How to Play the Violin, Quite Poorly
Or, Things You Cannot Do As an Adult
I held a violin under my chin for the first time when I was about three and a half. By the time I turned four, I could really rock “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and its variations in Suzuki Book 1. I diligently worked through the Suzuki series, until, somewhere around Book 4 — a full 12 years later, which is positively glacial progress — I finally had had enough. I told my mother to stuff it, and tossed my violin in favor of being a chorus member in our high school production of Oklahoma!, even though I was so impossibly uncoordinated that I couldn’t even make it through the simplest dance numbers. However, standing motionless on stage and belting “Surry with a Fringe On Top” was preferable to holding a bow.
If you are over the age of eight, reading this, and wanting to casually pick up the violin, just for shits and giggles, STOP. You do not understand what is about to happen to your life. I implore you to reconsider. You cannot learn the violin as an adult, and if you were to try, this is perhaps what it would feel like.
- Behold your violin. It has graceful arches, its highly polished wooden curves gleam in the sunlight. The violin sits in its velvet case, luxuriating in plush muteness. I beg you not to wake it, but I know you are not listening to me. I am warning you now: the only beautiful sound that a violin can make when held by a beginner is silence. But don’t take my word for it (I see your disbelief)… Go ahead. I dare you to prove me wrong.
- Ack! Wait! Don’t pick it up yet! Leave it there. Start with the bow. Before you can do anything, you have to learn how to hold a bow. No, don’t grab the end as if it were a pickaxe. No, it’s not a fork either, or a pen. Stop clutching it. Stop! Loosen up your hand. Think of your hand as a bird lofting on a gentle wind. Now settle your thumb in this nook, now curve your fingers around and balance your pinky lightly towards the end. There is no need to raise it in the air like a sword. Really.
…no seriously, and it’s not a freakin’ lightsaber either. Sheesh.
- Now, get the violin. Grab it lightly around the neck. Do not grab it by the strings. Do not grab it by the nobby things. Lift it with the tenderness you would show your own person. Yes, it is lighter than you thought it would be, that’s because it’s hollow, duh. That’s how it makes all the pretty resonant noises. You make the strings vibrate with the bow and the sound resonates in the hollow body of the violin and it produces a purportedly beautiful sound when that happens. However, you, YOU, are not going to hear that sound today. Sorry. And, not to be a downer, but because you can vote, drink, and drive already, let alone get into a PG–13 movie, you will probably never, ever make that sound. Heartbreaking, I know.
- I see you’re still determined to do this. Okay. Lift your chin like you are staring down your nose at another prodigy like yourself who still thinks they can learn to play the violin as an adult. Look down the bridge of your nose, stare down the mediocre competition. Tilt your head back a little further. A little further. Stretch out your left arm. Yes, the one with the violin in it… And gently place the violin on your left shoulder. Bring your chin down so that the left side of your jaw rests on the chin rest. Now clench it. Clench it against your shoulder and let your hand drop so that only your chin and shoulder are holding it. Of course it’s uncomfortable, the chin “rest” is molded bloody plastic and the violin body is made of wood. No, they don’t have ones with gel cushions. Yes, that is why every violinist looks like they have a gigantic hickey on their necks.
- Look at your feet. Can you see them? Good. Now move your left foot so that it disappears under the violin, sort of out and slightly to the left. With your foot in the correct position, that should help support some of the weight of the violin. It is quite heavy indeed! I did not tell you that when you first picked it up; I figured I’d surprise you. Sorry, darling. It ain’t gonna get any lighter either. But I see that you’re still in it to win it, so, okay fine, let’s DO THIS.
- Bring your hand up so that your thumb is on the left side of the neck, way up towards the top of the scroll, and the instrument is resting between your thumb and index finger. Do not grip it. You are not about to use it as a weapon, for the love of Pete. Relax! Let your fingers stand up straight like that and then twist your wrist, bringing your pinky finger towards you. Let your fingers just fall into line around the side of the violin. Relax your fingers. Wiggle them around. Get as comfortable and relaxed as you can be, because Jeezy Creezy the next part is going to suck so much.
- I am now going to tell you how to play what they call “Open A”. See, you have four strings. Look down your nose again, and take a look at the strings. Yes, stay in position. I want you to look at the strings. The fat ones are for the low notes, G and D, the second from the right is A, and the little torture instrument on the far right is your E-string, the highest of the four. Allow your index finger to touch the E-string. Press on it. Harder. PUSH IT ALL THE WAY DOWN AND HOLD IT THERE. Now wiggle your finger.
… well son of a gun. Hurts like a bitch, doesn’t it?
Keep wiggling that finger as fast as you can.
Wiggle your wrist too.
WIGGLE EVERYTHING ABOVE YOUR ELBOW BUT DO NOT WIGGLE YOUR ELBOW.
It’s not impossible, dude. It’s called vibrato and it makes the sound of the violin reverberate even more.
Vibrato requires practice by itself alone. It’s not a natural motion.
Try it again. Wiggle it.
Just a little bit.
…I’m sorry. No, we’re not done. You haven’t played a note yet.
- Bring up the bow. The spongy strings are horsehair (yes, from real horses) that are coated in a sticky substance called rosin. The rosin makes the horsehair grab the metal strings, making them vibrate, creating a sound that will telegraph straight up from the body of the violin and bore a hole in your eardrum. No, not literally. But you won’t know the difference when you start playing, I guarantee it. Of course it’s going to be loud, dumbass, and it’s going to be right. in. your. ear.
- Place the bow so that it is lightly resting on the strings, but without moving it. Yes it bounces if you bring it down too hard, Jesus! I said lightly!
- Stand there, and without touching any strings, gently and slowly pull downward without hardly pressing on the strings, but yet pressing firmly enough to make sound, but not so hard that the wooden part of the bow touches the horsehair. It’s kinda like driving a stick, you give it a little gas and lift up on the clutch at the same time, just the right amount of pressure to create a resonant tone. Pretend your right wrist with the bow has a lead weight on it. As you pull down your elbow, lead with your wrist. Make your wrist jut out like the hip of a jaunty hooker. Yep. Like that. Pull down… slowly… try to make that note. Yes, in fact, the sound that you are making right now with your first bow stroke does sound like a cat being dragged over gravel. Indeed! Press a little harder now. Very good, you now sound like sheet metal going through an industrial shredder. You are indeed on your way. Just for fun, let up on the pressure and draw it as lightly as you can across the strings. See if you can make it sound like the exhalation of a two-pack-a-day smoker walking uphill.
- The next part requires making the notes. How do you do that? You bring your fingers around and hold down the strings in specific locations to make notes. No, there are no ridges, no visual markers. You just have to kinda KNOW where the notes are. The way you know is by practicing. A lot. And by fucking up. A lot. You are going to play more notes that are flat, sharp, maybe even a whole quarter tone off before you know exactly where to put your fingers.
- So, here we are. Let’s bring all that together and make music! Play for me, Mozart!
Not to be rude, but, I’ve heard nicer sounds come from angry badgers. The very gates of hell opening would be a mellifluous sweet nothing compared to the sound you just made. I would rather listen to the soft thrum of a fifty-year-old blender with a bad blade.
Behold, the violin, instrument of mystery and Early Modern torture device.
The more you know. 🌈 🌟