other commonly played instrument, even for people with extensive music backgrounds.

February 3, 2019, 7:26 AM · "Steep learning curve" merely means "difficult", which may put people off.
And all forms of learning involve plateaux that complicate the picture - they can be welcome resting places during a steep climb, or they can be frustrating pauses if one is raring for progress.
These may be things best left to the teacher to think about.
I think for the student the simple admonition to be patient is best.
February 3, 2019, 3:56 PM · 1. I wish I would have listened to more professional violinists when I started. Listening to the music you're playing makes it so much easier to learn. And it's SO inspiring to hear great musicians play.
2. I would have set smaller goals for myself. I got really frustrated with myself if I couldn't learn a piece in one practice session. Violin is one of the most rewarding instruments, but it requires dedication and knowing what you have to do to get to the point you want to be at - a lot of small stepping stones.
3. I would have focused more on technique. This could be attributed to my teachers but I sadly neglected technique until I had been studying for 4 or 5 years. It's worth it to work on that right away, and not develop bad habits that are a NIGHTMARE to break.
February 4, 2019, 1:26 PM · I wish that I, and my teacher, had a more realistic view of the orchestra business. I was one of the best young violinists in my medium size city, concertmaster of my college orchestra at the freshman year, then moved to Los Angeles, intentionally to put myself into the big pond. I was, like many others, almost good enough.
February 4, 2019, 5:37 PM · 1. I wish I had known how to practice.
2 I wish I had known when it was time to change teachers. At first it was hard to find a teacher that would take on an adult starter, but I would have saved myself a lot of rebuilding if I had changed teachers at the first sign that it wasn't a good fit. Loyalty doesn't make you a better player.
3. I would have started playing with and for other people earlier.
February 5, 2019, 1:22 AM · @Joel, I was the same way on trombone with jazz. I was the best high school player, a pretty good college player, but once I started getting some pro gigs I realized that I wasn't good enough and my confidence went out the window so fast that I ended up joining the Navy to distance myself from music. But now I'm back!

@Krista, have you figured out how to practice yet?

Edited: February 5, 2019, 2:08 AM · Andrew Fryer: I don't mean to put people off at all -- but too many people start out expecting to be good within just a few months, because they've learned other musical instruments quickly, and quit when they can't meet their unrealistic expectations. Better to know in advance that it will take a long time to sound good, and start learning with realistic expectations.
February 7, 2019, 9:47 PM · Wish I had put in the work to learn to read at the pace i was supposed to. I think “it doesn’t come naturally to me” is just a lie I told myself for years to justify never putting in the work. It just came slightly less naturally than listening, and I was lazy about it.

Also, maybe this is more important. If you have a teacher who you don’t like, and there is even a shadow of an option, SWITCH TEACHERS! It doesn’t matter if they’re at the Suzuki institute MOM, just find one you get on with!!

February 8, 2019, 12:28 AM · When starting out as a kid, I didn't really grasp the rather unfortunate fact that the violin is a very difficult instrument, in an annoyingly vast variety of ways.
While every instrument poses its own unique set of challenges, the way sound is produced with the violin, the way the instrument and bow is held, coupled with its range of pitch, makes it stand in its own tier of absurd difficulty.
I wish I had realized that when I was younger and struggling and getting frustrated. It's not that you suck at playing, many things on the violin are straight up really really hard. Go at your own pace, take your time, and put effort into doing things the right way. If nothing else, proper technique will reduce your risk of injuries.
February 8, 2019, 7:37 AM · When I was a kid I wish I had not believed what everyone told me that 12 was too old to start learning. I stopped after enduring an unpleasant exam experience where my bow kept shaking , making me more nervous and so on. I gave up immediately after the exam. No one said a word.
I wish I had known that this happens, even to advanced players, and it wasn’t a sign that I was never going to be any good.
50 years later, decided to give it a go again, and exorcising those demons and loving it. I just won’t perform a solo, thanks.
February 8, 2019, 7:48 AM · When I was a kid, no-one started under the age of about 11. It's competitiveness (especially in Asia where the population is in the billions) that's making them start in the womb nowadays.

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