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Introduction to the Violin and FAQ

Module by: C.M. Sunday. E-mail the author

Summary: A brief introduction and some Frequently Asked Questions regarding the violin


The violin is the upper voice in the stringed instrument family. The early history of the violin is rather vague. Chances are likely that an early predecessor came from China and India, and migrated somehow to Italy, where it came to be known as an arm viol, and around 1700, was updated from the Baroque version to what we know as the modern version, suitable to the large concert halls which developed in response to the industrial revolution.

Figure 1: These are the open strings of the violin.
Open Strings
Open Strings (openstrings.png)

The violin has a human shape and a human voice, appropriate for the country of its modern origin; Italy, the land of opera and the celebration of the human voice. It’s very accessible, easy to carry around, and has been used and is used in all sorts of musics; folk music of all sorts from all cultures, and art music of the very highest genre. See: Early Baroque Violin Practice (1520-1650).

The violin plays a profound role in chamber music, orchestral music, opera, ballet, and the solo repertoire. Orchestral scores are written with violin sections one and two; the classical quartet has two violins (and one viola and one cello). The first chair, first violin in an orchestra (called concertmaster, even if female) plays a key leadership role in the group, secondary only to the conductor, and works with the principle players who sit first chair in the second violin, viola, cello and bass sections.

Thus the inner circle of stands in the strings—the first chair players in each string section—forms a sort of string quartet, surrounding the conductor, and this body of players in leadership positions works in conjunction with the first chair players in the wind, brass and percussion sections, particularly with first oboe, who also plays a key leadership role. The orchestra tunes to the oboe’s A 440, which is the pitch standard in orchestras throughout the world.

If you examine an orchestral score, you will see the organization of the score is, from the top, first the lines of the woodwinds, then the brass, then the percussion, and then the strings, continuing in the order of top to bottom: violin I, violin II, viola, cellos, and bass. If there is a soloist, there will be a separate line for that. In the sonata literature for violin and piano, the score consists of three lines: the top line in treble clef for the violin, and beneath that (in the score) the piano grand staff, which consists of two lines, a treble clef and a bass clef. The violin and piano will also have separate parts for reading and performance purposes. The standard string quartet will also have separate parts for performance, but for purposes of study, the score (often a miniature score) will be seen to have the parts written out in a standard format similar to the lower four lines of an orchestral score, i.e., violin I, violin II, viola and cello, in descending order on the page.

Modern orchestras typically have around 100 players, about two-thirds of which are strings. Baroque or Early Music chamber groups will be much smaller: as music developed over the past several centuries, orchestras have gotten larger and larger, due to the requirements of the larger halls. Mahler and Wagner, for example, have very much larger orchestral sections (particularly in the brass) than do, say, Haydn and Mozart. Thus the solo responsibilities of the leadership positions in the relatively smaller sections of brass, woodwinds and percussion require a very high level of virtuosity.

This is not to suggest that the string players are not also held to a very high standard. Orchestral positions in major orchestras are extremely difficult to win. ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) statistics are initially rather discouraging:

  • There are 52 ICSOM orchestras employing a total of about 4,200 musicians.
  • During the academic year 2002-2003, American colleges, universities and conservatories graduated 14,601 students with degrees in music.
  • During the 2003 calendar year there were 159 openings for musicians in ICSOM orchestras.

Young musicians should not be discouraged by this, however, but should be made aware of the many job possibilities in the world of music, aside from positions in major orchestras. There is a huge shortage of string teachers. According to ASTA (American String Teachers Association) statistics: “24% of string positions went unfilled in 1999-2000, and 43% percent of school districts with string programs had string positions that were not filled in 2000-2001." See article: Discussion: Careers in Music.

Figure 2
Figure 2 (Violin_Vuillaume.jpg)

Vuillaume violin (1862)

Frequently Asked Questions

How to locate teachers and violin shops:

  1. Contact the music department string teachers of any local universities: they may not take beginning students, or they may charge more than you care to spend initially, but they are likely to know the good local teachers, or recommend one of their abler graduate students.
  2. Call your public school service center, and ask for the number of the state and local Music Teachers Association (MTA..)
  3. Call your Musician's union local (yellow pages): AFM - American Federation of Musicians.
  4. Call local string repair and music shops; they often have lists of local teachers.
  5. Contact the Suzuki Association of the Americas.
  6. Post your request on a String-related Listservs.
  7. Check Teachers’ Directories such as Teachers' Directory,, Suzuki Teachers' Directory, Music Staff, Violin World, Music Teachers' List.

Personally, I would never send a child to a randomly chosen teacher, no matter how highly recommended, without attending the lessons myself in order to determine if: (a) the teacher treats the child with respect; (b) the environment is comfortable for the child; and (c) the teacher has an instrument and is able to adequately demonstrate on it.

Are the violin and the fiddle the same instrument? Well, yes and no, it depends. What it depends on is who's playing it, and in what cultural context you're speaking. Supposing that one is from the Midwestern United States, “fiddle” may refer to country and western fiddle. However, you hear violinists of the highest caliber, like Stern and Perlman, for example, refer to the violin as a fiddle...but their cultural context is Eastern European, which included gypsy-like so-called "fiddle" music, which is not the same at all as the American genre. The instrument itself may be the same, though folk players of violin (and other players who are playing something besides art music) may take more liberties with respect to the way the instrument is held, its fittings, and so on. Aside from some small details, however, the instrument is pretty much the same; there is no separate genre, fiddle, which is not also a violin. This question gets asked a lot.

What's the difference between the violin and the viola?A lot of people ask this, particularly parents who are trying to decide what instrument their child should study. One of the first things that musicians might think about in this connection are violin/viola jokes. The viola plays a somewhat different role in the orchestra than the violins do, and there is some gentle and sometimes not-so-gentle teasing between the sections. Musicians' jokes aside, the viola is a somewhat larger (longer, heavier) instrument and it is a fifth lower than the violin (five pitches, in other words). Many string players play both instruments, making their careers more flexible in terms of what they can offer. I would encourage anyone to play viola; the literature is a little different, but the viola has a deep, gorgeous tone and is quite as wonderful as the violin. There have been many eminent viola players (Pinchas Zukerman is a great example, and he's a genius who also plays violin and conducts. See ArtsAlive Pinchas Zukerman videoconference masterclass). You might want to take into consideration also, that if your child likes the instrument and wants to play it, and especially if the child is tall and has long arms and larger hands, the instrument may be an excellent idea; I think it's fair to say that fewer people are drawn to the viola and therefore it may offer more opportunities for a child to play in school groups, and perhaps even later prove to be a career advantage. In the long run, both violin and viola are perhaps the most difficult of all instruments, and they provide immense advantages in terms of physical and mental training. See: The Much-Maligned Viola by Kim Kashkashian.

How can I determine if this violin is the right size for my daughter/son? Regarding measuring children for violin or viola, there are two methods but the second probably works better and is more exact. At one time what we did was to stretch the child's left arm under the instrument, and have them grasp the scroll with their fingers wrapped around the scroll. If the elbow was slightly bent but not too bent or too straight, it was a fit. However, a more reliable method is to stretch the child's arm straight out under the instrument, and under the scroll, and if the instrument's scroll ends flush with the pulse, it is just right. According to the build of the student, it can be a little shorter or longer. A sturdy child can take a little longer; it will mean less bend at the elbow when they play--which is tiring but can be tolerable--but if the candidate is weak, then better not, and one chooses rather a little shorter instrument. This rule is for kids during the time they grow, i.e. until early teenage. For "grown ups" it no longer applies. Violins come usually short and violas usually long.

How can I get my child to practice? This is often, for parents, a very serious and sometimes troubling issue in music study. They should be told that it is normal for students to not want to practice, and home practice should be supervised by the parents until the child is older and has developed more independence. There is an excellent book about this: How to get your child to practice without resorting to violence by Cynthia Richards. In general, the recommendations in the book include:

  1. Remain calm but firm; don't nag, threaten, get angry, or give up. Brushing teeth is not optional, and neither is practicing. 10 minutes a day is fine at the beginning.
  2. Create a musical environment: this will include listening to the Suzuki CD's, other CD's of classical music or other musics, going to concerts, and listening to NPR (National Public Radio) programs with classical music. Have music on all the time, or at least during meals and before bedtime.
  3. Make it fun and enjoyable. Let the child be happy and loved at all times. Never make being loved contingent on whether they practice, or whether they do well.
  4. Use lots of praise, even for the smallest thing, and even if it sounds awful. There is always something positive to say: "You really worked hard" "That sounded pretty good" "That was much better than last time." No negative or derogatory remarks!!

Also recommended:

  • A Parent's guide to String Instrument Study, Lorraine Fink
  • Suzuki Parent's Diary: Or How I Survived My First 10,000 Twinkles, Carroll Morris
  • To Learn With Love: A Companion for Suzuki Parents, William and Constance Starr
  • Young Musician's Survival Guide, Amy Nathan (for older children, middle school and up)

What is the best way to protect the violin from extremes of temperature and humidity? There is a lot of disagreement about whether the two items used to manage this problem are necessary: hygrometers measure humidity levels; humidifiers correct dryness. Hygrometers in cases are either digital or analog (dial), and are not always accurate; in some cases the hygrometer has to be recalibrated regularly. Sometimes there is a plastic vial (a humistat) which contains water and supplies humidity for the case. It clips in place somewhere down around the pegbox/scroll portion of the case and can be adjusted to allow more or less water vapor to escape. If there is not one of these vials accompanying the hygrometer itself, you can purchase a humidifier to put in the f holes of the violin. Both Strettos and Dampits seem to work well, although Dampits are more of a hassle since you have to resoak them frequently. Many musicians keep a humidifier in the music studio (aim for a steady 50-60% humidity), which protects stringed instruments and pianos. Certainly there are players who question the usefulness of these products and wonder whether any kind of humidification is a good idea for string instruments, in terms of avoiding cracks. Humidifying an instrument in its case may be unnecessary except in extremely dry environments. It's conceivable that too much humidity could cause problems with insects and otherwise damage the wood. The constant changing of the moisture content of the wood can't be good for the instrument; if the maker has selected well seasoned wood, the best thing to do is let the instrument adjust to the prevailing humidity or lack thereof. For example: like Italy, Los Angeles is classed as a Mediterranean clime by geologists. Violins sound better in L.A. then they do in the humidity of NYC, but players often don't have any problems- or use humidifiers. Dryness may be good for fiddles - avoiding extremes, of course.

What is the best way to achieve good intonation in string playing? As a practical matter, there are a few concepts that teachers use, including the "ringing tones" in Suzuki. These are the fourth finger/lower open string and third finger/upper open string pitches which should match, and also the notion of "frame" formed, initially, by the first and third fingers (with a "high" or a "low" 2), and somewhat later, the frame formed by the octave reach of first and fourth finger (around the 3rd Suzuki book, along with the Wohlfahrt studies).

An additional concept may also be introduced, having to do with the roles that pitch steps (of the scale) play within the context of any given key, (tonic, supertonic, mediant, subdominant, dominant, submediant, leading tone). Stringed instruments are not equally tempered the way the piano is, and thus, key context is everything when it comes to intonation on a stringed instrument. The leading tone, for example, is higher, and half-steps can be smaller, within the context of the key (than they are on piano). Playing with piano, one may attempt to adjust to the equally tempered notes, but this is not accurate for the violinist.

How do I break into the music business (i.e., get gigs?) Any or some combination of the following recommendations will probably work for you:

  1. Take private lessons (or lessons through your university) from the top person in your area; often the concertmaster or principle of the local symphony, or someone who plays professionally and teaches. There are often local "artist teachers" who are very good;
  2. Be willing to play for free a little bit, especially initially to meet people, or if you're very young or new to the business. That is, play in church, play in community orchestras, play as much as possible. However, at some point, you have to consider that one doesn’t consult a doctor or lawyer for free at a social function, and one shouldn't ask a professional musician to play for free, either;
  3. Pay your AFM dues, Musicians' Union dues, which are initially perhaps around $120, and then a bit every year, like $30. This is how you get your "name in the book" and is really important. Make sure your phone is in working order with the same number as that "in the book";
  4. Be reliable: be on time, be pleasant, don't gossip, be nice to everyone ("the music world is a very small world" is not an adage for nothing), and keep your word so people know they can rely on you;
  5. Practice a lot. Every day. Know your stuff. Be ready when the opportunities come; Get as good equipment as you can afford and keep getting better. Experiment with new products, talk to people, visit local shops frequently.
  6. Keep learning, whether you're in school or not;
  7. Even if you're not playing in them, attend as many concerts as you can.
  8. Musicians tend to examine spiritual practices, read a lot of self-help books, and participate in retreats and yoga and that sort of thing. Avoid alcohol and drugs; they interfere with your progress;
  9. If you really want to devote your life to music, you're going to have to think about getting the best instrument you can. Play a lot of instruments until you can recognize the sound you want. Sometimes you can get an instrument for $300, say, which sounds as good as one for much more, but you've got to keep looking. A good bow costs $1,000 and up. Other expensive issues to examine are insurance and tax issues (the AFM will help with this);
  10. You have to have the right clothes. I know - Thoreau: "Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes". . .but if you're going to be playing a lot of concerts you really do need comfortable, elegant clothes;
  11. At some point, you may want to investigate things like brochures, head shots, business cards, management, etc. Most of us don't, but many do, and it's something to think about, particularly if you're developing a quartet;
  12. Subscribe to periodicals in your field: ASTA, Suzuki, Strings, and especially the AFM publication "International Musician”;
  13. You will at some point, if you have not already, have to think about what direction you want your work to go: how professional, what level, does it include teaching or master classes, how much travel. And if you teach, what level do you want to teach? Public school, private studio, university? All of these arenas have different requirements with respect to qualifications. It's not true that most players have doctorates in performance, but many have Masters (M.M.) and that seems to be the norm.
  14. Try to go to the best school you can; you'll have more exposure to the best players, teachers, and opportunities;
  15. Auditioning - whether for jobs or scholarships - is a learnable skill. You can get good at it if you work at it. Do as many auditions as you can until it becomes commonplace and non-scary.

What is the best way to avoid being nervous at a jury or an audition?

  1. Prepare the music carefully, leaving nothing to chance. Everything should be so well prepared, you can play it cold, no matter what. This requires you to divide your practice up into "preparing time" and "performing time," a concept Galamian talks about in Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching.
  2. You should make an effort to tend to your health--that is, have had enough sleep, eat potassium rich foods like bananas, don't eat meat, fried foods or dairy (vegan is best, but at least avoid heavy foods), and exercise. But don't hurt your hands! I recommend walking, lifting light weights (I have a pair of 4 lb. Chinese barbells which I use regularly, lots of reps) and do yoga and stretching. Swimming is also good. Bicycling is good, but you can hurt your hands if you don't do it right, so be careful. Lots of fresh air and sunshine and positive thoughts.
  3. Be philosophical. Why do we study music? To make a big deal out of ourselves? No. If anyone does art to aggrandize themselves, they're doomed from the beginning. We do art to be in contact with the best human minds, to make beauty, and to express the best in humanity. We do it out of love. We do it because we can't do anything else. Given all that, so what if you aren't perfect? Only god is perfect. Do your best, give it everything you've got, and then make music and enjoy yourself. That's what counts. Forget yourself.
  4. Remember the little things which the listeners are going to be looking for (particularly if one of your listeners is a conductor), and which will indicate if your training is solid. These include stylistic accuracy, rhythmic integrity, attention to phrasing and dynamics, good intonation, and musical sensibility. Bach is different than Brahms. Dynamics don't just happen, you have to make them happen. Everything in the score is there for a reason. Plan the bowings and phrasing ahead of time (though some leeway is allowed for interpretive inspiration of the moment). This is all very hard work and time consuming, but don't blow any of it off and expect it to happen automatically when you go in to play. It won't.

Also see the following:

  • Stage Fright in Music Performance and Its Relationship to the Unconscious, Michael I. Goode
  • Audition Success: An Olympic Sports Psychologist Teaches Performing Artists How to Win, Don Greene
  • Complete Guide to Pilates, Yoga, and Meditation
  • Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment, George Leonard
  • Mental Toughness Training for Sports, James Loehr, Ed.D.
  • The Inner Game of Music, Barry Green.
  • Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugene Herrigel.
  • The Alexander Technique Workbook, Richard Brennan.

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