How to Have Patience as a New Violin Student

So you’ve chosen to play the violin. Congratulations! Whether this is something new for you or something you’re returning to after a long hiatus, the decision to play an instrument is an exciting one.

With our days filled of isolation and quarantine (hopefully New York and the world will be back on its feet soon!), now more than ever is the time to pursue your musical goals. Music is therapeutic, it offers joy and comfort and if nothing else, it definitely gives you something to do! But we hope it’s much more to you than just a time filler – music is quite special to us, and the violin in particular.

The violin is notorious for being a difficult instrument to learn. Don’t feel daunted by that. What I’m going to cover here is what your expectations for yourself should be as a new or relatively new violinist! 

First of all, please – and I cannot stress this enough – do NOT set unrealistic goals for yourself. I often find students are discouraged because they do not immediately sound like they have been playing the violin for years. Or they don’t sound like the child prodigies they’ve been watching on YouTube. But here’s the thing: to sound like you’ve been playing for years, well, you have to actually have been playing for years! Yes, those child prodigies do exist, and while I beg you not to compare yourselves to anomalies like this, even these children practice and work very hard day in and day out to sound the way they do. So, no matter who you are you have to start somewhere and you have to set some goals for yourself. And what should those goals be? 

Goal #1: True and Proper Form
Can you hold the violin and bow properly, and do you feel comfortable doing so, effortlessly? This alone is an enormously important step. Many musicians, not having focused on being comfortable holding their instrument early on, later find themselves wondering why they are combating shoulder, neck, back, wrist or hand tension, pain or discomfort. The problem is that they didn’t spend enough time ensuring their form was correct from the very start. As a beginner it might be hard to know what feels comfortable, as things may not seem natural at first. Your metric should be pain: is the feeling one of discomfort, caused by the fatigue of unexercised muscles? Or is it joint pain? Muscle fatigue from playing violin usually goes away after a few seconds of stopping. Pain caused by an incorrect hold or excess tension does not. The rule is: if it hurts, stop. And seek professional advice  if it won’t go away. When looking into accessories such as chin rests and shoulder rests, there is no one size fits all solution, since we all have our own bodies and our own ranges of motion. So be sure not to assume that something will work for you simply because so and so “does it that way”. Find what works for you. An experienced teacher will happily help you get set up.

Goal #2:  Produce a Beautiful Sound on Just an Open String
Can you produce a clear sound on the instrument using open strings without scratching, crunching, screeching or other unwanted noises?  If not, here’s a few things to consider. Watch the path of your bow. Be sure you are using the “middle lane”. This is a concept where you envision 3 or 5 lanes in between your bridge and the end of your fingerboard (see picture below). You don’t want to be in the lanes near the bridge or the fingerboard, but right in the middle, which is going to be the sweet spot. Your bow should be parallel to the bridge and travel in a straight path, remaining parallel to the bridge the entire time. What you don’t want is a sawing motion where your elbow swings backwards, causing the bow hair to slide all over the strings. If you are hearing a “crunching” noise (which is a low, nails-on-the-chalkboard type of sound) while you play, stop and check where your bow is – it could be too close to the fingerboard. If you hear more of an airy, scratchy noise, you could be travelling too close to the bridge or your bow could be sliding around as previously mentioned. There are many reasons for non-optimum sounds, which all have very specific causes, but these are some basic guidelines. 

violin image

Goal #3:  Keep Your Good Bowing Habits Even with Fingers Down
This is concerning left hand position & using fingers on the violin to produce notes. When learning to use the left hand, keep in mind the earlier points – holding the instrument and producing a clear tone. It’s usual when you learn something new, like introducing left hand fingers, the earlier things you learned will suddenly not be as good as you had them before. Don’t worry! That’s totally normal, and you will get past it in no time. The reason behind this is that you suddenly have a lot more to think about, and putting it all together at once is not the same as doing each thing by itself. Ideally, you have a teacher (or are looking for one) and your teacher can help you put some tape on your instrument (we use painter’s tape – it is easy to put on and comes off without getting stuck or leaving too much of a sticky residue on your instrument). Learn a scale or two as soon as you can (we recommend D, G and A) and practice them a lot. Just keep your practice time regular, and it will come together. 

What About the Bigger Goals?
Once you are comfortable and capable with your posture, positioning, reading the notes and bowing with a lot of comfort, there are more things you can start to focus on such as rhythm, musicality and style, but no matter what you’re learning, be sure you’re not expecting too much or too little of yourself. It’s important to set tough but DOABLE targets when you practice. Maybe you’ve been struggling with the hard part of a song or something you can’t seem to get your bow arm to do. While it’s important to have fun and play what makes you happy, don’t forget to give those hard parts your energy and focus. That’s when you’ll really start to see yourself improve. 

Playing the violin is an extremely rewarding experience. While it has its own set of challenges and obstacles to overcome, there’s no doubt that the reward is worth it. We hope this has been a helpful and encouraging article for you to read as a beginner. For further guidance & demonstrations, feel free to check out our YouTube channel for plenty of instructional & informational videos. 

Best of luck to you in your playing and don’t forget to practice today!

Marie Votapka
Violin Teacher NYC Violin Studio