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.