What can you DIY when it comes to playing a string instrument?
At a time when thousands of instructional videos are available at the click of a button, you may wonder if the age of the in-person music lesson has gone the way of the harpsichord — a quaint relic of bygone era.
Learning an instrument like the violin isn’t quite the same as mixing a batch of pizza dough.
With a bowed sting instrument like the cello, viola or violin, a lot of little details about technique are important to get just right. How to angle the bow. Where to find the right note on the neck.
When you first pull that horsehair across the strings, you may wonder why the F-holes are emitting a squelch that sounds less like Stravinksy and more like Chewbacca. No YouTube video is going to be able to nudge your fingers into the right position or tell you if you’re dragging the bow with just the right motion. On the other hand, after being cooped up for many months, not a lot of people are ready for face to face meetings with a yawning, underwhelmed professor.
Let’s face it, there's a lot to be considered if you want to learn the violin. So, should you teach yourself or hire an instructor? Here are several questions and topics to consider.
How Long Will It Take To Learn?
Jamie Hutchinson says she’s still learning how to play the instrument even after many years playing for the Oxford Philharmonic. She compares the level of playing to being in school, and estimates that the first grade takes 18 months to two years and then you go up a grade for every year you play, ending at eight. But then there’s also college level playing and graduate work. She still takes a lesson at least once a year with a player she admires. “It’s a lifelong journey,” she says.
Of course if you’re not planning to play in an orchestra, you may not need quite as many hours of practice and you can start with an entry-level instrument.
Why is the Violin so Difficult to Learn?
For starters, there are many different ways to play the violin beyond slow bowing, explains Hutchinson. There’s plucking the strings (pizzicato), strumming, aggressive stabs and slow, long bows. The amount of pressure used for each can notably color the violin’s tone. Over the years, you’ll learn numerous techniques and approaches for interpreting music on the violin.
Knowing How to Practice
Joel Kennedy of Kennedy Violins says knowing a few things about the violin will greatly increase your chances of successfully learning the instrument and sticking with it. At the top of his list is knowing how to practice properly. Consistency matters: Pick a time four or five days a week and make your practice session the same length every time. Then your rehearsals will turn into a habit and your practice time will quickly increase.
He also emphasizes that “practice is playing something correctly as many times as you can.” Try playing something three times in a row, even if you’re playing slow. Speed up later.
Proper Fingering Hand Technique
Making mistakes with the hand that plays notes on the neck can stunt the learning curve of many new players. You’ll have to learn how to keep your wrist straight while playing. Of course a teacher can be key to keeping you honest and make sure your hand isn’t touching the neck. Your thumb should also stay in line with your first finger. Finally, keep your fingers down when you’re playing.
How Your Bow Properly
A lot of beginners forget to bend their pinky finger where they hold the bow. Since the violin supports the weight of the bow, the pinky finger is important to guide the hair across the strings. The thumb should also remain bent. You also need to bend your elbow while bowing to keep the hairs straight on the strings.
So, should you self-learn or hire a pro? The answer depends on several factors, including your goals, budget, and schedule.
There are many online tutorials and videos to help you get started. Plus, self-teaching is usually more affordable than hiring a private instructor. However, self-learning can be more time-consuming than learning with an instructor. If you're not diligent about practicing, it's easy to get discouraged and give up altogether.
If you have the budget for it and are serious about learning to play the violin, hiring a private instructor is probably your best bet. A good instructor can teach you proper technique, help you learn new songs quickly, and give you feedback on your playing. Plus, taking weekly lessons will hold you accountable for practicing regularly, which is essential for making progress on the instrument.
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