The beginner’s guide to playing the Western violin at home Western violin 101

Playing the Western Violin

If you have zeroed in on the violin as your instrument, congratulations on your choice! The violin can produce some of the most melodious sounds you will ever hear. Of course, beginners will generally sound scratchy and squeaky but don’t let that put you off! We’ve all been there and done that!

Like with everything else in life, practice makes perfect. So, ensure that you practise for at least 10-15 minutes every day and slowly increase the time you spend on it according to your schedule. On our part, we have made a beginner’s guide to help you learn how to play the violin online at home for free. This is a guide for the violin played Western style but if you would like to play Indian Carnatic style, here is your guide.

Parts of the violin

Parts of the violin

Equipment required to learn the violin - for beginners:

If you are learning to play the western style violin, you will need to ensure that you have the following:

  • Violin - Buy one that suits your age and build. As a rule of thumb, you could follow this chart to get an idea of the appropriate size of the violin to buy:
Equipment required to learn the violin

You could also ensure that it is strung at the store where you bought it to make it easier for you. Ensure you store it in the violin case that comes along with the instrument, to protect it from dust and other physical harm.

  • Bow - Ensure the bow is newly-haired and of uniform colour and width along the whole length - it should be tight enough so you don’t have hair dangling.
  • Rosin - This is used to give the bow a proper grip when sliding across the strings of the violin. There are two types of rosins you could use - the dark rosin that is suited for dry climates and the light rosin that is suited for humid climates.
  • Tuner - This is to help you tune the strings to the right base sounds.
  • Music stand - A sturdy, adjustable one will ensure that you can alter it as you grow or as you stand or sit.
  • Shoulder rest - Ensure that this sits properly on your shoulders and that it is soft. You could also use a sponge, and tie it to the violin with rubber bands.
  • Beginners guide to Western Violin
    Beginners guide to Western Violin
    Beginners guide to Western Violin
    Beginners guide to Western Violin
  • Sheet music with beginner-level notes
Music With Beginner Level Notes

Basic steps before you learn the violin

1. How to tune the violin

There are two ways to tune the violin - one is using the pegs and the other is with the fine tuners. When to use which one is a function of how out of tune the violin is and also how comfortable you are with tuning.

Pegs are for large changes in pitch while fine tuners are for the small tweaks. It is a good practice when using a peg to first loosen it (even if you want to increase the pitch of the string) and release the extra tension before you tune up.

Beginners would be advised to use the services of a professional to tune the violin. If you are doing it yourself, use the fine tuners to tune the violin as by turning the pegs indiscriminately you could risk breaking your strings. The open strings, in order from lowest to highest tones, should be Sa (lower Sa), Pa (lower Pa), Sa, and Pa. You could also consider using a tuner to help you get the right sounds.

2. How to stand

As western violinists usually play the violin standing up and as you need to maintain your position for the length of the performance, you should practise the appropriate standing posture from the very beginning. Keep your back erect. You can stand with your weight evenly placed on both legs making a V shape with your feet. Many performers swing from leg to leg both for comfort as well as rhythm. If you are sitting while playing, ensure that your chair is stable with a firm backrest if you are using one.

3. How to hold the violin

This is the tricky part of playing Western style violin pieces. The violin has to rest on your chin and partly your cheek, on the left shoulder (with your right hand free for the bow). So, the violin is supported by your chin and cheek. Ensure you do not use your left hand to prop the violin up. This is because your hand should be free to move, allowing your fingers to shift to different notes effortlessly.

How to hold the violin

4. How to hold the bow

Before you start your violin practice, you must tighten the bow so the hair is firm and tight. To hold the bow, you must ensure that your fingers are all bent (as if they were holding an egg) with the first crease on each finger touching the lower part of the bow. The grip is important because it allows you free movement over all the four strings of the violin. If you grip it too tightly, you might not be able to move across all the strings fluidly and you might produce those scratchy sounds that beginners are famous for! If you hold it too loosely, you are in danger of dropping the bow.

Note: Typically, even left-handed people hold the bow in the same way. In the rare instance that you would like to use your left hand to hold the bow, just switch your hands in the steps mentioned so far.

How to hold the bow

5. Where to place your fingers of the left hand on the violin

This is where art and skill play the biggest role as generally, violins do not have clear demarcations of where to place the finger to play the correct note. You can consider putting sticky tapes to mark the notes. However, you might find that it is difficult to focus on the bow, the tapes as well as the notes! This coordination comes with years of focus and practice.

Your fingers should be placed under the neck of the violin. Make a curve with your hand with all your fingers bent again forming a position as if they were holding a ball. Over time, your fingers must be able to move along the fingerboard of the violin.

Special tips for playing the Carnatic violin

  • Always play with a tambura and metronome.
  • Keep your hand in an L position when you hold the bow and then move only the lower arm as you move up and down the length of the bow while playing the violin.
  • Initially, focus on getting the plain notes clear and in tune, don’t worry about the gamakas at this stage.
  • Focus on getting the basic technique right; it may take a bit of time, but once your formation is solid, your progress will be exponential.

6. Reading the notes

As a beginner, reading the violin notes can appear daunting. However, once you use a few simple tricks, you might be surprised with how musically literate you feel! For instance, if the notes are on the lines (called staff lines), they are E, G, B, D, and F from the lowermost line to the topmost line. A good way to remember is with this sentence - Every Good Boy Does Fine!

Every Good Boy Does Fine

And if the notes are in the space, they are F, A, C, and E from the lowest space to the topmost space between the lines. Read it as FACE, or Face is in the Space!

Face is in the space

The beautiful thing about the western violin notes is that it incorporates everything in it - right from which way the bow should move (up bow or down bow) to how long you should play to playing multiple notes together to the pauses. No wonder those violin orchestras sound so well- synchronised!

7. Playing the violin

Before you go about playing the notes and scales, every beginner should move the bow over each of the four strings of the violin, appropriately moving/lifting the elbow so you play only one string at a time. Try to move the entire length of the bow over each string - G, D, A, and E. Expect a scratchy (some might call it screechy too!) sound at first but try to play as smoothly as you can with most of your movement made by your wrist. Start playing exercises with only the top two strings first. Once you are comfortable with these, you can play the same exercises on the lower two strings.

So, how has your journey been so far? We’d love to hear from you. Write to enquiry@sapaindia.com. If you’d like to connect online with one of our Carnatic violin teachers at SaPa to explore a journey with us, we’d love to have you on board!