Learning violin with strings tuned for Indian classical music.

January 24, 2021, 12:34 AM · Hello. I am Charu from India. I am 56 years old and about 8 months ago, I started learning violin. I did not have any musical training earlier. I love western classical music and wish to learn violin to play western classical music.

After initial self-practice (Suzuki book with youtube videos), it became clear that I need a teacher. But, it was almost impossible to find a western classical music teacher around me. However, there were several good violin teachers for Indian classical music. So, I joined a teacher (for Indian Classical) who is very good and am with him for about 6 months now. And I have decided to devote first 1-2 years to Indian classical music before finally shifting to western classical music.

Violin techniques have evolved in India to suit traditional Indian style and it is played very differently, from the style of holding the violin to the tuning of strings (G#-C#-G#-C# instead of G-D-A-E).

After the long introduction, here are my questions:
1. To keep playing pieces from suzuki books and other western pieces, I usually transpose the pieces to either C#-major (for D-major) or F#-major (for G-major). This keeps the fingering on middle two strings same. Is this ok to do?

2. Is my decision to stay with Indian classical for 1-2 years before switching to western classical a meaningful one? Will it be very hard to make a switch later?

Any help, suggestions, comments will be helpful. Thank you all in advance.


PS: I am very serious about this hobby and I practice more than two hours every day.

Replies (9)

January 24, 2021, 6:48 AM · I would have thought that learning the violin in any tuning is still learning to train the ear and all the skills needed for playing the instrument, people do play violin with different tunings in the west.

If you can read music, it would just be a case of re learning where the notes are on the fingerboard, I honestly dont see a problem, but I am no expert by any stretch of the imagination.
January 25, 2021, 8:39 AM · I think I can help you but don’t have time to go into details right now. Please check again soon.
Edited: January 25, 2021, 8:33 PM · I have taught students (children beginners) who also had played or were actively playing Indian classical and "simply" ask them to "learn western technique my way" for the sake of future technique-building because I don't know which aspects of Indian technique are easily or not easily adaptable. For the hypothetical student who is older and more advanced, it's possible that I could convey what result we are looking for and the student might be able to experiment into a suitable way, without my having to go into extreme detail about very specific physical motions.

For one student, the Indian teacher had her on a bigger violin than I thought suitable for western style. She ended up with two violins, maintaining both tunings separately. I don't know what happens to strings that are frequently tuned and held at other pitches. There is scordatura in western playing, at least, so maybe someone else can comment.

My impression is that changing/adding western classical to a foundation of Indian learning would be similar to toggling between violin/viola/cello or within other families of related instruments. Some aspects will be easier or harder than others but with good guidance and determination, it can be done.

How about considering a western classical violin teacher online? Many are doing that these days.

January 26, 2021, 6:19 PM · The reason not to learn Western music with Indian-style tuning is: composers wrote the music with an understanding of what is easier or harder to play on a violin tuned in fifths. Sure, you can transcribe music for a violin tuned differently, but it may force you into very awkward fingerings.
January 27, 2021, 10:52 AM · Keep the genres completely separate, as if you were playing two different instruments, posture, tuning, style, technique. Do not try to find a compromise between western classical and traditional Indian.
January 27, 2021, 12:40 PM · I had beginner kids who also played 'Tamil' violin. It really requires 2 instruments. And why not?
January 28, 2021, 6:28 AM · Thank you very much for your replies. I think the case for separating the two traditions is very strong. I had thought about it but wanted your opinion before I invest in the second violin.

I find the suggestion of keeping genres completely separate by Joel very insightful. I think I will also allot separate the practice days. Now that I have already started with Indian style, I don't want to leave that halfway through, so maybe two days a week, I will practice pieces from books like Suzuki volumes.

I am a professor of physics at the Indian Institute of Technology. We, too, have temporarily shifted to online teaching, but nobody, neither teachers nor students are happy. And especially with music, I think online learning is much more difficult.

Any other insight will be very helpful. Thanks again.

January 28, 2021, 7:06 AM · The technique is very different for carnatic violin vs western classical playing, such as the hold of the instrument, bow, tuning, the timbre and pitch of tones, etc. I think separating the forms can be a good thing. I recently came into contact with some carnatic violinists in the San Francisco area that I believe are doing online teaching. Perhaps its good to reach out to them and ask. One particular performer/teacher is named Sruti Sarathy of the Raaga School of music.

As a classical teacher and observing what carnatic violinists do while sitting and playing with violin towards the floor, I'm always amazed at the flexibility in which a violin can imitate so many different types of ethnic music, yet with classical training, one can also attempt to branch out to experience rich cultural world music that in itself has varying technique that one has to apply to truly get the nuance and language of it. Jazz for instance is this way, not every classical player can apply their technical skills to truly get the feel of that style and language, that has a world of its own too.

January 28, 2021, 8:40 AM · I had some experience of this but going the other way, from Western to Indian. My problem with the different tunings was that I would think in intervals more than anything else. So, I found the fourth in the middle would mess me up unless I thought of it as two sets of two strings in octaves. Coming from 5th, 4th, 5th tuning to all 5ths you will need to find a way to relate it to the 5ths you are already working with in the scale.
It sounds complicated but humans are pretty adaptable!
It would be better to have 2 violins rather than mess with the tuning too much. L.Subramaniam himself told me it would shorten the life of the strings.

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