Violin Information

Tuning Your Instrument

Tuning the instrument, like all parts of learning, is best accomplished with the help of a teacher. Tuning is not the first thing that is taught. However, here are some basic instructions on how to tune the instrument.

  • The four strings on the violin are tuned in perfect fifths to the following notes, starting at the lowest pitch:   G, D, A, E.  The viola is a fifth below at C, G, D, A and the cello is an octave below the viola.
  • Fine tuners or pegs may be used to tune the violin. Always tune UP to the note. If the string sounds lower than the correct pitch, gently turn the fine tuner or peg so the pitch rises until it reaches the correct pitch. Make sure you are turning the correct peg associated with the string you are trying to tune. If the string sounds higher than the correct pitch, gently turn the peg or tuner to lower the pitch. Always push in while you are tuning as the pegs on an instrument are tapered and friction fit. If you go too high, go back below the note and tune up to it again. If you get close with the peg, and you have a fine tuner - recommended for beginners, then you can use the fine tuner to finish tuning.
  • So with all the above in mind, begin tuning the A string. Pluck the string gently with your finger or run the bow along the string. Reminder, the A string is the next to the highest and the thinnest string. Almost certainly the pitch of the string and the pitch on the tuner will not be an A and thus the peg or fine tuner will need to be adjusted. Follow the string up to the peg so that you know that you are turning the correct one. First turn the peg so that the string loosens a little than tighten the peg while pushing in the peg. The beginner will find it easiest to set the bottom of the violin on their lap with the scroll in front of their face. However, after you pluck the string, you will have very little time to see the pitch on the tuner while making the adjustment before the tone dies down and the tuner can't hear it anymore. Because of that, it works much better to bow the string while tuning the instrument. This requires the player to be a bit of a contortionist and is one reason why so many teachers tune the instrument for the player for many months, until they get mire comfortable with holding the instrument. 
  • If you do have a good ear and can tell which octave a note is in, then having a device; tuner, piano pitchpipe... that plays the note for you and then you match that pitch, may make things much better for you.  But I have found that very few beginner violinists have that ability at the beginning. 
  • A digital tuner that hears the pitch is a good tool for the beginner.  These devices detect and display what note/pitch is being played so that you can tune to the desired pitch. Some of them have needle displays while others only have a series of lights. A decent chromatic tuner can be purchased for under $30, Korg makes several models. I do not like any models that clip onto the violin in any way.                                                                             There are also some free on-line tuners that can "hear" your instrument through a computer microphone.  A simple search can find some, I don't like the ones that simply play a note for you, not until you have trained your ear to know if that note is low or high compared to your instrument. This is a really good one but your computer needs to be properly set up with current Java settings and you may need to use a different browser if so prompted.  http://www.seventhstring.com/tuner/tuner.html  Obviously you will need a microphone, many laptops have them built in.  If you don't already have one, buying a separate chromatic tuner is probably more portable and cheaper in the long run.
  • Breaking strings while learning how to tune is normal and you should expect to go through some in the beginning.  It is always a good idea to have an extra set of strings on hand for just this reason. However, if strings are breaking for no apparent reason, then something might be wrong with the instrument or the string installation, so see the section in Care and Maintenance on strings and reason strings break.

On Playing in Tune and Fingerboard Markings

 

Playing In Tune

Violin is probably the most difficult and ungrateful instrument in the beginning stages of learning. Even the most basic aspects of playing –  good sound and intonation can take months or years for a student to achieve. Students will often find this stage of learning frustrating and will need encouragement from both the teacher and the parents. Often, the parents’ involvement in this early stage of learning can be a determining factor in the development of a student.

Some methods use aids in order to help the student start playing with the correct pitches in the shortest period of time. This approach has a negative effect, since the student doesn't have to start developing any sense of pitch.

As early as the 1750’s, people were adding markings to their instruments to aid in the proper location of the fingers.  

Note: If you use finger markings it becomes almost impossible to “learn” how to play in tune as you never train your ear only your eyes. The proper holding of the violin prevents the eyes from seeing the fingerboard.

As Leopold Mozart, father of the famed Wolfgang Amadeus said on this very same problem in 1756!  “…I cannot but touch on the foolish system of teaching …. that of affixing little labels with the letters written on the finger-board of the pupil’s violin, and even of marking the place of each note…. If the pupil has a good musical ear, one must not avail oneself of such an extravagance. “

Carl Flesch, one of the most important violin pedagogues of the 20th Century said: “To play in tune in terms of physics is an impossibility. Playing in tune is nothing but an extremely rapidly and cleverly executed correction of the initially imprecise pitch."

The difference in playing a note in tune as opposed to out of tune, according to mathematics, is less than 1/4 of a mm. The finger tip by comparison is 10 mm wide.  A mm off and the pitch can be heard as being out of tune.

The other problem with marking the fingerboard and using that as a guide is that it forces you to look at your hand while playing.  This is completely contrary to the proper way of holding the instrument which positions the violin off to the side while you look forward at the music. When looking at the hand t forces the violin out the front.  

Fingerboard Markings or Frets

Putting anything on the fingerboard to aid in locating the fingers is a hotly debated subject. Some of the methods can damage the instrument or cause mechanical problems like buzzing. All of them are a crutch which keeps the musician from learning how to hear the notes and if you can see the fingerboard and your fingers, you are holding the violin poorly. If it is going to be done, do it the right way. 

Three ways to add 'frets"

1) Don't Fret Fingering Tapes 

These are a full length  stickers that are applied to the fingerboard. They can be difficult to remove and if your instrument isn't set up perfectly with regards to the string length the pitches will all be off. For example, 1/2 size violins can vary by 1/2" in body length.  This can mean that this type of marking can be off by over 3/8" overall. They can also damage some finishes.

2) Very thin 1/8" wide tape - auto pin striping or graphic design tape. The thinner the tape the better but it can still cause buzzing, the tape can shift under finger pressure and be off pitch and it can leave a sticky residue that can also discolor the fingerboard or damage the neck finish. If the fingers are not placed exactly on the the tape or if the fingerboard doesn't have the correct concave curve, the string will buzz against the next highest fret.

When tape is used, you are essentially adding frets to the violin. Frets are designed to be used by placing your finger behind the fret and pushing down on the string so that firm contact is made between the string and the fret. This causes the fret to be the "stop" for the note, not the finger. On guitars the string does not vibrate as far as it does on the violin, hence there is much less of a chance for the string to buzz against the next higher fret. 

3) Using a silver "Sharpie" pen, mark dots on the fingerboard between the strings at the correct finger positions. I have used this technique on thousands of violins and it is easily reversible. It will wear off on it's own or you can use very fine steel wool to remove it. The dots do not interfere with the string vibration like tape can, and they don't move. From the teachers perspective, it is also the cheapest and easiest to apply.

The Sharpie dots applied 

The Sharpie dots easily (halfway) removed with a q-tip with fingernail polish remover

The Sharpie dots completly removed

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Wolf Notes

A Wolf note or tone is a phenomena that it is caused by a large vibration (usually more noticeable on a cello) in the body of the instrument and is associated with the most basic vibration or resonance of that instrument. In other words, the instruments most resonant frequency.  The Wolf tone is sort of a warble or howling (hence Wolf) sound that sometimes makes it even hard to get the note to play. 

When an instrument is played (with the bow) near the pitch of this frequency (usually between E and G) we get a sort of feedback from the strong vibration of the instruments body being sent back to the strings. This feedback disrupts the action of the bow on the string and causing the sound to briefly die. The howling may slow down but will start up again as the bow continues to move across the string. So you get this up and down warble of a sound that repeats itself a number of times each second.

A number of devices exist that can suppress or more accurately move the Wolf tone to a slightly higher or lower reactionary frequency, by changing the pitch where the instrument reacts, thus making it easier to play the note since the Wolf will now be between two notes that are frequently played. The suppressor will absorb the extra energy of the tone and so the better Wolf Tone Eliminators will be tuned to the frequency of the Wolf.  

The idea is to locate the Wolf suppressor (I like the New Harmony style) on the string behind the bridge at a position that helps reduce or eliminate the bad tone. Sometimes the range of affected frequencies is broader than just one note and the suppressor is tuned to the worst offender. In addition to the string mounted suppressors, there are some styles that can be permanently installed within the body of the instrument (best left for the pros).  Also, some playing techniques like vibrato can lessen the effect, especially the way the vibrato is started once that note is played.  On a cello, a slight squeezing of the lower bout can help reduce the Wolf. A quick, although not so pretty fix is to position a wine cork between the underside of the tailpiece and the top of the instrument. Certain things done it an instruments setup can also effect a Wolf Tone.  These include: a different position of the existing post, a fatter post or one with a different length, a post with a different grain type, a lower bridge or one with more flexibility, a shorter or longer tailpiece, a more flexible tailgut.

First Position Finger Chart

Music Books

 

These are some of the most popular Music Books

STRING METHOD BOOKS:

All for Strings by Robert Frost- A comprehensive 3 volume method for teaching and performance. From beginning through intermediate string study emphasizing technical skills and rythem.

The Doflein Method, Vols. 1-5. These are an old school method recommended by European teachers.

Essential Elements 2000 w/ CD and DVD by Robert Gillespie.  Now you can hear all the pieces in your Essential Elements book on a CD!  There are performance tracks as well as play-along tracks, so you can listen to what your piece sounds like and then try it yourself.  Essential Elements 2000 also includes a DVD with a 15-minute start up video to get you acquainted with the basics, plus a copy of SmartMusic® software to help you practice, and Finale® NotePad® software so you can write down some music of your own. Tempo Adjustment Software (for Play-Along Tracks)

Spotlight on Strings in 2 volumes by Doris Gazda is a nationally recognized string teacher and composer of many books for students.  Level 1 offers a unique approach which teaches students to play with all four fingers on all four strings from the very beginning. A logical sequence of technical exercises, program music, and ensembles offers young string players a comprehensive and positive approach throughout their first year of study. Creativity and self expressive are also encouraged throughout Spotlight on Strings with the inclusion of fun improvisation exercises and music writing assignments.   Level 2, builds on the concepts introduced in Level 1 by opening with a review of the major and minor fingering patterns on all four strings. Attention throughout the method is given to presenting material that makes use of the entire tonal range of the instrument in the first position for the upper strings and the first three positions of the lower strings.

String Basics: Steps to Success for String Orchestra is a comprehensive method for beginning string classes. Utilizing technical exercises, music from around the world, classical themes by the masters, and original compositions, students will learn to play their string instruments in an orchestra. Step-by-step sequences of instruction will prove invaluable as students learn to hold their instrument and bow, finger new notes, count different rhythms, read music notation, and more.

Stricktly Strings Vol 1-3 is an easy-to-teach, straight forward string method from three renowned pedagogues. A unique letter-note style of music notation is utilized which ensures a smooth transition from rote to note reading. Students are quickly introduced to ensemble playing and play a wide variety of fun-to play melodies, keys and modes. Strictly Strings features a carefully prepared lesson sequence which develops all players' abilities equally.

Suzuki books and CD's are widely used by teachers who have and who have not taken Suzuki training.  Many of the ideas in the Method are quite good. The music is graded by book.

Tune A Day, Vols. 1-3. This is a set books which includes good introductory explanations and pieces based on American themes and folk music. Some teachers use these to supplement the Suzuki books.

   ETUDES for Violin

A Tune a Day Bk. 1-3

A New Tune a Day - Performance Pieces (with CD)

20 Etudes Brillantes & Caracteristiques Op. 73

 

Dancla for Violin

The Doflein Method Vol. 1-5

Dont Op. 37

Dont Op. 35

Kayser

Kreutzer  Galamian ed.

Mazas Bks 1-3

Rode 24 Caprices

Ševcík for Violin  Op.1 Bk. 1-4

Ševcík for Violin (Scales and Arpeggios)

School of Mechanism Op. 74

36 Studi Op. 84

Six Airs Varies Op. 89

School of Bowing Technics Bk. 1-2

Preparatory Trill Studies Op. 7: Bk-2 

Shifting the Position and Preparatory Scale Studies Op. 8

Preparatory Exercises in Double-Stopping Op 9

Sitt: Etudes Op 32: Bk. 1-3

Sitt  Daily Exercises

Trott Melodious Doublstops Bk. 1-2Wohlfahrt  Bk. 1-2

     Position Studies - Violin

Whistler Introducing the Positions Vol. 1-1st, 3rd, 5th

Whistler Introducing the Positions Vol. 2-2nd, 4th

Wohlfahrt Book 2, third position

     Violin Scale Books

A Tune A Day Beginning Scales

Barbara Barber Scales for Advanced Violinists

Carl Flesch: Scale Studies - violin

Hrimaly Scale Book - violin

Scales Plus! William Starr 

Schradieck School Of Violin Technics: Bk 1-3

Sitt Scales Studies For Violin, Op 41

Two Octave Scales And Bowings For The Violin by Susan Brown

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Left Handed Violins

I am asked frequently about the availability and need for a Left Handed Instrument. In mine, many teacher's and players opinions it is neither needed nor recommended. A left handed person's dominant hand is the left one, that means that if they play a normal violin, their left hand will be doing the fingering of the notes. That part of playing requires more agility with the individual fingers and as such it makes playing the normal way easier for a lefty. While the bow hand is still very important and also difficult to learn to do well, it's fingers move more as a group than as individual fingers. There are some things that the individual fingers do like the little finger adds downward pressure, but for the most part, they all work together.  I hear from lefties, that have tried playing playing normally, that just complain that they can't get it.  After a few questions I invariably find that this "trial" period has only lasted for a few months and that they are trying to teach themselves the instrument.   I have to be blunt and tell them the truth, a beginner "righty" will have the exact same problems after only a few months and no teacher. The violin is one of the hardest instruments to learn to play well and it can take a few years to feel "comfortable" even with a decent teacher.

There are many right handed players that would give their right eye to be a lefty for violin playing purposes. There are lots of left handed players playing normally. If you learn left handed, you will not be able to play in an orchestra. This is because your would look funny and your bowing will be the opposite of the others in the section. The orchestra's string section is like a school of fish, moving as one, darting back and forth.

Finding a teacher willing to teach someone to play left handed is also going to be a challenge,  I know of several that have tried and have smacked themselves in the forehead saying "what was I thinking".  There are only two valid reasons that I can think of that learning left handed would be even acceptable, one - if you are already an accomplished guitar player that for some odd reason decided that they needed to learn left handed or secondly that you have a disability that would make it impossible for you to play the instrument normally.

Left handed instruments do exist, there are some that are made that way to begin with, you will not find any high quality instrument that are made that way.  To convert a normal violin over to left handed use requires a lot of work and expense, the violin is not a symmetrically made instrument. Below is a list of things that would need to be done to covert an instrument from normal to left handed use. And no, you can't just reverse the strings as so many people wrongly believe.

- The pegs holes need to be filled in and re-drilled so that the pegs can be reversed, otherwise the hand will hit the first peg while playing. 

- A new nut needs to be made since the thickness of the strings over the nut will be reversed as well as the heights of the strings above the fingerboard.

- A new bridge fitted since there is a front and back to the bridge and the E string is much lower than the G string, the bridge cannot be simply turned around.

-The top of the violin will need to be removed so that the bass bar can be removed. A new bass bar needs to be cut and fit to the other side.  It is after all a Bass Bar and needs to be on the Bass side for both structure and sound. A new sound post needs to be fitted to the opposite side. The top of the instrument can be damaged by the 60 pounds of downward pressure of the strings, if the bass bar and sound post aren't on the proper side.

- The chin rest will most likely need to be replaced, most models won't work on the opposite side, the one exception is the Flesch model which is center mounted and designed. Very few models of chinrests are even available in a left handed version, I have seen only 2 as apposed to the more than 25 available for a normal violin. 

- The fingerboard is usually not symmetrically mounted on the neck, one side is closer to the top than the other side where it leaves the neck.  This isn't a must, but it makes the instrument easier to play if done this way.

- Although it can be reversed, a properly made violin has different thicknesses on the top and back on the treble side as compared to the bass side at the sound post location.

The above alterations are costly - they can easily run over $500 and are really necessary for the proper sound and structure of a violin being set up to be played left handed. So if you are a beginner, either right or left handed, learn and play the normal way, many a lefty has done this (even professionals).