To learn how to play violin you will want to understand a lot of things to get started. I'm going to explain to you how to find a violin, all about the shoulder rest for violin, the violin parts, violin rosin and go through a beginner violin guide on how to read violin notes.
By following all the steps in this article, I am confident you will be on your way to not just playing the violin, but become a decent violin player in a short amount of time! Let's get started!
Step 1: Get Ready to Learn How to Play Violin
This section covers the ins-and-outs of all the tools that you need to get started to learn how to play violin. Obtaining a quality violin and accessories is a critical part of learning how to play violin. But if you already have an instrument, you can skip this section. Let's dive in!
How to Buy a Beginner Violin Online
I have seen many students come to their first private violin lesson with a violin already in hand. Usually, a violin that they purchased for under $100. I mean, why would they want to pay more than $100 for a violin? Especially if they are not sure they are going to stick with learning.
The problem with this (and I have seen it over and over) is almost every violin that you get for under $100 is going to have a series of potential problems that make playing the violin a struggle.
Here is a list of some of the things to avoid that you will find with most violins under $100, and commonly with violins under $300.
Violin Parts Guide - The Violin Bridge
To learn how to play violin correctly, you are going to want to make sure your violin bridge is the proper height and shape. What can happen is if the bridge is too high, it can force you to have to press down excessively.
This leads to violin playing being much harder than it should be. A high bridge forces tension in your left-hand, which leads to more difficulty with vibrato, shifting and playing fast. Unfortunately, many cheap violins come with bridges that are set up too high or are even uncut.
You might as well return the violin you purchased if it came with an uncut bridge. Unless you want to grab a kitchen knife and go to luthier school. :)
Violin Parts Guide - The Violin Fingerboard
The fingerboard (where you place fingers down) should be made of ebony. Unfortunately, some cheap violins will have plastic parts. You definitely want the fingerboard to be made of ebony, and ideally the tailpiece and chin rest as well.
You never want to learn on a flimsy plastic fingerboard as it can easily break, and leads to bad habits with finger placement.
Violin Parts Guide - The Violin Pegs
To be able to tune the violin, the pegs on the upper part of the instrument near the scroll are supposed to be cut a certain way to make tuning easiest.
Poor quality violins are a headache to tune because they often have lousy cut pegs. I have seen people get so frustrated with tuning a cheap violin that they either quit or get a violin upgrade shortly after.
It is a shame to see people who want to learn how to play violin quit because of their equipment. I've seen this happen too often.
How to Choose a Violin for Beginners - Factory-Made vs. Hand-Crafted Violins
When a violin is factory-made and not hand-crafted, it leads to the violin having a "nasally" sound. Plug your nose and try to sing a song... That is what I mean by nasally sound. This makes learning unmotivating, as the violin will lack a pure/rich/full sound.
A factory-made violin is typically a lot more glossy and looks artificial. A hand-crafted violin is typically dryer (the wood), less artificial, and the wood is much more defined and beautiful. Best of all the sound of a hand-crafted violin is richer, projects more and is easier to play.
I'll compare cheap vs. hand-crafted violins to listening to music in your car with no bass (cheap violin) or with heavy bass (hand-crafted violin). Imagine riding in a car having to blast AM radio or bass-less FM for 20 hours? You would start hating whatever it was you were listening to right?
The same thing goes for choosing the quality of your violin. You are going to have to listen to every note that comes out of it... Good or bad. Since you'll hit 20 hours of violin playing real soon, I can't emphasize enough how important this decision is for you.
Even if you've never played before, you'd be able to tell right away the differences between playing a cheap violin and a decent violin. Not just listening to them but actually playing them.
How to Choose a Violin Price Range
My recommendation would be to start on a nice violin in the $500-$1,000 range. You can find some excellent hand-crafted instruments in this range, and most shops will let you try them first. If I were starting violin... I would try to find the best sounding violin for the best value.
Many shops have rent-to-own programs, where you can pay monthly to build up equity to own the instrument. This is a much better route than paying outright for a cheap violin as you'll at least be starting on a quality violin. By the way, never assume a violin is hand-crafted just because a shop says so.
I've seen listing for violins under $500 that claimed to be hand-crafted... And I knew for a fact it wasn't. Usually, you can test-run a violin first before purchasing. This is a good idea both to verify the quality of the violin and to ensure the sound is excellent. You can bring the violin you are trying out to any unbiased violinist or teacher. Most experienced players can tell you their thoughts on sound quality vs. price.
To learn more about how to choose a violin, I encourage you to read two articles I wrote on violinist.com. I talk about how to find the best quality violins for the best value.
Most hand-crafted instruments start at $1,000, but sometimes you can find them cheaper. If you are interested in some of my specific recommendations of instruments, visit this link.
Violin Parts Guide - The Violin Strings
Many cheap violins come with cheap strings that make the violin sound even worse than it is. The strings that come on violins under $100 are absolutely horrible. I would have trouble selling them for $5 (for an entire set).
If you cannot afford a violin in the $300+ range, the best way to improve the sound of your cheap violin is definitely to upgrade to a decent quality steel string (like Heliocore).
Once you get into a violin that is $500+, this justifies having on synthetic strings like Dominant (with Gold label E). Dominant strings are the best value synthetic string on the market.
But I don't recommend putting them on anything other than hand-crafted violins. A cheap violin with quality strings is sort of like having a junky car and putting expensive tires on it. Well maybe you would do that, who knows. :)
What is a Violin Bow Made Out Of?
To learn how to play violin, you want to understand that the quality of your violin bow makes a difference in your ability to create a clean sound.
Every violin bow is different from one to the next and profoundly affects your ability to learn how to play violin. Although all violin bows have the same dimensions and amount of horse hair on them, they each have entirely different abilities to help you get a good sound out of your instrument.
Most beginners are blown away by the quality variances of bows. Here's the thing though... As a beginner, the quality of your bow is not nearly as important as the quality of your instrument.
Typically at the one-year experience mark is where I recommend for students to start testing bows. But here is one important thing to note... If you are going to look at violins over the $1,000 range (I do encourage this if you can afford it), you would be doing yourself a disservice to combine it with a cheap $20 bow.
In the situation of purchasing a $1,000+ violin (as a beginner), I would recommend a starter level pernambuco violin bow which I talk about below. Here are the four types of materials of bows.
Bow Material #1 - Violin Bow FiberglassFiberglass bows are the cheapest type of bow that comes with most cheap violin outfits and rental violins. They are very stiff and make it the most challenging to get the best sound out of your violin. They range from $10-$20. I highly recommend avoiding these type of bows if possible as they will make it harder to learn how to play violin.
Bow Material #2 - Violin Bow BrazilwoodBrazilwood bows are the most common type of bow that you'll find included with many violin packages. They are a little bit better than fiberglass bows but still pose similar problems. Examples of things that are tougher to do on Fiberglass/Brazilwood bows are crossing strings, creating a clean sound and more.
Bow Material #3 - Violin Bow Carbon FiberCarbon fiber bows are very durable and are great for fiddle playing. They also are good bows for children that the parent would fear the child breaking the bow. I do not recommend carbon fiber bows to beginner violin players as a pernambuco bow is typically a better value. Carbon fiber bows range in price anywhere from $150-$1,000.
Bow Material #4 - Violin Bow Pernambuco Wood
If you can get your hands on a pernambuco violin bow as a beginner player, you are ahead of the game. A pernambuco bow makes various violin techniques a lot easier and brings the best sound out of your violin.
An excellent way to learn how to play violin is to start on a starter level pernambuco bow. Pernambuco bows range anywhere from $150-(the sky-is-the-limit). But beware...
Some shops (just like I mentioned with factory-made violins) will say a bow is pernambuco when it is really Brazilwood. I was convinced once by a very reputable wholesaler that it's highly unlikely for a pernambuco bow to be priced less than $150 (based on the rareness of the wood).
I once saw a $75 "pernambuco bow" on a website and, I said...yea right... That's why it's smart to bring 1-2 bows to an unbiased player for testing. If you want some of my specific recommendations of violin bows, click here.
Beginner Violin Tutorial on Violin Rosin
In this section, I will explain all about rosin, including how to tighten the bow which is essential to playing the violin. First, I will start with what rosin is and what type I recommend. Violin rosin is a sticky film (like hardened tree sap) that is used to make the violin bow hairs sticky to be able to grab the strings.
Without enough rosin, the violin bow slides across the strings - literally making no sound. The best type of rosin that I recommend to students is "Jade Rosin."
I recommend this type of rosin over "boxed" rosin that comes in standard rental outfits and cheap violin packages. "Boxed" rosin is not as potent as rosins like Jade or other brands on the market.
Scratching Violin Rosin and Application
To apply rosin, scratch the rosin surface with the back of your bow (so a powdery film comes to the top), then stroke the violin bow hair across the rosin from top to bottom.
To test if you have enough rosin on the bow, take the back of your finger and swipe the back of the horsehair. Do this until your finger has a light coat of rosin. If you see barely any rosin on your finger, you should continue to rosin the bow. Scratch more. Push harder... Just make sure you haven't over-applied rosin which you'll be able to tell with how much rosin you see on your finger.
In the case of too much rosin on the bow, take your finger and "flick" the backside of the horsehair to force some of the rosin to come off. Assuming the rest of the bow hair has a proper coat of rosin from top to bottom, you have a bow that is ready to be used!
Beginner Violin Tips with Violin Rosin
Here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Always avoid touching the front of the bow hair (where your bow touches the strings) with your hands. Dirt and oil can get on the horse hair and cause you not to get proper contact (and eventually you will need to get the bow replaced).
2. If your bow is brand new, you should rosin it a lot more. Usually, a bow that has new hair with no rosin needs to be rosined for at least 3-4 minutes depending on how aggressive you are applying the rosin.
3. Don't be afraid to "dig" the bow into the rosin. Make sure you scratch it enough otherwise nothing comes off the rosin onto the hair.
4. You have to rosin the bow after every 60 minutes of practice or so once you have the proper amount on the horse hair.
Beginner Violin Guide to Bow Tightening
To learn how to play violin, you'll want to understand how to tighten your violin bow. This is how you do it. The back of the bow where you find the screw - this tightens and loosens the violin bow horse hair.
You want the bow hair to be tight to the point where when you are playing the violin, the bow hair barely does not touch the stick. You do not want a big gap between the stick and the hair when you are playing.
Also, make sure you loosen the bow when you put the violin bow away. This prevents warpage from happening in extreme weather conditions which can ruin your bow. Loosen to the point of seeing "dangly" hair, and that's perfectly fine. The screw should not start coming out of the bow. That's going too far with loosening.
How to Install a Shoulder Rest for Violin
To learn how to play violin correctly, you'll want to make sure you have a shoulder rest. This tool helps you to hold the violin properly without the support of your left hand.
A type that I recommend is a Kun Shoulder Rest, as they have very comfortable padding, and are very sturdy. The below image shows the way a Kun shoulder rest looks like installed on the back of your violin.
Notice the thicker side of the shoulder rest is on the right as you are looking at the back of the violin.
Helpful Beginner Violin Accessories
There are two additional accessories I would like to recommend to you. These are not necessary to learn how to play violin but are very useful. The first one is a violin bow-right tool.
This tool helps to keep the bow straight when you are bowing back and forth across the strings. Keeping the bow straight can be challenging for beginner students, so it's nice to have a tool that forces this fundamental. So you can focus on the many other habits...
The next tool I would like to recommend is the finger finder tool. This tool is excellent for helping you understand how to read violin music in various keys. It also allows you to start learning songs you might want to be able to play a lot earlier.
If you want detailed help on how to establish solid technique on the violin, I highly recommend my Perfect Vibrato course which covers foundations of setting up the left hand, right hand and detailed steps on how to improve your sound.
This course covers how to improve vibrato, and also is an excellent four-week study of how to get rid of many bad habits you may have currently when playing the violin (learn more here).
It is appropriate for beginners as well as anyone under fifteen years of experience who wants to improve their sound.
Step 2: Hold the Violin Correctly
To learn how to play violin, you'll want to make sure you have a shoulder rest which I talked about in the previous section. The shoulder rest helps you to be able to pinch the violin between the chin and the shoulder.
Now I want you to square your shoulders, and point the violin no more than 45 degrees to your left. Make sure your shoulder rest is on, then place the violin on your left shoulder, and your chin on the black chin rest.
Now pinch the violin so that you don't have to rely on your left-hand to hold the instrument. One of the most important habits to get into if you want to learn how to play violin correctly is to always keep the violin level.
Make sure the violin is level helps you keep the violin bow straight when you pull it back and forth across the strings. The violin can be on a slight tilt, but you do not want to over-do it. Having it less tilted is better.
Using the Shoulder Rest for Violin to Practice Holding
An excellent way to practice proper posture is to hold the violin with no hands and walk across the room and back. Although the left-hand should slightly support the neck of the violin, you do not want to get into the habit of the left-hand over-supporting the violin. A good rule of thumb is you should be supporting the violin 85% with your chin/shoulder, and only 15% with your left hand. Here is a list of bad habits you can form with bad posture.
1. Not keeping the violin level.
2. Relying on the left-hand to hold the instrument.
3. Having the violin overly tilted.
4. Having the violin pointed farther than 45 degrees to your left when your shoulders are square.
Feeling good about posture? Great! Let's move onto setting up the left-hand so that you can start playing songs really soon.
Step 3: Setup the Violin Left-Hand Properly
Hopefully, by now you have all the tools you need to start playing the violin, as well as a good understanding of posture. To learn how to play violin properly (and eventually playing songs), you have to have a good understanding of how to setup your left-hand on the violin. I teach the fundamentals of the violin left-hand in four parts.
Beginner Violin Left-Hand Setup Part 1 - Thumb Position
Make sure your thumb is always in the same spot as shown below.
This position should be parallel with where your index finger goes down on the fingerboard. You can use a tuning app to tune the second thickest string "D" (two over from the left), and then place a finger down on that string to find the pitch "E" with the tuner.
This would be parallel where your thumb would go precisely. To get these notes in tune (I recommend the free app INS Tuner Lite, but many other apps do the job). If that was confusing at all, you'll learn later in this guide exactly where the first finger (index) goes on the violin.
Beginner Violin Left-Hand Setup Part 2 - Angles Back
It is essential to have the hand far enough back on the violin fingerboard, and not have it too close to the thumb as shown in the previous image. Keeping the hand "back" maintains the hand in the proper position to find all finger placement. This is a very important fundamental with learning how to play violin.
Beginner Violin Left-Hand Setup Part 3 - Thumb Position
It is critical to have the left-hand high enough when you are playing the violin. Otherwise, you'll have a hard time reaching notes with your pinky and other finger combinations.
Take a look at the image below which shows how high your hand/knuckles should be on the violin.
I cannot tell you how many times in my private lessons with students I have to remind them to get their knuckles up!
Beginner Violin Left-Hand Setup Part 4 - Turn the Hand
The last step is simple. Make sure the right part of your left-hand is about an inch away from the fingerboard. No more, no less. It is important always to be aware that your hand should never change from this position no matter what notes you are playing.
It is all about moving the fingers to find notes - not the hand. An excellent way to practice this (it's easy to move your hand out of position) is to have someone grab the lower part of your hand as you are playing the violin for a short while.
If you try to move your hand at all while the person is holding it, you can conclude your hand is not in the optimal position and needs improvement.
Having your left-hand setup correctly allows you to learn how to play violin efficiently, helps your ability to play fast, and increases your potential to establish a proper vibrato. All critical aspects to learn how to play violin.
In this section, I am going to show you how to read notes on both the D and A strings. Then we are going to learn the technique called "plucking," which is your right hand playing notes instead of the bow.
Plucking is an excellent way to focus on left-hand technique as well as getting familiar with reading music. Trying to do both the left and right hands at the same time as a beginner can be very overwhelming. That's why I have "how to hold the bow" in part 5 of this learn how to play violin guide and not before.
How to Read Violin Notes on the D and A Strings
Below is the D-Major scale.
This represents the first eight notes I want you to get familiar with to start learning the violin (played three times each). These notes represent pitches on the middle two violin strings D and A.
The unique symbol with an R above it represents a musical rest. All this means is that you would not play anything (pause) in that spot for the same amount of time as you would play one musical note.
So the way it works in the D scale is you have an open string ("0" fingers down), followed by fingers 1, 2 and 3 on the D string... Then followed by the same pattern on the A string to complete the scale.
Here is how the fingerings correspond with what finger to use.
- 1st Finger - Index Finger
- 2nd Finger - Middle Finger
- 3rd Finger - Ring Finger
Eventually, you will use your pinky, but don't worry about that yet. If that explanation was confusing, just look at the D major scale. That is precisely what I just explained.
How to Read Violin Notes: Using Notation
The notation you see on the D Major scale (D0, D1, D2, etc...) refers to what string the note is on (D or A) and what finger goes down (1, 2 or 3). Actual sheet music doesn't have the notation, so it's only a "crutch" until you get familiar with how to read music.
Eventually, you will not need it. I highly recommend you make flashcards for each of the notes of the D major scale. Draw the musical note on one side, and the notation on the back and start studying!
How to Read Violin Notes: Using a Fingerboard Sticker
I'm going to show you where notes are on the fingerboard on both the D and A strings, so you know where your fingers need to land. I highly recommend putting stickers on your violin or getting one sticker that sticks all the way across the fingerboard. That way you'll be able to have a visual reference point of where to put fingers down. Being that the violin is a fretless instrument, you need to put fingers in precisely the correct spots to make the right pitches. That is what makes violin challenging compared to other instruments, but not to worry... You'll build muscle memory with lots of practice, and there are tools to help you. Here is an excellent package deal to get both a sticker and violin mute on Amazon.
Figure 1.7 below shows the way the sticker is installed on the fingerboard, and also a picture of the violin mute that comes with the package.
Assignment: See if you can correspond the spots on the violin fretboard showed above with the D-Major Scale! By the way, a violin mute is a beneficial tool that comes with the Amazon package.
It is used to quiet the sound of a violin by 85% so that you can practice quietly in an apartment or other setting. It's also nice to have if you feel shy and don't want others to hear you play for a while. :)
How to Read Violin Music - Plucking and Pizzicato
Now you are ready to play some beginner songs on the violin! I like students to start by trying to master an easy song like this.
I don't recommend using the bow yet. Here's why.
Since you aren't familiar yet with reading music, you'll want to focus your attention on keeping good left-hand position and not trying to do too many things at once.
I suggest giving yourself a few days plucking unless you think you've established a solid left-hand and feel comfortable reading the music.
Here is how you pluck on the violin.
- Put your right thumb on the corner of the violin fingerboard (this represents your "bow").
- Use your index to pluck the string you want to play.
- Make sure you pluck the string a few inches down the fingerboard for optimal sound.
Here's another beginner song to learn.
And the last song I like to teach students before moving onto the bow.
Cool! Good job! Now you might be ready to learn how to hold the bow! :)
Step 5: Learn How to Hold the Violin Bow
One of the most important aspects if you want to learn how to play violin properly is setting up of the right hand or in violin terms - the bow hand. Take your right hand and put it out in front of you in a relaxed position.
The natural way your hand relaxes (like when you sleep), is how you want your hand to look as you hold the bow. Now setup your thumb into the thumb groove of the bow. It is crucial to keep the thumb curved while it is in the bow groove. Curved means the thumb should look like a "V" and not like a banana. :)
Next, make sure your index finger is set up over the bow as shown below.
It is very common for people to have the index finger placed incorrectly on the bow either too far away or too much towards the nail.
Make sure your overall hand is on top of the bow, and not too much off to the side. Try to mimic the image above - that works.
Also, notice the pinky is curved on top of the button in the image. Here is a list of bad habits that can form with holding the bow:
- Grabbing the bow too tight.
- Not keeping the hand far enough on top of the bow.
- Thumb is stiff (not curved).
- Pinky is stiff (not curved).