Going Over the Basics

A student put the following question out on Tumblr recently:

Small Child Playing Violin. Believed to be in Public Domain From Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collections.
From Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Collections.

I’ve played violin for about 5 years but only in the school orchestra. Our teachers were never very good so I’m still kind of awful at understanding how keys and scales work and all fit together ( this is embarrassing omg) so basically I was wondering if you can think of any sources (preferably online) that go over all of the basics so I can review and finally understand what it is I’m playing? Thank you so much 🙂

While there a numerous online resources for this (and others on Tumblr have mentioned a few, such as Teoria), if you want a paper book to work your way through, there are some good ones specifically for string instruments:

Either of the theory sets listed above will take you progressively through the basic steps and lead you to a good understanding of music theory. The note reading book is a good beginner book for reading music.

Teaching Vibrato

A new violin teacher reached out to me recently on Tumblr (where he goes by TheVoraciousEar) to ask the following question:

Do you have any tips or exercises or resources that would be useful when it comes to teaching vibrato?

I’m devoting this blog post to answering this question by outlining how I teach students vibrato. Below is the response I gave on the subject.

First Step: how do you (as the teacher) do vibrato? There is an arm vibrato, wrist vibrato and finger vibrato. Most people do some combination of these methods. It helps to understand what you do and to be able to lay out the steps involved.

When I teach vibrato, I start with the student not holding the violin, but rather we both hold both our arms in front of the body with hands and wrists free and relaxed. Then we rhythmically flop the hands by an impetus from the fore arm, as we count 1,2,3,4, 1,2,3,4, etc. That is the assignment for the first week.

Second Step: the next assignment is to put the violin on the shoulder and place the hand roughly in third position with wrist against the violin box, second finger on A string. The finger must be relaxed and willing to change shape because now it rolls up and down the string as the hand moves back and forth along the neck of the violin, from the wrist, thumb and hand totally free and relaxed with no clenching. Second finger can try each string, hand and arm adjusting under the violin to reach the different strings comfortably. This is the assignment for the second week.

Third Step: Next assignment is to transfer this action to the other fingers. First finger needs to be free at the base which is against the violin most of the time. Taking the thumb off the violin neck can loosen the hand. Also, with thumb on violin neck, the student can practice “push away, touch“. That is, the hand and thumb open up as the base of the first finger pushes away from the violin neck and then touches again. The hand needs to be able to move along the violin neck freely, back and forth.The other fingers learn from the second and first fingers. Fourth finger is often weak and can cave in. Sometimes I let the student use third finger along with fourth in the beginning to get the motion going. The student is still working in third position with third position notes. All this can take several weeks.

Fourth Step: Next assignment is to transfer this action to first position. With the hand in third position and the hand against the violin box, the wrist remains still and the hand moves back and forth which is what we want. Sometimes when the student moves to first position, suddenly the hand remains still and the wrist pumps back and forth. In this action the finger does not roll, so no vibrato and the emphasis now is to achieve the same action in first position as in third position.

Fifth Step: Next assignment, likely some time later, learn to let a slight impetus come from the fore arm, to move the hand back and forth at the wrist with more speed and energy.

Well, there is a quick outline of how I teach vibrato. It can be done!

Cheers, courage and good luck!

For more info and Exercises and Practices, see “Basics” by Simon Fischer, Edition Peters. Part G – Vibrato pages 213 to 226

Improvisation of an Accompaniment

Photo credit: Meredith Bell
Photo credit: Meredith Bell

To start working with the idea of harmonic accompaniment to tunes or improvisation, I start with “Twinkle Twinkle” in A major. I make sure the student understands the A major scale and arpeggio set.

Next, I give them a simple accompaniment pattern and show how to put it in all keys. Here is an example. Then I also give them a chord chart. The part marked “guitar” contains all the first position notes the violin player can choose from for the pattern. Of course not even the guitar plays all the notes given. The letter names above the chords indicate the name of the chord as the guitar player uses it. The roman numerals below the chords indicate their relationship to the A Major scale.

The first pattern on the “Patterns and Keys” document gives the chord patterns beginning on the open strings, G, then move to D and repeat, move to A and repeat. The second pattern starts with the A major chord pattern beginning on the G string. That gets out of the range of the written “Twinkle”. I use this set up until the student can play the accompaniment to “Twinkle” guided by his/her ear. I like for them to be able to do that in D major and G major also. At that point we can try another tune.

Improvisation and the Suzuki Method

I have been asked before

“How do you get started doing improvisation with the Suzuki Method?”

Well, I answer by explaining the steps I take with each student.
I have my young students learn to play the one octave A major, D major and G major scales, first in pizzicato, and then using rhythmic bow strokes. We sing a little song to learn the scale:

The little train goes up the hill. The little train comes down again.

Singing the notes of the scale to the words above, is quite easy and once they can sing it, they can play it. Once they play it on the violin, I tell them that they have just played the A major scale.

While they are learning the book 1 pieces, I have them use only the notes of one of these scales (they pick which one) to make up a little tune. I like to take advantage of the time and effort they are putting into playing the little folk tunes from the first half of the Suzuki Violin School Book 1. During this time, they are listening to the book 1 CD, also singing words to the tunes and then reproducing the tunes on the violin. I think that is a good time to let them start to make up their own tunes also. When we begin to improvise, we start by mixing up the notes of the scale we have chosen to make one phrase of music. There is only one rule:

“Start on the key note – the first note of the scale you have chosen – and end on the same note. Do whatever you want to in between.”

We keep doing that until it is easy. Then we add meter and when the student is ready, we can use the metronome for the beat.

Then as they learn the arpeggios, we can ease into the use of chords that fit under a tune, i.e. Twinkle. I plan to address these concepts a bit further in my next post.

Below is a another video of brothers Tristan and Zane, playing a fiddle arrangement found in a collection by Carol Ann Wheeler of the folk tune, Go Tell Aunt Rhody, plus improvisation around that tune.

New Student Materials Checklist

When parents ask me what materials will be needed for beginner lessons, I recommend the following items:

  • Notebook and pencil for Mom or Dad, whomever is the practice companion at home;
  • Foot position mat for the child (I show you how to make one);
  • For quite a young child (under 5 years old), a home-made cardboard or a purchased foam “violin” may be used for a short time. This allows the youngster to:
    • Become accustomed to placing and holding the instrument correctly on the shoulder;
    • Learn how to carry and balance the instrument correctly;
    • Learn how to tap fingers in good form; and,
    • Learn how and where to place the “bow.”
  • When the child is ready to use a “real” violin, the teacher can measure the child’s arm to determine the size required. The parent has the choice of buying onto a trade-up-in-size plan, or renting from a local dealership or from one of the online companies (I like Shar Music and Southwest Strings. The violin outfit includes:
    • Violin;
    • Bow;
    • Violin case and rosin.

This list shows you what materials you’ll need when getting started with violin lessons. As you can see, some items are age-specific and therefore not appropriate for all beginners.