Playing for the First Time

Once you have got down how to hold your violin and bow, you have got your violin tuned (or have it tuned by someone else), and you have applied rosin to your bow, you are ready to start playing.

Self-Learning Recommendation

If you are just starting out playing the violin and you have decided to teach it to yourself rather than have a teacher, you have two options – one is to use a fingering sticker, another is to use a digital tuner (either an electronic device, or a mobile app).

My opinion is that, the digital tuner is a way better option than fingering stickers. Because it does what you are supposed to learn. You need to hear the sound coming from your violin and judge whether it’s the right note. But as a beginner there’s little chance that you can recognize notes by yourself. If you had a teacher, they would tell you whether you need to move your finger up or down based on hearing your sound. The digital tuner will do exactly this. Make sure you get a chromatic tuner which can recognize all notes. Turn on the chromatic tuner and put it on your music stand where you can see it prominently, without straining or having to turn your head. Now as you play, the tuner will try to identify the closest note and you can find out from it whether you are playing accurately.

Play on Open Strings

First, get the basic bow stroke right. Hold the violin in position, and let the violin neck rest between your thumb and forefinger (but not touching the web between those fingers). Place the bottom of the bow on the A string. By bottom I mean about an inch above where your index finger is touching the bow on the wood. Do not place anything other than the bow hairs on the strings. Not the frog, not the hard tip of the bow. The ‘range-of-play’ of the violin bow, is approximately an inch from where the bow hair starts on the tip, and an inch before where your index finger is (while holding the bow in playing position).

So, place the bottom of the bow on the A string and draw it downwards while making a smooth sound, till you reach the top (an inch from where the bow hair starts at the tip). This is called a ‘down-bow’ or bowing downwards. Without removing the bow from the string, draw it upwards again, making a smooth sound, till you reach back to the starting position. This is called an ‘up-bow’ or bowing upwards. The sound has to be smooth and clear.

Things to Take Note of

There are a lot of nuances and details to bowing but as a beginner, these are the first things you should watch out for –

1. Wrist Action

Note as you draw the bow, your bow holding hand rotates at the wrist. When your wrist moves away from the violin, it has to turn anti-clockwise. And when it moves closer to the violin, it has to turn clockwise. This rotation has to happen to keep the bow straight. You don’t have to consciously do this but it’s important that you keep your wrist relaxed so that this happens. If you keep your wrist tight, you will prevent this rotation and in-turn, the bow-to-string angle will change as you draw, creating bad sound. Keep the wrist loose and relaxed.

2. Maintain Draw Straightness

As you draw the bow across, it should be a clean straight draw, fairly parallel to the bridge. You have to minimize movement ‘along’ the string. Imagine a thick dot is there on the string, roughly in the middle between the bridge and where the fingerboard starts. Your bow should travel all along without slipping above or below this dot.

3. Bow Pressure

If you put too much pressure on the bow you will make a scratchy sound instead of the smooth violin tone you expect. Too little pressure will make incomplete, sliding sounds. The weight of the bow, and any small weight added by your forefinger is enough to make a nice sound. Don’t add more pressure consciously.

4. Bow Speed

Draw with a moderate, uniform speed. And maintain the same speed from start to end of your bow stroke. To begin with, make each stroke about 1 second long. Try to be accurate and uniform. Every up-bow and down-bow should take the same length of time. Once you are comfortable with this, you can speed up slightly or slow down slightly. Both slow bowing and fast bowing are important.

There are way too many bowing techniques and it would be simply overwhelming to read about as a beginner. But the above points are the most important for beginners.

Practice

  1. Patiently practice till you get a smooth clear sound while bowing. Be mindful of how you are holding the violin, and your posture.
  2. Repeat the bowing on all strings. Play a few strokes on the G string, some on the D string, then A and then E.
  3. Practice switching strings. That is, do a down-bow on the E string, then without removing the bow off the string, switch to the A string, and proceed with the up-bow. Then again, without removing the bow off the string, switch to the D string and proceed with the down-bow. Then finally finish with and up-bow on the G string. Then come back to start from there – down-bow on the G string, up-bow on the D string, down-bow on the A string and finally up-bow on the E string. Repeat till you are comfortable doing this. Note that your right-arm has to move up as you go from E to G, and come down as you go from G to E.

Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash

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