10 violin lessons to hone your violin (and viola) playing skills

How to Hold a Violin or Viola Without Tensing Up

The Problem: A tense instrument-hold is causing pain, or intonation, dexterity, and mobility issues.

The Solution: Learn to hold your instrument with ease by addressing both the physical and mental components of tension.

Step 1  Left arm mechanics.Each body is different, but the principles that allow your violin or viola to feel like an extension of your body are universal. Start by familiarizing yourself with the natural mechanics of your left arm. With arms free at your sides, imagine your left shoulder blade becoming heavy and feel it start to glide down your back. In response, feel your left arm becoming lighter. Allow your arm to rise up weightlessly. Finally, with a quick outward twist of your forearm, find playing position. Supporting your arm with balanced see-saw action between arm and rear shoulder muscles, creates stability and stamina. Now, try raising your arm from your left hand. Your left arm will likely feel much heavier. The resulting fatigue may soon become tension in your left hand. . . . [Read More]

How to Find the Best Warm Up

Hardly any aspect of string playing is more ignored than warming up. Some players barely do it at all before a performance; others have developed a warm-up routine and can use it to get ready for a concert in only 10 minutes or so, but it’s generally something they’ve figured out on their own.

“Strange, but I never had teachers actually say what they did to warm up in extenuating circumstances,” says cellist Harry Clark, artistic director of Chamber Music Plus Southwest. “All of them pretty much thought you should be able to go at a moment’s notice, which I do agree with, mostly.”

Even if you’re not facing “extenuating circumstances”—having to perform after not being able to touch your instrument all day because of travel or other complications—warm-up routines for normal conditions have not traditionally been part of the music curriculum. . . . [Read More]

Further Resources

Improve your basic violin or viola bowing skills with Strings Guide instructional videos.

Learn to Develop a More Natural-feeling Bow Hold

As the foundation of your bow technique—literally how you and your bow connect—your bow hold can either support your technique or hinder it. Given the variety of bow holds demonstrated by talented artists throughout history, some argue that what you do with your bow is more important than how you hold it.

However, these variations exist because of anatomical differences between players, the musical tastes of the times, and misinterpretations, and not because it doesn’t matter.

A good bow hold feels so natural you hardly notice it and rarely think about it. It balances the elements of both flexibility and strength, facilitating complete command over the bow as a tool to produce a variety of tone colors, strokes, and dynamics. A troubled bow hold, on the other hand, has limitations in terms of flexibility and strength. . . . [Read More]

How to Steady Your Bouncing Bow

From the moment the bow leaves its starting point, it runs into interesting obstacles. Every time it changes direction, string, or speed, there may be a surprising bump or scratch. As you begin to examine the most annoying of string player’s problems—the bow bouncing out of control—remind yourself that everyone has experienced it at one time or another. It’s also not a problem you can throw money at, since you’re as likely to bounce with a pricey Peccatte as you are with a really cheap bow.

Even though the most common cause of “nervous bow” is stage fright, a helpful strategy for solving the problem is to anticipate the bow’s movements and its variable speeds. The bow’s potential for chaos and unpredictability is great because weight and balance change constantly. . . . [Read More]

How to Overcome Bow-Hand and Bow-Arm Tension

The first time a teacher hands you a stringed instrument, you figure the tricky part will be putting our left-hand fingers in the correct spots to get the right notes. How hard can moving the bow with the right hand be? Well, as you discover the moment you first draw the bow across an open string, it’s not that simple. Then, as you try to get a decent sound, a lot of string players tighten up that right hand, use the wrong pressure in the wrong direction, and start making noises that remind you that strings used to be made of catgut.

Before you can produce the smooth sound that attracted you to strings in the first place, you have to overcome that tension in the bow hand. Florida freelance violinist and teacher Eden Vaning-Rosen has written an entire tome on the subject; it’s called The Violin Book 6a: Elements of a Tension-Free Bow Hand, with Etudes. . . . [Read More]

Further Resources

Find more violin and viola articles on AllThingsStrings.com.

14 Steps Toward Improved Intonation

It’s inevitable: The first few times you put bow to string, it sounds like you’ve got an asthmatic cat yowling in your hands. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Good intonation is something you can work on almost from Day One.”Good intonation comes primarily from inside the player’s head,” says Michael E. Martin, who teaches in the elementary and middle schools of Havertown, Pennsylvania, and is a coauthor of Jump Right In: The Instrumental Series—for Strings (GIA Publications, 2004). “If the player isn’t hearing–the word we use is ‘audiating’–good intonation in their mind, it’s really not going to come out of the instrument.

So hearing the notes before you play is the first step toward good intonation. It’s part of a process that Michael Slechta, who teaches in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, schools, calls “getting [students] to take ownership of their sounds and pitches. . . . ” [Read More]

Play Your Stringed Instrument Faster

Rhythm doesn’t always come easily, let alone naturally—it can come with a cost when players fail to control speed or to prepare by studying études. It’s like driver’s training. There’s such an intense desire to play fast and with great emotion that rhythmic relationships can easily be distorted. When a player rushes, over-emotes, or plays like a runaway truck, it may be time to focus on the rhythm side of the equation and get a handle on your speed, even if that means going back to the driver’s manual—the tried-and-true études. . . . [Read More]

Develop an Individual Sound on the Strings

What is it about your favorite players that makes them your favorites? Is it their clean tone, their intonation, their musical expression? What distinguishes your favorites from others who are playing the same music? It’s easy to hear the difference between Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin even though they are both female R&B singers. But what about Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell? Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli? What makes an individual player’s sound unique and recognizable? [Read More]

What about you? Are you striving to sound like your teacher? Your favorite player? Or are you trying to find your own voice? [Read More]

Navigate Tricky Double-Stops in Simple Steps

Double-stops can sound great when they are played correctly, but they are often maddening to work on. Getting them in tune is a daunting task and transitioning smoothly from one to the next can seem nearly impossible, but it can be done. Instead of using the “my fingers are too short” excuse, understand that you don’t need long fingers. You simply need good technique. Here are some tips to help you successfully navigate the treacherous territory of double-stops. . . . [Read More]

How to Make Better Use of Your Practice Time

Why do people give up playing after just a little study? Usually not because it’s hard. Not because they hurt themselves. Not because instrument rental and lessons are too expensive. No, the problem for most people is practicing. They want to play great, beautiful music, but what gets in the way is the daily drudgery of practicing. It’s like having a chance to go back in time to help Antonio Stradivari create an instrument, but spending most of your visit watching the varnish dry. It shouldn’t be that way, says Philip Baldwin, assistant professor of violin and viola at Eastern Washington University. “Good practicing is creative practicing,” he insists. Practicing shouldn’t be dull. But how do you make it more creative?

Baldwin offers plenty of tips on how to avoid mindless repetition.. . . [Read More]

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