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Violin Basics: FAQ

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

Hi everyone! Nicolette here.

I woke up this morning with a few ideas already bubbling up about how to help some of my students better. I just can’t stop! One of the ideas that popped into my head was a “Frequently Asked Questions” post. I’ve been the first violin teacher to hundreds of students, of all ages, many of whom have the same questions for me when they get started. So I thought I’d write down my answers. Here we go!

1. What kind of violin should I get and where should I buy it?

So you want to play violin! That’s fantastic! ...but you don’t have one yet. Unfortunately for many of my students, I don’t have extras lying around to loan out. This important first step requires a few decisions.

Rent or Buy? While buying a cheaper violin might seem like the easiest option, most of the time (especially with violins available from mass-producing sellers on Amazon) you get what you pay for. A better violin will make you sound better. And I bet you’ll want to play it more. Think about it like running shoes. Do you think you’ll get out and run more with more expensive or dirt cheap shoes? A cheap violin might not be bad for your knees, but maybe your ears. And then you just wasted $50. If you’re able, purchasing a nice violin is wonderful. For a beginner violin, I would look in the $1k-$2k range. But if you don’t happen to have a spare $1000 lying around *cough* you might consider taking a look at a local violin rental shop. Most shops will offer a rent-to-own program. And you'll be supporting a local business. Nice! Also, if you are renting for your child, this is great because the first violin they are fitted for will likely be ½ - ¾ sized, and when they grow out of it you can trade it in for a size up. Moral of the story is: while there are MANY affordable options out there on the internet, this isn’t necessarily the time to cheap out. Make an investment in yourself once, and you’ll save yourself money and headache later.

2. What is a shoulder rest?

A shoulder rest is a cushion attachment for the bottom of the violin to protect your collar bone from the wood. It also helps you to grip the violin better so you can keep your left hand free to move across the neck with ease. The tricky part about a shoulder rest is finding one that suits your body. Many students find the fit to be uncomfortable at first, and this can be pretty annoying when you’re already trying to process all the new positioning and muscle movements violin technique requires. Take your time to try a few options at a violin shop. Many will have testers so you can get an idea of how they fit. This list has a few standard options to try out. Make sure you purchase the right size for your instrument, and don’t forget to also play around with the height (if the model allows) and angle you place it at, to see if small adjustments help situate it better.

3. What is rosin and how do I use it?

Rosin is a processed sap that you apply to the hair of the bow to make it tacky, and create friction with the strings of the violin for a better tone. If it’s hard to get a grip on the string or if your sound is faint, you might need to apply more rosin. Depending on how much you play, this could be once per practice session, once per week, or even less. You know you have too much rosin when your bow gets really sticky, and dusts your violin with a cloud of white particles. Just wipe off the excess with a microfiber cloth. Try not to touch it or the bow hair with your fingers, because it’s really sticky and will eventually make your bow dirty (trust me, finger oils are actually kryptonite for bow hair.) The right amount will create a clear, present tone without artifacts or a "crunchy" sound, while still allowing you to get a crisp attack with each bow stroke. Unfortunately, there is no real way to measure how often to apply it because it really depends on what kind you use and how much you play. You’ll just have to use it and become accustomed to the feeling and sound of the right amount.

4. What is the difference between violin and fiddle?

Short answer? Most of the time, when players use these words interchangeably, the physical body of the instrument is the same. “Fiddle” can be used as a more colloquial term for violin, and as a verb. However, people also use the term “fiddle” in reference to a genre of music or style of playing, in which case they most often mean a folk style- anything from Irish to Bluegrass. Another way to put it is: You can fiddle on a violin, but not the other way around.

And yet, there is a more complicated answer. Without taking too long to explain: a fiddle is an ancestor to the violin, and a family that encompasses many different instruments that all bare some of the same characteristics: hollow wooden body and bowed strings. Just take a look at the Mongolian horsehead fiddle, or the Swedish nyckelharpa. The violin is just one kind of fiddle in a family of bowed-string instruments. Heck, even violists call their instruments fiddles. Wild.


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