I found, and I think most others will find that the biggest single challenge confronting the person who takes up violin later in life is simply finding a position to hold the violin which is at the same time comfortable for the left hand and allows for good bowing with the right.
(I am going to assume right-handedness throughout, since unlike guitar it is usual for left-handed people to play right-handed. This is because the sound post and bass-bar, the two vital internal structures of the violin, would have to be swapped to play the instrument left-handed, and I have never seen a violin to which this has been done. Maybe they’re out there.)
I’ll discuss buying violins later, but for the moment we will assume you can get a playable instrument to start out with. Don’t buy an expensive fiddle now, just get something cheap, but remember that a cheap old fiddle will sound much better than a cheap new one!
Since you really can’t do anything with a fiddle until you can hold it I think that would be the best place to begin. The simplest thing to do is to place the fiddle upright on your lap with the strings facing away from you, put your left hand on the shoulder to your left of the neck, swivel the instrument up and clamp it under your jaw. Just hold it there for now while we consider a couple of often used accessories.
Nearly all violinists use a chinrest. This is the queer black thing clamped to the body near the tailpiece. Unsurprisingly the idea is you put your chin in it and it helps to hold the fiddle. This makes playing easier and also stops the sweat from your jowls damaging the varnish, which on many violins, especially good ones, is very soft and easy to damage. Everyone likes a different type of chinrest. I prefer a very low rest without a pronounced ridge to go under my jaw, but you may feel differently. The best plan is to spend a while in a fiddle shop trying different ones.
Much more contentious is the issue of shoulder-rests. These exasperating contraptions are beloved of violin teachers and I use one myself, though many trad players don’t. Shoulder-rests are famous for damaging the fiddle around the edge where they grip, so beware of this, get a good one if you must and learn how to fit it properly. I like the Wolfe, but even the lowly Resonans works. I’m not a fan of the Menuhin pattern. However, again, everyone is different, there are no hard and fast rules, so try with and without, and if you like with, try a few different brands to get the best.
I personally find that without a shoulder-rest I can’t get my left hand to relax, and this obviously limits my playing.
Anyway, now that we have the fiddle comfortably under the chin, we will try a few notes, pizzicato. That just means plucked with the fingernail. Leaving your left hand where it was, put the thumb of your right hand against the end of the fingerboard and lightly pluck the strings from low to high with your index. There you go! First notes. Do this a couple of times and then move your left hand out to the end of the neck so that the neck is lightly gripped between the top joint of your thumb and the knuckle of your index finger.You need to pay real attention here. Do not pinch the neck between the pad of the thumb and the finger joint; instead let the top joint of the thumb relax. This is vital.
Pluck the strings again, just to get comfy.
Now we’re going to try a really easy tune, all pizzicato, now actually fingering notes. For the time being we’ll continue to learn tunes pizzicato, and once the left hand is comfortable we can introduce the right to arco (bowing.) This is just so we take the learning tasks one at a time.
Now the first thing you’ll probably notice is that after a moment or two you have the neck of the fiddle gripped so tightly your thumb has gone stiff. It’s not supposed to be that way. To prevent this happening, first make absolutely certain that your wrist is “cocked” and not collapsed under the neck. The line from the outside of the forearm to the back of the wrist should be more or less straight or if anything a slight angle of more than 180 degrees. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should there be an angle of less than 180 degrees, in other words the wrist MUST NOT be flopped back.
Secondly, move your elbow across towards the front of your body under the violin. Finally, make absolutely sure that the top joint of the thumb is relaxed—it’s actually quite difficult to “pinch” while you are relaxing this joint. This is where older learners, especially those with big shoulders, first begin to suffer, by the way. You’ll probably never have the suppleness of someone who started at age 6, but don’t worry, you will loosen up, it just takes practise.
Now try the exercise again and consciously try to keep your wrist cocked, your elbow well forward and your thumb loose. Even once we move on I want you to begin your practise sessions this way. Once you’re a little more advanced I’ll give you more simple tunes to use as warm-ups. I use “Erin Shore,” “The Dark Isle” and “The Red-Haired Lass of Tulloch” to warm up, as they are nice easy tunes in first position, which cover all four strings and use a variety of bowing styles. Initially we might substitute Egan’s Polka for Dark Isle, as it is less demanding on the bowing. We’ll look at these tunes later.
The benefit of warming up like this is not only to make sure your body is doing the right things, but that your fingers and ear are in tune. This is called “tuning the hand” and is a fundamental part of the warm-up routine. I’m not a big fan of endlessly playing scales, but again, this will help tune your hand. For now I would do only a couple of minutes or so of scales and then move on to the warm-up tunes. These are all really simple tunes, mostly well known and they use the same notes, they just are a bit more fun and after all you are already a musician, so you want to get on to the music, right?
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