Bow to the Master: A Guide to the Violin

The violin is one of the definitive instruments of classical music, offering a wealth of sound, technique, and theory, and it remains one of the most popular instruments today. It’s still a staple of many orchestras, but overviolin the years, its sound and playing style has adapted to a variety of forms and genres, from folk and bluegrass to rock and pop.

The violin’s humble origins go as far back as medieval Europe when minstrels used bowed string instruments called fiddles for accompaniment. The violin’s other predecessors include the rebec and the lira da braccio. The three-string violin came during the Renaissance in the early 16th century. The top E string was added by 1550, and famous violin makers, including Andrea Guarneri, Francesco Rugeri, and, most notably, Antonio Stradivari refined the violin’s final design well into the 19th century.

As a violin player, you can partake in an instrument with centuries of grand tradition. Let’s take a closer look at this historic instrument and why you should learn to play.

Why You Should Learn the Violin

Aside from being a lot of fun to play, the violin offers numerous physical and mental benefits for kids and adults alike.

  • Posture – Playing the violin requires good posture to not only get the best sound out of the instrument, but also reach all the strings and play with as much comfort as possible. With enough practice, good posture should become a natural habit.
  • Coordination – Just playing a single note involves pressing down on the neck with one hand while pulling the bow across the strings with the other hand.
  • Strength and flexibility – While it won’t replace a day at the gym, the violin can help develop strength and flexibility, especially for kids. Holding the violin, bowing, and building muscle memory contribute to stronger arms and fingers.
  • Attention span – As you learn, you have to focus on playing the violin and reading music. If you play within a larger ensemble, you have to add the conductor and the rest of the band to the equation, exercising your overall concentration abilities.
  • Memory – When you start, you can feel free to use finger charts and other cheat sheets, but you can’t rely on those forever. You have to memorize note values, musical notation, and finger and bow positions.

Learning any musical instrument also comes with some great social benefits. Music education has been shown to boost confidence and self-esteem. It provides you with a new outlet for expression and creativity. It instills a sense of control over one’s life and surroundings.

Most importantly, whether you’re playing for others or jamming with a band, music is a highly social experience. Once you pick up an instrument, you instantly become a member of a diverse community of artists and creators.

The Violin & Its Components

Choosing a violin is difficult business, especially if you’re a beginner. It’s hard to say what “good sound” entails, and you can easily under- or overpay for a violin. Some of the factors that affect price include:

  • Tone
  • Appearance (varnish, workmanship, type of wood)
  • Performance
  • Condition
  • Collector’s value

Do not spend money on a cheap violin. These sacrifice tone and performance for a reduced price. Think of your violin as an investment. By spending a good amount now, you don’t have to worry about more costly repairs in the future. Even with the right setup and maintenance, a cheap violin won’t sound as good. As a beginning student, expect to pay between $300 and $600 for a solid violin. As you improve, you may consider upgrading, but an instrument in that price range should provide excellent sound and tone quality well into your violin career.

When choosing a violin for your child, pay attention to size as well. A too-large violin will lead to excess strain, which will only make your child less excited about playing it. Violins are available in various sizes—as short as 15 inches. When holding a violin under chin, a child should be able to reach out her left arm and comfortably cup the violin’s scroll in her palm—no stretching or struggling.

While the violin is the main event, it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. The strings play an important role in how your violin sounds and feels under your fingers. Great strings can make an average violin sound like a professional instrument. Not all strings are created equal, and you’ll generally find three types of strings for your violin:

  • Catgut – Contrary to popular belief, cat gut strings aren’t actually made from the guts of a cat. They are, however, made from animal sinew and intestines, usually sheep. They produce a mellow, full sound, but they are more susceptible to humidity and temperature, making them difficult to keep in tune.
  • Steel – Usually wound with aluminum or silver, steel strings are the most effective at keeping their tune and produce a surprisingly bright sound. However, depending on the violin, steel strings can sound harsh and abrasive. Steel strings can also be harder for beginners to press down, leading to discomfort and calluses.
  • Nylon – This is the go-to material for most violinists. They comprise a nylon core wound with aluminum or silver. The sound is comparable to catgut without the intonation issues.

Along with the strings, pay attention to the type of bow you purchase. The bow has a subtle effect on sound. A softer bow will produce a smooth, full sound, while a stiffer bow can make your violin sound brighter.

Your bow should become an extension of your arm, providing proper balance without weighing too much or too little. Take your violin to your local music store and try out different bows. Find a bow that complements your particular instrument. Try different bowing styles and songs, paying attention to how your violin sounds—clarity, smoothness, surface noise—and how the bow feels in your hands. For help, talk to your violin teacher or store personnel.

Violin Playing Tips

Now that you’re outfitted with everything you need, let’s take a look at some tips to bring out the most in your violin-playing abilities.

  • Take violin lessons. As much as you might want to learn violin on your own, the learning experience is much more enjoyable and fruitful from an experienced teacher. Even if you turn out to be a musical wunderkind, it doesn’t hurt to receive regular feedback from a trained professional.
  • Tune before you play. Tuning ensures that each string sounds great individually and relative to the other strings. An out-of-tune violin will not sound pleasant, even if you’re a professional. Purchase a digital tuner and tune the strings to G, D, A, and E, from lowest to highest. Make major adjustments using the tuning pegs at the violin’s scroll. For minor adjustments, use the fine tuners located closer to your violin’s bridge.
  • Practice your scales. Scales aren’t fun, but they are an essential part of playing the violin. They’re a good tool for warming up your fingers, mind, and strings. They help you develop proper finger technique. Scales are also an excellent means of learning sharps, flats, key signatures, and other basic parts of music theory. Don’t take scales for granted.
  • Practice with good posture. Good posture helps you support your instrument and ensures comfort as you play. Lift up your head and place the violin on your left shoulder. Lower your head so that your chin sits directly on the chin rest. The instrument should be slightly to the left, not directly in front of you. Your left arm should never rest against your body, and the violin should be parallel with the floor. Sit up straight on the edge of your seat, but don’t be stiff or strain yourself. You should be comfortable.
  • Practice slowly. There’s no need to speed up if you’re still learning techniques or a specific piece. Break things down into small parts and play slowly, listening to dynamics, intonation, and articulation. Use a metronome so that you’re still playing at a steady tempo, but set it at a significantly slower tempo.
  • Learn proper bowing technique. Good bowing technique is the difference between a full, smooth tone and a scratchy, cat-screech of a sound. Bow with your elbow and wrist. Your shoulder should remain relatively motionless. Remember that the pressure you place on the strings determines the dynamics, but don’t press down too hard for fortissimo. You may damage the strings and your bow. Instead, increase the speed of your bow. The faster the bow, the louder the sound.
  • Listen to other violinists. There are so many professional violin players that can both inspire and motivate your playing. Listen widely and often.

Notable Violinists

As you progress, you’ll be introduced to a variety of violin players, from Niccolo Paganini to Antonio Vivaldi. While there’s nothing wrong with classical music or the revolutionary violinists who changed the very face of music through their writing and playing abilities, the violin isn’t all tuxedos and coat tails. Many modern violin players have taken the traditional instrument and reestablished its sound and capabilities for a greater universal appeal.

    • Bob Wills is widely considered the King of Western Swing. He wasn’t the originator of the genre, but his singing and violin playing led to Western swing’s popularization and a fair few changes to its standards. With his Texas Playboys, Bob Wills played pop songs like jazz numbers with a unique country twang. While his popularity waned with the decline in Western swing, he remains an influential figure for country, honky tonk, jazz, and even rock musicians the world over. Listen to his rendition of Faded Love.

  • Andrew Bird is in a genre all his own, offering an eclectic mix of classical, folk, gypsy, jazz, swing, pop, and rock. Although he is a multi-instrumentalist, the violin is his staple, matching perfectly with his full vocals and whimsical, verbose lyrics. It’s not surprising that “Break It Yourself” was recorded in Bird’s barn. You can hear those same grounded, grassroots sensibilities in all of his recordings. Listen to his full KEXP radio performance and interview.
  • Owen Pallett makes the violin—the centuries-old string instrument—actually sound fresh, new, and, dare we say, punk rock. Pallett makes extensive use of loop and effects pedals to turn his violin (and sometimes synth) into a lush, beautiful orchestra of layered sounds that match perfectly with his sometimes soft-spoken, sometimes exclamatory lyrics. Not to be outdone, he’s also a successful composer. He has written songs for and collaborated with such acts as The Mountain Goats, Arcade Fire, and Beirut. Pallett exemplifies the constant evolution of music and the fact that the violin in particular is anything but old fashioned. Here he is performing “E is for Estranged” on KEXP.

The violin is an amazing instrument that has stood the test of time. It has adapted to all styles and genres, and as disciplined and traditional as the instrument is, it’s still enjoyable. You can play the violin with an orchestra, jam with friends, or use it as accompaniment for your singing. The possibilities are endless! Just remember to practice, have fun, and feel free to try new things.