Understanding the Violin

I have recently returned to playing the violin after a long hiatus (in which, among other things, I have focused on opera singing and did an MFA). It is something as vital and fundamental to me as breathing, as I began when I was 4 ½. To those who don’t play, the violin can be a mysterious, seemingly inaccessible phenomenon, bizarre with its strings and bow and movements that look unnatural. There are those who may be off put by the sound of beginners, comparing it to a screeching cat or any other pejorative. And there are others who simply do not care for the sound, even when played by an Itzhak Perlman or Sarah Chang. Many parents hope to instill a love of music in their children through enrolling them in violin lessons and are often met with great resistance. But to those of us who played, the violin is neither mysterious nor resistible. Here are some points to help dispel any myths.

-The violin is indeed a difficult instrument to play. Let’s be honest. It involves setting the pitches oneself with the left hand on the strings, developing a keen sense of intonation. There are no buttons or valves or frets or keys. Everybody knows when a violin is played out of tune, and perhaps that is why people often express a dislike of the instrument. To get a sound out of the violin, the bow must be drawn in line across the strings, which is easier said than done. It takes a great deal of time to learn how to do this in the beginning, with just the right amount of pressure so that it doesn’t sound airy or–even worse–scratchy (this is probably another reason why people dislike the violin.)

-However, once this is accomplished, once there is a basic level of technique and the ability to play produce a decent sound, one can play nice songs. The violin is the instrument most frequently compared to the voice because there is a fluidity of sound much like in singing. Add vibrato, which is a vibrating movement of the left hand on the strings, and this becomes even more beautiful. Vibrato is not an easy thing to do for a violinist, because it requires the right amount of movement–it can’t be too fast, or else it sounds frenetic, but it can’t be too slow because that sounds more like wobbling between two pitches.

–The violin is very versatile once a certain level of mastery is attained. One can play in an orchestra, in a quartet or chamber music ensemble, in a string/chamber orchestra, as a soloist with an orchestra, and if one wants to branch out into other genres of music, there are jazz, tango, Romani music, rock, bluegrass, folk, etc. etc. (not to mention in South Indian classical violin and other non-western music.) 

-Each genre of violin playing requires different skills. In an orchestra, one must subsume one’s ego to the conductor’s musical vision. In a quartet or chamber music ensemble, each musician holds equal weight and can help lead the ensemble. As a soloist–like the artists who are highlighted on a symphony’s performance calendar–a violinist must have a clear vision of the concerto or piece, be able to perform the “pyrotechnics” written by the composer and indicate to- and communicate with the conductor nonverbally, so that the conductor can guide the orchestra appropriately.

-The violin demands practice. There are two hands that must work together, and yet will often be worked separately, or focused on one at a time during practice. There might be certain exercises that are meant for the left hand, and others for the bow hand. This is not unlike the piano. However, unlike the piano, one hand cannot play alone (except in the rare occasions of passages with left-hand pizzicato where the left hand plays the strings).

-The violin really is fun! There is nothing quite like drawing the rosin-coated bow hairs across the strings, hearing the sound right next to your head, seeing the motion and feeling it in your hands, moving your fingers percussively, doing various “tricks” with the bow to produce different sounds. It is an instrument that demands patience, but the results are worth it. Playing the violin ranks among the highest of cognitive tasks, so it will keep your brain active and engaged for a lifetime. It’s never too late to start. Though you may not end up a professional, you can enjoy the challenges of this unique, demanding, and ultimately stunning instrument.