Why Play in a Group?

ViolinGroupPlayingRecently, I attended a Violin Graduate Recital. The young lady did a great job and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her playing and watching her technique. The best part of the recital though was when she played Chausson’s Concerto in D Major for Piano, Violin, and String Quartet. The piece was enjoyable to listen to and the players were a joy to watch. Their interaction with each other through the music, the glances, and the smiles bore testimony to the fun they were having playing together.

About a week later, I was able to experience some of the same feelings they had when the orchestra I’m in played the spring recital. We played film music and had a lot of fun doing it. There is something special about playing music with other people. A lot goes through my mind while playing in a group. As always, I concentrate on the music in front of me and the technique it takes to get a good sound – both in the fingering and the bowing but there is an additional dimension when playing with others – I listen to what they are doing and stay with the group. My tempo and dynamics must match theirs. We play as one.

Playing with a group has many benefits. Here are a few I hope you will consider:

  • Playing with a group is motivating. Before the group session you will want to be “practiced up” so that you will be at your best when playing. After the session you will probably still be “pumped up” and want to go home and work out those difficult passages.
  • It gives you the opportunity to learn skills that just can’t be learned any other way.
    • Leading and following. The group must stay together. When I play alone I have a tendency to be inconsistent with my tempo. I speed up the easy spots and slow down the difficult ones. Playing with a metronome helps, but doesn’t allow for tempo changes written in the music. Playing with a group forces me to keep the tempo set by the leader.
    • Listening to self and others. When playing with a group, I not only have to pay attention to what I am doing, but I have to listen to what everyone else is doing as well. I don’t want to keep playing as loud as I can when everyone else has suddenly started playing softly. By the same token, I don’t necessarily want to play loud just because someone else is. They may have a melodic passage and I have the harmony. I need to back off so the melody can be heard.
  • It can help you improve your pitch and tone. When playing alone, it is often difficult to tell if you are playing exactly on pitch. There have been many times when I have been playing and it sounds fine to me – until I play an open string and it sounds flat. Guess what? Most likely the open string was fine. It was my hand position that was off. Playing with others will force you to stay in tune. Paying attention to other people’s bowing can help you make changes in yours that will improve your tone. It’s a constant give-and-take that can benefit everyone.
  • It can help improve technique – especially position work and scales. Many pieces written for groups will require you to be in a certain position and will make heavy use of scale work – both up and down. The more you are forced to work on it, the better you will become.
  • It will improve confidence and therefore make playing more enjoyable. One of the main reasons I play the violin is because I enjoy it. However, if the pitch is off, the fingering bad, and the tone scratchy, my confidence is gone and the fun quickly dissipates. As confidence improves, these other areas will often follow.
  • A musical bonding occurs. Whenever I am watching a group, I am amazed at how all those individuals with separate actions and thoughts suddenly become unified the moment the music starts. It is a special bonding that cannot be experienced any other way.
  • It’s fun!

Some of the most memorable times playing the violin I have had areBand times when I played with a group of people – sometimes in on organized group like an orchestra, other times in an informal setting such as several friends playing together in the living room. Playing instruments with others offers a type of enjoyment that can be found in no other way.

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Playing By Ear

Playing by ear is a useful tool which for some comes naturally, while others have to work at it. When I was younger, I used to play almost all music by ear. I would glance at the music to see the key, and then play without looking at the music again. As a result, I was “accused” of not being able to read music. I could read it just fine. I just didn’t need to. There have been times more recently, when my daughter and I were playing together that she would stop and laugh after I played something different than what was written. “You were playing by ear again, weren’t you?”

The purpose of this post is to give you some ideas on what needs to happen for you to learn to play by ear.

There are different levels of playing by ear, depending on what you want to do:

  • Being able to hear, and play the melody – required to be able to play string, woodwind, brass, or any other primarily melody instrument by ear.
  • Being able to hear, and play chord changes – required to be able to accompany someone with a guitar, autoharp, or any other instrument that is primarily chord based.
  • Being able to hear, and play both melody and chord changes – required to be able to play piano, guitar, banjo, or any other instrument that makes use of both melody and chords.

Melody

Let’s consider melody first. In order to play melody by ear, you must first be skillful enough to know how far you need to go to get from one note to another. What is the distance/number of frets/number of keys to go a major 3rd (for example to get from a c to an e)? If you know the distance on your instrument, you can transfer that from your mind to your instrument when you hear it. The same goes for any interval. Once you are comfortable with the basics of your instrument, then “listen” to the melody in your mind. It’s a lot like humming, or whistling. If you know the tune, you can transfer it to your instrument. It takes practice to get good at it. Try humming simple tunes and then duplicate them on your instrument. The more you practice, the easier it gets. Eventually you can add embellishments. Just “listen” to them in your mind first. Another way to practice this is to play along with a recording or with a group of friends from time to time. Just “jump in and hang on!” Remember, playing by ear is a special skill worth learning. In fact, if you want to join in a jam session, it is almost a necessity. Some of the more snobbish Irish fiddlers look with scorn at a player who can only learn from sheet music. If you want to play with a group, but don’t know the song, try just playing the root of the chord (the bass note) until you learn the melody.

Chords

Speaking of bass notes, that brings me to the second part of playing by ear – using a guitar or other instrument to accompany. Doing this is a little easier than playing melody. Learn to listen for the bass note in the song. The bass note will almost always be the chord you want to play on your guitar. I am assuming that if you play guitar (or another chorded instrument) you already know what the chords are and the basics of changing chords. Learn to listen to the chord change in your mind, and match it up on your instrument. Start with simple,  three chord songs and then move to more complex music.

Melody with Chords

The third level is probably the most difficult of all – playing by ear on an instrument that uses both chords and melody. Try one half at a time. Start with chords. Hum a melody and accompany yourself with the chords on the instrument. If using a keyboard, use just the left hand to do this. Once you have that down, try playing the melody with the right hand. A single note at a time is fine for starting – you can add right handed chords to your melody later. Once you can play both the chords and the melody of your song, put the two together. Again, the more you practice, the easier it becomes. Eventually you won’t need to break it up, because you get a feel for what your hands are doing.

Remember, no matter which level you are trying to accomplish, you must hear the song in your mind first. You can’t play it if you can’t hum it. One of my favorite ways to practice this is to make up a tune on the fly. If I’m playing my guitar, I hum the tune as I match the chords. If I’m playing my violin, I just make up the tune as I go. It is both relaxing and satisfying to play a melody no one else has ever heard. I forget most of them as soon as I’m finshed, but occasionally, I will memorize or write down a tune I particularly like. Of course, I love getting together with other players and having a jam session or having my own jam session by playing along with a recording. I hope you’ll try doing the same!

For further reading:

http://www.slowplayers.org/SCTLS/learn.html

http://www.fiddlerwoman.com/id74.htm

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A Long Journey

As I was growing up, I always had a love for music, but didn’t have the opportunity to play, until high school when my parents bought me an accordian. This was a good start and I was so anxious to play that I learned to play it in just a few months. However, this was not exactly what I had in mind – I wanted to play an orchestral instrument – more specifically, I wanted to learn the violin.

When I first got married and my wife and I were discussing the prospect of having children, I jokingly told her that I wanted to raise a string quartet. She wasn’t overly enthused at the prospect, but in reality, I had a dream of being able to play music along with my children.

I had a goal of making music lessons a requirement at our house. I met a lot of people who said that they wished they had kept up their music lessons as a kid, but never met one that said they wished they had quit. Seven-year olds can’t see far enough down the road to make an informed decision that will affect the rest of their lives, so I felt it was my responsibility to decide for them. Both of my kids were required to take piano lessons starting at age 5 (My daughter was so excited about learning that she actually started at 4. Her older brother was her first teacher and they both loved doing it.) and were not allowed to quit until they graduated from high school. To my delight, both of them not only became proficient on the piano but also picked up a second instrument – my son plays the saxophone and my daughter the flute.

As time went on and both kids were progressing with their instruments, I decided to pick up the violin. After about a year of lessons, I lost my finger in an accident and progress was slow, but I still had my dream.

The first part of my dream came true when my son and I went to Mexico on a short-term mission trip. He took his saxophone, and I took my accordian. We played several duets for the churches down there. We had a great time, but I still wanted to use my violin with my children.

Several years went by, and my son graduated from college with a church music degree. He became the music pastor of a church in Michigan and wanted to do a cantata with full orchestra but he was short on violins. He asked me to play first violin in his orchestra. I was excited, and worked hard for months before the time came. Finally, the date arrived. We had a full dress rehearsal, and then performed the cantata twice. What a priviledge! To play in an orchestra under my son’s baton! A dream come true!

This was a milestone, but it was not the end of the journey. Playing in an orchestra is one thing – playing a duet is quite another. I continued my lessons and practice and little by little I felt my confidence and ability growing. About a year ago, I purchased a book of arrangements for violin/piano and started working on them. There was one arrangement that was particularly beautiful – “The Old Rugged Cross” for two violins and piano. I worked hard on this, and when I felt ready, I asked my daughter to play the second violin part on her flute. After we played it through a couple of times, she said “That’s beautiful, Dad. We need to do this in church. Do you mind if I ask them to put us on the schedule?” Little did I know it, but we got scheduled to play in one week. I was nervous, but felt confident that I could do this. The day came and we played the piece together with no problems at all! Here’s what my daughter had to say about the experience:

“Tonight I had one of the greatest privileges of my adult life: worshipping the Lord in song as I played a flute/violin duet at church with my dad. Not many daughters have the opportunity to play with their dads at all, especially as adults. And even fewer get the chance to serve God together in a church setting.

I am so thankful that my dad placed strong emphasis on music in our home, that he overcame astronomical odds to learn an instrument himself after losing a finger, and that God is now giving me the chance to use the musical talents He gave me alongside my dad, who is my inspiration.”

I was ecstatic! My dream had finally come true. To rephrase my daughter’s comment – God is now giving me the chance to use the musical talents He gave me alongside my two kids. I am so thankful!

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Improving Your Sight Reading

The first church orchestra I joined was quite small. Our string section consisted of 2 first violins, 1 second (me), and one violist. Because I was always good at memorizing music, or playing by ear, I had never developed the skill of sight reading music. One day, our string section was practicing some Christmas music and the section we were playing had the firsts play a line, and the seconds echoing it. The firsts played their line, and when it was my turn, there was dead silence. Our violist leaned over and whispered to me, “That’s why I play viola!” Since I wasn’t very good at sight reading, I panicked when it was my turn to play. Needless to say, I took the music home and practiced a lot the next week so I would be ready when that section came up at the next rehearsal. I learned the hard way that sight reading is essential if you want to play with a group.

What is the best way to learn or improve sight reading skills?

  • Start easy! Get some music that is relatively easy to play and force yourself to keep your eyes on the music while playing. I make it a habit to watch the music even when playing a simple, 3 octave scale. I have had people ask me why I do that. “You know that scale!” My answer is that I am practicing my sight reading. What better way to associate notes – especially those on ledger lines, with the corresponding position on the fingerboard.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice!
    • Force yourself to watch the music – even when you don’t think you need to. Playing by ear or by memory is fairly easy for me. The problem is that when I come to a section I don’t know, I have lost my place in the music and I can’t play what comes next. The cure? Always keep your eyes on the music.
    • Force yourself to count! You will never be able to  keep up with the group or figure out complex rhythms if you don’t count. I remember one conductor used to tell us to “sing the words” of the piece we were working on. Then he would say “You do know the words don’t you? ‘One e and a two e and a three e. . .” We got the point.
  • Have a routine. Set aside some time to work on sight reading every time you practice. Use a routine that works for you such as:
    • Scan before you start playing
    • Count as you play
    • Look ahead as you play
    • Keep going. There is a time when stopping and playing a section over again is good. However, this is not possible when playing with a group.
    • Learn patterns (etudes are good for this)
    • In tough places, play the note of the main beat.

With the start of the new orchestra season, I have been reminding myself of these recommendations. They are not complete, and your teacher can help you with areas you are having problems, but they will help. I know they help me.

 

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Should I Take Violin Lessons?

A number of years ago, I was playing in a small church orchestra and the music we were playing had some artificial harmonics in it. The person next to me, who played in a local bluegrass band, had never seen that notation before and didn’t know how to play it. So during a break I was quickly showing him how it should be played. Within minutes, another member of the band came up to me and said “Are you trying to ruin my fiddler by teaching him to play violin?” Of course it was all good natured teasing, but it does make a point. What are your goals? What do you want to accomplish with your violin and what will it take to do that?

Should you take violin lessons? The easy, quick answer to this question is “Yes!” As soon as I say this, a large number of “what ifs” come to mind. “What if I can’t afford a teacher?” “What if I can’t find a teacher in my area?” “What if I’m very good with musical instruments in general?” Then there is always the person who is the exception to the rule. “I know a person who plays a great fiddle. He never had a lesson and can’t even read music!”

As a three fingered violinist, I felt it necessary that I learn to play on my own. After all, where would I find a teacher willing to work with a person with no index finger on his left hand? After working my way through a couple of Suzuki books, I realized that no matter how determined I was, I needed something to push me on or I would never progress beyond a beginner level. Our church was starting an orchestra, so I mentioned to the conductor that I would like to play. He was desperate for strings, and he had heard me play, so I was in. I worked hard on the music and pushed myself to be able to keep up with the rest of the players. Again, however, I reached a plateau that I couldn’t seem to get past. After we moved to South Carolina, I found a teacher willing to work with me. I spent the next several years trying to undo all the damage my self-teaching had inflicted. I have come a long way since then. I have many opportunities to play that I never dreamed would be possible. However, to this day I have a tendency to fall back on those bad habits.

Perhaps your goal is to learn to fiddle. It is possible to learn this style of music by just hanging around other fiddlers and picking up tips from them. Many fiddlers learn to play by doing just that. If that is your goal, then go for it. However, be aware that most (if not all) of the best and well-known fiddlers do have lessons in their background. That’s part of what makes them so good.

If your goal is orchestral music, then lessons are a must. A good violinist needs to be able to play a piece of music distributed by his conductor well–and many times, on the spot. Not many people are able to pick up that level of sight-reading without taking lessons.

People who want to learn the violin will usually consider one of the following methods:

  • Completely on your own.This is not a good way to learn. Although it may be possible to buy a book and teach yourself violin fingerings and to read music, there are disadvantages to doing it this way.
    • There is no accountability. The temptation will be “I don’t feel like practicing today.” Days turn into weeks and months. Progress will be slow and chances are, you will give up entirely.
    • There is no one to check your technique. You will most likely develop bad habits in fingering, bowing, and posture. These can be extremely difficult to break. Good sound on the violin comes from good technique.
  • Playing with a recording. This is a little better than the first method but not much.
    • If you start with slow, easy pieces, you can match your sound to the sound on the recording. That will help develop pitch.
    • There is still no accountability.
    • There is still no one to check technique. As a result bad habits will form.
  • Online Lessons. These fall into two categories.
    • Online videos. These can be good.
      • A good online video can not only teach you how to play a song, but will also show you the fingering and bowing technique required to play the song properly. Are you disciplined enough to follow the example?
      • You still have no accountability. Progress can be faster than the previous two methods, but if your interest fails, so will progress.
      • You also don’t have anyone but yourself to check your technique. At least with these you have a video that you can try to match, but it is not always possible to catch bad habits yourself (we all think we are better than we are).
    • Online lessons through webcam. These will usually cost more, but may be cheaper than having private music lessons in person.
      • This one has some accountability. Since you are paying for the lessons, you are more likely to show up at the scheduled time for the lesson, and you are also more likely to practice between lessons. After all, you don’t want your hard-earned money to go to waste!
      • Since the teacher is able to watch you through the webcam, bad habits can be checked and corrected.
      • Progress will depend on your ability and desire to learn.
  • Violin lessons in person. This is the best option, if at all possible.
    • A good teacher will assign you pieces within your ability level.
    • You will have full accountability. Again, since you are paying for the lessons, you will be more likely to show up for them, even when you don’t feel like it.
    • A teacher can watch your technique and pick up things that may not be visible through a webcam. Also, a teacher can physically move your bow arm into the correct position and thereby demonstrate technique in a way that no other method can do.

There is one other learning method that can be of great value, especially when combined with one of the other methods: Join a group. Whether you define a group as a few friends gathering at your house to play for fun, a local fiddle jam session where you can bring your instrument and join in with others, or joining a local youth or community orchestra, playing in a group will help you learn in ways that no other method can. Just being able to keep up with the tempo set by the group is a skill worth having.

If you want to play violin and/or fiddle, I hope you will do whatever it takes to avoid the pitfalls that self-teaching brings. Find a good teacher and get yourself some lessons.

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Six Techniques for Perfect Practice

Practice is something that all instrumentalists have to face.  What makes good practice?  Here is Tampa Bay Music Academy’s blog post describing techniques for perfect practice.  It is written by Susan McClure and is re-posted here with permission for our readership.  To view it in its original context, please click here.

Remember the old saying “practice makes perfect”? Well, forget it. You can practice the same song for five hours, but if you’re practicing it incorrectly, all you’ll get for your trouble is a very strongly ingrained mistake.

When I was a budding young pianist, I had a teacher who cemented this concept in my brain. I can still remember her leaning forward in her chair, eyes drilling into my soul saying “Practice makes permanent!” Mrs. Roschi, if you are reading this, I got it! Another way of saying this is “Perfect practice makes perfect.” So how can you set yourself up for practice sessions that really make a difference?

  • Set a Goal

Goals should be specific and manageable. “Practice until it’s right” may not be the best goal, especially for younger students. A manageable goal for one practice session might be “Practice the first line at half speed until you master the sixteenth note run.” Goals help students monitor their progress, alleviate frustration, and keep the end in sight.

  • Practice at the Right Time

Students should concentrate their practice time when they are physically and mentally able to engage. I always encourage parents to give their children a break after school before requiring them to sit down and practice. After sitting at a desk all day, a little mental and physical down time can be the key to creating a more effective practice session later on.

  • Slow Down

Slow practice is one of the most important techniques students can use to master difficult passages. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the least-used techniques. Slow practice enables you to build accurate muscle memory in your fingers, decreasing the likelihood of mistakes later on. If you practice accurately every time, your fingers will take over even when your brain freezes with stage fright.

  • Use a Metronome

Another little-used tool, the metronome is essential for playing the right notes at the right time. No hesitating over difficult passages! Slow the metronome down until you can play the song accurately in perfect time. Then increase it one or two clicks at a time as you build up to the desired tempo.

  • Engage Your Brain

Thirty minutes of practice with acute mental focus can accomplish more than three hours of mindless repetition. Don’t settle for quantity alone. Quantity without quality will simply ingrain bad habits.

  • Stop When You Need To

When you begin to get tired or frustrated, it’s time to take a break. Get up and stretch, have a snack, or do something else for a while. Frustrated practice accomplishes nothing.

Young students will need their parents’ help in order to implement some of these techniques. They need specific guidelines, schedules, and practice goals to be set for them. As the student matures in both age and ability, he can begin to plan and execute practice sessions on his own.

There is nothing more satisfying than mastering a piece that at first reading seemed impossible. By planning for effective practice, you can accomplish more in less time while also setting yourself up for future success. Practice does, indeed, make permanent.

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How To Take Care of Your Violin


My family is rather musical. I have played the violin for many years and I also have a son and daughter that play woodwind instruments. As a result, I have talked to many instrument repair people over the years. I remember one story I heard from a man who worked in an instrument repair shop in Indianapolis. He said that one student came into his shop with a damaged instrument (I don’t remember what kind of instrument it was, but it was rather large). Some friends would take him to his lesson but the car was too small to hold all the people riding and his instrument. He would ride to the lesson holding the case outside the window. When he arrived at the location, he would drop the case, open the door, pick it up and run in to his lesson. Not the best idea. The wear and tear eventually damaged the instrument to the point he had to have it repaired.

A violin (or any instrument) is an investment. A decent instrument that has been properly maintained will not usually depreciate in value. Some will even increase as time goes on. Even more importantly, it is an investment in your life. It will give you the opportunity to learn to play the music you love. If you are involved in your church musically, you can glorify God for many years to come. You will never outgrow it.

So how do you maintain your violin?

Maintenance You Can Do

  • Location – Keep it in a safe place. Don’t leave it on a chair to be sat on, or on the floor to be stepped on. I guarantee Joshua Bell does not leave his 300 year old Stradivarius lying in a chair. You shouldn’t either, even if it is only a student model.
    • Case – The safest place for your violin is in a good case. Even then, take care not to drop it as this can cause several undesirable results.
      • The jar can cause the sound post to move or detach.
      • The tuning pegs can pop out, causing the bridge to come loose. Since pressure from the bridge holds the sound post in place, this also may cause it to loosen.
      • It can cause cracks in the body of the violin.
    • Stand – Violin stands are handy for easy access if you plan to play often, but beware, you must keep the stand away from foot traffic or it may be kicked causing damage to the instrument.
      • Floor stand – A good floor stand will be sturdy with a locking device to keep the instrument safe. It will also have a place to hold the bow.
      • Swing stand – these are designed to attach to your music stand. I have never used one, but the concept doesn’t sound safe. Stands can be knocked over, causing damage to the instrument
    • VSO Left in Direct Sunlight Inside Car

      Car – NEVER leave your instrument in a car – whether it be in a trunk or in the passenger area! Extreme temperatures can cause the varnish to bubble, the wood to crack, or seams to come apart.

  • Strings – As expensive as they are, strings must be changed on a regular basis. Old strings will lose their brilliance. If your violin doesn’t sound as nice as it once did, it may be time to change them. Old strings can also break when you are trying to tune them.
    • Quality – Use good quality strings. There is considerable difference in sound between cheap strings and good quality strings. I used Dominant strings for many years. They are regarded by professionals as the “reference standard.” More recently, I changed to Pirastro Tonica because I like the warm sound they produce.
    • Changing strings.
      • Change one string at a time – Do not remove all strings at once. The bridge will come lose and the sound post may move.
      • Change in a specific order – This is to make it easier to keep track of which strings have been changed. I usually change in the same order I tune – A, D, G, E. Other people change from low to high, or vice versa. Be consistent.
      • Change carefully
        • Thread the ball or loop of the string in your tailpiece or fine tuner and the other end in the hole of the peg.
        • With one hand, keep pressure on the string while turning the peg with the other hand.
        • Take care not to criss-cross the string on the peg as this can put pressure at those points causing the string to break.
        • Bring the string up to pitch slowly so it doesn’t break.
        • If a string does break, take note of where the breakage occurs. If it breaks at the nut or bridge, you may have a bad spot where the string makes contact and you will have to have a professional repair it. If it breaks in a random place, you may have a defective string. Some shops may replace such a string if they are sure the break didn’t occur from over tightening.
      • Be patient – New strings take time to be broken in. They will stretch and will need to be tuned often. It is not a good idea to put new strings on an instrument the night before a performance.
  • Pegs
    • Slipping pegs – Carefully rewinding the string properly will often fix this problem. If it continues to slip you may have a peg that is not properly fitted to the violin. Take it to a violin shop to have it repaired
    • Stiff pegs – Stiff pegs can be treated at the same time you change your strings. Purchase some peg dope or compound from your violin shop. I prefer peg dope because it is easy to apply, not messy, and will last for many years, since you only use a little at a time. It looks like a crayon. While the peg is loose, apply the dope to the two dark rings on the peg (this is the place the peg has been rubbing on the violin peg holes).
    • Broken pegs – You must have a professional replace those, since they will need to be specially fitted to your violin.
  • Bridge – Constant tuning of the violin can move the bridge, since it is not actually attached, but held in place by the pressure of the strings.
    • Check – Look at the bridge and be sure the two ends are in line with the notches in the f holes and that the back of the bridge (the side away from the fingerboard) is at a 90 degree angle to the violin.
    • Adjust – You can adjust the bridge yourself. Place the violin in your lap and move the bridge by holding it on each side with your hands and apply slow, steady pressure in the direction you want it to move. If you are not sure you can do this, have your teacher or someone at the violin shop do it for you.
  • Chin rest – The chin rest shouldn’t need much adjusting. Just be sure that no part of it is touching the tail piece as this can cause a vibrating sound while playing.
  • Cleaning – Every time you play, be sure to wipe the rosin off the strings and the top of the violin with a soft, lint-free cloth. Excess rosin on the violin can ruin the varnish and will greatly affect the quality of sound. While talking to a staff member of a local violin shop, he told me he had a mother insist that her son’s violin needed repair because it sounded bad. He took one look at it and asked the son “When was the last time you cleaned the strings?” He replied, “Never.” The staff person took out a cloth and wiped the strings off and asked the boy to try it. The difference was amazing. The mother asked him for one of those “special cloths” so she could clean the strings. He told her it was just a common man’s handkerchief. It would be a good idea to keep one of those “special cloths” in your case and use it regularly. While you are at it, it would be a good idea to insert the cloth between the hair and the wooden part of your bow and wipe the rosin off the wood – be careful you do not touch the hair.

Maintenance A Professional Should Do

  • Seams or Cracks – If you have a seam coming apart or a crack in the violin, take it to be repaired right away. The longer you wait, the worse it can get and the more it will cost to have it repaired. Do not try to glue it yourself. A special glue must be used so that if the violin ever needs to be taken apart, it will be possible.
  • Bridge – A bridge that needs to be replaced due to breakage or excessive wear must be custom fitted to your violin. Let a professional do this.
  • Sound post – It is best to have a professional insert a sound post that has detached, since it needs to be fitted to a precise location to produce the best sound possible.
  • Fingerboard – Look for warps or excessive wear. Have your violin shop do the replacement so it can be fitted properly.
  • Tailgut (the loop at the end of the tailpiece) – Most modern ones are made of nylon and probably won’t need replacing, however, if you notice fraying on it, have the entire tailpiece replaced. It is best not to do this yourself since it requires removing all strings and that will cause the bridge to come loose and could possibly cause the sound post to move or come out.
  • The bow – Always be sure to loosen the bow when finished using it or the stick may warp. This happened to me with my first bow. A friend asked if I would allow her to try out my violin. When she was finished, she put it back in its case and I didn’t check it. Since this was before I actually knew how to play, it was a couple of years before I opened the case. When I did, I discovered, to my dismay, that she did not loosen the bow. It had a very bad warp in it and had to be replaced.
    • The stick – if the stick is warped, it is probably best to buy a new bow, unless it is a high quality bow that you would rather keep (high quality bows don’t usually warp). If this is the case, a luthier can straighten it.
    • The hair – Bows that are used a great deal (and I hope you do play often) need to have the hair replaced every few years, since it can stretch or lose the ability to grab the strings over time.
    • The Eyelet – If the screw in the eyelet is stripped out, have a professional replace it.
    • The Tip – If the plastic tip is cracked or broken, it can be replaced by a professional.

Your violin is a beautiful, sensitive instrument. Take care of it and it will give you great enjoyment for many years to come.

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“How Can You Play the Violin with Only 3 Fingers?”

When people become aware that I am missing a finger, they will state, “I don’t see how you can play with only 3 fingers!” To which I will good naturedly reply, “I don’t see how you can play with 4 fingers! It looks like that extra finger would just get in the way!”

Over the years, I have learned to have fun with my handicap. I love watching the reaction of people when they become aware for the first time that I only have 3 fingers on my left hand. I take lessons at the university where I work, and as a result, it is treated like a class – complete with an exam at the end of each semester. The exam consists of playing a couple of pieces before a panel of judges who grade you based on skill level and progress. The teacher I had those first few years used to delight in finding judges that did not know me. He would not tell them about my hand and we would both watch their reaction when they saw the “strange” fingerings I was using.

That same teacher told me in the beginning that he was determined to play my pieces with my fingerings so he could relate to what I was going through. That worked fine in the beginning, but as I progressed and the pieces became more difficult, he finally gave up. Things were becoming too confusing. One day he told me that he was considering publishing my method and calling it the “Tracy Fingering.”

I greatly appreciate that first teacher. From the very beginning he treated me like any other student. He said that it didn’t matter how many fingers I had, there was no excuse for playing out of tune. He would not let me get by with what he called a “quasi-semi sharp-flat” note.

Once I joined the chamber string orchestra I play with, there was a whole new set of people who had never seen my hand. When I went in for my first seating audition, the conductor was watching me play my scale. He cocked his head to one side with a look of puzzlement. When I finished he said “I was trying to figure out what you were doing, using that strange fingering. Then it dawned on me – you are missing a finger!” He must have been satisfied with my playing since I have been with the group ever since! Later he told me “Do you realize there are people who would give their right arm to have a left pinky as strong as yours?” I told him that since I only have 3 fingers, I either had to force myself to strengthen the finger or I couldn’t play.

There was one girl that sat at a stand near me that didn’t realize I was missing a finger until I showed her my hand. Her parents later told me that she was very impressed with my playing. She said to them, “He plays the difficult passages as well as we do and he only has 3 fingers!”

So how do I play with only 3 fingers?

  • Normal Positions. If you know anything about violin playing, you know that there are different positions as you go up the fingerboard. First position is as far down as you can go on the fingerboard. It is where beginners start playing. Third position is when you move your first finger up to the position normally played by the third finger. As you move the first finger up the fingerboard, the positions get higher.
  • Positions for me. For me, I divide each position into two parts. I have a position 1a and 1b, 2a and 2b, and so on. If I am in position 1a, 2a,3a, etc. I number my fingers 1, 2, and 3. If I am in position 1b, I number my fingers 2, 3, and 4. I have had several people ask why I do that, since it seems confusing. There are two reasons for this.
    • Follow pre-printed fingerings. First of all, it helps me follow preprinted fingerings in music. It’s much easier to follow those markings when sight reading if I keep my hand as close as possible to the same position of a normal person.
    • Keep track of upper positions. Secondly, it helps me keep track of string crossings and shifts in upper positions. If I see music coming down a scale marked with a 1 and then a 4, I know that I have to shift from the lower half of the position to the upper half and at the same time cross the string.
  • It takes time to get used to it. Sound confusing? At first, it was. The longer I worked with it, the easier it became. Even teachers that, at first, didn’t know what I was doing, got used to it and were even able to give suggestions for easier fingerings, just like they would do with a normal student. My current teacher refers to this as a great adventure. She has caught on very well and has been a great help in improving my playing.
  • It takes a lot of work. There are many difficulties that I am constantly working to overcome. I don’t like playing music written in A-flat, since it requires constant shifting or stretches, and I can’t “cheat” by using open strings. Double-stops? Very difficult, especially 3rds. However, I can do it with a lot of work and practice.

As confusing as this method may seem to a person that doesn’t have to use it, it has allowed my dream of becoming a violinist to come true. Every time I listen to a recording of our string orchestra playing Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Mozart’s Divertimento in D, or excerpts from Narnia, I smile with contentment and give thanks to the Lord for allowing me to play an instrument that a few years ago seemed impossible.

I have found that, with determination, almost anyone can overcome difficulties in playing the violin. A weak pinky is only a hindrance if you let it be a hindrance. Keep on fiddling – no matter how many fingers you have!


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Shopping for a Violin

Shopping for a violin can be both frustrating and fun at the same time. It’s sort of like buying a car – don’t buy the first cheap violin that comes along. If you do, you may find that you have purchased a lemon. As a result, I don’t recommend buying a violin on eBay (or any other online site). You might get a super great deal, or you may get a piece of junk referred to by other violinists as a VSO (violin shaped object).

Buying a cheap violin might seem like a great idea to save money, but how much money have you saved if you get it home only to discover that it has cheap strings that have to be replaced in a few months, the bridge doesn’t fit properly, the fingerboard is made of inferior material and warps in six months, or the pegs break while trying to tune it? Decent strings can easily cost $60 or more and having a fingerboard fixed or replaced isn’t cheap. It would be very disheartening to have to spend hundreds of dollars to fix a cheap violin and when you are finished, you still have a cheap violin. Wouldn’t it be better to put that same money into an instrument that is a little better quality? I’m not talking about shelling out thousands for a professional grade instrument; just consider a decent student model. Also, most shops will apply the original price (or comparable price if you don’t go back to the same shop) of a beginner’s violin toward the purchase of an upgrade, assuming you have taken good care of it. With all due respect to the old story called “The Touch of the Master’s Hand,” where a violin is up for sale at an auction and no one wants it until a master violinist tunes it up and plays a beautiful piece of music whereupon everyone wants to bid on it, even a master violinist can’t get rid of vibrations or other unpleasant sounds from an instrument with a warped fingerboard.

Choosing a violin.

So how do you shop for a violin?

  • Talk to an Expert. I recommend going to a violin shop that has a decent luthier that knows his business.
  • Ask Questions. Prepare a list of questions you want to ask before you head to the shop. Your list should include the following, plus any specifics you want to know about:
    • What makes a good violin?
    • What are some good violin makers? Even the low end instruments from a company like Shar are better than the same priced instrument from Cremona. I won’t go into all the details of what makes an inferior instrument, but if you are interested, I have included a link at the end of this article dealing with this issue.
  • Try Several. The biggest recommendation I can make is to try several violins. If you can’t play, take someone with you who does and listen to the sound while they play. Most people would never buy a car without a test drive. Treat the purchase of a violin the same way. Ask the shop to show you violins in your price range and play them all. Then choose the one that has the sound you like. Remember, two violins from the same maker can have very different sounds.
  • Don’t Overlook the Old-Timers. Don’t limit yourself to shiny, new violins. Old violins that have been taken care of (no cracks and have been properly maintained) can have a very pleasant sound. Scratches don’t hurt it, but add to the character of it. The violin I have is very old and looks it, but it has a very pleasant, mellow sound that I like. Every time I look at it, I wonder what kind of “life” it has had. What made certain scratches. What kind of music did its owner play?

Choosing a Bow.

After deciding which violin you like (and can afford) don’t forget the bow. Like violins, bows come in all sorts of quality and price ranges.

  • Try Several. Many shops may include a bow with the violin and may let you try 3 or 4 bows in the included price range. These may be low end bows, and for a beginner will be good enough. Try each one on your violin.
    • How does it feel?
    • How does it make the instrument sound? Does it sing, or sound like you are playing inside a jar?
    • Does it have good bounce?
    • Does it have good volume?
  • Ask for Help. Again, if you are a beginner, bring a violinist with you for an opinion.
  • Match the Quality of the Bow to the Violin. If you are buying the bow separate from the violin, consider the instrument you will be using. It doesn’t make much sense to purchase a $2,000 bow to use on a $200 violin. On the other hand, if you have invested in a high quality instrument, don’t stifle it by using a $50 bow. It will never produce the sound you want.

 

Once you have the violin that makes you happy, take it home and enjoy it. You have taken the first step toward many happy hours playing an instrument that is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful sounding instruments ever invented.

More information:

Cheap Violins for Sale Are Not a Good Deal.”by Laurie Niles

What makes a good bow?” by Jim Clinton

Violin Shops I have dealt with:

Casa del Sol, Indianapolis, Indiana – I was very impressed with this one. They really know their business. When I was first starting out, and still had my cheap violin, the bow had an terrible warp in it and needed to be replaced. I was ashamed to show them my violin, so I just took in the bow. He took one look at it and told me everything there was to know about my violin – make and model number, what part of China it was made in, what type of wood they used, etc. I bought a decent, German-made bow there and never forgot the experience.

Ronald Sachs Violins, Lilburn, Georgia – This is the shop that restored the violin I am currently using. After he did his work, it was a joy to play. The best comparison I can make of my fingers on the fingerboard is an ice skater on a rink that has just been smoothed by a Zamboni. He also has a line of violins he makes himself. If you are ever in the area, I highly recommend you check it out.

Bernhardt House of Violins, Greenville, SC – I purchased my last bow here. The people here are very knowledgeable and have great customer service.

Jim Clinton Violins, Taylors, SC – I had my bow rehaired here and it is where I go for all my violin maintenance now. I like the atmosphere here. The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable.

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How determined are you to play the violin?

All my life I have had a love for music and a desire to play. I was not given the opportunity to learn as a child and by the time I was in college, I was afraid it was too late. It was during my college years that I developed a love for one specific instrument – the violin. I had such a desire to play, that, shortly after I was married, I bought a cheap violin even though I couldn’t play and didn’t think that as an adult I would have the time to learn. It stayed in the case most of the time. I would take it out and attempt to scratch out a tune or two and then put it away.

Years later, I decided to give in to my desire and as a 39 year old, I took my first year of violin lessons. I was thrilled – a life long dream was finally coming true! I practiced hard and made steady progress but then the following summer disaster struck! While using a table saw, the board I was ripping jumped an pulled my hand into the blade cutting off my left index finger and the tip of the thumb. I was afraid that would be the end of my dream. However, while I still had the cast on my hand, I remembered a man I had met years before at a flea market in Rocky Mount, Va. He was a phenomenal mandolin player! When I looked at his left hand, I noticed that he was missing two fingers! I figured that if he was able to do that on the mandolin, I should be able to figure out a way to play violin – after all, I was only missing one finger. In my mind, I devised a method for three fingers. When the cast came off and I got the movement of my hand back, I tried the new system and it worked! That is not to say it hasn’t been difficult, but I have been using this system for the last 20 years and it has allowed me to fulfill a lifelong dream. I now play first violin in a church orchestra as well as second violin in a college string orchestra ( I got rid of the cheap violin and now have a decent, German-made one that is about 100 years old). I am still taking lessons and have played some rather difficult pieces. I consider myself to be a moderate/advanced player.

The point of all of this is that if you are determined enough, you too, can learn to play. Each player has a different set of obstacles to overcome. Your problem may be with a weak or stiff pinky, stiff wrist or bow arm, hand size (too large or too small) or a host of other problems violinists face. Determination and hard work can help you conquer these obstacles and allow you to play to your heart’s desire – whether it be fiddling with a small group, or playing string serenades with a local orchestra. As Mark O’Connor says “The violin is so cool it has two names!” Keep on fiddling!

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