My experience after completing three years of violin playing

Edited: March 7, 2019, 11:33 AM · Hi. I've recently completed my 3rd full year of violin playing as an amateur. When I was doubting on the convenience of taking violin lessons while keeping piano lessons, I asked here, and got the little encouragement I needed to start with violin. And I can't be happier. So, for anyone who wants to read it, here's what I've observed so far in my violin journey:

Main problems I've encountered:

(1) Lack of quality practice time: I usually arrive late at home, and being tired, I must really force myself to start playing. If I do, I must play with a heavy mute, which is not ideal. I've been playing just between 1 and 2 hours per week through all this time. I also spent a complete month out of practicing due to a surgery. But I enjoyed coming back to it.

(2) Headaches: Despite I enjoy playing the violin, I've observed it's a great migraine trigger for me. This is also related with my lack of quality practice time. Studying with a headache is not easy.

(3) Vibrato: I thought it wouldn't be difficult, but the 2nd and 3rd fingers are still a "pain" to vibrate.

(4) Fingering: This one is silly, but I usually switch fingers because of piano fingering. The index is still a number 2 in my unconscious mind.

(5) Playing at the frog: I don't know why, but this has been difficult for me since I started playing.

Positive things:

(1) Despite my lack of practice time, my teacher says that I'm advancing at a good pace, and that I'm at the point where most people arrive after playing for 4 years.

(2) My intonation has improved a lot.

(3) My piano playing has also improved a ton. I'm playing with more expression on each separate voice and I'm really enjoying the pieces I'm studying.

(4) I'm also starting to enjoy what I play on the violin after successfully overcoming the "raw beginner" phase. I can't do everything I want with the bow, but I'm getting there, and the different basic bow strokes that I've been taught are starting to show spontaneously when needed.

Future goals:

(1) Ensemble playing: I still feel a bit insecure about my playing, but when I improve a bit, I'd like to start playing some chamber pieces along with other people.

(2) Bach: This is my long-term/lifelong goal, and the main reason I will stick with the violin for a long time. I want to be able to tackle some solo Bach with odds of succeeding. The enjoyment I get from Bach, by listening to his pieces or playing them at the piano is incredible.

So I owe members a big thank you for encouraging me to start and for answering the very basic questions that a beginner amateur like me could have.

Replies (15)

Edited: March 7, 2019, 12:18 PM · Congratulations! It sounds like you're hooked. As you get into more challenging music (Bach) it will be hard to see much progress on an hour or two a week, and practice at the end of your day, when your brain is fried and you're tired, is tough. My best practice is when it's the first thing I do. I wonder if you could take that time at the end of your day and relax, and then play after you wake up in the morning. On vibrato, since your goal is to play Bach, I would pay more attention to being "present" in your touch on the strings than in worrying whether you generate vibrato. Vibrato sounds awful in Bach (IMO, of course) unless it is not continuous and behaves more like an ornament, or something that creeps in a bit during a sustained note. That's more of what Bach had in mind when he wrote that stuff. From what you said, it sounds to me like you might be pushing it into your playing before you're ready, and you may not actually need it, given your goals.
March 7, 2019, 12:46 PM · Congrats!

All I would add to what Paul wrote is "playing at the frog is hard!" All I can recommend is practicing slow full bows and being aware of your right arm all the time - and move this to playing full-bow scales so moving your left fingers does not interfere with the steadiness of your right hand. Don't strain to keep the bow-hair angle to strings the same tip to frog - let your wrist joint help guide you.

March 7, 2019, 12:59 PM · Congratulations! I think many can relate to lack of practice time and practicing late in the evening. It sometimes feels like an uphill battle.

Early is not feasible for me either unless I can wake up at 4am.

March 7, 2019, 1:38 PM · I play the piano too so I know what you mean about fingerings, but since I learned all that as a child, it's totally natural and I don't ever thing about it. Fast forward to a few years ago when I had to learn alto clef to play the viola. Much harder.

If you look in any intermediate study book, there are always studies that have rhythms like quarter, eighth-eighth, quarter, eighth-eighth and the instruction will be written at the top of the page WB-PT-PT-WB-FR-FR. There is a reason we all had to do those when we were kids (I mean dozens of such studies) because you learn how to use every part of your bow. My suggestion is always be working on at least on edute/study. Wohlfardt and Kayser are great, so is Mazas. You don't really give an indication of your level so it's hard to make a more specific recommendation.

As for your headaches, I suggest you ease into your practice by just playing your violin the first five minutes or so, maybe reviewing some pieces that you already play very easily. When you're short of time, it's easy to overdo things in the first few minutes of your practice and then you're really triggering your migraine with tensions in your shoulders and neck, not with violin playing per se. Since you have this issue you will just need to be much more vigilant about any kind of tension.

For ensemble playing, I recommend that you look for collections of arrangements for piano trio. There's a TON of stuff out there. Since you play the piano too, you can read through the score and see what the pianist is doing, and this will be a big advantage for you. Some of the simplest non-arrangement stuff that I have seen are the Miniatures by Frank Bridge. They are on IMSLP. Even Haydn trios can get hard fast. You can also find arrangements for three or four violins if that's all you've got in terms of players. I have an acquaintance who went through IMSLP and found ALL of the four-violin arrangements and printed out all the parts and had them bound. Now she can just invite other violinists over and they can read through it. It's not all profound literature but it's still fund to read through.

I have a friend who keeps his saxophone in his work office. If he gets to work earlier than others typically arrive, he can practice for half an hour or more. So if you're getting home late and the only reason you can't practice is because your wife is already asleep, then you might as well keep your violin at the office and practice there.

March 7, 2019, 4:18 PM · Paul Smith: I’m getting hooked on violin as I progress. I’ve been hooked on classical music since I was a teen, but I have developed a special love for baroque music over the years. Regarding vibrato, I don’t plan to use it in Bach pieces. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to learn it or that I don’t enjoy romantic music! You’re probably right on your observation that I may be trying to use it too soon, since I’m relaxed when I do my vibrato exercises, but I get tense when I try to vibrate during a piece. As for practising, I usually end up playing on weekends. On weekdays I “play with” the electric piano with headphones on. And I say I “play with it” because I’m not concentrated enough to study anything, so I end up misplaying something that I already know. Thank you for your advice.

Andrew Víctor: Thank you. I’ll take your advice. For me, paying at the frog is a great way to discover new noises that I didn’t know my violin could make. It has to be such a soft and subtle playing, with very few pressure, that any movement or tension that I have results in an unpleasant noise. Amy teacher does not seem to be bothered by it, except for that I tend to unconsciously avoid the frog when I’m playing.

Timothy Smith: It’s not easy at all! Any other hobby, like painting is easier to practice late at night or very early in the morning. But playing the violin, which can get shrill and loud is a different challenge.

Paul Deck: The piano is an extremely beautiful instrument. I started classes as a child, and it had accompanied me ever since, except for a few years when I moved to a different city and I couldn’t play it. The piano is one of the reasons I love music.
My violin level lets me play some movements from the Corelli op. 5 sonatas. I’ve been playing 3rd position for a while and feel comfortable with it. I have just started 2nd position. I’m also doing double stop exercises and songs (Trott’s melodious double stops) and alive finished Dancla op. 123 (book 2).
I’ll take your advice on relaxation. It’s true that I get tense when playing new things, or when I’m not playing correctly. Sometimes that contributes to trigger a headache. Some other times, I don’t even need that. Working at an office spending lots of daily hours in front of a pc doesn’t help either, as it causes shoulder tension and eye strain.
I’ll look at the chamber works you mention. I’ve played some piano/basso continuo chamber music, but it has been the exception.
And that last idea of taking the violin to the office is not a bad idea at all. In my case it could be feasible. I like it.
Thank you for your comprehensive answer.

March 8, 2019, 3:38 AM · Funnily enough, playing the violin has confused my piano fingering. Yesterday I started buying another set of Bartok's Mikrokosmos (I used to have one in the 70s, but gave it away in 1990), and I got confused by a 4 in the left hand, and had to work it all out.
March 8, 2019, 9:03 AM · As a fellow adult beginner (with two kids at home as well) I commiserate about the lack of quality practice time. What I’ve done is to practice during my lunch hour out in the parking garage.
March 8, 2019, 1:14 PM · Miguel, right yesterday it was three years I brought home the first rental for myself (after fooling around on my son's first rental for a few weeks...) So we're in some kind of parallel slalom. Happy three years day!
I've been "out of order" too for almost four months because of health issues, and the amount of practice time I can invest is very unstable. There were times when I had 1-2 hours per day to disposal, but since 8 months (when I got a new employer) I'm almost exclusively limited to the weekends which almost led to stagnation, at least it feels like. When I listen to my recordings I make from time to time to give me a hint on what's going on, I still notice I'm improving though. It's important to regard it as a long term project and not allow yourself to get discouraged if these circumstances slow down or even inhibit your progress temporarily. There will be better times again.

From one previous post I think I remember you telling that it's mostly the high notes on the e string that triggers your headache? So if I'm not mistaken - did you ever consider giving it a try with a viola? I play both, and what I realized for myself is
1. It's relaxing to my ears and nerves, compared to the violin - there are days when I just can't stand the E - especially headache days! (Although I really do love it and will continue with both)
2. Playing the viola enormously boosted my violin technique, left hand as well as bowing technique and tone quality. If you can do something on a 42cm viola, it's a piece of cake on the violin!
3. As a violist, you'll be highly in demand in most places if it comes to playing in a group, especially in amateur ensembles no matter the level. Expect to be "asked out" frequently.

In general, it's never too early to start ensemble playing. It's a completely different set of skills you learn there, compared to playing solo (or supported by a better player, like your teacher). If you're too afraid of "not being good enough", ask your teacher to get you in touch with another adult student of your level and start playing easier duets, there are tons of them! Especially in baroque music, which we obviously both like.

What I do find interesting is that you struggle with 2nd and 3rd finger vibrato. For me 1st finger is the most difficult, followed by 4th. 2nd and 3rd have always been a no-brainer even after maybe 6 month, but with 1st and 4th I'm still struggling to produce the colours and expression I'd like to hear. Sometimes I fear that vibrating appropriately with 1st finger in 1st or even half position is never ever going to happen for me... It naturally gets better in higher positions, and above 5th position it starts getting a quirks again. Many years of further practice needed there!

March 8, 2019, 3:31 PM · I thought the bit on vibrato was interesting too. Most people I know find 2nd and 3rd fingers easiest, and have more difficulty with 1st and 4th fingers. I took 18 years to develop a consistent 1st finger vibrato, and used to sometimes shift positions just to avoid playing long notes on my 1st finger. But a few years ago I played in a community orchestra with someone who had no trouble with 1st or 4th finger vibrato but found 2nd and 3rd finger vibrato difficult. I wonder if this is just true for certain hand shapes?
March 8, 2019, 3:42 PM · Funny. Never heard of that, but obviously it happens. Short 1st, maybe?
Andrew, you give me hope. Although, 18 years are quite a while. So at age 60 I'll be 1st finger vibrato king. That sounds okay to me, just in time for my retirement programme. Thank goodness!
March 8, 2019, 3:58 PM · Nuuska M: Thank you for answering. Happy three years day too! Lack of quality practice time is an inconvenience that we, as adult learners, must deal with. We compensate by making our practice more efficient. I’m quite surprised because I didn’t think I would progress at a reasonable pace. But I’ve found that I’m doing it, and that the violin is not as extremely difficult as people think. At least it is not if you don’t want to play it professionally. As you perfectly stated, the violin is a lifetime project. There’s no need to hurry up when you take this challenge for pure enjoyment.

Regarding my headaches... it depends a bit. You remember right. Both the volume of the instrument and the high pitch can be a trigger. I always plug my left ear when playing, so when I’m feeling well, I can stand the full volume for an hour and I don’t mind very much the higher notes. But there are lots of days in which I don’t exactly have a headache, but my head is not perfect. On those days, the violin is a huge trigger. I’ve also noticed huge differences among different e strings. I can’t stand shrill strings like the prelude or the dominant. They provoked a headache in less than 5 minutes. But I like the tzigane and the wondertone solo e. They let me play for a while and sound great.

I have never played a viola, and I may try it someday out of curiosity. It good to know that it can help improve violin technique, and that they are in high demand. When I’m tired, I usually relax by playing my clavinova piano with headphones on at a low volume.

I’ll follow your advice and ask my teacher for some ensemble playing. I think he has at least two other students at my level who are an 11 year old and a teen, so it can get fun. After suffering the twinkle-twinkle phase I’m prepared for anything.

My teacher is also surprised with my vibrato. He says that I’m doing it right with the difficult fingers and not completely getting it with the easier ones. He also says that over his teaching career he has had very few other students who did the same, and that we are strange cases. But he is not very worried about it.

Overall I’m enjoying the violin, which is the main thing. I hope you’re also enjoying it.

Gordon and Craig: I see we all have very similar problems. Fingering can get tricky when you play the piano. And lack of time can be a pain. I don’t have a garage to practice in, but I’ll take the violin to my office as Paul Deck suggested earlier. Thank you both.

March 9, 2019, 8:47 AM · "Headaches: Despite I enjoy playing the violin, I've observed it's a great migraine trigger for me."

Have you investigated other potential triggers such as a rosin sensitivity? Given that you're already using a mute, you might not be bothered by the sound differences in going to a fully synthetic rosin, such as Clarity just for the sake of the experiment, cleaning the bow beforehand and allowing time for the difference to take effect.

Neck tension, where you face/look at while playing, the light on the music stand... Sorry, just wildly guessing here, but trying to be helpful.

March 9, 2019, 9:11 AM · J. Ray: Thank you for your suggestions. You guessed wildly but you are pointing at a good direction, since you mentioned light sensitivity and it's another common factor that triggers headaches. I haven't tried changing rosins. I just switched from the pirastro piranito rosin that came with my violin to the obligato rosin. That's all I did. I don't know if it is a bad or a good rosin. And I would have never thought of it as a possible trigger, but it can be. Strong smells have sometimes triggered my headaches in the past.

Neck tension can be another factor. But this one is funny, since a headache usually comes with some neck tension by itself. In my case it's a symptom, like yawning, seeing random lights or getting a blind spot for a while before the starting of the pain (the latter happened me once at class and I just couldn't read the music for 20 minutes. It was funny guessing it when the staves disappeared). So sometimes, I just have the neck tension before even starting to play. Some other times, my lack of a proper technique and my overall rigidity will cause me neck and shoulder tension, that definitely can contribute to a headache.

I'll have a look at the rosins you mentioned. Anything can be a cause or contribute to it. It's like having a very pain-sensitive brain, so I must constantly be guessing what can be causing the headaches. Food can also be a trigger. Well, I hope this will be the most serious sickness I will suffer (it would be great to have that guarantee!).

March 9, 2019, 6:04 PM · Congratulations on starting and continuing!

I'm a fellow migraine sufferer - and had very few migraines prior to restarting, now they are quite regular. A big issue that I discovered re: neck tension creating migraines (or just pushing a pre-migraine state into a full-migraine state) was an uncomfortable shoulder rest setup and a non-ideal chinrest. I've been visiting a chiropractor for a few months who works with a lot of musicians, and it's been very very helpful. I also started taking sporadic Alexander Technique classes which has been illuminating.

I get the yawning, random lights, blind spots, light sensitivity, smell sensitivity/hyperosmia, and so on. Food, lights, etc are all triggers. It's a beast. I find frequent breaks at every 20-30 mins to be helpful when I am feeling "off".

If I have had any of the pre-migraine symptoms that day, I do not practice (or do bow exercises sans violin) to save myself from being messed up for several days.

Good luck!

March 13, 2019, 6:05 AM · Thank you for sharing your experience, Pamela. Migraines are a silly thing to suffer. They're not extremely grave, but they can easily knock you out for a good time.

I'll follow your advice regarding frequent breaks and I'll try to avoid neck tension as best as I can, but this one will still be a bit difficult. My current lack of technique doesn't let me play as relaxed as I'd like. When I play the piano, my arms and shoulders are relaxed, there's little tension and I can forget about the instrument to focus on music. There was tension in my back, arms, hands and shoulders when I was starting out. With the violin, I'm still at that phase, and being it an instrument which is played in an "odd" position, it's even easier to get tense.

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