Many young students interested in learning to play a music instrument are drawn to the beautiful sound and expressiveness of the violin. The first question they will ask is often, is it hard to play violin? Learning to play any musical instrument can present challenges to the beginning student.
However, much of the difficulty in learning any instrument rests with the student’s attitude. If something is perceived as hard, it can be easy to get frustrated at the first sign of trouble and simply give up. Perceiving your study as a challenge to be mastered can be the difference between enjoying a lifetime of music, or getting frustrated and giving up.
The difference between success and failure also often rests upon finding a good teacher. A qualified teacher will guide and inspire you to meet the challenges ahead. They will be able to gear your lessons to your strengths, and have several different ways of explaining or demonstrating techniques to you to help you learn.
That being said, the answer to your question, “Is it hard to play violin?” depends on how you approach those challenges. Let’s look at a few you might face when first learning to play the violin, and how with diligence and practice, you can reach your goal of learning to play.
Challenge: The Physicality of the Instrument
The violin and viola are unique among the stringed instruments in how they are physically held and played. The instrument is placed on the left shoulder, slightly under the chin, and fingered with the left hand, while the right hand operates the bow. This positioning can present the first challenges to the young student.
The violin requires you to coordinate both the left and right hands, while engaged in completely different functions, each presenting their own unique challenges. The left hand is used to finger the notes. Unlike the guitar, the violin has no frets to guide the player in the positioning of their fingers. The intonation of the instrument, or the ability to play in tune, rests with the placement of the fingers of the left hand. It takes steady practice to develop the muscle memory to ensure correct placement of the fingers.
There are a few teaching methods, such as the Suzuki Method, that are designed to develop the ear while developing the muscle memory that can help you to meet this challenge. Another method involves using tape to create “frets” on the instrument. This can help you to learn the proper positioning.
The right hand controls the bow. The bow is drawn across the strings vibrating them, and sounds the notes being held with the fingers of the left hand. Proper bow technique can be difficult at first. Again, it requires muscle memory to apply the correct speed and pressure with the bow, while coordinating the fingers of the left hand. The smallest variations of speed or pressure can drastically affect the tone of the instrument. Developing this skill is often said to be the most difficult technique to master.
Slow, focused, methodical practice is the best way to develop your coordination and technique. This brings us to our next challenge…
Challenge: Finding Time to Practice
Every instrument requires dedication and practice to learn efficiently. If your goal is to become proficient on the violin, it’s important to set aside time to practice every day. We all lead busy lives with school, work, and our social lives, but if you want to learn to play violin, it’s important to practice a little every day.
Developing muscle memory takes time and diligence. Many beginning students become frustrated by their inability to coordinate the fingers and bow. It can be difficult to listen to yourself when you are first learning bowing technique. The smallest variation of speed or pressure can send the instrument into convulsions, creating unpleasant coughing, or screeching sounds! Again, when first starting out, short and focused daily practice sessions are the best way to meet this challenge.
Learning to play any instrument requires technique, passion, practice, endurance, and patience. When learning to play violin add to the list: pitch, intonation, straight bowing, clean shifting of position, bow control, good bow hold, and balance between bow speed and finger coordination. These skills require daily practice to master, so make sure you set aside time each and every day to practice!
Challenge: Learning to Read Standard Musical Notation
While it’s possible to learn to play violin “by ear” or using violin tabs (a form of musical shorthand), truly bringing out the expressiveness and emotion of the instrument requires you to learn how to read music.
Learning to read music is challenging, but the rewards you will gain are more than worth the effort. In the case of violin music, there are additional terms and symbols you will need to learn and understand that are specific to the instrument. In addition to the notes, duration, time signature, dynamic markings, articulation markings and key signatures of standard musical notation, violin music includes some unique notations.
There are markings used to indicate vibrato (Vibr.), pizzicato (plucking the strings instead of bowing – marked Pizz), and bow direction markings to indicate whether a note or series of notes is played with an up-bow or a down-bow.
Other terms and markings unique to bowed string instruments include:
Arco - signifies a return to bowing after a pizz section.
Au talon – indicates to play a section of music using the nut end of the bow.
Bariolage – a French term meaning “odd mix of colors,” which indicates to the violinist to achieve a contrast in tone by playing the same note on different strings.
Bow lift – indicates to lift the bow and return it to its starting point
Col legno – translates as “with the wood” and indicates to strike the string using the wood of the bow.
Flautando – indicates to position the bow slightly over the fingerboard
By understanding these terms and being able to execute these techniques, the violin become one of the most emotionally expressive instrument of all.
The Greatest Challenge: Finding The Right Teacher
While it’s possible to learn any instrument independently, truly mastering the violin requires the help of an experienced and qualified teacher. The violin is most definitely challenging, and having the experienced guidance offered by a qualified teacher will help you to meet the challenges that arise as you progress in your studies. A good teacher is patient, understanding and experienced. They’ve gone through the same challenges and achieved mastery and they can help you to do the same.
So, is it hard to play violin? The short answer is yes – it is difficult and challenging. But no instrument offers the rewards, expression, emotion, or beauty of a well-played violin.
Photo by hans s