One of the very convenient things you can do to learn playing violin, or any instrument for that matter, is to use practice drills. There are just so many things to consider while learning to play a musical piece – the key, the tempo, the rhythm, the melody, the musicality, the expression and so on. Although you can learn everything there is about playing violin just by practicing several pieces, musical pieces by themselves don’t make very good learning exercises. There is just too much to think about when learning them, and it can be distracting if you are not clear about your objectives.
That’s where practicing scales come in. In a technical sense you can consider them musical pieces too. I personally love the C♯ harmonic minor scale. Scales are much simpler than your average musical piece and yet offer an abundance of learning opportunity. You can focus on a different characteristic of the sounds as you play scales – different techniques of your instrument, different aspects of your hearing. And you can do each of it in an isolated environment.
What to Practice?
Take the D major scale for example. In a few minutes, you can learn what notes construe the scale. After that, you can use the scale to practice intonation. You can use the scale to learn perfect fingering. You can use the scale to practice rhythm. You can use it to practice slurs, staccatos and legatos. Almost, if not everything you can learn about your instrument. If you’re so inclined, you can simply purchase one of the numerous scale practice books and work at it the first few minutes of your daily practice. But, I’d rather invent my own scale practice routines. It’s fun. Some examples follow –
Practice legato. Legato means to play the notes without any noticeable break between them. It’s not like a slur – you have to change bow direction between notes. But you have to make it smooth and unnoticeable as reasonably possible.
Practice slurs. Play the scale with different slurs. Two note slurs, then three note slurs, then four note slurs. Even a full octave slur.
Practice rhythm patterns. You can either make up your own rhythm patterns or you can pick a small number of notes from one of your favorite musical pieces and play your scale notes in that pattern.
Practice instrument techniques. There are techniques unique to your instrument and you can use scales to practice them. Playing the scale with pizzicato for example.
What about Arpeggios?
Arpeggios aren’t very far from scales and they might even seem redundant. But there still is merit in practicing them because these little broken chords are common patterns found in a lot of classical (as well as modern) music pieces. Practicing patterns like these build more foundations into your muscle memory. The more foundational techniques you commit to your muscle memory, the more your mental bandwidth is freed up for expressions and other techniques. You might not specifically analyze your sheet music and single out these subsets from them, but your mind knows. As you practice all these patterns in different techniques (staccato, pizzicato, legato etc.), your mind will start working with sets of notes, rather than individual notes. Helping you play more easily and comfortably as you progress.
There are also other neat gains from practicing sheet music. It reinforces learning key signatures and automate you playing the right sharps and flats in your music pieces. As a beginner, you can even use it to reinforce your note recognition and sight reading skills. It is noted that several acclaimed musicians still practice scales (even after becoming very skilled playing their instrument) to hone and maintain their talent.
Once you have learnt to play open strings with a clear and smooth intonation, you are ready to start playing notes with your finger.
Most beginner level pieces play in what is called the ‘first position’.
What are positions?
You play notes on a violin string by cutting off the vibrating length of the string using your fingers. Practically, you can play about 13 notes on each violin string – technically it’s infinite but realistically you can play about 13 notes. Any violin fingering chart will show you the notes you can play on each string. But you only have 5 fingers. And the thumb is on the other side, supporting, so only 4 fingers.
Although you can just use one single finger to play each and every note on the violin, for convenience and speed, we use what are called positions. A ‘position’ is simply the placement of your left hand holding the violin neck. When you hold the violin neck such that your index finger and thumb are at almost the end of the finger board, you are holding the ‘first position’. If you slide up your left hand till your index finger and thumb are at around the middle of the finger board (Index finger at 5th note on the string, to be exact), you reach the ‘third position’. In case you’re wondering, 2nd position is when you slide up to the 3rd note. Let’s not get deeper into positions and shifting, for the purpose of this article is to teach the first position.
The First Position
First position is simply holding your left hand at the very end of the finger board. You can play the first 8 notes of each string in this position – including the one open string note where you don’t use any fingers. For example, in first position, on the A string, ‘A’ is the open string note. The index finger plays the first two notes on that string – namely A# and B. The middle finger plays the next two notes – C and C#. The ring finger plays the next two notes – D and D#. Finally the little finger plays one note – E. Note that these are only suggestions – for example you can choose to play D# using your little finger if you prefer.
The first position is the only one you might need as a beginner and you can play quite a large number of pieces in this position.
Practicing First Position Playing
If you’re just getting started with playing the violin, a good starting point to learn first finger position is to practice playing the D major scale. You play on the middle two strings – the D string and the A string, to begin with, and then you can expand to play all four strings.
D Major Scale
Audio (90 BPM)
First Position, Using only D string and A string
Refer the fingering chart below, make note of the finger positions roughly and play in first position. Listen to the audio each time after playing to reinforce precise fingering and ear training. Another (optional) thing you can do is keep your electronic tuner in front of you and make sure you hit the correct notes.
Finger Positions for playing D-Major Scale
Start by playing D on the open string, use your first finger to play E, second finger to play F♯, and place the third finger close next to F# to play G.
Do not remove your fingers after you play a note. When you play F# after E, keep the fore finger on E and ‘add’ your middle finger in position to play F#. Again, without removing those two fingers, ‘add’ your third (ring-finger) finger in position to play G.
After playing the 4 notes on D string, lift up all fingers and then continue the same way on A string to finish the first part.
At this point, three fingers will be in position on the A string. Remove one by on in the reverse order to play the second line. That is, lift up only the ring finger to play C♯, then lift up the middle finger to play B, then lift up the fore finger to play A on open string.
Place all 3 fingers back on the D string, in correct positions to play G. And lift up fingers one by one till you finish playing D on open string.
A note can be simply described as one single unit of sound that is played on your violin. For example drawing your bow across an open string means you have played one note. A music piece is nothing but a stream of various notes played for different lengths of times, in different levels of loudness, and with different bits of pauses in between them.
There are numerous ways in which people across the world represent music on paper. For example in carnatic music, notes are written as syllables ‘Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni’. In western music, notes are written as letters ‘C D E F G A B’. And then there are guitar tabs, sheet music and so on. No one way is better than the other, but some have become way more popular than the others and evolved to be universally recognized. One such way is the sheet music. Which is more commonly used than other representations (including on this website). For the purpose of explaining music notes in this article, we will discuss the notation where notes are represented using the English alphabets ‘C D E F G A B’.
What is a Note?
Basically, sound is vibration of air that hits your ear drum. For example when a drum is hit, it makes the surrounding air vibrate and the vibration gets carried around in all directions as a sphere around the drum. Like when you throw a stone in a pond, it creates waves that travel around it in circles. The number of waves generated per second is called the frequency of the wave. When the vibrations hitting our ears are between 20 Hz and 20 KHz, our brain interprets it as sound. Means the number of vibrations are between 20 times per second (20 Hz) to 20,000 times per second (20 KHz).
Any sound we hear, is a wave with a frequency. Musical notes are specific frequencies, for which we have assigned a name. For example, 262 Hz frequency is called C (the middle C key on a piano), 440 Hz frequency is called A (the open A string on a violin). This ‘A’ is called ‘A4‘ (because it’s the 5th A key on a piano and the numbering starts at zero). No matter in which instrument you’re playing or even if you’re singing, the frequency is always 440 Hz for the A4 note.
Musical notes are specific frequencies, which are of particular interest to us and for which we have assigned a name.
There are 12 notes in an octave represented using 7 letters, and the symbols for sharp ( ♯ ) and flat (♭). The following are the notes names in western notation –
C ♯ (or) D♭
D ♯ (or) E♭
F ♯ (or) G♭
G ♯ (or) A♭
A ♯ (or) B♭
12 notes of the western notation
What Comes After B?
After B, it is again C, C#, D and so on. The 12 notes keep repeating. Each set of 12 notes is called an octave. The octave repeats itself again and again as the frequency keeps increasing. When a situation requires that we differentiate between the same note from different octaves, the notes are be written as C1, C2 (or C1, C2) etc.
Why Do They Repeat?
Because every time the frequency increases to exactly it’s double, the sound has a striking similarity. C1 and C2 both sounds have harmony. To understand, you can simply play C1 and C2, and then listen to C1 and A1 (or any other note except C). Repeating the note names for every octave is natural because our brain interprets (or reacts to) 880 Hz and 440 Hz mostly the same way. As frequency increases from C, and goes step by step through D, E and so on, the ‘feel’ of the sound keeps changing and then when the frequency reaches double of the starting point, the ‘feel’ of the original sound returns. That’s why we call this doubled frequency too as C. The same with A1 and A2, B1 and B2, B2 and B3, B3 and B4 and so on.
Why 12 notes? Why only 7 letters?
This is just convention. Different systems across the world and over history divided sounds into different number of notes. Indian music for example, has 22 notes (called ‘shruthi’). In western notation, it was decided to divide into 12 notes. The divisions itself were not arbitrary, it is just that different parts of the world came up with whatever systems they felt were apt, and the western notation became one of the most popular ones. There are different mathematical and psychological explanations given as to why certain frequencies were selected to be prominent and marked as specific notes, but the explanations vary and hence the various ways of splitting up an octave. Factors like convenience of communicating music, tuning instruments, and so on have played roles in the music notations that exist currently. But mostly, it is just convention and what became popular.
Using 7 letters to represent 12 notes, for example, is because of convention of using ‘diatonic’ scales – where a piece of music strictly uses only 7 notes from each octave. For example, a musical piece in the key of C Major, will use only C, D, E, F, G, A and B. Any occurrence of other notes (like C♯), would be considered an ‘accidental’. Similarly, a song in G Minor, will use G, A, B♭, C, D, E♭ and F – not the other notes. In such a piece, we will mark that all Bs and Es in the piece are flat (♭) in the beginning of the piece and then write the song itself with just the notes. Not mentioning with each B and E that they are flat. Since for a considerable time of history music was written using such diatonic scales, with only 7 notes, the system evolved to using only 7 letters to represent music.
Why does it start with C rather than A?
It is again historical and not technical. The A minor scale was considered significantly more common than other scales. So the first note of that scale was named ‘A’. So the most common scale at that time was A, B, C, D, E, F, G. 7 first letters from the alphabet as we would expect. But as time passed by, the C major scale became more widespread and central to western music. And it appears to us as if the notes begin with C. The truth is it doesn’t ‘start’ or ‘end’ – the notes are like a circle of 12 notes. When we talk about C Major, we start with C. When we are talking about A minor, we start with A. When we are talking about music in B♭minor, we start with B♭.
It’s just that most of the time beginners of music are introduced to pieces in C Major scale, even before they know what a scale is. So naturally we feel like the notes start with C.
What are Sharps ( ♯ ) and Flats (♭)?
Although, we have divided an octave into 12 notes, as you saw, we use only 7 letters to represent them. Even in the sheet music notation, we use dots on the lines, only to represent 7 notes for each octave. We need a way to represent the other 5 notes. We use symbols sharp ‘♯’ and flat ‘♭’ to add notes using the same set of 7 alphabets. so between C and D, we insert a C♯. Between D and E, we insert a D♯ and so on, in five places. So ultimately the 12 notes (as given in the table above) is formed. For the notes that have two names (eg., D ♯ (or) E♭), what we call that note depends again, on the scale that we are playing. When we play B-flat major scale, we call that note E♭. When we play B major scale, we call that same note D♯.
Sharp means higher frequency. So the following note with higher frequency than C is called C#. C-Sharp because it sounds ‘sharper’. Similarly preceding note with lower frequency, which sounds ‘flatter’, is called a flat of that note. Like E♭which sounds a bit ‘flatter’ than an E.
Why Can’t We Simply Use 12 Alphabets?
This is again, just because of tradition. There are various ‘types’ of scales, but the one that gained the most popularity is the ‘diatonic’ scale. Not going deeper into scales, a diatonic scale is where we use 7 notes to represent a scale. If we used the 12 alphabets ranging from A to L to represent music, diatonic scales would be confusing to represent. Each scale would have a different set of 7 letters between A and L. C Major would be C, E, G, H, J, L, B! Instead, if we use only 7 alphabets and symbols for sharps and flat, C Major is neatly – C, D, E, F, G, A, B. It’s easier to remember which notes are flat and sharp on each scale rather than different sets of alphabets for different scales. So that’s what we do. Because at some point in history (and even in present) we made a lot of music with diatonic scales, we adopted this particular system rather than a 12 alphabet system.
This is how many things in music, generally are. Music by itself doesn’t need to follow rules or have forms. But we do these things (like using scales, writing notes in specific ways etc.), just for convention and convenience. In future, we might expand our knowledge and create a new way of representing music. But right now, the western notation is one of the most popular ways and just easy enough to get started.
The ideal time to practice violin. Well, it’s right now. You can practice for a few minutes instead of reading this article. When you get back to this article later, again, read those last two sentences.
Okay, if you broke that loop and landed on this next paragraph, you’re probably looking to create some sort of discipline and commitment for your practice. Good for you. If you create a schedule and stick to it, there’s definitely more chances of succeeding. Especially if you’re a self learner. But you already know what anyone would say to this – “There is no ideal time. It’s specific to you and your lifestyle.”. So let me not say that same thing. If you don’t want to think about anything else and just want someone to tell you an ideal time for practice so that you can begin somewhere, let me tell you. The ideal time for practice is early in the morning. Get up, brush your teeth, drink a big glass of water, clear your bowels, eat a snack (or a quick breakfast) then do your practice. There you go. You have your input – now go create a commitment and stick with it.
You’re still reading? Are you sure you’re not procrastinating by reading internet articles instead of practicing? Okay, if so, then the early morning thing isn’t probably working for you. Or you wonder whether it will. In that case we only come back to the most common answer to this – only you can decide the ideal practice time for you. But what I can do is to give you some pointers to decide on your practice time.
Your Energy Pattern
Some people are full of energy when they wake up, get tired through the day and go to sleep exhausted of that energy. Some people hate to wake up, feel lazy and uncommitted in the morning but they turn productive as the day progresses and get exhausted by the end of the day. Yet others are slow and groggy when the sun is up, but late at night, after everyone else is asleep, their engine starts running at full throttle. So what’s your deal? When do you feel most productive? It’s good to keep your violin practice at this time. At least when you are just beginning and playing the violin itself hasn’t become a rewarding pastime yet.
Do you have a 9 to 5? Going to work or school? Almost everyone has to reserve about 8 hours for their main gig. If you don’t great, your practice time can be anywhere. But if you do, what I find good is keep your practice time a bit far from that 8 hour block. For example if you need to start to work at 8 AM, and you wish to keep your practice in the morning, do it at 6 o clock rather than at 7 o clock. If you get back home at 6 PM in the evening, and wish to practice in the evening, keep your practice at 8 PM rather than 7 PM. If violin playing is your full time pursuit, then you should be looking beyond all this – make violin practice your 8 hour main jig and plan other things around it.
Take a realistic look at how important violin playing is to you. Are you pursuing it as a career? Are you playing to improve your personality? Are you playing to impress someone? Assign the time accordingly. If your office work is your most important thing in your mind, playing violin after you finish work is better. You will feel more relaxed and focus better. If you still want to practice in the morning despite your day job or school being most important to you, device some sort of wrap-up mechanism to free your mind. For example, at the end of the day, make a concrete list of things you have to do at work tomorrow. That way, in the morning when you are about to practice, your mind is not occupied with thoughts about work – you already have those jotted down.
Finally, Make it a Habit
By “making it a habit” what I mean is build it into your routine rather than assigning it a fixed time on the clock. For example “I will practice after I eat my breakfast” or “I will practice before I go to bed”. Rather than “I will practice at 6 PM”. If you do this, it will be easier to build as a habit because that’s how our minds are wired to think of habits. Something that follows (or precedes) some other already established habit. Always chain your habits. That way you don’t have to rely on motivation or will power for your practice. It becomes just another habit in your daily life.
There are so many texts and almost every beginner violin book begins with a short set of instructions with some photos on how to hold the violin. So I suppose this article is very redundant, but still this is a site to learn and practice the violin and it will not be complete without this. If you’re having a teacher, they would have taught you how to hold the violin. But if you’re trying to learn by yourself, I’d say this – don’t spend too much time and overthink this. That’s what self learners tend to do a lot of time they assume there’s some perfect position which makes it completely comfortable to hold the violin, and get frustrated that they’re not finding that sweet spot. There’s not. Playing the violin does tend to strain your neck, shoulders and hands, atleast in the beginning. Sometimes your back and fingers too. There’s only so much that can be communicated with words. You will find your sweet spot as you progress playing the violin – by making small adjustments that make you feel more and more comfortable as you go along through the days.
Holding the Violin – The Shoulder and The Jaw
My first advice is – use a chin rest and a shoulder rest. They make it way more comfortable and easier to hold the violin. Don’t debate about using them. If you are in a rare situation where one of them actually inconveniences you, debate about not using them. Otherwise, use the chin rest and a shoulder rest. Put the violin slightly pressed against your neck and rest your jaw on the chin rest. I find a center chin-rest suits short players and a side chin-rest suits others. A tall player might need some padding to avoid bending the neck too much. The violin will hold fine with just the natural weight of your head – you don’t have to press and hold it with force. It will feel doubtful when you’re just starting. It’s supposed to. Because the hold of the violin is not fixed rigidly. Your neck, shoulder and left hand adjust in intricate ways as required when you’re playing. Just be confident that things will fall into place after a few days of practice.
Holding the Violin – The Left Hand
Rest the neck of the violin between the first knuckle of the thumb and the third knuckle of the index finger. Don’t clutch it. Don’t grip it. Just rest on it. Remember that as you advance in playing, you should be able to move your hand up and down the neck of the violin, for shifting to higher positions. If you grip the violin’s neck or you have too much contact supporting the violin’s neck, it’ll be uncomfortable to shift. Some weight of the violin will be supported by the left hand but not as much to restrict shifting your hand up and down.
Holding the Bow
Playing violin requires dexterity of both hands and the fingers of both hands. Holding the bow requires just as much attention as holding the violin itself. The proper way is to hold the bow between the tip of the thumb and the middle part of the middle finger, and then rest the index finger and ring finger naturally on the bow. Usually, the first knuckle of these fingers contact the bow – but not strictly – don’t try to force it. Rest the tip of the little finger on top of the bow. It works like this – the hold between the thumb tip and middle finger is basic hold on the bow, the other fingers work subtly on positioning the bow and to differentiate the pressure as you play. But this happens automatically. You wish to play louder, your fingers will adjust automatically. Don’t worry about it. It’ll happen.
Although there once was a time very long ago, when people played the violin without chin rests or shoulder rests, it’s not really a good idea in the current times. Unless you have a rare structure that makes it easier for you to play without them, it’s better to use a chin rest and shoulder rest. That way, it will be easier for you to hold the violin comfortably and focus on what actually matters – the sound that comes out of your violin. I’ve read some articles on the internet that talk about the impact of shoulder rests on the sound quality. Ignore them for now. Several successful violinists today take advantage of chin rests and shoulder rests. If you’re still in doubt, just watch some videos of popular violinists on YouTube to know how common it is to use a shoulder rest.
Standing is best, but if you’re sitting, sit on a stool. Chairs with backs aren’t suitable for playing violin. The most important things are that your back isn’t hunching and you won’t accidentally hit on something as you pull your bow back and forth on the violin. Put your music stand in front of you and adjust it’s height such that you don’t have to depend on your neck to look up or down on it. You’ll need your neck for playing the violin and won’t always have the freedom to move your head as you like. Wear good clothing even if you’re simply practicing at home. Whether you’re wearing a shirt or a t-shirt, whether it has thick collars or the violin is in contact with your skin – things like this matter. If you practice all the time wearing a collarless t-shirt and suddenly have to play wearing a suit – you’ll be uncomfortable.
Before You Start
Internet is a treasure. There are countless videos explaining how to hold a violin. Search for ‘how to hold a violin’ and watch at least five or six such videos and just let those different perspectives sink in. Then watch the performances of some acclaimed players – pay attention and observe how they hold the violin, and how they lift up their violin and put it in it’s position. Do this for a few days and your body will find it’s own way to be comfortable while playing.
Your posture, the way you hold the violin, the clothes you’re most comfortable in while playing – all these are unique to you. Have patience and let things fall in place. Don’t think too much – let it come naturally. Just be mindful of what you learn everyday and let your body adapt by itself. Remember that it’s a frustrating journey in the initial few days until all this is behind you and your only problems are those tricky fingerings and playing in tune.
Watch atleast 5 videos on the internet that teach you how to hold the violin – try to imitate what each video explains.
Watch atleast 5 accomplished players performing on the internet and observe carefully how they hold the violin and the bow.
Hold the violin properly and move your left hand up and down the finger board – as if you’re playing. The neck of the violin should not touch the web between your thumb and forefinger. Don’t grip the violin’s neck. Be comfortable with holding the violin and moving your left hand.
Hold the bow properly and place it on the strings. The bow should rest on one of the strings, centered between the bridge of the violin and the finger board. Lift up and bring the bow down. Then keep it back on a different string this time. Observe how different it is to place the bow on the different strings. Repeat with different points of the bow touching on different strings.