Posted in Fiddle, Learning to Play Fiddle

Violin Tips I Learned in 2020: Tighten The Bow More

This was one of those things I’m sure a teacher could have eyeballed in two seconds. For me, it was a learning experience that I want to pass along.

So, I own two different bows that I use depending on which violin I’m playing and where I happen to be practicing. One is a Fiddlerman Carbon Fiber and the other is a Holstein Sandalwood Violin Bow (which I also got from Fiddlershop).

I was having so much trouble with bouncing and bow stuttering when playing long notes during songs, but not when I was just generally doing long-bowing exercises. This was especially true of the Holstein bow, and it was driving me nuts when I was trying to play Silent Night the last few months.

I tried everything – changing rosin, switching bows, loosening the bow, tightening the bow a little bit… but in the end, I learned I was simply not tightening the bow enough.

This came from reading a review about the Holstein bow saying that the customer had to tighten it a bit more than they expected to get a solid sound. So, instead of loosening it, I decided to tighten it more than I thought I needed to. Sure enough, much of the bouncing and stuttering went away when I did!

I’m not going to say my long bowing is perfect now, but the issues I had due to the bow tightness are no longer causing the warbling I hear. I now know that it’s something to do with my bow technique when I get this sound and not the bow.

This may or may not apply to your bow as every bow is different, but just something to keep in mind if you’re also experiencing a lot of bouncing and stuttering on long notes.

Posted in Fiddle, Learning to Play Fiddle

Violin Tips I Learned In 2020: Practice Sight Reading

I’m the type of person who can eventually learn the tunes I’m playing by ear.

This seems great at first because it means I toss the sheet music over my shoulder after a certain point and just play. Of course, I’m also only memorizing simple tunes at this point, so I have no idea how this will relate to more complex songs in the future.

Talking with my brother-in-law, who is a music teacher (but not of orchestra), one of the first suggestions he told me was something I already knew deep down: I needed to try to learn and practice sight reading even if I tend to memorize the music instead.

But when you don’t even mean to memorize songs and it just happens, how do you find fresh material to practice on daily without trying to learn another song?

I did some research and I found a solution that has worked wonders for me: Sight Reading Factory.

Yes, it costs a low yearly subscription to maintain, but it has been absolutely worth it in the long run. SRF generates a new random “song” each day – or as many as I want to try – and challenges me with truly different notes to read every time. It’s not so random that it doesn’t sound like it could be a song, too.

I adjust the difficulty of the exercises, as well. Just lately, I felt like level 1 sight reading had gotten pretty route and easy. So I tuned it up a notch to level 2, and boy am I being challenged again. In a good way!

Since most of the methods books I play rely on notation (along with a CD), I’ve found myself much more comfortable and confident in approaching practice tunes now that I practice reading notation consistently now. I have a feeling that this is only going to become more important as I move into more difficult music, so I’m certainly glad that this is a practice habit I’ve built into my plan!

Posted in Fiddle, Learning to Play Fiddle

Violin Tips I Learned in 2020: Write a Practice Plan

As this year winds down to a close, I wanted to write a short series of posts about the things I discovered in 2020 that helped me with my violin practice.

Some of these are just live-and-learn situations (which could have probably been solved easily with a teacher’s input) and some are somewhat obvious. But here they are!

So, since February 2020, I have only missed 3 days of practice – and once because it was out of my hands to play that day. The year before, I struggled quite a bit to make practice a consistent thing. While working from home was also a big factor in giving me some extra time (not having to commute to office), I also think that structuring my practice played a huge part in practice success.

About a year ago, I began to write out a practice plan at the beginning of each week. I called this a Fiddle Focus as it allowed me to think through what exercises and tunes I wanted to approach, and in what order I’d practice them in.

I know it sounds like such a simple thing, but once I started structuring my practice in this way, I found it easier to just sit down and actually practice. Gone were the days of saying – Well, I guess I’ll try this song today. And maybe this one… I always knew exactly what I was going to focus on.

Each time I practiced, I was consistently going over the same material, rather than just randomly pulling tunes from a book. I feel like this has been another factor in helping me improve my sound because I’m working on the same songs for weeks, sometimes even months if I feel it’s required.

I also started to see my own learning patterns the longer I worked with songs. For example, I recognize now that the first week or so of learning a tune will often be shaky and uncertain sounding. Then, comes a time that I sound a little better, but don’t quite have it memorized yet. After about two to four weeks, I usually have a tune memorized, and I’m working on playing it slowly. After that, I generally start adding the backing track if there is one, and try to play it up to full speed over time.

So I now recognize the stages of my knowing and playing a song a lot better now that I consistently focus on the same song for as many weeks as it takes before I feel comfortable in moving on. Even then, I sometimes work on a song a week or two more, despite feeling like I’ve “got it.”

These are all things that came out of setting up a consistent and structured practice routine and writing out a practice plan.

I still keep a practice plan, but I’ve found it tends to be the same tunes and exercises with very little change. Every now and then, I’ll “graduate” from a song and move on to the next in a book. But that can take weeks or months of practice. Maybe this sounds really slow – sometimes it feels very slow – but I feel the overall progress I make in doing this is much better than my previous slap-dash approach.

I don’t write out a new practice plan every week anymore, and allow myself more flexibility to change things out through the middle of the week if I want. But every day I practice, I sit down to the Focus page and work through it as if I’d written a new one every week. And every weekend, I take time to reflect on my progress and determine whether it’s time to try something new or continue working on polishing what I know.

Tip Summarized: Write out a practice plan each week and follow it. Discover your own patterns of learning and mastering music through consistent practice.

Posted in Fiddle, Fiddle Resources and Tools, Learning to Play Fiddle

Warming Up For Fiddle Practice

Like when you do any exercise, warming up for fiddle practice is beneficial.

Yesterday, Violinspiration released a new video titled The Most Effective Warm Up for Beginner Violinists. Much of this I’d learned through the lessons at her violin academy, but I didn’t really think of it as a warm up, so to speak. Until now.

This video goes into a lot of detail, even showing how to play a scale and demonstrating the bowing exercises. But to summarize, she touches on scales, long bowing, slurs and bowing across strings. She even suggests the following scales for beginners:

  • A Major 1 Octave
  • D Major 1 Octave
  • G Major 2 Octaves
  • C Major 1 Octave

I’m quite pleased because I started adding these scales to my practice before Christmas. So I have part of the warm-up already built into my weekly focus! I think the rest of her advice is very good, so I will be adding more bowing exercises and slurs to my focus, and including a warm-up section starting next week!

Posted in Learning to Play Fiddle

Getting Technical

I’m rolling up on my 10th month anniversary of playing fiddle this Friday. I feel like I’ve made good progress the last few months, and have been practicing far more regularly. I’ve also been logging my daily practice and making a list of the tunes I’ve been playing.

But one thing I feel like I’m missing is the basic technical aspect of learning to play violin. I pick up tunes from whatever method site I’m using, and I learn to play the tune by watching the video. But when it comes to practicing the skill-building exercises that I hear other folks (who have teachers) work on, I don’t even know where to begin.

Since I don’t have a teacher nearby, I feel like there’s a lot of information I’m missing out on. Even if it leans more towards classical playing, I think things like scales and bowing exercises can create a strong foundation for the style I want to eventually work towards.

So I began to investigate my online options. A few months back, I ran across Violinspiration, which is a great YouTube channel with lots of free lessons and helpful videos. I signed up for the newsletter, and followed a few of the live classes provided by the instructor, Julia.

She also has an online violin academy, which requires a monthly sub. The cost is a bit more than some of the monthly fiddle sites out there, but if you look at it as it replacing the cost of weekly lessons, it may actually turn out to be a savings.

I did some research, and decided to go ahead and get put on the waiting list last week. Yes, the academy has a waiting list, though I’m not quite sure I understand how all that works. Through the weekend, I got emails that assured me that I was still on the list, and offered more information about what kind of features were provided with the subscription.

The more I read, the more I felt like this is the direction I needed to go to supplement my tune playing. So on Monday, when my invite officially came, I jumped on it quickly and joined the academy.

There’s a pretty active community within the academy, though it’s completely through their Facebook page – you can only join the group if you’re a paying member. I’m not much of a Facebook user, but I’ll deal with it because the group seems really supportive.

A sample of Beginner topics

The community there does things like host practice sprints, group events, daily questions and responses, and posts videos for feedback. You can also post videos to the academy website and Julia will respond directly in a video in reply. So if you’re having trouble with some aspect of a song or exercise, you can demonstrate, ask questions and get answers.

For someone like me, I think this preferable to even online weekly classes. I’d be worried about not having the time to fit classes in my week, not to mention I’m camera shy. So being able to work up to making a video for feedback is more my pace. It also feels better because I see many other students doing it!

The most important thing is the curriculum. As you can see to the right, most of the beginner stuff focuses on things like scales, exercises and arpeggios. Yes, these are very basic things, but these are things I don’t do currently. I think having these examples will help me understand better what I need to practice.

Every course comes with a workbook – including standard notation for the exercises – and a practice plan in PDF format.

Learning Levels

Courses are broken into difficulty levels, and new courses are added over time. While I should have probably started with the Beginner level, I decided to start from the very first video and go through the Basics section first.

This covered things like bow hold, holding the violin, playing open notes, and playing the first scale. I wanted to see how Julia approached these things – for example, her bow hold technique is a bit different from others I’ve followed, so I’m seeing if I can adapt to her style and if it improves anything for me.

I’ve already started using some of her bow strengthening exercises every day, and working on some of the bowing patterns she introduced early on. While this is all very basic stuff, I still feel this was a lot of what I was missing when I’m just going straight to playing tunes.

I hope to finish working through the Basic section by this weekend, maybe sooner, and start picking up the scales and exercises for the Beginner section along side my holiday tunes. I wish I’d known about this method back when I was first beginning last year. I think I would have really done well with this as my introduction into the technical side of playing. I guess it’s never too late, though!

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Posted in Just Fiddling, Learning to Play Fiddle

The Case of the Squeaky “E”

Even this scroll is sad about the squeaks.
-Image source-

One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately, which you’ll see all through my practice log, is what I’ve been calling the Squeaky E. I’ve started having this issue when playing songs (like Angelina Baker) that require a string switch from E to A, usually when I try to play at full tempo. Basically, the E string is squeaking on string changes.

This has become a hindrance to my progress at this point because I’m not able to play the last two songs I’ve tried to learn at full tempo without squeaks. If I play them slowly, I’m generally okay. But that’s not where I want to be before moving on to learn a new tune.

I’ve tried lots of approaches – I wondered if it was the bow. Tried my other bow. Nope. Wondered if it was the way my violin is strung. Dragged out the VSO… and same squeaking. So it has to be operator error.

I went to the wisdom of YouTube to look up Squeaky E. Watched several videos and ruled out mechanical or setup issues. In the end, it pretty much boils down to what I suspected – I’m just not making string changes clean enough. I go from E to A and still hit the E string just slightly, which causes a tiny squeak as I try to play the note on the A string.

It’s driving me batty!

So, I refocused my research on how to make cleaner string changes. I came across this video that has actually helped me think about it a little differently.

Here, she describes string changes as a two step thing. Stop the bow motion, then make the switch before continuing to bow.

Now, this sounds easy and intuitive, but when I’m trying to keep up with a song at full tempo, sometimes I find myself over-eager to go for the next note. So all of my motions are blending into each other, which leads me to hitting more than one string, even if just a tiny bit (to make a squeak). At least, I think this is what’s happening.

I’ve tried to be more mindful of the stop and switch that she describes here, and that seems to have helped just a little. I still need to spend time practicing it slowly, I feel, and working up my speed. It’s when I go to full tempo that I start getting caught on things.

Even when my fingers do the right thing on the fingerboard, my bow is not always on point. I think that’s part of what makes this instrument so challenging!

Posted in Learning to Play Fiddle

Discoveries: Things I Learned My First Month of Playing Violin

When I decided to learn to play violin, I came to the instrument with zero exposure to the instrument. I don’t know anyone, past or present, who plays violin. In fact, that cheap violin was the first violin I actually held — I was surprised at how light it was!

I thought that it might be interesting to gather the discoveries I made during my first month as a completely new violin player. Here you are!

Continue reading “Discoveries: Things I Learned My First Month of Playing Violin”
Posted in Learning to Play Fiddle

Violin Bow Hold Breakthrough

One of the most challenging things for me when learning to play violin was getting my head around the proper bow hold. I watched videos. I read articles. I tried to follow all the examples I saw.

I still had issues to the point where improper bow hold was straining my hand and going to keep me from moving forward in practice. So, I decided to pick up a Bow Buddy. This is a rubber attachment you put on your bow (you do have to disassemble the frog to do so – but it’s good info to know!) that forces your hand into the bow hold shape. It’s obviously geared towards children in design, but actually helped me a whole lot for the past few weeks.

It got to the point where I could focus on notes and putting the bow on the strings without struggling so much with the hold. But I knew that eventually, I’d have to move beyond my Bow Buddy and learn to hold the bow organically.

I was browsing through a number of blog posts today and ran across a series of videos on Michael Sanchez’s YouTube channel. Tonight when I came home to practice, I decided to check out his video on the bow hold… and I’m not sure what it was, but something just clicked for me.

Maybe it’s because of the time I spent with the Bow Buddy. Maybe it’s because this video really went into problem pressure points and exactly how to keep your hand relaxed when holding the bow. I had a vague idea about all of this, of course, but it didn’t really come together until tonight.

I also was absolutely not holding my thumb the way it needed to be, and this video helped me figure out what I’d been doing wrong there. My hold is, of course, not 100% perfect, but I think I’ve make a huge step forward with it.

I even took off the Bow Buddy! I’m pretty stoked about the whole thing. It’s always a great feeling to see progress in any area!

Posted in Fiddle Resources and Tools, Learning to Play Fiddle

Changing Violin Strings

New bridge and changing strings

The big project of this weekend was to accomplish three things:

  • Change the bridge
  • Change the strings
  • Apply peg compound

Changing out the bridge wasn’t too difficult. My goal was to get a self-adjusting bridge so that I could ensure the feet of the bridge were flush with the violin. The bridge feet can pivot and swivel just slightly in this particular make, which seemed to work just the way I hoped. Otherwise, you have to figure out how to file and shape the bridge — there are a lot cheaper bridges out there than the one I bought, but I was shooting for something I could put on with little hassle. So far, it’s worked the way I hoped.

Then I had to learn how to change the actual strings. I already knew that you don’t take all the strings off at once when you change them. The idea is that there needs to be some strings still on the bridge for the bridge to be putting pressure down on the sound post to keep it in place.

Actually changing strings wasn’t too hard. Here’s the video I watched to get the job done:

A lot of professionals seem to swear by Dominant brand strings, but I was just looking for something within a lower price range to replace the cruddy strings that came with my kit. Preludes were also well-rated and seemed geared towards a student learner, so I went with a set of those.

While I changed my strings, I took the opportunity to do two things:

  • Put graphite on the nut
  • Apply peg compound

You can just use a regular No 2 pencil to scribble some graphite on the string groove on the nut. I hear that helps the string move with less friction.

Peg compound is something you put around the part of the tuning peg that fits into the peg hole. The kind I got looks a bit like a brown tube of lipstick. It’s made to both lubricate and keep the peg from slipping to keep the string in tune. So far, I have seen a noticeable difference for my G, D, and A strings. Once the new strings stretched a bit, they’ve actually stayed in tune well. The E string… well, that’s another story that I’m going to have to figure out.

With all these improvements to my violin, I felt I was finally able to sit down and spend less time fighting with the instrument and more time progressing and learning. The whole process has certainly taught me a lot about the instrument!

Posted in Learning to Play Fiddle

Learning Violin- Personal Challenge

After almost a full week of practice, I’m starting to identify a number of challenges for me. First – the quality of the cheap violin I bought. I didn’t think it would make much of a difference as I only plunked down $30 to see if this was something I could do. But now, I’m identifying things: the default shoulder rest was very poor shape/quality (replaced), the chin rest is too high for my comfort (replacing tomorrow), the strings are poor quality (will replace), and the bridge was not properly cut (will replace).

I’ve been very tempted to take the plunge on a more expensive violin, but I keep telling myself to back up and take it slow. Mostly because I’m also having a lot of trouble with my left hand positioning, and I’ve only been doing this for a week. Time may help.

I have short arms, small hands and rather short fingers. All of this leads to a lot of difficulty twisting my palm to finger higher strings without accidentally covering the A and E strings. I’m having trouble arching around far enough without tension. I was hoping the new shoulder rest would help with this (and it has a bit), and replacing the chin rest with a more flat style may also help. Maybe replacing the bridge with lower action and putting new strings on will also improve the situation.

I’ve even considered backing down to a 3/4 violin to see if it fit my reach better… or searching out an elusive 7/8 size instead. Maybe a 4/4 violin is just too large for me… or maybe more time practicing and improving the kit I have will be the answer.

I don’t know. I just know my practice is limited and strained because I’m struggling to put my hand where it belongs on the strings without hitting other strings. I’ll update on this once I’ve got all my upgrades in place.