Strad readers submit their problems and queries about string playing, teaching or making to our experts
An online reader and adult amateur seeks advice on regaining her technique after 20 years away from her violin. Three international teachers suggest exercises and tips.
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The dilemma Inspired by some of the videos on The Strad ’s website, I have decided to take up my violin again after more than 20 years away. I am not as good at it as I was in my twenties, and I am finding this quite depressing! My bow arm feels weak and out of control, the sound quality is dire, and playing in tune seems to be an impossible task. Are there any exercises or techniques I could adopt to get back into the swing of things – or should I just give up all hope? ALICE GILBERT, ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA
CARRIE REUNING-HUMMEL Congratulations for taking on such a worthy, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding project. The two areas you mention are typical challenges for people who take a long-term break from the violin. The good news is that you are sure to notice benefits as older, positive habits quickly come back.
Regarding your bow arm and sound: the main thing is to find a sense of gravity in the bow arm, and then to transmit the naturalness you feel to the bow hand and string. My favorite exercise is to hold the bow in a fist, hang the arm straight down from the shoulder, and then swing back and forth (letting the tip point to the ceiling for safety). Close your eyes for a kinaesthetic sense of releasing the shoulder. Swing the arm up to the violin without changing your shoulder position; then roll from G to E in one down bow; then repeat E on an up bow back to the G. Release the weight of your arm into the string – feeling the relationship of arm and hand. Alternate the exercise with a bow hold and then back to the fist. You can also experiment with playing easy tunes with the fist, with the bow placed between the middle and frog.
Intonation will improve dramatically as your posture becomes more natural and you can actually feel the vibrations. You should also:
* tune carefully so that the violin is resonant with itself. Download a free tuner app. Make sure the strings are new.
* spend a lot of time simply playing the open strings and feeling the vibrations in your body. You will notice that E feels like E, A feels like A, and so on.
* find the fingered notes that match the open strings (there are nine in first position). Go back and forth from open strings to fingered and feel the matching resonance/vibration.
* relearn where the first-position third fingers belong by playing an open G (for instance), then a matching third-finger G on the D string; then drop the left hand to your side and repeat the exercise. Get to be an expert with your eyes closed, letting the notes become your friends again.
MARGARET SCHLINK Definitely don’t give up hope – think of the fun you'll have playing again! Take it easy to start with; it will take a little while to get back to your former playing level, in terms of both stamina and sound.
Good tone is a product of three things – soundpoint, bow and arm weight and bow speed. I would suggest that you start by playing on open strings with long, free bows and a relaxed arm, followed by some shorter faster bows. Listen carefully to the sound and experiment with bow weight and speed, until you get a consistent tone that you like. Then play some fingered notes or scales with the same process, using at least four bows per note. You need to find the place where the sound is most satisfying and full. Make sure to start when you are at the middle soundpoint, about halfway between the bridge and the fingerboard.
As it is a while since you have played, it's probably best for you to stick to simple tunes at first, in order for you to improve your bowing and tuning. You should stick to ones you do not need music for, so that you are not distracted by looking at notation. The first set of exercises from the first volume of Schradieck's School of Violin Technics are also useful and easy warm-ups. Relaxation is very important so that the arms move freely and you can add bow weight with your whole arm. If you feel stiff, stop and swing your arms to relax them, then continue.
I find students play with better tone and tuning if they listen to the sound rather than focusing entirely on what their bow and hands are doing. Finding a group to play with is good for motivation and support too. Finally, trust your ears.
TED WILSON Please excuse me if I cover very basic ground, but with ‘rusty’ players I find it best to check everything. First, I would check the condition of the violin and bow. If the violin has been unused for 20 years it might need some maintenance work.
Most of the ‘rusty’ adults I teach want to play lovely music and eventually join an adult group. They want to know what level they are currently achieving and what is the quickest way to improve.
To demonstrate to the rusty pupil their current level I use ABRSM pieces for grades 1–8, which can be supplied with CDs and scales. There is no CD for the scales, so I have made my own for my pupils. I almost always start with Grade 1 and pupils frequently find that at least one of the pieces has some aspect of technique, which needs work. They also find the CDs are, initially, too fast. To slow the music down the ABRSM supplies a very popular app called Speed Shifter, but there are a number of similar computer devices available, such as The Amazing Slow Downer by Roni Music.
When pupils can play all of the pieces of grades 1–5 at full ABRSM speed it is time for them to join a modest amateur orchestra. Children are nursed through an orchestral system, enjoy the social aspect and improve their sightreading with help from the section tutors. Unfortunately there are few foundation-level orchestras for adults between grades 1 and 5.
However, for an adult pupil, time management is the most important aid. As well as learning an instrument, adult pupils have a life to lead. In order to succeed they have to organise their time very effectively unlike children who have adults who act as secretary, cook, housecleaner, timetable organiser and transport manager.
At some point, while working through the ABRSM syllabus, pupils encounter technical problems and at this point a teacher’s help is required. The teacher will act as a coach, just checking that everything is aligned properly as well as recommending studies appropriate for the pupil. The studies are likely to be very different for different pupils.
Carrie Reuning-Hummel is the director of Ithaca Talent Education, a Suzuki school in Ithaca New York, as well as director of the Graduate Suzuki Pedagogy degree at Ithaca College: carriereuning.com
Margaret Schlink teaches violin and viola to all ages, including group classes for adults, and is the founder/director of the Perth Scottish Fiddlers. She is an active member and past president of the Western Australian chapter of the Australian Strings Association (AUSTA) which promotes and supports all aspects of string playing in Australia: www.austa.asn.au
Ted Wilson is a retired string teacher who has recently presented workshops for ESTA at Cardiff University: www.estastrings.org.uk