Teaching the Fundamentals of String Playing

(C) Copyright 1995, Rodney A. Mueller

The violin and its related family of string instruments have been at the center of western musical development for more than three centuries. The instruments have been used by the Hungarian gypsies, the Mexican Mariaches, the American blue grass band, country fiddler and jazz combo, the Irish fiddler, as well as in the orchestral, chamber, and solo literature of Western Classical music.

Individualized instruction has been the principle mode of teaching as a "skilled performer" tutors an aspiring player. This mode of instruction ranges from regular formal lessons to an informal situation of a simple explanation and demonstration in the midst of common music making. Group or class teaching has also been used as a method for one teacher to concurrently instruct multiple students in a formal setting.

It has been said that "teachers teach in the same way in which they were taught." This paper presents the fundamentals of string playing in such a way that they can be taught to any beginning student. The successful teacher must have a firsthand working knowledge of the instrument, technically and musically, as an artist. Secondly, the successful teacher understands the foundational principles of string playing. And finally, the successful teacher is able to apply those principles to real students, through his/her relational skills. The first major section of this paper will deal with the technical principles of playing the instrument and how to teach them to a beginning student. The second section will deal with nurturing the student, as a person and as an aspiring string player.

Understanding the Technical Principles

String playing is a physical action which uses motion to produce sound. It is a balancing act, but even more important is the principle of interaction. In many ways the string player is like a mobile. One part of a mobile does not move in isolation, but its movement sets the rest of the mobile in motion in order to maintain a balanced whole. Just like a mobile, the human body is designed with a set of balances. It functions best and most efficiently when based on balanced motions. If then, the string player is viewed as a mobile, one action demands a reaction, movement leads to readjustment.

Balanced motion is by nature a tension reliever. The individual who stands at attention or even in one place for a long period of time tends to tire quickly. One might ask why this is so, since the individual really did not "do" anything. In reality, there are sets of muscles working in opposition to each other, keeping the individual from falling over. These muscles are contracted and become static, producing excessive tension. This can easily be observed when clenching a fist and "showing off your arm muscles." When there is motion, one of the two sets of muscles is relaxed to allow the opposite muscle to work.

It is essential that the string player's body have a full range of motion and not become static. This motion will help to avoid excessive tension, thereby allowing the player to play without excessive fatigue or pain. The string player must remain balanced in order to develop a tone that will freely sing. Excessive tension will have negative consequences on the player's immediate performance ability as well as long range physical condition.

String playing involves four types of motion: repetitive motions, ballistic motions, slow controlled motions, and circular or oval motions. These motions are not always pure, but are often combined to form a compound motion.

Repetitive motions are based on Newton's third law of motion which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Bouncing a ball illustrates this principle. The downward effort results in a rebound, two motions for the "price of one." This action/reaction principle is foundational to string playing. It is the basis for the repetitive motions of vibrato and trilling in the left hand and spiccato, sautille, and tremolo bowings in the right hand.

Throwing darts is a ballistic motion. The muscle movement begins with a spurt of energy and then coasts through the range of motion until stopped by the opposing set of muscles. Martele and fast detache bowings are based on the principle of ballistic motion by utilizing a sudden, impulsive motion to begin the bow stroke.

Slow controlled motions utilize opposing muscles to produce singing, spun out tones. The tension produced by these opposing muscles must be coordinated and balanced in order to achieve the most musical results. A fourth principle is that of circular or elliptical motions. In the automotive world the Wankle engine utilized this principle as a way of avoiding the complete stopping and starting of the piston, common in the modern internal combustion engine. The curves and loops utilized in bow directional changes and string crossings lead to more efficient use of motion without developing excess tension through stopping and starting.

Posture & Position

Balance is the key to good posture and position. The feet are important whether one is standing or sitting. In a standing position, the feet are spread, outlining a slight "V" shape. The left foot is slid forward to establish a shoulder width stance. This allows freedom to rock obliquely from side to side with flexible knees, thereby avoiding stiffness and excessive tension. This stance will allow for natural movement during performance.

When seated, a chair that is flat or has a very slight forward tilt will allow the player to sit towards the front edge. This will encourage a forward tilt to the hips and align the spine in a free and elongated position. Body weight will be balanced between three points, left foot, right foot and seat. If the weight of the upper body is shifted slightly forward it will be easy to stand without having to make a major shift in body weight. There should be freedom to rock the upper body from side to side as well as forward and back.

The chinrest is important in establishing a good violin or viola playing position. The cantilever principle is used in establishing the instrument hold by placing it between the collar bone and the jaw, and supported with the left thumb under the neck. With the instrument resting on the collar bone, it is imperative that the chin rest be of adequate height and depth to provide support. The head should not be contorted to accommodate the chin rest. It is important to work with the violin dealer to secure a chinrest of adequate height and depth which will fit the student. A shoulder rest is not necessary as this tends to create excessive tension throughout the shoulder area. A thin foam rubber pad may be used to give additional stability, thereby keeping the instrument from sliding.

Violin & Viola Rest Position

Maintain a balanced posture and cradle the instrument in the right arm as if it were a guitar.

Violin & Viola Playing Position

With the instrument in guitar position and the left arm hanging at your side, bring the left hand up and place the pad of the thumb in the curve of the neck. Place all four finger tips (first finger opposite the thumb) on the G string.

Slide the right hand back to the lower bout near the tailpiece. Using both hands, bring the instrument up to rest on the left collarbone with the button of the violin pointing towards your throat. The jaw settles onto the chinrest. Keep the head looking forward.

Remove the right hand and continue supporting the instrument with the pad of the left thumb in the curve of the neck. Using a swinging motion, strum the four strings from lowest to highest with the pad of the fourth finger. The left elbow will swing in contrary motion helping to balance the left hand and arm. There should be no squeezing of the instrument neck with the left hand.

Pizzicato

Pizzicato can be introduced as an early means of tone production. With the instrument in guitar position use the right thumb as a "pick" to pluck single strings with the side of the thumb. Regular right hand pizzicato can be introduced as soon as playing position has been established for the instrument. Shake out the right hand. Gently close the fingers to form a loose fist and open the thumb to "hitchhiking" position. Extend the 1st finger as though pointing and touch the tip of the thumb on the side of the finger board. Use the pad of the 1st finger to pluck the string over the octave dot, striving to achieve a free ringing tone.

Right Hand

The pencil hold prepares the student for the bow hold because the pencil is light and easy to handle. Let both arms hang loose. Shake the hands to get rid of any excess tension. With a relaxed right hand make an oval with the tips of the thumb and 2nd finger. Slide the tip of the thumb to the first crease (joint) of the 2nd finger. Open the thumb slightly and create a space the size of a pea. Put the pencil in the space between the tip of the thumb and the joint of the 2nd finger. Place the 3rd finger next to the 2nd finger with the pencil crossing it in the crease of the 1st joint. Place the 4th finger so that both the nail and flesh are touching the top of the pencil. Lay the 1st finger on the pencil, contacting the pencil midway between the 1st and 2nd joints (creases). The 4th finger will be slightly curved so that the other three fingers are all hanging over the pencil at a slight angle (pronation). Hold the pencil gently with only enough firmness so that it is not dropped. It is not necessary to squeeze the pencil. Tapping the 1st, and especially the 4th finger, will help to relieve any excess tension in the hand.

Repeat this process many times in order to do it accurately and without looking at the hand. Taking a mental picture of the pencil hold will help to develop a mental image. It is advantageous to shake out the hand before each new pencil hold is formed. Imaginary bowing games are useful at this stage for the purpose of maintaining a correct pencil hold and developing rhythmic movement with the right hand.

Before beginning with the bow, it is important to understand that the strings will support the bow when playing, that the hand guides the bow, and that the bow is very light (60 grams). When moving to the actual bow hold place the inside tip of the curved right thumb "under" the stick, next to the frog. The crease of the 2nd finger is placed over the stick, contacting it opposite the thumb. The 3rd finger falls over the stick and if it can reach rests on the pearl button of the frog to help stabilize the bow and avoid excessive pronation. The 4th finger touches the top of the stick with the fingernail and flesh. The first finger lays on its side contacting the stick between the first and second creases.

Beginning students may use a "high" bow hold during the initial stages of learning by holding the stick just above the winding. This gives the impression of a lighter bow because the hold is near to the balance point.

Tone

The right hand is primarily responsible for the production of tone. It is through the bow that tone is initiated, sustained, and released. Tone is the life or soul of the sound. It is both common to the instrument and personal to the player.

The student will produce a tonal quality only in proportion to what he can hear or imagine in his mind's ear. Through listening to accomplished performers the student develops a concept of tone which he is able to imitate and finally develop a personal tone quality. The teacher must be able to demonstrate good tone quality because this all to often is the best quality tone that a beginning student hears.

There are mechanical characteristics and physical skills which the student needs to master in developing a personal tone. From the first sound that a beginner makes with the bow and instrument, the three factors of contact point, weight and speed must be taken into consideration. Contact point refers to where the bow touches the string, whether near the bridge, over the fingerboard, or any point between. Weight refers to the amount of arm weight transferred through the bow to the string. Speed refers to how fast the bow is traveling. All three of these factors mix in an infinite variety of combinations to produce an infinite variety of tonal colors.

A good bow hold is fundamental to the production of good tone. Students must develop consistency in maintaining a good bow hold for increasing periods of time. The teacher must be persistent to this end.

With the middle of the bow resting on the string, halfway between the fingerboard and the bridge, arm weight is added to the bow with the upper rotation of the thumb so the bow stick comes in contact with the bow hair. If there is adequate weight on the string, the bow can be wiggled back and forth without producing any sound.

Once the student is able to let the arm weight sink into the string, small bow strokes can be played on open strings to produce short repeated sounds. The sounds may begin with a "click" and should be encouraged. These first sounds can be rather course but it is from this beginning that refinement begins and will continue for a lifetime as weight, speed, and contact point are constantly being adjusted to produce a beautiful sound.

To recapitulate, beautiful tone is the goal. The student needs to hear fine examples of tone in solo as well as small and large ensemble performances. Once the student understands the basic principles of tonal production a spirit of experimentation should be encouraged in moving from imitation to the development of a personal tone.

Left Hand

The string player's left hand is used initially for pitch manipulation. It may appear to function independently of the right hand, but the two are really interdependent.

Placing small "signal dots" on the fingerboard of the instrument can be a help in class teaching. Place one dot at the midpoint of the string, the first harmonic, and another a perfect 4th above the open string. These are only temporary and should be removed within two or three months. Place the violin in guitar position to teach beginning left hand placement and fingering. With the left thumb touching the curve of the neck, place the left hand fingers over the strings and strum the strings with the 3rd and 4th finger. The left arm is free and swings with the strum. This simulates the arm swing in playing.

Continue strumming while sliding the hand towards the low (1st) position.

Place the 3rd finger on the string at the "dot" (a perfect 4th above the open string). Using the right thumb, alternately pluck this string and the next lower open string. Listen for the sound of an octave. Slide the 3rd finger as needed to adjust the octave while continuing to pluck the strings.

Add the 2nd finger. It should touch the third finger as it snuggles up to it.

Add the 1st finger half way between the 2nd finger and the nut.

Balance and flexibility are essential in the placement of the left thumb. The beginning student places the left thumb opposite or slightly behind the 2nd finger. As the player advances, the thumb will develop more mobility. The thumb helps to support the violin and cradles the neck rather than squeezing it. The neck must never rest in the valley between the thumb and first finger of the left hand.

For the beginner, the side of the 1st finger base knuckle will be in light contact with the side of the fingerboard . This will continue to be true for the lower positions except when vibrato is used, and then contact will be incidental.

When the violin is moved to the shoulder the left elbow needs to be free to swing from side to side. The left wrist maintains a "straight" line from the elbow to the base knuckles. It neither "sags in" nor "extends out."

There are two kinds of finger movement, vertical finger movement and horizontal finger movement. Vertical finger movement is a lifting of the finger that comes from the base knuckle and is quick and decisive. This is true in fast playing but especially so in slow playing. Horizontal finger movement involves the sliding of a finger along the string. This technique is used for high/low finger placement. A high second finger appears flatter, while the low second finger appears steep. The development of this motion leads to flexible fingers, better tuning, and finger vibrato.

The introduction of the 4th finger is often delayed because of the whole step stretch that occurs between it and the 3rd finger. This delay can lead to a preference to use the open string and a reluctance to use the 4th finger. If the 4th finger is introduced with the interval of a half step earlier in the developmental process, it becomes an equally functioning member with the other three fingers. It is better prepared to move to the open feeling of a whole step.

Shifting

Shifting is a gliding motion from one fingerboard position to another. It enables the player to make choices concerning tonal colors, fingerings, and bowings. Shifting enables the string player to extend the range of the instrument as well as maintain a consistent tonal color by remaining on one string rather than crossing between two adjacent strings. There are two types of shifts, anticipated shifts, and delayed shifts.

Anticipated shifts are used to produce a clean, silent shift. The movement of the left hand anticipates the movement of the right hand (The left hand leads and the right hand follows). The old finger glides on the string to the new position so that the new finger can cleanly articulate the new note. The old note is shortened to provide the time needed for the shifting motion. Weight in both the right and left hand is released during the shift (glide) and reestablished at the note of arrival.

Delayed shifts, sometimes referred to as slides, are audible as the sound of the glide is emphasized for artistic reasons. The left hand movement is delayed until after the movement of the right hand (change of bow direction or rearticulation of the bow). The new finger glides to the new position placing the articulation before the note of arrival. Time needed for the shift is taken from the note of arrival. Weight of both the right and left hands on the string increases during the glide. (Only with harmonics is it released and then only upon arrival at the new pitch.) The left thumb is flexible and mobile as it is actively involved in left hand shifting. The thumb continues to help support the violin in all left hand positions and the shifting movement must take this into consideration. The left arm is also actively involved with opening and closing motions that take place at the elbow and to a lesser degree at the shoulder.

In an upward shift from the lower to the middle positions the thumb, fingers, and hand move as a unit while the elbow closes. The motion is analogous to pulling the hand towards the face to "cover a cough." The left thumb continues to support the instrument during the gliding motion. A downward shift from the middle to the lower positions involves a two step process. The thumb with a "releasing action" precedes the fingers in order to give continued support to the instrument. This may give the feeling of the thumb "pulling" the fingers and hand back to the lower position which is a smoother motion. When the shift takes place rapidly it just appears as though the thumb slightly moves away from the neck. For the beginner this is just an exaggerated feel in order to get the motion functioning.

The hand shifts in a continuous pulling movement within the 1st through 4th or 5th positions (where the pad of the left thumb comes in contact with the curve of the neck). It is necessary for the left elbow to begin to swing inward as the shift moves beyond the 3rd position so that the left hand can move around and over the shoulder of the instrument. It is essential that any upward shift be executed smoothly with a fluid motion.

In shifting from the 4th or 5th positions back to the 3rd position the left thumb remains in contact with the curve of the neck and acts as a pivot for the hand and fingers. It will then move back to settle into a balanced position. A longer shift from 4th or 5th position back to 1st position will be executed just like that of 3rd to 1st with the thumb leading and the hand and fingers following. It is essential that the left thumb act as a pivot for the hand in the middle positions in order to maintain the sensation of pulling the hand through the shift.

Vibrato Vibrato is a technique used to add expression and color to music. It gives warmth and body to the tone. Very simply, it is a wobble in the pitch that goes below the fundamental note and returns. Evenness in pulse is crucial regardless of style and must be emphasized. Vibrato is a repetitive motion and therefore utilizes the action/reaction principle discussed previously. Because of this principle the upper arm will respond in contrary motion to the movement of the hand.

The teaching of vibrato is a process and should not be left to chance. (It can and should be begun during the first year of playing.) It should not be postponed to the intermediate stages of development, waiting for technique to "solidify".

VIBRATO- STEPS

1. Take your dominant hand and pretend to erase a small word on a chalkboard. If free of excessive tension, the elbow will move in contrary motion to the hand. Shake out your hand frequently to release excessive tension.

2. Bring up the left hand and continue with the erasing motion in both hands. Left handed students need not incorporate the right hand.

3. Drop the right hand to your side while continuing the erasing motions with the left hand. Continue developing this left hand motion until it is possible to start the left hand without the aid of the right. Shake out the hand frequently to release excess tension.

4. With the palms turned inward, gently hold a dowel rod horizontally at face height. Use the right hand to "throw" the rod toward the left hand, allowing the hand and rod to spring back to their starting position in an action/reaction motion. The left arm and hand remains passive. Shake the hand out frequently to release excessive tension. Use the left hand for "throwing" the dowel rod. It is also possible to use a bow with the hair positioned above the stick and the frog in the "throwing" hand.

5. Place the instrument in Guitar position with the scroll at face height.

6. Place the pad of the left thumb in the curve of the neck and "wave goodbye" with your hand.

7. Bring the instrument up to "shotgun position and repeat this motion.

8. Place the instrument button on the breastbone and repeat this motion.

9. Place the instrument in normal playing position, the right hand still aiding in support of the instrument and repeat the motion.

10. Remove the right hand support and continue the motion.

11. Bring violin back to guitar position. Place the pad of the left thumb in the curve of the neck, and lightly touch the 2nd finger on the A string and the 3rd finger on the D string. Put a small piece of tissue between the fingers and the strings so that the fingers may slide on the string in a "polishing" motion. The tissue will reduce the friction between the fingers and strings. (This is especially helpful for younger students, but not limited to them.) Continue polishing the A and D strings using groups of two fingers, 2&3, 3&4, and 1&2. The lower numbered finger of each combination is always placed on the lower string.

12. Continue working the polishing motion of step 11 in the guitar position, shotgun position, breastbone position and normal playing position with the right hand aiding in support of the instrument.

13. Place the instrument in normal playing position with right hand support and move the left hand back to first position. Polish the A and D strings with 2/3, 3/4, and 1/2 finger combinations with tissue paper. Shake your left hand frequently to rest it and get rid of any excess tension.

14. With the instrument in normal playing position and the left hand back in first position move the right hand so that the finger tips touch the wrist of the left hand, simulating the shoulder of the instrument. Repeat the polishing motions as in step 13.

15. With the violin in normal playing position and the right hand helping to support it place your left hand in first position and throw your 3rd finger into the A string. Let it vibrate. Lift the finger to rest it and try it again. Do the same with the 2nd, 1st and a low 4th finger. Be sure to release the finger after it has vibrated for a second or two. Shake your hand out if you feel it becoming tense.

16. Now try it with the bow. Begin each stroke with the open string, throwing the 3rd finger while the bow keeps moving and let the finger vibrate for a second or two. Do this with the 2nd, 1st, and low 4th fingers.

Notes:

  • Vibrato always begins on pitch, goes below pitch, and returns to pitch. Always work for an even vibrato.
  • 4 cycles per second is an acceptable speed for a beginner.
  • Use a metronome set at 60 and gradually move it up while maintaining an even vibrato at 2 cycles per click, then 3, 4, 5, and 6 cycles per click. Be certain that the action/reaction principle is taking place.
  • The upper arm must always respond to hand movement with contrary motion.
  • Vibrato is best developed by interspersing it between other parts of the lesson and spending short amounts of time with it. Always shake out the hand if it begins to feel tense or tight.

  • NURTURING THE STUDENT

    The successful teacher will have not only a solid grasp of the instrument and the technical principles but also relational skills that will allow for positive communication with the student. The teacher's view of the student will play a significant role in the success of the teacher. Is there respect for the student as a fellow human being? Does the teacher look down on or talk down to the student? This can occur non-verbally as well as with tone of voice. Does the teacher express genuine concern or love for the student? Students are quick to recognize whether or not a teacher has a desire to see them grow, mature and succeed. The student needs to be seen as a whole person, with abilities and interests in many areas, not just a string player.

    Practicing

    Practicing the violin is more than thoughtless repetitions of physical actions. It involves the mind, emotions, and spirit as well as the body. In developing kinesthetic skills, the mind is the command system. The mind plans each new movement which is then acted out by the body. The mind must have a picture or feel for an action before it is able to carry out that action. Technique is essentially memory, remembering the feel of the appropriate physical action. Mindless repetition can lead to excessive fatigue and/or physical injury. The adage "No pain, no gain" has been common in many circles. But pain should not be part of the practicing musicians vocabulary. If the mind is involved in daily practice, countless repetitions are not necessary. The question, "Why use your brawn if you can use your brain?" has significance for the musician. If the mind knows what the muscle is to do beforehand, technical skill development will take place very rapidly. Excessive repetitions do not necessarily bring about technical refinement. Quantity does not necessarily guarantee quality.

    When learning new material, practice slowly and with concentration in order to play it correctly the first time. One will learn more quickly and with facility. Wilson emphasizes this point in his article "Mind, Muscle and Music" in which he says,

    Slow practice is the key to rapid technical progress. The cerebellum is a non-judgmental part of the brain; it assumes that any repetitive activity in the muscular system is being repeated because the conscious mind is trying to make it automatic. The cerebellum will be just as efficient an automatizer of incorrect sequences of timing as of those that are correct. When practicing takes place at a pace too fast for accurate playing, there is very little chance for the material to be mastered, and reliable, confident performance simply will not occur. On the other hand, it is probably true that practice for speed is seldom necessary. The cerebellum can supply all the speed wanted if patterning is correct during practice.

    Patience is paramount for both the student and the teacher. Do not hurry the process. When physical or mental fatigue sets in, stop and do something else, then come back to the task again. Practice productivity is increased with multiple short periods of focus rather than a single marathon session.

    For the beginning student mental focus is a major concern. One's attention span of a few seconds must gradually increase to 1, 2 and 5 minutes to gain the mental control that is needed for an individual practice session.

    Insisting that the student play with correct foundations free of excessive tension.

    The successful string teacher must be proactive and not reactive. By this we mean that the teacher must have an organized plan in teaching the technique of playing the violin. The teacher must have a solid understanding of the foundations of string playing as previously discussed and be able to communicate them to the student in such a way that excessive tension is never allowed to be established. When excessive tension appears, the teacher will be able to recognize it and diagnose appropriate kinesthetic action.

    It is essential that the solid foundations of posture, position and bow hold be established. It is at this point that the will of the student and the will of the teacher can clash and create conflict. It is imperative that the student submit to the teacher. The only compromise that is available is for the student to decide to do it the teacher's way.

    But, the teacher must be sure that the student knows very clearly what is expected of him/her. There must be a very clear picture of the technique that the teacher wants the student to duplicate. For this to happen the teacher must be a clear communicator and must also teach the student to focus. This focusing is a process and can lead the student to analyze their own playing and make needed adjustments.

    It may be necessary to ask the student if they are satisfied with the way they play, with the way they sound. The student must have a desire to play better and translate that desire into a willingness to follow what the teacher is requesting.

    Teachers, the bottom line lies with us. We must insist that our students follow our advice.