Six Bad Habits to Avoid When Beginning Violin + How to Fix Them

January 3, 2017, 7:42 PM · So you or your child has just started learning to play the violin -- congratulations!

It takes a while to get good at this instrument, and it's very easy to fall into bad habits that will limit your progress. Here are some bad habits to avoid, along with advice on how to form good habits. Enjoy the video, and/or read the written version below it:

Poor posture

Stand or sit upright when you are playing the violin.

It's entirely too easy to slump when playing the violin. As slumping does not aid walking, slumping does not help one's violin playing. In fact, it can cause muscle and tendon strain, where muscles are trying to work over angled joints. By contrast, an upright position frees the muscles, joints and spine.

The violin should be fairly parallel to the floor, with just a slight tilt forward. The scroll should be neither up, nor down, just straight out. Neither the weight of the violin, nor your efforts to concentrate, nor your music-reading, should cause you to slump over when you are playing the violin.

You should be able to hold up the violin with your head, without the help of your left hand. ("Look Mom, no hands!") BUT. Let's not get too carried away with that. Your left hand will cradle the violin, without gripping (see below), so that there is some interplay between balancing the violin on the shoulder, balancing against the base of the first finger and thumb, and stabilizing with your head.

Your head should not clench the violin, as this will lead to too much tension in the neck. Your spine should stay straight. Here's one way to envision the role of the head: your head is very heavy, like a bowling ball, and the weight of it alone is enough to support the violin. So with the spine straight, simply turn the head slightly to the left, then rest your jawbone on the chin rest. You don't need to tilt the head or clench your neck muscles.

Less frequent, but still a problem, is a posture that involves standing TOO straight. If you are doing a backbend, getting an arch in the small of your back, holding your breath, tensed upward, then you'll need to adjust as well.

When you raise the violin, remember these things:

Grabbing the violin

A lot of people start with the misconception that a violinist "holds" the violin with the left hand. Also, because the instrument feels rather heavy, the left hand wants to help and may unconsciously start gripping the neck. Two bad habits can result from this:

Ideally, the neck of the violin is cradled between a passive thumb (which is usually straight) and the base joint of the first finger (there's a little bone that sticks out there -- the violin generally rests there.) The thumb should not squeeze the neck of the violin. A bent thumb is often an indication that the thumb is squeezing the neck of the violin. For this reason, often a teacher will tell a student to straighten the thumb. A little crooked may be okay, especially for particularly long thumbs, but the thumb should be passive. The thumb should not squeeze or grab the neck, this will inhibit shifting, vibrato and general left-hand freedom.

The left wrist should be straight and relaxed, bending neither outward or inward. If it is bending dramatically inward, it creates a serious strain on the wrist and muscles.

A rigid bow "grip"

The way a violinist holds the bow can be puzzling to a beginner, because at first it does not seem to have any advantage. But there are reasons behind the way we hold the bow, which have to do with having an ideal balance of strength and flexibility in the bow hand.

Your teacher will likely show you where to place your fingers, or you might find this in a diagram on the Internet or in a book. But beware! Your fingers should never be "fixed" in place. The term "bow grip" is terribly misleading -- the bow is ever-moving, and your fingers will need to constantly adjust.

When it comes to the bow hand, no finger should ever be locked in place. The biggest culprit? The thumb. If your thumb is locked straight, you have greatly limited your bow hand. The fingers should remain at their stations, but they should be able to bend and maneuver the stick in many ways. You can help your bow hand by practicing with a pencil -- position your fingers as though they are on the bow and then see if you can bend the fingers, straighten them, move the tip of the pencil up and down and in circles -- and not drop the pencil!

Neglecting your instrument

Violins require some basic care or they won't work well for you. Here are some pointers:

Second-guessing your teacher

Trust your teacher. If you don't trust your teacher, find a teacher you trust. Then follow that teacher's instructions without second-guessing or looking for shortcuts.

Of course, I'm not saying that you should not ask your teacher questions. You should take an active role in your learning. Ask questions when you are confused or curious. But at the end of the day, do the exercises your teacher prescribes, and let your teacher guide you.

Expecting progress without practice

Learning to play the violin fluently is a difficult, long-term project. You have to build skill, muscle memory, coordination and endurance. That requires daily devotion. How much should you practice? Every day, for as long as you can. Don't hurt yourself, don't overdo it. But every day. That will build a virtuous cycle -- the more you practice, the better you will play, and the better you play, the more you will wish to practice!

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January 4, 2017 at 07:58 PM · These are habits that can affect non-beginners too. Thank you for the reminder Laurie!

January 4, 2017 at 10:18 PM · Great article, video, and reminders! Thank you.

January 5, 2017 at 02:47 AM · No. 7. Agonizing over your equipment. If your teacher gives your violin and bow and accessories the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, then your gear is fine until they say it's not.

Seriously I really thought this was a great list and the only thing I didn't really agree with was the need to change strings and rehair bows that frequently. Especially for a small child practicing less than an hour a day and playing a fractional instrument I think this can be done less frequently. How many half-size bows get rehaired twice a year?

January 5, 2017 at 03:44 AM · So true, Paul, obsessing over equipment can be very distracting! At some point, you need to work with what you have until a specific change becomes very obvious to you. I've gotten some pushback about changing the hair and strings that often -- if you play every day, and especially if you play professionally, you will likely change those things at least once every six months.

When it comes to little kids' equipment, I'm so much more likely to see the polar opposite -- for example, the third child using the same violin that two older siblings used, and the strings have never been changed for five years!

January 5, 2017 at 09:32 AM · Keep your left-hand finger-nails well trimmed .....

January 5, 2017 at 05:55 PM · Great advice... applicable to re-beginners as well.

During the first few weeks of retaking up the instrument, I also "grabbed" the violin. "Relax the left thumb!" was the first advice from my teacher. It became less of an issue after the muscle memory started to come back.

January 5, 2017 at 06:17 PM · Great article, but I did pause at your advice about 10 (!) swipes of the rosin. I use Andrea a Picare, and use between one and two swipes (a swipe in my book being defined as either once up or down the bow). More than two and I'm over rosined and start getting degradation to the tone with no further grip improvements to compensate.

January 5, 2017 at 07:01 PM · I'd agree, Jason, that depending on the rosin (and the way you apply it), you can use less than 10 swipes. I recently had a student who had simply stopped rosining the bow! I didn't catch on to the problem for a while, then finally I used her bow and wow! No wonder the sound was so faint! One good rosin and we were back in business. My emphasis would be to be in a habit of rosining regularly, however much is appropriate for your bow and type of rosin.

January 7, 2017 at 03:56 PM · Can someone address care of the bridge please? Checking it to make sure it hasn't begun to tilt forward for example? Thanks!

January 10, 2017 at 04:58 AM · That is a good thing to check -- I'd actually suggest posting the question on the discussion board because there are some luthiers with more expertise than I have in that department!

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