VIOLIN LESSONS: A Guide for New Students

16 year old violin student in Stroudsburg

17 year old Sarah studies the violin with the Valenches Music Company’s Fritz Valenches in our Stroudsburg location.

Welcome to our Valenches Music Co. exclusive series VIOLIN LESSONS: A Guide for New Students. In this 4 part series, we’ll dig into the details of beginning your violin study.

Be sure to check back often to catch the other parts of this series as they’re published OR enter your email at the top right corner of the page to sign up for our newsletter updates. 

  1. Making a commitment
  2. Getting the right violin teacher
  3. Private vs. Group Lessons
  4. Getting a violin

Missed our introductory post? Get warmed up here.

PART 1: MAKING A COMMITMENT

Hold it right there! Before you start violin lessons, before you get your first whiff of rosin, and even before you get your hands on an instrument, first things first. And by first things, we mean COMMITMENT.

See, learning the violin is a lot more like marriage than it is like, say, tasting liver.

You taste liver the first time and you either take a another bite. Or NEVER EVER touch the stuff again. One bite is all you need to make up your mind about liver.

Marriage, however, is a little different. You need to think about what marriage entails before you sign up, and then you need to stick with it. The first year is always the hardest. What you put in is what you get out. And when the going gets a little tough, you don’t just jump ship — because marriage is a commitment, and you stick it out and you keep working at it. (Did we mention that you should actually WANT to get married first? Same goes for the violin!)

So liver, you try and marriage, you commit.

Violin is NOT like liver. It’s not something you just pick up and try and make a split decision.

It’s like marriage. You get used to it. You work through the rough spots. And you commit.

Tie the Knot — with the Violin, that is…

5 year old violin student in Scranton the Valenches Music Company

Amelia, age 6, studies the violin with Fritz in Scranton.

So maybe the violin isn’t as complicated as marriage — no wait, the violin is totally complicated — but at least there’s no bickering about who’s right and who’s wrong.

By the way, if you’re wondering just how musicians settle their marital conflicts, it’s done quartet style. Violin I (husband), who plays all the easy-peasy melody lines, turns to Violin II (wife), who plays the sixteenth notes that run all over the fingerboard, and says, “Let’s take this at a good clip.” Basically, it’s more like revenge than settlement. But that’s how it’s done. 

Either way, a little marital counseling never hurt anyone (too much), so here’s what to consider before playing the violin. Besides, how can you make a commitment if you don’t know what it is you’re committing to?

1. The violin is NOT something you “just try”…

The truth is, the violin is a hard instrument to play. It’s known as the “most difficult instrument” and it didn’t get that title by being easy. You won’t be Itzhak Perlman after your first lesson and it has nothing to do with talent or genius. You just won’t.

You’ll walk out of your first lesson knowing little more than how to hold the bow, and maybe the names of the strings. Correction. You’ll learn how the bow should be held and then you’ll be prompted not to hold the bow like a chicken sandwich. For weeks. Or months. Because holding the bow is flat out awkward. And it doesn’t matter what the names of the strings are, until you can hold that bow. Unless, of course, you plan on limiting your violin playing to just string plucking, in which case, you don’t even need a bow. But then you should just play the guitar.

So that’s why learning the violin is NOT like liver. You can’t just try it. Pick it up once, and you’ll be able to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. You can’t possibly know in just one lesson, or twenty, for that matter, whether or not you like the violin. It takes a good year of concentrated effort — that means serious devotion to the lesson-practice tag team — to figure out what the violin is all about. Also known as commitment. (See marriage above). Nevertheless…

Don’t let that scare you.

A little elbow grease goes a long way…

Yes. The violin is difficult, but difficult does not mean impossible. Here’s the difference:

impossible (adj): not able to occur, exist, or be done

difficult (adj): needing much effort or skill to accomplish, deal with, or understand

If the violin were impossible to play, there wouldn’t be the success stories of Jascha Heifetz or Gil Shaham, so we’ll eliminate that theory.

The reason the violin falls into the difficult category is because it does require effort. If you’re not allergic to a little elbow grease, you’ll be just fine.

2. The first year is the hardest.

6 year old boy playing the violin in Scranton

Garrett, age 6, has been taking violin lessons for less than a year.

At the Valenches Music Company, we ask beginning students to verbally commit to studying the violin for an entire year. Here’s why:

The piano is a fantastic instrument. Without ever having a lesson, you can sit down, bang on a few keys, and effortlessly produce a variety of pitches. 88 of them to be exact. You can use your elbow, your nose, or even your tongue — on second thought, ewww, don’t try that — to produce notes that are in tune, provided the piano itself has been properly tuned. It’s a bright and sunny outlook for beginning the piano. And then you wake up one day and the clouds roll in because you’re having to use all 10 of your fingers, at one time. So maybe there aren’t really any clouds, but the piano is easy in the beginning and progressively gets more challenging.

The violin, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. On the violin, you pay it forward and short cuts don’t exist. Period.

In the first year, you’ll need to focus on the bow grip (the way to properly hold the bow), making sense of intonation (playing notes at the proper pitch) and trying not to screech too much. These are foundational skills of violin playing but learning them may not be as rewarding as say, the instant gratification of banging on 88 keys.

And YES, you absolutely CAN expedite the process with diligent practice, close attention to your teacher’s advice, and of course, elbow grease.

3. The First Year is the MOST important.

The foundation of violin playing is built in the first year. Build it with brick and cement and you’ll be set for life — or — build it with sugar cubes and it’ll be gone with tomorrow’s rain. Great habits are best formed right from the beginning. Whether the violin is just a hobby, or your heart is set on becoming the next Jascha Heifetz, proper technique is a must.

The Bow: Sound Production (Right Hand)

Unless your whole motive for playing the violin revolves around becoming a pizzicato (string plucking) artist — and believe us, there’s no future in that — you’ll need to make friends with the bow. The way you hold the bow will either make or break your playing. It’s that serious.

Hold your bow like a chicken sandwich and you’ll be x’d out of basic playing facilities like beautiful tone (does screeching irk you?) or the ability to bounce the bow. Getting the bow grip just right, the first time around, is crucial. It takes constant attentive nurturing and is a hard habit to break if learned incorrectly.

And speaking of screeching, or the prevention of, there’s the issue of drawing the bow across the strings. Crooked bowing is 67.458% responsible for lousy tone production, especially in the early stages (and don’t bother fact-checking the statistic — it’s completely fabricated). Like the bow grip, straight bowing is best established in the first year.

6 year old boy playing the violin.

Cayd, age 6, has been studying the violin for not quite a year and a half and for him, lessons are a family affair. His father and older brother study the violin with Fritz too!

The Violin: Pitch Production (Left Hand)

From the way the instrument is held under the chin (okay, it’s technically the jawbone), to the way the fingers hit the strings, particularly WHERE they hit the strings, everything matters. A finger that is sharp or flat as little as a fingerprint line will spoil a note’s pitch.

In the first year, it’s all about integrating little details to build a rock-solid foundation for the bigger picture. Learning to use the fingers effectively today makes learning to shift the hand up and down the fingerboard that much easier tomorrow. It’s much easier to put in hard work this year than it is to do damage control next year.

4. Without Practice, Progress Doesn’t Exist

"I really regret practicing the violin." - Said No One Ever -Practicing an instrument, especially the violin, is really something that deserves its own treatise — because what else is there?

Let’s face it. Mastery of anything never comes by way of osmosis. You probably found that out the hard way, like we did.

Here’s the math:

If a student takes one lesson a week, every week, for a year, that’s 52 lessons in one year. On its own, 52 is a pretty respectable number.

Unless you compare it to the bigger picture.

If a student only takes lessons and never practices, they attend to their instrument a meager 52 days out of a possible 365 (366 on Leap Year), or 14.25%. In academic terms, that’s not even a valid letter grade. It’s failing.

If failure doesn’t sit well with you, then you’ll probably want to practice.

The truth is, after teaching literally hundreds of students, we can safely say that students who practice excel, and those who neglect practice, well, don’t. Maybe excel isn’t the ideal word choice — after all, we’re cultivating an expressive art form, not conducting scientific experiments — nevertheless, practicers are better players.

Want the in depth truth?

The students who practice are the ones who fall in love with the violin and make playing it a lifetime commitment.

Why? Because they’ve experienced the POWER of making music.

And it’s more than that. It’s a lot easier to stick to something when you’re good at it.

If your playing is constantly derailed because you can’t tell an A from a D# or an eighth note from a whole note, you never actually get to the making music part. Frustrating? Absolutely. But practice is an amazing cure.

Just as a six year old who can’t compute 2+2 will have a heckuva time tackling algebra, violin playing is a skill built from the bottom up. In order for their skill to develop, a student MUST collect information from each lesson and continuously reinforce it. A student who chooses not to practice during the week is left at last week’s playing level, and often times, a little worse.

Nothing turns a student off faster than rehashing last week’s lesson. Every week. And RED FLAG! It’s the direct result of not practicing. Lesson boredom is a self-inflicted wound — a wound that practiced students simply don’t have.

A student spends a meager 14.25% of their days under the guidance of a teacher. The other 85.75% of the time is left to the student to use wisely.

5. The STUDENT Must Have a Desire to Play (Attention Parents! This one’s for you.)

10 year old girl playing violin with sister playing piano

Grace, now 10, began studying the violin at age 5. (Her sister Ashley, 13, studies piano).

Before diving in head first by blindly sending your child for violin lessons, or any kind of lessons for that matter, first ask this question:

Does my CHILD have a desire to play this instrument?

If your child doesn’t have a desire to play — and not just for 5 minutes, or even one day — it’s best not to throw them right into lessons. Aside from being complicated, playing the violin demands passion. Without it, the student lacks the drive to get through the tougher points.

In other words, don’t use lessons to introduce your child to the violin. In most cases, it does more harm than good. Trust us. After teaching hundreds of students (many as young as 2 years old), what we know for sure is that it has to be the student who wants the student to play the violin, not the parent.

If you’d like to spark your child’s interest in the violin, expose them to it as much as possible.

  • Take them to youth orchestra concerts.
  • Take them to see the NEPA Philharmonic.
  • Listen to recordings of great solo violin music and orchestral works.
  • Get on YouTube and listen to a variety of violinists.

Build the desire for your child and you’re much more likely to have a child who both loves the violin and commits to it.

Your child needs your help. Be their backbone!

As the parent of a violinist, the best thing you can do to foster their learning is to establish a doable practice routine. Practicing is not always easy and it’s not always fun. But then again, neither is homework. 🙂

Your child needs YOU as their backbone to make it through the rough spots, even if that means sitting with them while they practice. With some consistency, it won’t be long before you and your child see great results and [APPLAUSE] a positive association with violin playing is born.

Here’s a little secret: The better a child gets at playing their instrument, the more they like it and the longer they stick to it. It’s that simple.

There are so many benefits to learning a musical instrument (and do check out the link — it couldn’t be said better). More often than not, adults regret NOT PRACTICING as a child, and rarely the other way around.

Make a Commitment to Stick with the Violin

The violin is a highly-favored instrument to play but at the same time, it involves a great deal of intensity to learn. Achieving results does take a good bit of elbow grease, and that’s where commitment comes in. To fairly judge whether or not a student “likes” playing the violin, they really need to stick with it for a solid year — and that means REGULAR PRACTICE in addition to weekly lessons. Any less of a commitment and the prospective violinist is sold short.

So remember these 5 essential points:

  1. The violin is NOT something you “just try.”

  2. The first year is the hardest.

  3. The First Year is the MOST important.

  4. Without Practice, Progress Doesn’t Exist

  5. The STUDENT Must Have a Desire to Play

Ready to commit to the violin? Tell us about it!