Teaching Violin Fundamentals
All orchestral instruments are challenging to master, but the violin has some intricacies that can make it particularly difficult to play. Even intermediate students can sometimes have trouble with the basics, so it's important to always keep an eye on technique and to approach learning with an open mind—it can be difficult for a student to accept remedial lessons, but they're a vital part of improving skills.
One thing that a teacher should never tell a student, however, is that they need to start from scratch. Not only is this incredibly discouraging to hear, it's also an exaggeration. An educator is better off saying something like, "Your technique needs some work, and we'll take it one improvement at a time." According to Carl Flesch, "Progress in a large measure depends on eradication of one's faults rather than the constant learning of new materials."
Every teacher wants to see students make quick improvements to overcome the struggles that they're taking lessons to address. Sometimes, though, that anxiety can blind an instructor to the real problems and lead to wasted time spent trying to make the student match his or her own mannerisms. It is important to keep in mind that every musician's physical quirks are different, and that different is not necessarily wrong. A student with a good bow arm, left hand or stance, for example, should not receive criticism for those areas just because their new teacher would do things differently. Instead, focus on the true mistakes. By the same token, obvious errors should be corrected. A prior instructor may not have noticed it, but that makes it no less a flaw. Even the best teachers might overlook a detail from time to time.
Teachers conducting remedial lessons are the main focus of this article. Here, you will read advice describing common faults that even experienced violinists may fall into, and some effective remedies to cure them. These suggestions can also be put into practice when training new students, which makes them valuable advice for any instructor.
One of the most basic parts of playing, the stance is a good place to start. Often, you may find that students will stand with feet facing at a 90-degree angle toward the right, twisting their bodies leftward to look ahead. Instead, the player should face the music stand from shoulder to toe. This will position the head slightly to the left while playing, but the stand will still be well within his or her field of view to read the music clearly.
You'll also see students who position their feet too close together, making them unsteady. Good balance is important to proper playing, so this should be corrected by having the student widen his or her feet to about shoulder-width, ideally with the left foot placed slightly ahead of the right. This position will make the student's stance secure and free up focus for the instrument.
A fairly common, and more difficult-to-correct, fault is the "locking" of the knees back into a rigid position. This is a habit that students will fall into without even noticing that they're doing it—which makes it very tricky to correct. One of the most effective solutions is to have your student mark the sheet music at intervals with a reminder to "unlock" his or her knees. This way, they can correct themselves without needing repeated teacher intervention.
It is normal for students to be nervous while taking lessons or performing, and nervousness tends to cause a person to tense up. Therefore, it is a good idea to emphasize to students that they "limber up" and allow themselves to be flexible, transferring weight fluidly through bow strokes. This does not mean that they should be swaying (keep an eye out for that and correct it if it occurs), but encourage them to shift their weight a bit to the left when the bow is at its tip, returning to their center of gravity at the frog.
Holding the Violin
With the stance set to rights, the next area to check is the placement of the violin itself. Holding the instrument too high or too low are obvious mistakes, which makes them relatively easy to spot and correct. Check that the student's violin is resting on the collarbone and that the base is just touching the neck. Any higher, and an adjustment is needed. If this position is correct, move on to the slant of the violin. If it is angled downward, the left arm may be too low or the student might be slouching. Both of these habits will re-surface until the student gets used to proper posture, so a teacher must stay vigilant to ensure the student continues standing straight and maintains their left hand at about the same level as their upper lip. A suggestion for students that struggle to keep their hands properly raised is to position the music stand directly beneath the scroll, which will force a more upright posture.
Some students may show a more side-to-side fault in stance by holding the violin too far to the left or right. For this, two helpful checks are outlined in the Suzuki method. In the proper stance, the student's nose, left elbow and left foot should be lined up relative to one another. See that this is the case by having the student adopt his or her stance and then taking away the violin—then, have your student bring his or her left hand over to where, ideally, it should touch the right shoulder. Additionally, when the student is holding the violin and bow at the ready, the right elbow should form a square with the instrument. As a final check, make sure the button of the violin is pointing roughly toward the hollow of the neck. Checking all of these details will ensure that the student is holding the violin in the correct playing position.
At this point, your student's body and arm positions should be spot-on. What comes after this is more difficult. With some pupils, you may find that the wrist seems as though it were made of putty. When a very young student's wrist has an inward or outward curve that you just can't seem to get rid of, try this: draw faces on the first two fingernails, angled so that they will "look at" the student's left ear given the correct placement of the fingers and head. This makes it a sort of game where the student wants to make sure the faces continue to look in the right direction. For older students, simply draw a line lengthwise along the nails a bit left of the center and have them align that with their ear. You can also start finger pattern practice from the fourth finger rather than the first if you wish.
Proper hand position requires that some space be maintained between the thumb and its base joint; often, students will make the mistake of orienting their thumbs backward and closing this gap. To correct this, pick up some spools of thread or wooden dowels—these are handy because you can get different widths to suit different-size hands—and place them in this space to prevent the student closing his or her thumb. You can also use a rabbit's foot charm for very young students. Another trick is to encourage the student to tap his or her thumb and slide it back and forth. A mobile thumb won't be able to tighten its grip. To help your pupil remember this going forward, an exercise that you can have him or her do is to place the thumb on the neck and index finger on the A string in a backward "C", then slide the hand back and forth along the neck without changing the fingers' positions. During this exercise, the thumb should be straight, with its tip pointed away from the fingerboard. As a corollary, one should also check that the thumb is always pointed outward and does not curl forward to touch the fingerboard. This, in and of itself, is an error teachers should correct when it occurs.
A further mistake that crops up frequently is allowing the left hand to shift leftward, beneath the fingerboard. While gentle contact with the fingerboard is advisable until the student starts to incorporate vibrato, the hand should not go so far as to slide underneath altogether.It should also not be allowed to linger near the neck, except when playing open strings, in which case a certain "touch and go" level of contact is preferred. With the hand correctly placed, turn your attention to the fingers next. Virtually every student is likely at some point to overlook their little finger, letting it fall beside the neck or even underneath. An ideal way to remedy this is to have the pupil keep his or her fingers positioned over the notes, ready to play, with the hand angled slightly to the right. You might also notice, during this correction, that the student's fingers curve too deeply, nearly playing with the fingernails. This is a good opportunity to fix this error as well.
Articulation can also be a point of difficulty for violin students. For example, if you notice the fingers are too rough, pounding or squeezing the fingerboard, you should emphasize the importance of moving the fingers from the knuckles without moving the hand. This might mean holding your student's hand in place to let him or her get a feel for the technique. Check the precision of the student's finger drops, and keep an eye on the lift to ensure that they return to a proper, ready-to-play position above the notes. As one last exercise, have your pupil press a string with one finger and play others with simple double stops at the same time. By this point, the student's left side should be much improved from whatever technique difficulties they may have started out with.
Handling the Bow
With the stance and holding of the instrument managed, all that remains is potentially the most important bit of technique: how the student controls the bow. Many violin players and educators believe that the quality of the bow arm can be the vital difference that separates an average violinist from a world-class one. There is certainly no doubt that it is an important part of a player's skillset.
When it comes to bow technique, it can be helpful to start with the basics. Going step-by-step can help a student ensure that the bow is correctly held every time he or she picks it up to play:
- Ensure that the thumb contacts the first joint of the second finger so as to form a circle.
- Position the thumb subtly curved outward from the joint, supporting the bow from beneath the stick.
- A good position for the first finger to rest against the bow is just before the second joint. This allows a better level of flexibility from the base and middle joints.
- Double-check that the thumb and second finger are arranged in a circle such that, should the stick not be between them, the thumb and would touch the finger's first joint.
- Ideally connecting with the inside edge of the stick, the little finger ought to be relaxed and rested in alignment with the other fingers.
- It's important that the thumb be underneath the stick and the fingers on top. The stick should never be held by its sides.
Getting all four fingers and the thumb into the correct position is a start, but there is a lot more to correct bow technique. For example, sometimes students will hold the bow tightly as if it were a hammer. To get your student to relax such a vicelike grip, explain the weight of the bow—no more than the average wristwatch or pair of glasses. Information like this will help the pupil to understand when you describe how the strings themselves should bear most of the bow's weight.
Direct your student to practice holding the bow with the second and third fingers lifted off of its surface, putting some emphasis on how the thumb supports the bow from the underside of the stick. His or her grip on the bow should be loose and nimble, while keeping proper placement of the fingers in mind. One way a student can practice with the bow is to balance it at the frog with the second and third fingers lifted and curved over the stick, then rock the bow back and forth in a "see-saw" motion.
Even someone who is normally very relaxed can tense up and become stiff when learning how to play an instrument. This comes from anxiety and is completely normal, and is a hurdle that your student will need to overcome to prevent grasping the bow too tightly. As a teacher, you should do what you can to help your student relax, keeping the fingers curved into a gentle, springy grip. When you feel tension in the student's upper arm and shoulders, bring it to his or her attention and encourage the student to relax. Similarly, if your pupil is holding their elbow stiffly, start by checking the right shoulder for tension. Assist the student with relaxing the upper arm, then hold it in place as you guide him or her through forearm movements.
That forearm technique will be crucial to the student's success. Explain that the forearm should not be rigidly locked, but should open and close like a gate. If your student has a habit of bringing the elbow backward, have him or her stand against a wall to prevent the arm moving back, establishing a boundary for arm motions. For teaching the proper "gate" movement and straightening a student's bowing, a helpful instructional aid is an empty paper towel or gift wrap roll. Have the student practice moving the bow through this tube to become accustomed to moving the arm out and in at the proper angles.
An alternate approach to deal with a crooked bow is place a pencil in the upper scroll of each F-hole, or to stretch a paper strip across them. This will provide a clear visual aid for aligning the bow parallel to the bridge. To help your student master the full arm motion, focus on up-bows, moving from the tip on the string to the frog, then raising the arm and arcing back to the beginning position. Compare the motion to an airplane taking off and then doing touch-and-go landing exercises. Once the student is comfortable with up-bows, move on to down-bows, from frog to tip. During this process, here are a few issues that may pop up and how you might address them:
- If the student never reaches the frog of the bow—direct him or her to hold the bow at its wrapping and go all the way past the nose to the very end.
- If the tone becomes weaker along the bow's upper half—this suggests a fault in forearm rotation. Have your student use only the thumb and forefinger to practice with just the top half of the bow, adding the remaining fingers back in one by one.
- If a scratchy tone is produced at the frog—ask your student to raise his or her second and third fingers from the bow and arch them upward, holding this arrangement while practicing further. Then, replace those fingers and lift up the forefinger before resuming practice. This should help the student get a better feel for playing at the frog.
The violin is a challenging but rewarding instrument to master, requiring uniquely fluid motions and an intuitive "feel" for the instrument. With dedication and practice, the techniques and tips outlined here should allow you to give your student the foundation needed to one dayearn his or her place as an accomplished violinist.