In this article I would like to present my tips for beginner violin students. I appreciate that starting to learn an instrument may seem very challenging. The amount of work and time needed may feel overwhelming at first. To ensure that you manage your practice efficiently I would love to share my advice on how to start, what to be aware of, and where to look for help. I hope your musical journey will be truly inspiring and joyful.
Find the Right Teacher
To succeed in any field you need a good teacher and of course this applies to the violin. Finding the right teacher is crucial. Violin playing is very complex and without a good explanation and systematic lessons in which you receive helpful feedback, it is almost impossible to succeed.
In London there is a great variety of music services and private teachers. The important question is how to choose the right teacher, and how to recognize that you’re in good hands. During the lesson you should feel safe, ‘at home’ with the teacher. The teacher should be supportive and encouraging.
To benefit the most from the lesson you need to feel comfortable, as the atmosphere and environment is significant in a student’s musical development. As soon as you sense that you regularly feel a bit down after the lesson or that you’re not as keen to learn the violin as at the beginning, question whether it’s your fault or the teacher’s.
There are plenty of different violin schools, teaching methods and approaches and perhaps the way your teacher is delivering the lesson is simply not for you. Even if the teacher seems to be the best in your area, I don’t think that learning music should be distressing, your mental health is the most important thing, and without a good feeling it is difficult to motivate oneself.
To awaken your imagination and sensitivity to music, the lesson should be motivating and inspiring. Look at your attitude towards the lesson, if you can’t wait to play and share, you’re in good hands. Let’s remember the primary reason for learning an instrument, which is to enjoy it.
Motivation is Key
To keep practising systematically and thoughtfully, it is important to keep yourself motivated and inspired. Do not overpractice. I don’t believe that hard-work will always pay off, but intelligent work will. Let’s be realistic; there is a minimum amount of work you need to put into the violin to succeed, but be clever and kind to yourself.
The quality of practice is much more important than the amount. Try to get to know yourself and analyse your practice and outcomes. What benefits the process of absorbing the information the most? Perhaps practising early in the morning works for you, or you can concentrate better after a nice walk. Surprisingly, sometimes not practising may be helpful, when you leave your brain to ‘digest’ the information. Give yourself time and don’t expect too much. Think of what works the best for you.
I would recommend to split your practice to little chunks: technical – where you carefully look at certain bowing or difficult passage in your piece, this part should be slow and mindful; musical – where you awaken your creative and artistic side, wondering about phrasing, singing on the violin; and sight-reading at the end – in which you don’t expect to be perfect but you try to figure out the notes and rhythms in the moment. I have experienced the best results when I have revised what I learnt in a lesson step by step, and I carefully consider everything I have practised with my teacher.
Fix One Problem at A Time
Playing the violin is very complex and challenging. If you pressure yourself to get everything right at once, you may be overwhelmed. It’s certainly not helpful to practise in such a way that you develop fears about not playing perfectly. Have realistic aims, and fix one problem at a time. If you’re facing a particular difficulty, break it into little chunks and work on it slowly. For instance, if you are struggling with a particular passage, focus only on the left hand, slow down the tempo, don’t worry about dynamics or bowing. Make it easy for yourself.
After, you become friends with that passage you can move on. Play it a bit faster, add correct bowing, dynamic and phrasing. Then play that passage only with your right hand on open strings and follow the same steps. Perhaps, introduce the scale in the same key. Great violinist I. Perlman once said that, if you practice slowly, you forget it slowly.
See the Connection
Make sure you have a clear understanding of why you are looking at particular things during your practice time or in the lesson. Before you start practising, find the reason for doing each exercise, particular bowing or a scale. Have a clear goal and understanding of the aims of each practice session. It may help you to motivate yourself to practise certain things that you can’t be bothered to look at. For example, if you can’t see the reason for practising sight-reading, remind yourself that it is a crucial skill of playing with others in an orchestra or in a chamber group. It also saves your time learning new repertoire.
Shared Music Making
Another thing I would recommend to a beginner violin student is shared music activities. Being a part of a group, playing in an orchestra or in a chamber group, alongside with other talented musicians is inspiring and enjoyable. The advantage of sharing the joy of music with others is truly rewarding, especially after separating yourself from others in a practice room and dedicating many hours to be able to play. I would highly recommend searching for orchestral and chamber summer courses and masterclasses.
At the beginning of your musical journey, I would highly recommend a lesson with an Alexander Technique teacher. Dealing with the unusual hand position, as well as two completely different techniques may cause unnecessary tension. Some people may have the idea that playing on the violin is in general uncomfortable, where the discomfort doesn’t come from the instrument itself, but from the wrong way of supporting the instrument.
Probably, too much effort is being made or the hands are not being allowed to remain flexible and sensitive. In your lessons, you will find a way to support the instrument that does not induce stress. Remember that violin playing should be effortless and enjoyable. Everyone can find their own natural way of playing on any instrument.
Practice Away from Your Instrument
Listening to classical music is probably the most enjoyable part of practising an instrument. Music can evoke emotions, awaken our imagination and transport us to different worlds. In a recent journal on Effects of Music Interventions, de Witte, Martina & Spruit, Anouk & Hooren, Susan & Moonen, Xavier & Stams, Geert. (2019), the authors discuss the association of music listening with a wide range of positive effects on humans health and well-being.
In the neuroscientific research Brain and Music, Stefan Koelsch (2013) discusses the positive outcomes of music on the brain. The book highlights that ‘music is a part of human nature and listening to music engages a large area of the psychological process including perception and integration’. An active listener is able to improve attention, memory as well as learning skills. Listening to music has an impact on the emotional state and social cognition process.
Susan Hallam in Music Psychology in Education (2006) discussed the value of incidental learning by just hearing the music. It may be often underestimated by music educators, believing that only active listening may give positive results and be beneficial for student’s development. It is often recommended by Suzuki teachers to listen to the CD with the songs from the book that the student is currently working on or will be learning.
Memorising the melody from listening will save time while learning new pieces, you will already be familiar with the melody and rhythm, it will give space on your head to focus on technique as well as will give you the confidence to spot a silly mistake. As i previously said, playing an instrument is a complex activity, and if there is any chance to save some energy, then I would take advantage of it. Try to find your own taste in classical music, look for your favourite works, orchestras and soloists. As Hallam mentioned, just by listening we can learn a lot.
de Witte Martina, Sprut Anouk, Hooren Susan, Moonen Xavier, Stams Geert, ‘Effects of Music Interventions’, Health Psychology Review Online, (2019). (accessed 26 February 2021) Hallam, Susan. Music Psychology In Education. London: Institute of Education, 2006. Koelsch Stefan, ‘Brain and Music,’ John Wiley & Sons Ltd, (2013) (accessed 26 February 2021).