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Advice and Information for Complete Beginners

Here are some basics to consider before even playing a note!

Click here to go to Beginners First Tunes page

Click here to go to the timetable for the complete beginners group - join any time

The great thing about learning an instrument these days is that there is so much online help.  The best way to learn is to use this help in conjunction with a series of lessons so you can get help with your specific needs.  

There are lots of great things about fiddlelessons.  You can just use the website if you like! There are zoom classes so you can learn in the comfort of your own home, there are several groups so you can progress at your own pace, and we are all working on a common repertoire, so you are already part of a big group -  the Highly Strung Community Band with over 100 members.  The band plays at charity events and for English country dance and Irish set dance.  It has its own facebook page and website.   You will always be welcome !

Here is a list of basics which you should understand before even playing a note! 

Please click on the links below - or just scroll down this page.

1.  Tuning Your Violin

2. Tensioning and loosening the bow

3.  Shoulder Rest

4.  Chin Rest

5.  Strings

6.  Practice Mute

7.  Rosin

8.  Stretching exercises

Violin and Bow

The violin is the instrument and we call it a fiddle when we play traditional music.  It is the same instrument.  The bow is referred to as the stick.

The best way to get started is to take the plunge and buy your own violin "kit which includes the instrument itself, a bow, a case and usually rosin too.  I have some loan fiddles so you can try it out.

Obviously you need to go for a kit that your budget allows, but it is hard to produce a nice sound as a beginner, so a really cheap violin will probably leave you wishing you’d opted for something a bit better.  

For a budget of around £200 you will get a good starter violin from a music shop.  The violin shops may offer hire/buy so you get to try the instrument on a rental basis for a few weeks, with the option to pay a balance, or return the violin.  

For those of you local to Bristol and North Somerset, Bob Bailey from Clevedon Music Shop is doing click and collect during the current lockdown November 2020 - ring him on 01275 342090.  In Bristol ring Nick at Bristol Violin shop - Upper Maudlin Street - 0117 925 9990.

You can find much cheaper violins online, but beware they may not be set up properly.  A previously owned instrument from a private seller may be an option if you get a chance to hear the instrument being played, try to tune it etc.   Be Covid aware and safe.

1.  Tuning Your Violin and aids for this
Tuning the violin to the correct pitch is essential.  

Put the violin under your chin and look down to the scroll at the end where your fingers will play all our tunes in the "First Position".  

From right to left as you look down, the notes are E A D G

E has the highest pitch and G has the lowest pitch.

Use the pegs at the scroll end to make a large variation in pitch.  Use the fine tuners in the tailpiece for tweaking the pitch when you are very near to the right note.

Turn the pegs away from you i.e. clockwise, or turn the fine tuners clockwise to make the string tighter, i.e. higher in pitch.

    

      G  D  A  E 

The violin is very mechanical.  As you turn the fine tuner, a little lever is depressed under the tailpiece, thereby making the string tighter which will produce a higher pitch.  

As you turn a peg away from you, it is easy to see that you are shortening the string to produce a higher pitch, and vice versa.

 

Pegs should be pushed inwards as you turn them so they do not slip.  Fine tuners are only for small adjustments in pitch.  Do not force them - 

once they are too far down or too far up, you need to tune from the peg.  Over-use of the adjusters can lead to problems with the bridge.

Be careful when tuning with the pegs, that you are tuning the correct string ! - as you could cause a string to break by mistake.

New strings might stretch slightly for a couple of week so you may have to tune more during this period.  The good news is that modern strings are very stable and usually only need a small amount of adjustment after this bedding in period.

If you need to replace a string we can all look at that with you in a class.  There are lots of videos online to help you with this.

Aids to tune to the correct pitch:

If you already have a trained ear, a simple pitch fork will gives the note A - the second string from the top as you look down the violin.

Use an online app (free)

Or use an electronic tuner - I recommend this for complete beginners as it is a quick way to get to the right pitch and it will help you to train your ear to hear that pitch.  The MS Micro Violin Tuner by D'Addario can be placed on your violin and shows the pitch of any note you are playing for a short time.  It also has a metronome which is useful to keep your rhythm steady at the same pace throughout your tune.  It is about £22 - £24 and works on batteries.

2. Tensioning and loosening the bow
Always store your bow slack or you will stretch the hair and damage the bow.  When you come to play, tension the bow by turning the knob by turning the silver screw clockwise until the middle of the bow has a gap between the wood and the hair of about a pencil width.

If you break a hair do not pull it out as this may dislodge the other hairs.  Either carefully cut it away about half an inch from each end with scissors - or wrap it round your finger to break it near both ends.

The following accessories are important to consider.  Choosing the right one for you is difficult as you dont know until you start using it whether it suits you.  As a beginner it is even more difficult.  Reviews online can help but is more a matter of opinion and personal preference - it is fun to read the widely conflicting verified purchaser reviews!
3.  Shoulder Rest
It is important to be as relaxed as possible when playing.  When you first take up the instrument, this is indeed a challenge, as you will not be adopting a natural pose!

The shoulder rest is a way to fill the gap between your body and the violin so you can hold it up with your chin.  A lot of traditional musicians do not even use a shoulder rest, but that can be uncomfortable on the collarbone.  

Shoulder rests come in a very wide range, most of which are extremely adjustable in width to fit across the violin in a variety of angles, and at various heights.

I am currently using a Styddi shoulder rest which is around £10 

4.  Chin Rest
It is most likely that your violin already has a chin rest.  These also come in a wide range of shapes and styles for positioning in different places on the violin, and on which you rest your chin!

When asked to place the violin in a playing position for the first time, most people naturally hold it with their chin pretty much over the tailpiece.  Chin rests used to be placed on the right side of the tailpeice and nowadays are usually on the left.  Just be aware that you can easily change your chin rest to make your playing more comfortable for you.  

I have been using a Wolf Special chin rest for the past 20 years - I position it over the tailpiece so I am in the middle of the violin.

5.  Strings
Always keep a spare set in your case.  You can buy strings in sets or individually, so make sure you have at least one of each string.

Unless you are just replacing one broken string after a short time, change all of your strings at the same time to keep an even sound.  It depends on how much you play as to when you should do this.  You may be able to hear when your strings become unresponsive, dull or produce and uneven sound - or they may even start to show signs of wear.

There is such a wide choice of strings which will sound different on different violins and different in tonal quality too if tried on the same violin.  I suggest you choose strings to suit your budget.  

I use Spirocore - they are quick to respond and have a bright sound that suits Irish music.  There are about £60 for a set and are extremely stable regarding tuning. I change them after a year to 18 months.

An alternative that some violin shops recommend is the Pirastro Tonica which is about £22 a set.

6.  Practice Mute
This will be useful to really dull the sound of your violin.  It is not recommended for all of your practice because it is important for you to hear the un-muted sound you are producing.  However, it may be useful if you don't want to disturb others in your house or you don't want the neighbours to hear!  

A couple of pegs on the sides of the bridge will work, but a recommended practice mute is one made of a heavy rubber and will cost around £5

7.  Rosin
This is required to make a sound at all with the bow.  A new or newly re-haired bow will not have any rosin on it, so will need a fair amount before you will get a sound from the strings.  Run the bow from tip to frog over the rosin several times.  Keep checking that you are not putting too much on, as it will build up on the strings and dull your sound.  After each time you play, dust the excess rosin from the strings with a soft cloth which you should keep in your case.

Most violin kits will come complete with rosin.  My indulgence is Larica Gold - very expensive but lasts for years and I think it is a lovely rosin! 

8.  Stretching exercises  
When I first started playing the violin again (after a break of 25 years or so!!) I attended loads of workshops and courses given by the influential players in English, Irish and Scottish traditional music.

I must admit to being a bit dismayed when Catriona MacDonald spent a whole hour on stretching rather than teaching fiddle.  To her (at the time at least) it was an essential part of practice and playing.  I'm sure she will still endorse this.

It is always important to listen to your body and the neck and shoulders can get very stiff if you don't stretch - so use gentle movements to release tension.  There is lots of help online about stretching these days and many of us have attended fitness classes and yoga sessions where stretching and relaxing is encouraged.