The pain of learning a violin

The correct hand position is to have the arm, wrist and hand more or less in line. This creates a gap between the neck of the violin and the palm and heel of the hand. The fingers are very curved around, not flat as in the typical American hillbilly fiddler and means that the musician can move their fingers rapidly to any of the four strings. Also they can use just the end of the fingers so that they can delicately place a finger on precisely one string without touching any of the others, and allows the hand to be moved from 1st to 2nd position and so on up the violin. For the higher positions the fingers are positioned on the part of the fingerboard that is above the soundbox. The first of these higher positions couldn't be reached unless the hand, wrist and arm are held correctly and for the even higher positions the hand has to be lifted up and over the body of the violin to come down on the fingerboard at positions near to the end of the fingerboard and very close to the bridge. This is complicated stuff. Although going into higher possitions mostly applies to string quartet and other classical musicians, a barn dance or ceilidh band fiddler needs to have the correct hand position to be able to play the notes at incredible speed, often double stopping.

 There's also the necessity to play vibrato. Vibrato is the sinusoidal raising and lowering off the pitch about the main note.This is something that is not done in Early Music but gradually came into fashion as it gives a richer and fuller sound to the note. If you listen to a baroque ensemble or string quartet, they will not use vibrato if playing in the traditional manner. But listen to a String Quartet playing Mozart and Haydn and they will use vibrato,  but probably far less than would be used in some passages of say the Edward Elgar string quartet, which is a romantic piece requiring passionate and full tonality.

 The speed of the vibrato is also variable. The vibrato that works on a low note is much lower than the vibrato that would work on a higher note, so again when listening or watching a String Quartet playing at a concert you will see that there is a tendency for a fast vibrato on the high E string and the slower vibrato on the lower G-string. There are subtleties to this as well. The vibrato can change during a note, often being stronger at the beginning of a note and fading later on, or else increasing in amplitude through a note, all depends on the effect of the musician is trying to achieve. Also the musician may use for vibrato on most notes and deliberately use none on some notes to give a cold harsh and icy feeling. This technique can be used to great effect in the string quartets of the great Russian composer Shostakovich. His quartets can be very disturbing and terrifying, commenting on the communist regime and the hardships of the Russian people.

So going back to the fingering and hand position, this is complicated by the fact that the arm has to be twisted around with a hand almost turning backwards on itself to get it into the right position on the neck of the violin. It is far less awkward to get the correct hand position on a cello, which is much more sensibly design from the economic point of view. The Centreline of a cello is vertical, and sloping backwards at about 20 or 30 degrees or more from the vertical. So the cellist raises their arm in the natural position and places it on the fingerboard, there is no need to twist the Hand and wrist and arm around, it naturally lands in the right place. From this point of view a cello is much easier to play. The difficulty with the fingering of a cello is that the fingers have to be spread a long way apart unless the musician is playing in the higher positions and the strings being extremely thick and heavy are much harder to press down, but from the economic point of view of the arm hand and wrist the cello is sensible.

 The predecessor to the violin, the viol,  was an instrument about the size of a modern day violin, that was played vertically or near vertically, much like the cello. Being such a small instrument the bottom of the soundbox rested on the musician lap .If I try to play my violin in this way it seems incredibly awkward,  but this may well be just because I spent years learning to play a violin under the chin and I may well have been able to play the viol just as easily. However, there has to be a reason why violins have developed the way they are and are played in their current seemingly ridiculous position, under the chin. I suspect the main reason is that the bowing can be done more energetically, and the weight of the Bow is vertically on the string. Sure enough, cellist play with the string approaching vertical rather than horizontal, and still manages to do bowings like staccato and spiccato. However,  the natural frequency of the bow is much lower on cello than a  violin, and cellists tend to play things more slowly.

I probably will get shot by most cellist for saying that, but in a String Quartet work the cellist tends to play fewer notes and slower runs than the violin. When they do play fast notes, which they certainly can do, there's a tendency for it not be written for such complex bowing.

The peculiarities of the playing position of a violin makes it very difficult instrument to learn and also a difficult instrument to teach. Other instrument like a flute or a piano are just as difficult to learn as the violin to a high level, but it is easier to get a decent sounding note and a good sounding simple tune had for flute or piano, where as it is virtually impossible for beginner to get a good sound out of violin.

Even if they were able to achieve the strange playing position required, if they are a young child, they will be playing a violin that is smaller than the normal size, a 1/4 1/2 or 3/4 size instrument. The laws of physics mean this instrument is really too small for the pitch of notes that are being played. The result is the tone is appalling. Add to this that most learner's play on cheap Chinese instruments, with cheap metal strings, and there is little hope for a decent sound.

 I must point out here that's not all Chinese instruments are bad quality from the sound point of view. There are some extremely good Chinese instruments made,  but then they are somewhat more expensive than the kind that are used in schools to learn violin on. And I'm not criticizing the cheap lerner violins either. They are remarkably well made considering their price. But they are made in a way that makes them robust and quick to make, and tone sufferers.

 A friend of mine was in China some years ago and when they discovered he was a musician as well as an engineer, he was invited to go around a factory making violins. He said it was an amazing place.  He said it was the size of an aircraft hangar with some thousands of people working there all making stringed instruments. He said the job of making an instrument was divided up into specialisations, and the workers were so skilled in their tasks that they did things like bending formers and other things that would normally be done with a jig, completely by hand. There was also a part of this factory making high quality instruments in the traditional way employing skilled craft. Very impressive.

By this stage you may be wondering why anybody should learn to play a violin? It is a painful experience for the pupil, not just because of the sound learners make, (and painful for parents and teachers too!), but because of the physical contortions they have to go through holding their left arm out in front of them for long periods of time, twisted round, whilst waving their right arm about in front of them to their right. You do it for a few minutes and you will be shattered. So what is it about the violin that attracts people to play it?

I did spend a period of time teaching violin both privately and  for two County education services. I remember well sayings my pupils when they said “ but sir, my arm hurts exclamation mark”. My retort was “ learning to play the violin is about conquering pain!”  Fortunately I never got any complaints from parents, and they did learn to conquer the  pain and enjoy playing music.

 There are two main reasons why people persevere with playing the violin. The first is that, if you can ever master it to some extent, and virtually no body Masters it completely in a lifetime, it can be a wonderful sounding instrument capable of music of complexity and extreme emotion, with subtleties that I would say are beyond other forms of instruments.

Also it is a social instrument. A piano can't be played with other instruments unless the Pianist has reached exceptional heights of accomplishment and is invited to play a solo with an orchestra or play a piano quintet, that is piano and string quartet, or to play a violin or clarinet Sonata for piano and solo instrument.

A flute or oboe player can more easily play in an orchestra, but an orchestra will only have 2 or at the most three flutes, and a couple of oboes. So the musician has to reach a high standard before they can play in the social group. There exist, particularly in America, wind bands that are in effect orchestras for woodwind instruments, but there is far less music written for them than the classical Orchestra, and much of it is rearrangements of pieces that were originally written for a Symphony Orchestra. A similar situation pertains with brass players. There may be two or three trumpets in an orchestra, unless it is a peace like Janacek’s Tara Bomba which was scored for about 15 trumpets and Symphony Orchestra. Pieces like this are few and far between. So as with the Wind band, the brass equivalent is the brass band. Again, a lot of what they play is arrangements of orchestral pieces, though there are a lot of more modern pieces written specifically for brass band.