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Basic Violin Techniques
One of the more difficult musical instruments to play is the violin. I will present in this article ways to help fine-tune basic remedial problems in violin techniques. Remedial teaching is an extremely difficult form of teaching, and it can be terribly hard on both teacher and student.

When a student has remedial problems, one should not discourage him or her by saying that everything is wrong, and that they must start from the very beginning. I believe that this is a devastating remark and one which I would never use. It is far better to say, “You have some problems and we are going to correct them one by one.” As Carl Flesch says, “Progress in a large measure depends on eradication of one’s faults rather than the constant learning of new materials.”

Naturally, the remedial teacher is anxious for the student to show rapid progress to correct the faults that brought him to the teacher in the first place. However, many times this anxiety results in wasting time changing or trying to change some of the student’s abilities to fit the teacher’s particular mannerisms or characteristics, which may often be of an unusual or unique physical nature. This should be avoided at all costs. If a student comes to a teacher for specific remedial teaching and this student possesses a good bow arm, or a good left hand, or a good stance, for heaven’s sake leave the assets alone and be grateful to his or her earlier teacher. In the same context, never let a student who has an obvious fault get by without correcting it, just because a previous teacher may have overlooked it. Sometimes the world’s greatest teachers make mistakes...although not nearly so many as the rest of us.

Techniques discussed in this article will help teachers to help students who have come to them for remedial advice. Generally speaking, this article will list the faults and then list the steps found to be good corrective procedures. While these suggestions have been made primarily for remedial work, the suggestions can also apply just as effectively for beginning violin students.

Stance

Let’s begin with the student’s stance. The teacher will frequently find that the student stands with his feet facing at a right angle to the music stand with his body twisted sideways to the left. He should be taught to stand with his feet and his body facing the music stand. His head will be slightly to the left; however, he will still be able to see and read his music clearly.

Another fault regarding a stance can be standing with the feet too close together. The feet too close together causes a teetering imbalance. The obvious correction is to have the student take a shoulders’ width position with the feet somewhat apart. This corrected stance provides a broad base to support his weight and gives him a more secure sense of balance. It is recommended having the left foot slightly forward.

The third most prevalent fault regarding a student’s stance is, I believe, partly psychological and can be quite difficult to correct. That is a “locking” or rigidity of the knees, which occurs quite involuntarily. The best method I have discovered to correct this is to have the student put an identifying mark at occasional points on his music that will remind him to “unlock his knees.”

Some other suggestions for correcting a student’s stance include telling the student to keep his body flexible, allowing a slight transfer of weight during whole bow strokes. Instruct the student to shift his weight slightly to the left at the tip of the bow and have the weight equally distributed on both feet at the frog of the bow. Finally, don’t let the student sway.

Violin Placement

Now that we have the stance corrected, let’s examine the typical faults that occur in the violin placement or the holding of the violin. The most obvious faults include holding the violin too high or too low. If the student is holding the violin too high, he is undoubtedly holding it off the collarbone. See that the bottom is resting on his collarbone and the base is just touching his neck. However, even if he has it properly positioned in this manner, the teacher may find that he is holding it so low that the instrument is slanting downward. This can be caused by the left arm being too low
or by bending forward. Both attitudes need constant correcting. Make the student stand straight and keep the left hand approximately on a level with his/her upper lip. If the left hand is consistently too low, make the adjustment by putting the scroll over the music stand, thus forcing a straighter posture which, in turn, will keep his left hand higher.

In the event that the violin is being held to the left or to the right, the Suzuki method offers two good checks. See that the student’s nose, left elbow, and left foot are in a straight line as the student holds the violin. To check this, take away the violin. As he or she brings his or her left hand over, it should touch his or her right shoulder. Also see that the right elbow forms a square with the violin when the student is holding the violin and bow in a “ready-to-play” position. Other checks are made to see that the button of the violin points approximately to the hollow of the neck. If all these check-points are made simultaneously, it will be impossible for the violin to be held either too far to the left or to the right, leaving the violin in the proper playing position.

So we have the student standing correctly and holding the violin in the proper position for playing. We have made progress. But now the hard part begins. What teacher hasn’t despaired when confronted by a pupil whose left wrist appears to be made of putty? The student’s wrist curves inward or backward, no matter how often the teacher demonstrates how it should be done. Here are some suggestions. For very young students, draw faces on the finger nails of the first two fingers. Have the faces drawn on the fingernail so that each face is looking at the student’s left ear when his fingers and head are in correct position. Little children love the faces and will work to make them “look” where they’re supposed to, which is at the left ear. For older children, a line drawn lengthwise on the nails just a little bit left of center will suffice. Also, practice finger patterns starting from the fourth finger instead of the first.

Another common fault is that the left thumb lies backward and squeezes shut the space between the thumb and the base joint. To help the student overcome this, place a small thread spool at this point to keep the space open. What I’ve found even easier, since thread spools aren’t always available, are short lengths of wooden dowels. Since they come in different diameters, they can be adapted to the size of the student’s hand. For very young students, a rabbit’s foot charm serves the purpose beautifully. Also have the student keep tapping the thumb and sliding it back and forth to prevent him from gripping the neck and closing the space. Another corrective exercise is to have the student form a reverse capital “C” with his thumb on the neck and his forefinger on the A string. Then move his hand back and forth on the neck while maintaining that index finger-thumb position. See that the thumb is straight but with the tip pointing away from the fingerboard. And speaking of the thumb position, another common fault is when the thumb bevels forward and touches the fingerboard. Make sure the tip of the thumb is always pointing away from the fingerboard.

Other common mistakes would be allowing the left hand to slide to the left and under the fingerboard. Galamian, a famous violin teacher, states that there should be a slight, or soft contact with the fingerboard until the student begins using vibrato. I believe the beginner’s intonation is more secure at first with this contact. However, never allow the hand to slide underneath as if supporting the neck. Try to get the hand away from the neck as soon as possible, with the exception of playing open strings. Then, of course, there must be a slight contact, a matter of “touch and go.” Now let’s move to the fingers. I’ve seldom had a pupil who at some time or another didn’t let the little finger drop down beside or even under the neck. To correct this, have the student keep his fingers ready to play over the notes, twisting the hand slightly to the right. At the same time, we can correct another fault. This concern is when a student’s fingers are too curved so he’s playing almost on the nails. Make him play on the pads with the fingers in alignment.

Other problems arise with articulation. To alleviate the fingers squeezing or pounding the fingerboard, have him move his fingers from the base joints, keeping the hand perfectly still. It may help for the teacher to hold the student’s hand steady so he can move his fingers. Also, be sure that he drops his fingers with precision, and think of the lift of the fingers, again keeping the fingers over the notes, ready to play.

Finally, have the student hold one finger down on a string while playing others, using easy double stops. So now at least the left side of our student should be ready to concertize at Carnegie Hall.

Bow Hand

Time to look at the right hand, which controls the “Almighty Bow.” This writer must admit that he is prejudiced in this area of violin teaching or remedial work, to the extent that he feels that the difference between an excellent bow arm and a mediocre bow arm can mean the difference between a competent violinist and a great violinist. Having thus made myself vulnerable to the violent refutations from violinists everywhere, let’s consider the bow.

To prevent and correct a multitude of bow-related faults, let me go to a step-by-step procedure that I have found most effective in placing the bow properly in the student’s hand each time before he starts to play:

  1. Check that a circle is formed by the thumb touching the first joint of the second finger.

  2. Be sure the thumb supports the bow from under the stick and is slightly curved outward at the joint.

  3. I recommend that the first finger contacts the bow in front of the second joint. I feel that there is more flexibility in the base joints and middle joints if the first finger is in this position.

  4. Re-check that the second finger is forming a circle with the thumb. The thumb would be touching the first joint of the second finger if the stick were out between them.

  5. The third finger is over the stick, touching between its pad and its first joint.
  6. The little finger should be curved, relaxed, and resting in the same direction as the other fingers. The tip of the little finger preferably should be connecting the inner edge of the stick.

  7. Be sure the fingers are on top of the stick and that the thumb is on the underside. Never hold the stick on the sides.

With the thumb and all four fingers properly positioned on the bow, it would seem that we’re all set. Not true, as we teachers are only too aware. What does the teacher do when the student grips the bow as if rigor mortis had set in while he was holding an axe handle? First, explain to him how light the bow is. Explain that the bow weighs no more than two ounces, which is probably less than the wristwatch or eyeglasses he wears. Two ounces is about eight times less than an average glass of milk. Occasionally that surprises a student so much that he cooperates when the teacher suggests that he let the violin hold up the bow for him.

Then have him practice with the second and third fingers completely off the bow but curved above it. Impress on the student that the thumb supports the bow from under the stick. Also, make sure that he holds the bow loosely while keeping his fingers properly placed. Another good exercise is to have the student balance the bow at the frog with the second and third fingers off and curved, and “see-saw” back and forth.
A source of constant surprise to me is how stiff muscles become when an ordinarily relaxed person starts learning how to play the violin. The person’s fingers suddenly turn into hawk’s talons set for the kill. The teacher must try constantly to keep the student’s fingers relaxed, soft yet springy. Have the student curve all the fingers. Work to have him loosen the upper arm and relax the shoulders. It is frequently helpful to actually feel the muscles of the upper arm and shoulder to help a student loosen up. The same procedure applies to a student with a stiff elbow joint. Check his right shoulder to see if it is tense and hunched up. Help the student relax the upper arm muscle. Then hold the student’s upper arm and move his forearm from the elbow joint.

It is most important for the student to develop the proper forearm movement. I suggest to the student that the forearm should open like a gate. One way to stop the upper arm from moving backward during bowing exercises is to have the student stand with his back against a wall so the upper arm cannot move further back than the shoulder. Also, to develop the “gate” movement and correct crooked bowing, I use a paper tube, such as from a roll of paper towel, and have the student practice bowing through it for a few minutes every lesson. Bowing through this paper tube helps to get the feeling of the arm moving out (away from the body) and in (back toward the body). It helps to actually say “out...in...out...in...” as the student practices.

Another way of correcting a crooked bow is to insert two pencils, one in the top of each F-hole, which helps align the bow so it is parallel with the bridge. Sometimes a narrow strip of paper across the F-holes will accomplish the same purpose. For the student to get the feeling of whole bow arm motion, I have him practice all up bows, starting with the tip on the string, bowing through the air and replacing the tip on the string, bowing to the frog again and again, swinging the arm around and starting with the tip of the bow on the string. I compare the exercise to a jet plane taking off along a runway, circling back for a touch landing and then another take-off, (touch and go). Of course, the student reverses the process when the wind changes. For down bows the student starts with the frog of the bow on the string...take off... circle through the air...make a touch landing at the frog and take off again. Finally, three more common faults and how I try to correct them.

  1. The student never goes to the frog of the bow. Have the student hold the bow on the wrapping and go past the nose to the end of the bow.

  2. The tone weakens in the upper half of the bow. Have the student practice with the upper half of the bow only, using only the thumb and first finger. This encourages pronation (or rotation) of the forearm. Then add the other fingers one at a time.

  3. The student’s tone is scratchy at the frog. Have the student lift the second and third fingers off the bow and curve them upward. Then practice at the frog. Replace the second and third fingers and lift the first finger off the bow and again practice at the frog.

In closing, I sincerely hope that what I have presented in this article will help teachers to help students master one of the most difficult musical instruments ever invented – the violin.




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