Finger placement

When learning how to play violin, a violin player needs to correctly land his/her fingers in the correct positions along the finger board. Learning how to correctly land your fingers in the right places can take a lot of practice.

Here are some beginner finger placement techniques.

Fingering Tape:
Many beginners who want to know how to play violin often use tape which is placed on the fingerboard of the violin. This allows them to be able to properly place their left hand fingers on the fingerboard. Once beginners know where to place their fingers, the tape is removed.

  • Use book binding or scrapbook tape (See Fingering Tape example, courtesey of Violin Online).
  • The tape is used to mark a regular 1st finger (such as the note B on the A-string), high 2nd finger (e.g. C# on the A-string), third finger (e.g. the note D on the A-string), and 4th finger (e.g. the note E on the A-string, which sounds the same as open E).
  • Rather than use precise measurements to place fingering tape, it’s best to place the tape by ear (after placing each piece of tape, press your finger down on the tape and listen carefully to determine whether or not the note sounds in tune). This is due to the fact that variations in the width and shape of each person’s finger may affect where each tape should be placed.

Over time (sooner than you expect), your ear will become accustomed to the correct sound each note emits. Fingeirng tape should be used as a temporary aid, not as a long term solution!

Fingerboard chart:

  • Fingering for notes played in the first position can be found to the right of the fingerboard (see Fingerboard Chart, courtesey of Violin Music).
  • Fingering for notes played in the 3rd position can be found to the left of the fingerboard. These notes require the violinist to “shift” the position of their hand to a higher position on the keyboard in order to play these notes. Shifting is a more advanced technique and will be discussed later on.
  • The fingerboard chart shows many instances of two musical letters being placed on the same space. This indicates those two notes are enharmonic, meaning, even though they are named or “spelled” differently, they sound the same pitch. For example, in the first position on the A-string, D# and E flat have the same sound (called enharmonic notes). The pitch would be the same.
  • All variations of notes and fingerings in higher positions are not labeled and shown in the image example above (the entire length of the fingerboard can be used to finger and play notes).

Finding the best violin teacher

When selecting a violin teacher, remember that teaching styles and personalities differ. Some teachers may work better one-on-one or in a group setting (group lessons are usually cheaper, anyway). An ideal teacher is one who will not only provide you with a solid foundation of violin technique, but also one who will teach you in a manner that motivates and inspires you as a musician.

Suggestions to find and select a violin teacher:

  • Seek violin teacher recommendations from friends, other violin students, music stores and local school music teachers
  • Attend school and community concerts and local recitals. Watch for good players and ask them with whom they study with.
  • If you have a university or college nearby, contact the music department. Many music professors run private studios or can give you a recommendation for good teachers in your area.If the professors are unavailble, ask if any of their advanced pupils give lessons. I was instructed by an Arizona State University graduate student about 10 years ago and I would say it was on-par to being taught by a claimed “professional” music professor.
  • Local chapters of professional musician unions often maintain a list of musicians you could contact for referrals. If your community has a professional symphony or chamber group, attend their concerts and ask the performers if they or their students have a teaching studio with room for new students.
  • Contact local music teacher organizations for referrals (e.g. in the United States, members of the Music Teachers National Association or the American String Teachers Association).
  • Numerous online music teacher directories are available on the Internet. For example, if you’re interested in a particular teaching approach such as the Suzuki method, use Internet search terms such as Suzuki Association of the Americas or International Suzuki Association.
  • Ask prospective violin teachers for references, and evaluate their credentials. Who did they study with? Do they ever perform on the violin? How long have they been teaching? What level or age of students do they generally teach? What approach to the study of the violin do they take? (e.g. is there a particular violin methodology they favor?) What are their expectations of students? (Reflect on your personal time commitment to learning and practicing will be. Some music teachers demand hours of practice time from their pupils.)

Once lessons begin, it’s important to ask yourself: are you motivated by this violin teacher? Are violin lessons a positive experience, or are they discouraging? Effective teaching is very personal experience, so if you feel uncomfortable with the personality and teaching style of the teacher, it is perfectly acceptable to find another violin teacher!

Best violin shoulder rests

Using a shoulder rest is extremely important to maintain correct posture. It lends support and security, allowing the left arm to move more freely. Using a shoulder rest may also reduce shoulder tension and muscle strain.

There is another school of thought that a shoulder rest is unnecessary and players should learn to play without one, however personally, I am not a proponent of.

The general shoulder rest
The Kun Violin Shoulder Rest is regarded as the most popular and widely used shoulder rest. The Kun offers a wide range of adjustment to fit your violin size and the height of your neck.  Many companies have tried to make cheap imitations of the Kun, do not be fooled. Kun also sells junior sizes and collapsible shoulder rests for a better fit in violin cases. Two of the higher-end Kun shoulder rests are the Kun Bravo, made out of hardwood and brass fittings, and the Kun Voce,  created from authentic aerospace-grade carbon fiber. Both the Voce and the Bravo boast increased acoustic properties. The Classic, Super, and Collapsible models are made from composite materials with brass fittings and latex-rubber feet.

The Kun is priced between $20 and $100 depending on size and style selected.

Shoulder rest for long-necked violinists

  • The Bon Musica shoulder rest is perfect for long-necked violinists, however it can also be used as a general shoulder rest. It has a longer metal platform that wraps over the shoulder lending greater height and stability than a normal shoulder rest. The platform can also be bent to a small degree to customize the shape.
    The Bon Musica is priced at about $60.
  • The Wolf shoulder rest can adjust in height up to three inches. The platform can be bent for customized fit as well. The Wolf Forte Primo and Secundo are best-selling versions within the brand.
    Wolf shoulder rests are priced up to $50.

Shoulder rests for short-necked and child violinists

  • The Play on Air shoulder rest is great for short-necked individuals, children or violinists who dislike the bulky hard shoulder rests. The shoulder rest is blown up manually with air and provides cushion and comfort as an end result.
    Play on Air shoulder rests are priced at $20 or less.
  • Another easy shoulder pad is simply a piece of sponge or foam. It’s perfect for the violinist that doesn’t like the restrictions of playing with an actual shoulder rest, but still wants a little protection and cushion.
    Hand make your own for a couple of dollars using foam from your local craft store for less than $2!

How to hold a violin bow

Knowing how to properly hold a violin bow is essential to produce a beautiful sound from your violin that is in tune. When placed on and across the strings, the bow is directs the type of sound through speed and varying degrees of pressure on the strings. In order to achieve the desired sound, a relaxed bow hold is important to keep in mind.

Practice violin bow hold without the bow

This may seem strange at first, but practicing your violin bow hold without the  actual bow will help mold your fingers.

  • Hold your right hand sideways. Your thumb will face left.
  • Curl your fingers and thumb toward each other so that the tip of your thumb meets the tips of your two middle fingers. Allow your index finger and pinkie to follow the natural curve of your hand.
  • Turn your hand and wrist 90 degrees to the left without disrupting the curved position of your fingers. Keep the wrist flat.

Practice violin bow hold with the bow

  • With your right hand, hold the bow horizontally with the tip pointing to the right and the bottom, or frog, pointing toward the left.
  • Place your left thumb in the frog, between the hairs and the stick. The tip of your thumb should be on the stick.
  • Curve your two middle fingers on the stick, close to the first joints of both fingers. Let your middle fingers curve over the stick toward the thumb, almost touching.
  • Place your index finger on the stick, curved slightly. Place a curved pinkie finger on the wood of the stick so that only the tip of your pinkie touches the stick.

Violin bow: getting a feel

  • Move your arm from the elbow only and “airbow” by drawing the bow across the front of your body as if you were playing an invisible violin. Keep the wrist flat and fingers curved with each bow stroke up and down. When you are completely comfortable with this movement, it should merely feel like an extension of your arm.

This is an excellent video by violinist Pete Cooper, demonstrating how to hold a violin bow:

Violin Strings and Tuning

The violin has four strings representing the four musical notes G, D, A and E.

Learning the basics on how to tune a violin will train your musical ear and help you be more in-tune with your own instrument!

Advice for violin tuning

  • I would recommend an electronic tuner for a beginner violinist. An electronic tuner will give an accurate reference for the pitch(es) you are trying to achieve. By giving an accurate reference of what musical notes sound like, you will develop a musical ear to determine pitch variances on your own.
  • First, make sure that the bridge is not leaning forward and is properly placed between the two small notches in the F-Holes on either side of the fingerboard.
  • Reference the wooden pegs at the top of the instrument to begin tuning for a general pitch.
  • After tuning the wooden pegs, reference the fine tuners located on the tailpiece next to the bridge. The fine tuners adjust the general pitch achieved from the wooden pegs to a finer, more accurate pitch. (Note: Some violins only have one fine tuner on the “E” string. This neither impairs nor benefits a violin in regards to tuning.  A violin can be accurately tuned just by the wooden pegs. However, fine tuners are helpful to beginners to achieve the right pitch.)
  • It does not matter which string you begin tuning first, although most violinists start with the “G” string, following with D, A and E.
  • Turn the fine tuner clockwise to go up in pitch and counterclockwise to go down in pitch. Follow this procedure with each string. If the fine tuner will not go up or down any further, relocate the fine tuner to the center position and tune again with the wooden peg.

This is a video of Fred Carpenter from The Violin Shop putting the above points into visual format:

Keeping a new violin in tune:
Here are a few common issues with keeping a new violin in tune. Over time, the violin will adjust itself.

  • Slippage of the wooden pegs: Sometimes after tuning and achieving that perfect pitch the pegs will slip out of tune.
  • New strings: New strings adjusting to being stretched out across the fingerboard can sometimes make vary the pitch at different times.
  • String windings around the pegs need to be settled in and adjusted.

Violin and Bow Placement

When learning how to hold the violin and bow properly, beginners should be able to identity the different parts of the violin by name.

This diagram provided by Soaap Music identifies the different parts of the violin and bow.

Violin Placement
With the correct placement, the violin will be easy and comfortable to hold.

  • The violin is held horizontally (parallel to the floor) and is angled to the left.
  • Place the violin on your left collar bone, and rest the left side of your jaw on the chinrest.
  • Many violinists find shoulder rests helpful to hold up the violin, though it is not necessary. Usually, beginner violinists use round make-up sponges that are attached with rubber bands to the chinrest for added comfort.

Bow Placement
The correct placement of your bow is vital for creating the best tonal quality.

  • The wood of the bow should be tilted slightly toward the fingerboard.
  • The bow should be placed on the string between the bridge and fingerboard.
  • For louder sounds, apply heavier bow pressure and draw the bow closer to the bridge.
  • For softer sounds, use a lighter pressure with the bow and draw it closer to the fingerboard.
  • Your arm and the bow should always be kept level when playing on different strings. This is by far the hardest thing to master with bow placement, but with practice you will master it!

This video clip of Fred Carpenter from The Violin Shop provides an excellent example of the tips above. Also, note how Carpenter holds the violin itself.

Whether you are standing or sitting, good posture is necessary.

  • When standing, stand up straight with feet shoulder width apart and knees relaxed.
  • When sitting, sit up straight toward the front of the chair or whatever object you are sitting on. Sitting on a hard surface, like a chair, will keep you balanced as opposed to a soft surface, such as a sofa.

Violin Types and Sizes

Before learning how to play the violin, it is useful to know about the different sizes and types of violins.

The type of violin can be classified by the country of origin, brand or style of music.

  1. Acoustic (Non-Electric) Violin – This is the traditional violin that is more suitable for beginners.  It is the standard violin within the classical music repertoire.
  2. Electric Violin – This type of violin is usually utilized by more advanced players experimenting with different types of music, especially improv.  Electric violins convert regular vibrations generated from the strings to an electric signal for a more amplified sound.

Violin sizing is fractional, meaning that a full, adult size violin is 4/4, or a whole.

The smaller sizes were developed to fit the Suzuki Method of teaching violin, where children as young as three would acquaint themselves with the instrument.

The right size depends on your arm length and hand size. With your arm fully extended horizontally, perpendicular to your body, measure the length between your neck and the middle of your left palm. Another measuring approach is from the neck to wrist. Both methods of measurement are valid indicators for fitting a violin.

The different sizes of violins with approximate  arm and age measurements:

  • 1/16 – Three to 5 years old with an arm length of 14 to 15 inches.
  • 1/10 – Three to 5 years old with an arm length of 15 to 17 inches.
  • 1/8 – Three to 5 years old with an arm length of 17 to 17.5 inches.
  • 1/4 – Four to 7 years old with arm length of 17.6 to 20 inches.
  • 1/2 – Six to 10 years old with an arm length of 20 to 22 inches.
  • 3/4 – Nine to 11 years old with an arm length of 22 to 23.5 inches.
  • 4/4 or Full Size – For violinists age 9 and above with an arm length of 23.5 inches and up.  This size is the adult size.

Here is a reputable video from the respected SHAR Violins on how to find the correct violin size:

Although you can fit yourself, it is suggested that violinists go to a local music or violin specialty shop to be measured correctly.

Some reputable music shops in and near my city Tempe, AZ include:

For the next post, I plan to demonstrate how to properly hold the violin and the bow.