Violin and Viola: Back to School Tips

Violin-Viola Back to School Tips

Summer is never long enough – I always have great plans that I hope to accomplish when I “get more time” – but somehow the list never gets completed. Today I’d like to share some back-to-school tips for starting first year string students and for helping your returning students to shake off the cobwebs.

Tips for Starting New “Chin Fiddle” Students

I often refer to violins and violas as “chin fiddles” and cellos and basses as “floor fiddles” – the kids get a kick out of it. If you are not a string player – and are teaching strings – I highly encourage you to get a violin or viola and actually try to play it. You’ll be better able to recognize and experience the pitfalls of young string players such as: “my arm is tired.”

Regardless of when you start your players, one of the most important topics in your initial contact with students is that they have an understanding of how challenging it is to learn to do something really well. I encourage them to not take the decision to play an instrument lightly – it must be a family decision.

Another important detail of this first interview is to decide what size instrument would be best for the student. I bring to this interview a set of violins: ¼, ½ and ¾ sizes. (This is for convenience – a 12” viola is similar in size to a ½ size violin.) I have the student extend their left arm out to the side & I put an instrument under their chin. I have them grab the scroll – when they grab the scroll there needs to be a “V” or a comfortable bend in their arm at the elbow. If their arm is straight the instrument is too large – if there is a sizable “bend” in their elbow – try a larger size.

I only see my students once a week in small group lessons so time is always a factor. Some of my colleagues tune the instruments ahead of time – that doesn’t seem to work for me as the students bring their instruments with them from their classrooms – so I get my tuner going and I can tune my entire group in just a few moments. This also gives me a chance to quickly check over each instrument to make sure the bridge is straight, the strings are lined up and the pegs are working properly. This also reinforces to my students the importance of tuning.

It is imperative that finger tapes be in place on every instrument indicating where fingers #1, #2, #3 should be placed (#4 is optional at this time).

Finger Tapes

I recommend 1/8” car pin striping tape – available at most automotive parts stores – it doesn’t get gooey and comes in great colors. I also explain to my students that our goal is to be able to play in tune without having to watch the tapes – the tapes are like training wheels, eventually we want to remove them.

I am a believer in starting my violin and viola students in “guitar” position – that is holding the instrument under the right arm as if it were a guitar. In this “guitar” position students can easily see their fingers and the tapes. Sometimes it’s helpful to have the students form a box shape with their left hand fingers when they touch the strings. It is important that students develop good habits of touching the tapes with just their fingertips – which also reinforces that fingernails have to be short.

Good luck on the fingernail thing – it is always a challenge.

In guitar position we pluck the strings with the right hand thumb. The left hand thumb is placed on the side of the fingerboard (approximately at the 1st joint), lined up with the 1st finger tape – pointing upwards. There is much angst and discussion among string teachers as to the exact and proper angle of the left thumb – there are many sizes and shapes of thumbs out there, not to mention double-jointed issues as well. It is imperative that students have a comfortably straight left hand wrist when they play. One of our most important mantras is: “WRIST DOWN, THUMB TO THE SKY”.

Tips for Returning Students

One of the first things we usually have to review in the fall is posture. We always need to review our secret code for posture: “CBBF” which stands for “Chairs Back, Buns Forward” – we always sit on the front portion of the chair.

My more advanced students stand regularly in their lessons – when standing, be sure to “line it up!” We start with the feet about shoulder width apart – pointing towards me – instruments under their right arms – bridges out – with bows in their right hand as well.

Take a medium step back with the right foot. With weight equally balanced on both feet, “line up” the left foot toes, the left shoulder, chin, nose & scroll – all pointing at the music. Students should be looking down the strings towards the music.

Check for Correct Instrument Size

An important thing to check with your returning string students is – have they grown?  Are they still playing on the correct sized instrument? To check for appropriate size follow the same procedure as used for sizing up the beginning players. Many times students are ready for a larger instrument in the second year. Usually the larger sized instruments have a better sound – an added bonus.

At Least a “Two Banana” Sound

I was working with a diligent young cello student at his lesson one morning. Our focus was improving his sound. His sound just wasn’t very big so I asked him what he had for breakfast that morning – he said he had a banana. I asked him what his sound might be like if he would have had two bananas for even more energy and power – he got a big smile on his face. We reviewed the three factors of producing more sound on a string instrument:

  1. Using more bow – physically pull more of the bow across the string.
  2. Using more weight on the bow – weight on the bow comes from the arm however it must be accompanied by more bow speed or else you just get a scratchy sound.
  3. Playing closer to the bridge – move the bow away from the end of the fingerboard. There will be a “sweet” spot closer to the bridge that will produce the clearest sound – make it a game to find the sweet spot between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge.

We shared the banana story with the whole ensemble – so now I just say that we want at least a “two banana” sound or maybe even a “three banana” sound – it always gets smiles and a bigger sound.

Best of luck with the upcoming school year. What we do is important. You never know which of our students may become the next Itzhak Perlman.

Have a great year!

Jim SchulzJim Schulz has 40 years of experience in teaching all levels of instrumental music, including band, jazz band, and orchestra. He currently enjoys working with 4th-6th grade students in the Lincoln Public Schools in Lincoln, NE. He received his B.M.E and M.M. degrees from University of Nebraska –Lincoln, and has participated in International Music Workshops in Lausanne, Switzerland and Graz, Austria. Mr. Schulz is a past president of NSBA and ASTA, has held positions of chair of orchestra affairs and middle level chair with NMEA and middle level chair for NSBA.

Jim is also an active musician, clinician, and adjudicator in Nebraska and Iowa.

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