What is the Difference between a Violin and a Fiddle?

Actually there is none; the only difference is in the names. We usually call the instrument a violin when we wish to be formal, and a fiddle when we do not (sort of like an official name and a nickname for the same thing.) In fact, if we go back in history, we learn that both terms likely derive from the same Latin root word, and have come down to us by different routes. That being said, there is such a thing as “classical” music and “fiddle” music, which is a matter of style, and it is also true that modifications may be made to parts of the violin- especially the bridge – in order to make it easier to play one style of music or another. However, there is, as well, a great deal of divergence within any one particular style – such as jazz or fiddle itself. 

Nevertheless the similarities of all styles of violin playing greatly outweigh the differences. So it remains true that your instrument is a “violin” when you buy it in the store, and becomes a “fiddle” over time, as you become more familiar with it.

At what Age should Violin Lessons begin?

There is no fixed standard here. For a child, somewhere between six and eight is a comfortable range, a bit earlier for girls than boys, as they usually mature more quickly. Occasionally younger children can do well with the instrument, but it is rare for a child under six to make much real progress. (Even so, I have had a few cases of four or five year olds who have done quite well with their lessons, but this is more exceptional than usual).

Can an Adult Learn to play the Violin?

Adults may also learn the violin, and indeed, they will often initially progress more rapidly than children because they have fully formed minds. However, many adults must learn to control the frustration that the process entails- learning the violin is a tedious and time-consuming affair- and be less hard on themselves. Results do not come overnight, and, in fact, the entire learning process will likely take from seven to ten years to complete. Nevertheless, we must remember that those years will pass by anyways, and being older is not a reason to refuse to undertake the learning process. Along with the frustration, there is a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction to be had in learning a musical instrument.

Adults should know, however, that if they have not studied violin before the age of twelve or so, then they will likely always retain some stiffness in the left hand. Although not a major impediment, it remains as a vestige of having learned the violin at a later age. This is sort of like having a foreign accent: it doesn’t prevent you from speaking or saying whatever you want in the new language, it’s merely a vestige of your past learning experience.

Where do I buy a Violin?

In smaller cities and towns the first violin will probably be purchased a general music store. In this case the student will buy a “kit”, which will include a case, bow and rosin. These kits will range from between two and six hundred dollars, and regrettably, as with many other things in life, “you only get what you pay for”. The nicer kits are the ones made in the Czech Republic, or West Germany, and the less serviceable ones are from China. But, yes, the European ones are considerably more expensive. For people in larger cities, or for people with access to a larger city, much better value can be had at an actual violin shop. And here, please remember that these shops are in business to serve the customer, so even if they sell and repair instruments of enormous value, they still invariably- in my experience- provide good service to a first time buyer.

If you are shopping in a store that also gives lessons, try to consult with the violin teacher before purchasing, especially if the violin is for a child who needs to be “fitted” to an instrument (it’s just like buying shoes, after all). In a larger store, try to buy an instrument that has been “set-up” or “serviced” by the store workshop. This will spare you such indignities as a bridge that is installed backwards or poorly wound strings.

There is also the option of renting instruments, and this can be a great option for anyone who is not sure about the process, or for children who quickly outgrow violins. Violins, we must remember, come in “fractional” sizes- down to as small as one-sixteenth the size of the full-sized instrument. This makes it possible for younger children to learn the violin. Still, it must be acknowledged that the smaller instruments have a terrible sound- if they have any sound at all! This is not the fault of the violinmaker or the store; it’s just that the wood used has to be so thick in relation to the size of the instrument that it has little capacity to vibrate. If the fractional violin were made to true scale, the paper-thin wooden structure would not make it through a week with a young child, as I’m sure every parent will understand. It sure is lucky that children are not very demanding when it comes to tone production! This allows them to have fun learning the violin, without making heavy demands upon themselves the way adults tend to do.

What is the Goal of Learning the Violin?

Although it is tempting- especially for violin teachers- to imagine that every young student will become the next great international virtuoso, in fact there is almost no demand for “star” performers, and the supply greatly exceeds the demand. In the world of professional music, there is always a healthy demand for orchestral and sectional musicians, as well as for string teachers. However, it is likely that most musicians do not earn the largest part of their living from music, and so the goals involved in violin study for these students are more concerned with developing musicianship and depth of learning. But, in fact, should these goals not always take first place in the violin teacher’s studio? They do in mine.

What is a Violin Method Book?

At the first or second lesson the violin teacher will suggest the purchase of a “method book”. Although this will involve only a few dollars, it is one of the more important early decisions that you will make for yourself or your child. (In my experience, all students require a method book, and I would be very wary of any teacher who did not use one.) Method books- all of which have been written by experienced violin teachers- present and organize the material in a systematic manner, for the student’s ease of learning. 

At the outset we should draw a distinction between a method book and a syllabus. They are not the same thing! A syllabus, such as the one drawn up by the Royal Conservatory, sets up lists of material in a graded manner, especially as required for students undertaking formal examinations. (This has nothing to do with the process of learning to play the violin, although it helps to gauge the student’s progress along the way.) Although conservatories also employ violin teachers, the selection of a method is beyond the scope of their usual activities. So when it comes to selecting the method book to be used, the guidance of the teacher will be required. Although, like everyone, I dream of one universal method book, suitable for everyone, I know there is no such thing. I personally use four methods: the Frank Zucco Violin Method (Mel Bay, publisher) for very young children, as it has a ton of good drawings and photographs, The ABC’s of Violin by Janice Tucker Rhoda (Carl Fischer) for young children, adolescents or adults, the Charles de Beriot Method for the Violin (G. Schirmer Inc.) for adults, especially those with prior training on another instrument, as this is a difficult book, and lastly, the Scottish Folk Fiddle Tutor (Harpstring House Press, Isle of Skye, Scotland). This last book I use with adults and teenagers who already know they want to play fiddle music.

All of these books have their strong points and their weaknesses, and I am constantly reviewing method books and looking for possible new approaches to violin teaching. One thing to bear in mind: the method book proposed by your teacher may well be over 100 years old. This in no way disqualifies it as a viable learning tool. Violin playing is a very traditional art form, and most of what we learn comes from the not so recent past.

Is the Suzuki Method the Best Violin Method?

I am not a Suzuki teacher and have never studied the method, so I am perhaps not the best qualified person to answer this question. However, as the discussion above shows, I do not believe there is any single method that is universally the best. From what I know of the Suzuki method, it has the advantage of getting young people actually playing in the shortest period of time. Some people say that the method is deficient in training people to read music, but in my experience, some people seem to learn to read much more quickly than others, regardless of the method used.

The problem I have with the Suzuki approach is that, as an Asian approach, it is based on rote learning, and the actual world of violin playing requires the player to make decisions constantly as to how to play any particular piece or passage. In my own teaching I try to encourage even very small children to make their own decisions as fingerings, bowings, etc. My approach is therefore North American, in this sense.

What Accessories will I also need?

There are a few things besides the violin kit and method book that you will require. Foremost among these are the shoulder rest and the music stand. Neither of these should be the cheapest ones either, as inferior models cause a lot of grief. The shoulder rest is necessary not only to aid in holding the violin, but also to prevent its being squeezed between the chin and the collarbone, thereby strangling the sound. The shoulder rest must be adjustable in all directions and should be of good materials. (The KUN shoulder rests from Ottawa, especially the ones that are made of brass and hardwood, are the best available). Concerning a music stand, the heavy orchestral stands (such as the Manhasset ones) are much to be preferred, as allow the teacher or student to write on the score with a pencil. The folding stands, even good ones such as the Hamilton line, are inferior in this respect, however useful they might be when going to play out of the studio. A stand light can also be a useful purchase.

Other items that might be useful would be a Metronome, and possibly a tuner (Good models of both are available from the Korg company). If the home music studio can be provided with a mirror for the student to observe his own bowing, then so much the better. Also very useful is a piano or keyboard, if at all practical. 

The studio must have good lighting and ventilation, and not too much humidity (violins prefer it warm and dry, so damp basements are out). Other useful items are a good supply of pens and pencils, a hole punch for sheet music, a stapler, white-out for removing printed fingerings, etc. Perhaps most important is that the studio be comfortable; practicing is hard work and you will be spending a lot of time in this space.

How can I Arrange for Lessons?

Lessons are one half hour in length for children and one hour for older adolescents and adults. In the case of very young children, an adult will need to be present for the first two or three lessons.

Lessons are taught in English, French or Spanish, as you prefer. If you would like to arrange for violin lessons in my studio, please telephone me at 905.373.4378 or send me an E-mail at richard@violinlessonsnorthumberland.ca