Beginner frustration

Edited: November 16, 2022, 6:02 PM · Hi everyone, new here, been stalking for a while. I’m an adult beginner in my mid 30s. I started lessons a few months ago. I feel as though I have a breakthrough (something I consider praiseworthy at my humble level) and then I feel like I just go backwards. Last night I thought I may have finally attained intonation on the D string at least. I thought I could hear when I was perfectly hitting E, F#, and G because it sounded louder and clearer than if my finger was positioned a little bit further away. Now today, trying to check my ear accuracy with my tuner, I’m doubting I was hitting the notes in tune at all and it seems much more difficult to get there in the first place.

Sometimes I sound really clear. Sometimes I sound scratchy. I know it’s all just a matter of practice, practice, practice, and that has suffered some with 3 kids, work obligations, and getting COVID last month. After about 2 months into lessons everything stopped feeling so hard. It all just suddenly worked although not always perfect. But it doesn’t feel that way anymore.

I really try to practice with a lot of intent. If I’m not getting something, I’ll take a break and go search the internet for why I may be having difficulty, and then I usually find some good techniques/advice and improve. But it’s been slow progression for a little while now…only getting through a page or two of my beginner’s book every week.

Am I going to be stuck in this rut forever???? I know I won’t, but how have others moved past this frustrating stage?

Replies (39)

November 16, 2022, 6:38 PM · Intonation is a lifelong journey. As you get better, your ears will become more sensitive, revealing just how out of tune you are playing, or, that is to say, until that allows you to improve your intonation, then allowing your ears to open up a tiny bit more.

I don't know about the earlygoing, but eventually, the tuner must be abandoned, because not only will it lie to you about being in tune, but it will cause you to trust the tuner rather than your ear, which is the ultimate mistake in learning violin. Maybe there is a good argument for using the tuner at the very beginning stage, like starting a marble sculpture with some kind of power tool before getting down to the hand tools, but then again, maybe that's verboten too.

Eventually, you will learn to check your intonation with the open strings of the violin and listening for beatless perfect intervals. That might not be the right thing for a beginner, but the violin teaches you how to play in tune if you listen.

November 16, 2022, 7:28 PM · do you have a teacher? your story so far sounds pretty normal... 1 step forward and 2 steps back. Even professional violinists lose some of their intonation if they don't practice for a little while, but they work it back up pretty quickly. Your teacher can show you how to check tuning without the electric gadget. It just takes a lot of repetitions to develop your ear and fingers, and it takes a lot to get the bowing good at the same time. Keep it up, though, and hopefully enjoy the process!
November 16, 2022, 10:00 PM · Christian, you’re a genius. “The violin teaches you how to play in tune if you listen.” My teacher mentioned that a tuner might not always be accurate, and although I’ve heard of checking intonation with open strings as you mentioned, I have no idea how to do that except comparing the 4th finger A on D string to open A. But I just sat with my violin and slowly moved my finger along the string (from way out of tune) to see if I could get in tune. I can do it. It wasn’t a fluke or a daydream. I can hear when it’s in tune. I can’t tell you what note anyone else is playing, but I can tell you if I’m playing mine. Lots of work to be done on this, but what you said really spoke to me and inspired me to try this different exercise, so thank you!
Edited: November 16, 2022, 10:45 PM · As Christian said, trust your ear and not the tuner.

Something you may find is incredibly useful is a drone. You can look up free drone apps, or just search "cello drone" on youtube.

If you're practicing on the D string, use a D drone. On A, use an A drone.

What you'll find is that the constant humming of the drone gives you a reference point that never changes.

Intonation is relative, so unless we have context for what a note is supposed to sound like, it's meaningless. The drone provides that context.

Also, you shouldn't try to tell if each note is in tune based on how that note alone sounds, but rather on how it sounds compared to the note before it. But, the issue here is that if you played your E out of tune, now your ear will try to make the F# a relative distance from that E. So now the F# is also out of tune. ---- The drone will solve this problem, as you'll always have a constant reference point that you can trust to be in tune.

Another way of getting a similar effect is to practice 0 1 0 2 0 3 instead of 0 1 2 3....the idea here is the same as the drone: between each note, you revisit your original reference note (the open string) because we trust that it is in tune.

Also, are you self-teaching, or do you have a teacher?

November 16, 2022, 10:56 PM · I do something similar to Eric, but alternate with string above and below as point of reference (as double stops). So your always getting good intervals like 3rds and 6ths to check (avoiding 2nds/7ths)
Edited: November 16, 2022, 11:20 PM · I don't know what "method" your teacher is using, but I have found that using music/songs students are familiar with is a great place to start. They know when they are out of tune and can usually fix it.

I had my first violin lesson in mid-1939 and my teacher's goal was to teach me to play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." I was 4 years old and it was one song, among many, my mother had sung to me and my baby sister at bed time from our beginnings. Fortunately she sang in tune - so learning to play it in tune was not difficult.

About 25 years later I started teaching violin to some young people and I did not start them the same way I had been started, however, about 10 years after that I discovered the Suzuki books ("Twinkle" is the first piece in the course) and used them to start a number of students from age 5 to 60. That approach was a big improvement seemed to work great - and I brought several of my students through the entire series of 10 books - to and through the Mozart violin concertos. I used other sources (books) as well.

The Suzuki program concentrates on the A and E strings at the beginning. Only the very fastest adult learner I ever taught got to the D string in 2 months - she made it to book 6 in 10 months - it was her first string instrument, but she had a strong musical background in singing and wind instruments.

November 17, 2022, 3:34 AM · hi Michelle, if you seem to get worse, that may simply be because you aim to be a bit better, after the small successes of previous practice. it's a natural process and if you just keep practicing and believing you will most definitely *not* stay "in this rut" as you feared.
November 17, 2022, 3:44 AM · @Erik, I had no idea that these drone apps existed. For me this is the most useful discovery of the day. Thanks for this.
Edited: November 17, 2022, 8:45 AM · Strangely I found my intonation suddenly got way way better once my bowing improved ! - I wonder why :)

For complete beginners it is the bowing that is so dificult and alien to do. My teacher just tells me about her very young students just go for it, and over time everything improves

But as adult beginners we analyse and dissect, google and youtube everything !!!! - and as for tuners (although Guilty as charged)

Intonia Software is very very useful for post analysis if you must

Even in 3rd Position now I find it much easier to hear intonation, as my bowing has improved (straightened)

Edited: November 17, 2022, 9:45 AM · Learning alone deprives us of actively hearing our peers and our teachers.
And we should listen daily to recordings of fine violinists to fill our memories with well-bowed, well-tuned sounds.

Bowing? Try to caress or massage the the strings, rather than rub them!
(A well-sounding straight stroke is an illusion: think of it as as a very flat scooped curve.)

Intonation? On the D-string, set the first finger to make the E-string ring, the third finger to the G-string and the fourth finger to the A; the second finger will be either next to the third, or the curled back next to the first. Once the fourth finger is placed, we may have to re-adjust the whole hand, curling the first & second a little more.

And visual aids such as tuners and stickers can save a lot of headaches, provided we immediately repeat without looking!

November 17, 2022, 11:27 AM · Jean, you are spot on. I don’t feel I go backwards every time, but I do get frustrated that I don’t go forward every time either. I know every one has good days and bad days, but it’s frustrating to have several bad days in a row. I’ve always excelled at everything in life, and I think I will at violin, too (maybe), but it feels like at this point I won’t be playing Vivaldi The Four Seasons until my kids are grown.

For those asking, yes I do have a teacher. He plays with me, and my intonation is better than practice at home alone. I am currently searching for a stranger who’s also learning to play with because I don’t know anyone that plays. We’ll see how well Craigslist does with that. I’m working through Essentials for Strings and Essential Elements for Strings. My teacher overcomes my perfectionist attitude pretty well, so he’s awesome.

I haven’t really understood the drone thing. Even hearing a piano in the same note doesn’t really click for me, so I know I need a lot more work with that, but I will give it a shot. I took the stickers off about two weeks in because I felt they were too distracting focusing on whether my fingers were in the right place versus hearing the sound. I also think my strings could be part of the problem. They are several years old, although only really played on regularly since August, because I attempted to pick up violin a few years ago and had to stop due to medical issues. I have new strings arriving tomorrow.

I also want to say that this community has been a big help in technique and general information even before I posted, so thanks for that.

November 17, 2022, 11:42 AM · You're starting a lifelong learning journey, so just be glad you are starting so young! There are some days or weeks when I can practice a lot, others when I can't. Progress is definitely not a straight line for me. Looking back on my 7 and a half years of violin so far, I'd say there has been a very big change in how I use my brain and time, moving beyond the literal and literary and beyond my natural strengths, into a mode more challenging and sometimes of ambiguous progress, but overall satisfying, hope-giving and cultivating a mindfulness that is emotionally rewarding.
November 17, 2022, 11:54 AM ·
This thread hits me pretty square. I picked up the violin again after a long period of not playing. And, correct intonation has been kind of a back and forth experience for me.

Tuners are great for tuning the violin, and they can be used to check intonation. But, I think that they can be overused a bit for the latter. I tried overusing them to get "every note" in tune, and it didn't work out very well.

Based on advice I received on this forum, I strive for what sounds right to me as I play, and then I maybe check that on occasion against a tuner. When I started playing again, what "sounded right" to me was off. But through occasional use of a tuner, it organically evolved to something that's better.

Another big part of correct intonation is "knowing" where to place one's fingers on the fingerboard. So, I'm always experimenting with this. For example, I've recently discovered that, for my fingers, I need to place my 3rd (ring) finger fairly tightly against my second finger in 3rd position to achieve a half-step difference that's in tune. I even move the 3rd finger a little to the side, so that it's not fully planted on the string. Not that I have this awareness, I can plan for it as I play. Etc. Of course, it varies with the individual. Occasional use of a tuner can definitely assist this type of experimentation.

Playing violin isn't just for performance. Practice is a big part of the total experience, so it's important to keep practice enjoyable. One can work hard practicing, yet still enjoy the process.

Edited: November 17, 2022, 12:47 PM · As soon as you can play stably on two strings at the same time, you can start checking your intonation with neighboring strings by playing the double stop and listening for and eliminating any beating. Your 1st finger in 1st position can be checked with the next open string up, as it makes a perfect 4th. Your 3rd finger in 1st position you can check with the next string down, as it makes an octave. Your 4th finger makes a unison with the next string up. Your 2nd finger you can fit into that framework by listening and developing your own judgment for where it goes. This gives you scaffolding for intonation, where in keys with few accidentals, you can check exactly where most of the notes go, and the rest of the notes get fit into that context.

Eventually you internalize a lot of this stuff, but if you learn to practice by constantly checking your intonation like this, you will start waaaaay ahead of most. It's just a practice that can seem like a big hassle if you get really used to mindlessly playing through stuff in "practice" sessions, but it's invaluable. There are many further nuances, and it maybe isn't reasonable to expect a beginner to practice like this, because it takes a lot of concentration, but it pays dividends down the road.

November 17, 2022, 12:52 PM · To be clear, I would also caution against over-reliance on the piano as well as the tuner. Both use equal temperament, which is a compromise that makes intervals sound equally close to correct in every key -- but it's not the same as the pure intervals you learn to listen for when playing a string instrument. So it may well be that your ears are right about you being in tune, and the tuner is wrong.

More generally, you may sometimes feel that you sound worse as you progress because you're not only training your hands and arms, but also training your ears. Often you haven't gotten worse, it's just that the error range that you consider acceptable gets narrower.

November 17, 2022, 2:22 PM · Also, OP, you really shouldn't be focused on perfect intonation when you've only been playing a few months (some will disagree, but they're wrong)

Try to follow this progression for maximum success (these stages apply to beginners, within the realm of Suzuki books 1-4)

Stage 1) Simple music, blurry intonation but you can make out the tune, decent rhythm, OK posture/bowing

Stage 2) More complex music, decent intonation, good rhythm, good posture/bowing

Stage 3) Music approaching intermediate level, "good" intonation, excellent rhythm, excellent posture/bowing

Note that even at stage 3, a tuner would still show many of our notes as somewhat wrong.

The thing about learning music is that if you get too stuck on one concept (in this case, intonation), you will neglect to keep developing the other concepts. So maybe after 3 years you will be able to play a "perfect" D Major scale, but that doesn't really matter.

It's far better to develop everything evenly, starting from "blurry" and eventually ending up at "clear".

This is how the best beginner students, both young and adult, learn. A good teacher should know how to guide you in this, and be able to explain what level of intonation is expected at each stage, and why.

November 17, 2022, 2:31 PM · In many learning situations you encounter plateaus. This is probably more true of violin than many other things. You'll go along, getting better and better, then suddenly it'll feel like you hit a brick wall. It happens to all of us from time to time.

Don't give up. Keep on practising. You might feel like you're getting nowhere, but one day you'll pick up your violin and what seemed impossible suddenly is easy. Enjoy the moment and move on. Sooner or later you'll hit another plateau, but just keep plugging away - eventually you'll conquer it too. And on and on it goes.

As others have pointed out, sometimes it's not that your playing has gotten worse, but that your ears have gotten more sensitive and you've subconsciously raised the bar. You're never quite satisfied with your progress, not because you're no good but because you've discovered the next step you have to take. Even the most skilled players have things they want to improve. As I once commented at a workshop, "We all suck, we just suck at different levels." (The instructor replied, "You're one of those glass-half-empty people, aren't you?")

When it comes to intonation, learn to listen to your violin. Play an E on your A string; if you've hit it right the open E string will ring as well, giving a stronger sound. If you haven't fingered the E correctly, it will sound dead. Try moving your finger a bit while playing that E - you'll know when you hit the sweet spot.

Now angle your bow so it hits both the A and E strings. Both should sound an E, but if your finger isn't correctly placed you'll hear a beat frequency. If you're too far off it will sound like an unpleasant growling or grumbling, but as you get closer to the pitch of the open E it'll turn into a warbling sound, then a wave that gets slower and slower as you approach the pitch, finally stopping on a pure sound when the two strings match exactly. (I hope I've described this in a way you can understand - it does take some careful listening and a bit of getting used to.)

Once you've developed this ability, you can play two adjacent open strings and hear a beat frequency between harmonics of those strings. This one is very subtle, but once you've learned to hear it you can throw away your tuner. You can use a tuning fork to tune your A string, then use the A string to tune your D and E strings, then use the D string to tune your G string.

Welcome to a lifetime adventure of learning. It never gets boring.

Edited: November 17, 2022, 6:06 PM · If you can sing the note before you play it then you can start to develop natural intonation. If there is no mental image then there's no hope of playing in tune. I wouldn't check against a tuner, because it uses your eyes and your eyes are not helpful for the violin. Try a drone, or learn a very simple tune you can sing well enough.
November 17, 2022, 6:12 PM · So... You want to know if your intonation is ok. On the D string, play Mary Had a Little Lamb starting with F sharp. If the tune sounds right, then your intonation is fine. If it's a little wonky then troubleshoot. This is how my teacher teaches beginners and it a cornerstone of most "methods" too ... tunes you know.
November 17, 2022, 6:14 PM · Also Cotton is right ... You want to hear the pitch in your minds ear before you play the note. Good luck and try to be patient.
Edited: November 17, 2022, 7:21 PM · Personally, I think it is the teacher's responsibility to set up the learning progression for each student in a manner that gives them the needed tools when they need them.

Singing the music in one's head is one of them - or at least hearing the next note and ultimately a progression of notes.

Adults do want to learn faster than they can - definitely faster than children. However when I have had parents who also wanted to learn so they could help their children, I found in virtually all cases the children progressed faster than their parents and within a month or two the parent's were unnecessary - in fact they could become a hindrance.

Some of my adult beginners who made the fastest progress actually came to me to learn to play one specific piece of music. I was usually able to satisfy that request within a couple of weeks, by which time they were hooked and we could get them on with actually learning to play the instrument and learn to read music on it. One of those pieces was "Ashoken Farewell," even more common was "Amazing Grace." But "Twinkle" or "Mary Had A Little Lamb" can work too, as it does with children.

Edited: November 17, 2022, 7:52 PM · Andrew H, regarding tuners and equal temperament, my tuning app "Tunable" offers many choices of temperament (of which I usually select "1/6 syntonic comma Attenuated"). But what bothers me about it is the app never distinguishes that syntonic comma difference between the chromatic and diatonic half-steps.

My understanding of this comes from Ross Duffin's book "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony," in which he cites late baroque sources (violinist Leopold Mozart and the flautist Quantz, and a singer from that time as well) to assert that a whole step is divided into 9 commas, and the chromatic half-step is 4 of these whereas the diatonic half-step is 5. Therefore my tuner app should distinguish between, say, a G# and an Ab (again, they are a syntonic comma apart!), but it never does, it never shows a G# but just shows an Ab --as if I was playing in equal temperament with enharmonic half-steps. Very annoying! I wish I could find a tuner app that doesn't feel like the temperament settings are fake because it doesn't recognize that the half-steps are enharmonic ONLY in equal temperament. In any other temperament, to give another example, B# is NOT C.

Sorry, I'm drifting out of the original post issue, but to me it is relevant to the extent that we are considering use of a tuner to develop an ear for intonation.

November 18, 2022, 5:34 AM · Indeed. Some harpsichords even have split G#/Ab keys (and strings!).
In fact, in just intonation, C to E to G# is three commas lower than upper C down to Ab.
By sheer luck, the syntonic and Pythagtean commas are very similar, around 20/100 of a tempered semitone.

All this is to point out that pure intervals don't always fit well together: we must be careful to choose which note to adjust at a given moment in the music...

November 18, 2022, 8:45 AM · In addition to Ross Duffin's book "How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony" referenced by Will, "Tuning and Temperament" by J. Murray and "Temperament" by Stuart Isacoff provide insights into the jagged architecture of musical scales.

Nothing, however, can equal the jarringly rapid learning imposed by a good coach of your string quartet.

Edited: November 18, 2022, 9:16 AM · Can I just say that I’m not trying to be perfect tomorrow or even next decade? I understand that playing the violin is complex, but this conversation wasn’t started about intonation specifically. It was just one example of my frustrations. But specifically to intonation, I appreciate the advice of comparing notes on other strings on the violin, which I will begin trying. I know I won’t get it right away, but I can start trying to do things the right way. I wasn’t frustrated by my intonation because I suck. I was frustrated because I felt like I finally heard the first finger E on the D string. As in I heard it, and I knew it was right. But then struggled with that the next day. Even if I can do that, that doesn’t mean I will always play it in tune, but I’m trying to build up my ear so maybe I can start really hearing when I’m out of tune and need to adjust mid-playing, which my teacher says is what all violinists do.

And I do like my teacher. I think it’s a good, helpful relationship. I follow his guidance and take his advice. But my lessons are only half an hour a week, so there’s not a lot of time for explanation on skills. I ask him about the things that he can help me best on like how my hands are positioned because you need to see that, but for other things, I feel like it’s reasonable to take the tidbits of advice he gives and then go research that on my own as there is such a wealth of information on this forum, YouTube, and the internet generally. I know a lot of people just want to get it all right away. Of course, we all do, but I understand as so many others do that it takes practice. Nevertheless, I’ve heard over and over again about good practice and bad practice. Isn’t it better to ask these questions and try to figure it out, so then I can practice with understanding for the next few weeks, years, decades? Learning an instrument is no different than law school, in my opinion, in that you have a teacher for asking certain questions and getting some feedback, but for the most part it’s independent study. I couldn’t do fourth finger when I got to it in the book and mentioned this to my teacher over a virtual lesson (because I was at home sick that week), but when I got back to in person classes, I had already figured it out by moving my thumb toward my pinky. That’s a victory of my independent study I can be proud of. No, I still don’t stretch it enough sometimes, sometimes I stretch it too much, it makes my first finger come up and lose its place, etc. So there’s so much still to work on with that, but I’m progressing, and I’m happy with that.

Edited: November 18, 2022, 11:39 AM · I think everyone here is in your corner, Michelle, but discussions like this tend to drift away from the immediate needs of the original post. A lot of the stuff posted is further down the road for you; think of it as food for thought that will make sense later rather than an instruction for you. You are at a stage where you are probably trying to discern half steps from whole steps, so following the intonation of a piano is probably what you are trying to match at this point (depending on if you've had other musical training). As Cotton mentioned, audiation skills are big (singing the notes in your head as you play), but I think that those mostly just develop as a consequence of practice, unless you are doing solfege practice, which more explicitly develops the skill.

Your frustration is a totally natural reaction to the ebbs and flows of learning. Something works one day, and the next it doesn't, and a few months later it suddenly clicks into place reliably. The frustration, on one hand, is a sign that you care and are paying attention, and on the other hand, can make the whole thing unpleasant if it gets too great; I think the task is to let the frustration spur you on without letting it boil over.

Your law school analogy works, like in law school, for people with many years and developed skills under their belts. You're in kindergarten at the moment, where the teacher is the direct cause of the progress you are going to make. If you want to speed it up, you can ask for a second half-hour lesson each week, which will give you a more consistent contact with the teacher to scaffold your learning at home. But that might also ask for more time for practice, if you have the time to spare.

November 18, 2022, 11:41 AM · Michelle: You make sense :) Both your question and your approach to problem solving. Everybody else has mentioned that, yes it's normal to feel great one day and struggle the next so I won't go back into that. I just wanted to affirm that what you heard the day your intonation "worked" is exactly what you should hear: the in-tune pitches will "sound" in-tube, ring more clearly, etc. *and* they may not match the tuner for other reasons discussed above and that's ok ??

One thing to consider: the in-tune pitches will ring most clearly if the whole violin (all the strings) are in tune. So, for example, if you're having a day where you just can't find that in-tune sound on D, check to make sure your G hasn't gone flat. Especially in cold dry weather this can be a thing :D and I feel like some violins are more responsive than others to one string being off.

Good luck and have fun!!!

November 18, 2022, 1:06 PM · You shouldn't get your 4th finger higher by moving the thumb closer to the pinky, btw. If anything, you should push the thumb away.
Edited: November 18, 2022, 1:40 PM · Yes, a very, very challenging and at times frustrating goal - learning to really play the violin. It is important to protect your motivation against the discouragement of negative self-talk.

Psychologically, one of the factors is indeed "self-talk." Self talk is normal and part of our human nature, and while it is often positive, too often it is negative and can affect our motivation. The good news is that we actually control 100% of the words we tell ourselves, even if we don't at first believe them. Remember, even prayer itself is often positive self-talk.

So here is a suggestion (which you can edit as you wish) for something to say to yourself (out loud) 4 or 5 times a day. Watch what happens in a week:

"I feel good when I am relaxing easily doing better and better in every way,
one doable priority at a time, no matter how small or momentary.
I always feel good solving my problems and achieving my goals."

I hope that helps.

Edited: November 18, 2022, 2:01 PM · greetings,
Welcome to violinist.commie, Hannah. I may have missed some stuff since I haven’t really got time to read everything in detail yet but it does strike me that it might be worth talking a little bit about how we actually achieve the goal of being in tune, something that remains the biggest challenge for violinists until they shuffle off their mortal coil.
One of the first dangers we need to be aware of, that many players of even a relatively high level make a mistake with is the difference between sliding the fingers onto the correct notes and lifting them. what I mean by this is that if you are using a tuna or open string or whatever to check a note, you recognise that it’s flat and you slide your finger to the correct page you have not only not solved the problem, but actually created a new one. That is, One has trained the mind body to play that note by hitting it flat and then sliding into it. I sometimes get students who slide into practically every note. What we actually need to do is , When we play in an out of tune is lift it off, and place it On the correct spot. however this is only one third of the battle. If one has successfully done this, then this does not mean that the next time you have to play the note you will hit it in tune. In order to achieve this end one has to lift and place the finger on the correct note A number of times, in order to eradicate the neurological memory of placing the finger on the wrong spot. This correct repetition of placement requires a minimum of three reps although you may want to do six or seven at least. I mentioned The battle consisting of three parts because the final component is, of course, what goes on in one’s head between playing a note that is out of tune and placing it on the correct spot. First of all, one must make a clear mental decision about her at the wrong note. Was it Sharpe or flat? Then, when one lifts the finger,One place is it Sharper or flatter as necessary. This clear mental process is repeated many times until one feels when he’s hitting the right note and then you hit the right note many times to make it automatically correct. I’m afraid there is no other way of learning to play in tune.
By the way, it is an absolute impossibilityTo hit every single note in tune during a concert performance. In my opinion, Heifitz had perhaps the most accurate left-hand fingers in the history of the violin and yet by his own estimates he probably missed around 20 or 30% of the notes he played during a performance. What is actually happening during a performance by anyone is that the highly sensitive ears of a professional soloist immediately know if a note is out of tune and adjustThe note so rapidly, often through the use of Vibrato that the listener Has no idea that anything was out of tune at all. However, in order to achieve this ability to adjust the fingers on the fly, one has to have gone through the procedure I described at the beginning of this post.
November 19, 2022, 3:44 AM · hi Michelle, a small comment about the fourth finger. in the very first stages, like where you are now, it is fine not to worry too much about the 4th finger. instead focus on fingers 1, 2 and 3. use the pinky occasionally, but play the open strings most of the time, and try to advance playing pieces in first position like that, and pay attention to bowing mainly and producing sound, and more or less OK intonation with fingers 1,2,3. once advanced on this level, and you reach an early intermediate level, it is then time to pay more attention to the fourth finger, and learn the classical left-hand setup. it is something that then needs to be learned and adapted to, once you get that, it will give you a quantum leap. but too early for that now. if you want to peek ahead you can search [fourth finger] or [pinky] here on the discussion forum! so, basically, what I am saying, read again Erik Williams's reply from November 17, 2022, 2:22 PM.
Edited: November 19, 2022, 8:30 AM · To take up Buri's detailed recommendations, I often find that two thirds of our technique lie before and between the notes: how we lift, stretch & curl the fingers, and how we tilt and swing the bow hand once the new finger is in place.

My slow preparatory practice includes a kind of "moonwalk" slow motion, with attention to the transitions from one note to the next.
My next slow practice is "real", but with separated, sounds and transitions.
Then, I assemble these fragments into chunks of music and speed them up.
Then, hopefully, I can stop "overthinking" and just play...

Jean, while strengthening the fourth finger takes time, I feel we should set up the hand shape with a curved fourth finger to avoid starting from scratch when we want to use it.

Edited: November 19, 2022, 7:25 AM · Greetings,
‘feel we should set up the hand shape with a curved fourth finger to avoid starting from scratch when we want to use it.’
Very much concur with you on this one.
November 19, 2022, 8:42 AM · while that sounds indeed obvious, I am not convinced of it. I think the priority for an adult beginner should be to go as fast as possible to play OK tunes in first position and open strings: get as fast as possible to the basic, though sloppy, level of making some music and getting the satisfaction. of course it's just my theory, but I think that gives the best guarantees of not quitting early after a few months in frustration.
November 19, 2022, 7:53 PM · Jean,
your point is well taken. There r is nothing worse than a pedantic focus on technique which is not meeting the needs or interests of the adult learner. However, in this particular aspect of technique we cannot assume a priori that a) it is going to slow down the adult beginners ability to enjoy playing music as quickly as possible and b) this is what an adult wants c) adults will be able to play well in tune and with ease without the fundamental understanding of left hand balance.
My experience of teaching adults is basically one of respecting their intelligence by explaining why one should do x (and not y.) . Explain the concept of LH balance, setting the hand on the 3rd and 4th and stretching back takes minimal effort. My way of emphasizing the concept in a practical way is to teach lh pizz almost from the beginning. In this way an adult can play a pizz ato open string tune in the first lesson (rh) and soon add lh pizz with 4th finger so they can really enjoy making music straight away and indirectly absorb this aspect of technique.
We are always going to have to be making decisions about what we need to do now to satisfy a a Ss desires, but at the same time, if we allow habits to become ingrained that prevent greater enjoyment down the line then we have ultimately failed that student and they have the right to be really angry with us.
November 20, 2022, 6:57 AM · thanks for your perspective Buri! very insightful.
Edited: November 20, 2022, 12:35 PM · Michelle, you can count on any discussion of intonation on this website to migrate into the subtleties of temperament, Pythagorean vs. Just tuning, and the like, with reference to venerable texts on these subjects (which I have never read).

My suggestion above was meant to avoid a lot of frustration. Just play some VERY basic tunes that you know and try to make them sound "right." If they don't, then you change things -- very gradually and systematically -- until they do.

IIRC, Suzuki Book 1 is set up so that the finger spacing is basically the same for the first few tunes in the Book. This is a huge advantage for the beginner. Fingers 1 and 2 will be far apart (a whole step) and your 2 and 3 will be close (half step). That spacing will give you "Twinkle" and "Go Tell Aunt Rhody" and "Song of the Wind" in violin-friendly keys. If you reverse the spacing, so that fingers 1 and 2 are close, but 2 and 3 are far apart, then you get other keys ("Twinkle" will be transformed from A major to A minor, for instance).

If you imagine every possible combination of wide and narrow spacings, including your fourth finger, then you might feel it's all hopeless. But after you learn just a few of the more common ones really well, the whole concept will become much more natural to you.

Using your tuner seems attractive and it almost sounds absurd to hear that it's misleading you. But it's really true. The sound you want from "Twinkle" will be marked "wrong" on the tuner. On the other hand, if you're not even in the ballpark, the tuner will get you there.

Finally, you should take heart from one truth about learning the violin that is almost universal except for savants with perfect pitch and so forth: Your ability to HEAR and JUDGE your intonation will evolve in parallel with your ability to PLAY the notes correctly on your violin.

Edited: November 20, 2022, 3:40 PM · Hi Michelle, two questions and two comments

1. Do you have the version of essential elements that comes with a playalong track? That series is designed for group teaching in middle school and should have a CD/mp3, which works well in lieu of your teacher for addressing intonation. I'm not sure how far along you are, but from memory it does have lots of 'familiar' tunes once you can play a few notes, so you can hear the notes in your head before you play them. You may also (I haven't looked) find YouTube clips of tunes from the books (check they're played out of time).
Suzuki and colourstrings methods work because they involve copious amounts of non-violin-playing homework in the form of listening to the tunes long before you learn to play them. You can do this with any method that includes CD/mp3 tracks - double your practice time by listening while driving/commuting/walking, cooking/cleaning and even by unfocused listening while doing data entry or other admin work. You know you've listened enough when it turns up in your dreams!

If your book doesn't come with music either get your teacher to record it on your phone or talk to them about changing to a method book that does.

2. Are you trying to achieve too many things at once? As a beginner it's very difficult to coordinate all the things you need to do to play a violin. It helps to focus on one thing at a time when you practice.
For instance, if you're working on keeping your bow straight and balanced with a relaxed now hold, play the 'tune' on open strings (ie just the rhythm and strings changes); if you're working on intonation practice pizz. If you're working on bow division (how much bow for a quarter/crotchet vs a half note/minum) then begin with tapping, clapping or body percussion and progress to air bowing (through a toilet roll if you're still working on straight bows - change the angle of the roll to reflect string crossings, which could be an exercise in itself).

Any time you pick up your violin to practice a line of music (as opposed to playing something for fun, that you already know), have one specific goal for your practice.

Also, don't be hard on yourself getting everything right at once. If you're the sort of perfectionist who needs it, keep a practice journal which includes what you got right (the rhythm, the string crossing in bar 3, that pesky fourth finger in bar 7 etc) - this is a brain exercise, so don't let your can'ts outnumber your cans.

3. One of the Suzuki things is to listen for 'singing strings'. So if you are in tune and play 3rd finger absolutely correctly on the d-string, the g string will join in, first finger will make the e string join in and fourth finger will make the a string join in. If you have a nice violin, the string above may also sing along with your 2nd finger which is part to the chord firmed with the string above.
These resonances are what make the violin sound so haunting. It's most obvious with the lower strings, so start this kind of listening with third finger on d and a. This works well with the 0-1-0-2-0-3 finger exercise that someone already mentioned.

Also, if you set a d drone for 2nd and 4th finger practice 0-2-0-4, you should also start to hear how the notes fit together into a chord. If you're new to listening (and haven't sung in choirs), don't try a drone with first finger, it's a harder interval to make sense of.

4. This has already been mentioned above, but I want to reiterate - it's important to be able to sing your time in your head (and preferably out loud) before you put your fingers down. If you're not a singer, practice singing along to anything - the radio in your car, the wiggles with your kids (small kids are brilliant, non- judgemental audiences who reward engagement over talent - great for beginners), your cooking or house cleaning soundtracks.

Use the real words, make up new words, sing fum diddle dee bum ditty scat-style syllables, solfege note names (do-re-mi etc), rhythm sounds (ta for quarter note, ti-ti for two eighth notes, ta-ah for a half note etc)... whatever floats your boat/makes you less self-conscious/embeds the tune in your mind.
Graduate from tunes you know to the new tunes from your method book. Triple your practice time by singing your tunes!

5. Playing with your fourth finger teaches great left hand placement. This issue is usually less about the stretch than the fact you may not use that finger much. To strengthen a weak 4th finger hold a peg between your thumb and fourth finger and try to open it! In fact, practicing this with all your finger teaches finger independence.

Ummm, given yesterday's attempts to play Scottish reels on viola, I'm off to do a fourth finger workout now...

Edited: November 20, 2022, 4:51 PM · Hi Michelle, some words about something you wrote:

I thought I could hear when I was perfectly hitting E, F#, and G because it sounded louder and clearer than if my finger was positioned a little bit further away. Now today, trying to check my ear accuracy with my tuner, I’m doubting I was hitting the notes in tune at all ...

You can actually hit notes that sounds clear and nice and actually be in tune even if the tuner tells they are out of tune.

If the tuner is adjusted to equal temperament then many notes that are in tune on violin will appear out of tune on the tuner. Say you tuned the violin A to 440 hz and is in tune when compared with the tuner. Then you tune the other strings in actual perfect fifths (not equal temperament fifths). You are then playing any E, A, D and G so they resonate with the open strings. Thus you are in tune. But the tuner will not agree because compared with equal temperament the E is now two cents too sharp, the D two cents too flat and the G four cents too flat. Definition of "cent" follows below.

Therefore it is important to learn to listen to the violin's resonance and not rely on a tuner.

Later on when you get more advanced you will learn more ways to intonate, like an E doesn't allways need to resonate with the E string but I think that is far too advanced at this point. Using the resonance from the open strings is a very good basis.

Definition of the term "cent":

A cent is a unit of measure for the ratio between two frequencies. An equally tempered semitone (the interval between two adjacent piano keys) spans 100 cents by definition.

Simply, a cent is one hundredth of a semitone (i.e., 1%) in the equally tempered tuning.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

2023 Authenticate LA: Los Angeles Violin Shop
2023 Authenticate LA Shopping Guide Shopping Guide


Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine