Music Study – The Violin

The VIOLIN is, perhaps, the most difficult of all instruments to play very well. At first, the study is ungrateful and irritating to the nerves ; but this does not last very long ; and the learner soon gains a little power ; it is when he attempts to go beyond this and attain real virtuosity that courageous and persistent efforts, entailing a fatigue that may sometimes be-come almost painful, are often necessary.

Therefore, it is well to begin young, and very soon, to get rid of those irritating difficulties of an elementary nature that are far more painful to face when one is of an age to suffer from their aridity. Taking the average opinion of a number of the most experienced professors, it would seem that the most favourable age to begin is from six to eight years. However, it is not well to hurry too much, for, on the one hand, a certain strength is needed, and on the other, it might be hurtful to the physical develop-ment; the pose of a violinist, which is not absolutely natural, particularly with regard to the left arm, demands a certain effort till he has become completely accustomed to it. Now, this position is of capital importance, and the good attitude of a violinist has an influence upon his playing, his tone and his agility, to a degree unknown to any other instrumentalist. We can venture to judge of the worth of a violinist before he has played a single note, by merely seeing the manner in which he plants his feet and holds his violin; therefore the best professors are those, who, from the very beginning, pay most attention to giving their young pupils a perfectly correct position, which for a long time will be the object of their care. Some of them advise practising before a mirror, which is also done by singers who want to get rid of the habit of making grimaces ; this is not a bad idea. Therefore, on account of this somewhat forced position, to begin too early, before the growth is sufficiently advanced, particularly with young girls, might entail a slight curvature of the vertebrate column, which it would be prudent to watch. This is the sole danger of premature study, for the fear that some people have that the vibration of the strings is communicated to the chest and causes trouble is pure illusion. At ten years of age, it is a little late to begin; at eighteen, it is too late if you want to acquire the talent of a virtuoso; but even then, with strong will, you can become an orchestra-player, a useful second violin, if you are already a good musician.

No condition of conformation is rigorously requisite provided that the arms and hands are in good condition ; however, a large left hand with a long little finger will greatly facilitate matters.

The first quality to obtain from the violin is pure intonation ; this necessitates a delicate and already trained ear. Solfeggio, therefore, should precede and accompany the study of the violin. But if the ear is not true, if it does not perceive with precision the slightest differences of intonation, it would be better to give the violin up at once, for this can rarely be corrected, and if one is absolutely determined to study music, fall back upon some instrument with keys or a keyboard, one of those that produce an intonation ready made. If on the contrary, the lack of good intonation is occasioned simply by the awkwardness of the left hand, and if the pupil himself notices that he plays out of tune, above all if this is disagreeable to him; nothing is being lost, the study will be justified.

It is always an advantage for very young pupils to begin with a violin of small dimensions, a half, or three-quarters, according to their stature; this will cause less fatigue to the left hand. They can afterwards pass to a violin of ordinary dimensions without serious difficulty ; and they accustom themselves very quickly to a greater stretching of the fingers, and recover accuracy very easily.

Another very important study is that of the quality of tone, which depends principally upon the bow, but also upon the pressure of the fingers of the left hand upon the strings ; a rough or harsh tone, or a tone that is feeble or shrill is equally faulty: You must play the bow on the string, a very accurate expression, the importance of which can only be appreciated by one who has managed a stringed instrument.

Each string of the violin has an entirely distinct tone colour. The chanterelle (first string) has accents that are vibrant and warm, which lend to the melodic phrase all the intensity of expression of which it is susceptible. The very piercing notes of the chanterelie, placed in a region to which the human organ can-not attain, give a luminous sensation and awaken the idea of the supernatural and the marvellous.

The second string is not so biting as the chanterelle: it excels in interpreting melodies that are ideal and suave.

The third string is distinguished by an incomparable sweetness.

The fourth string is a Contralto voice, with a masculine and powerful timbre.”

This may guide us in our efforts towards a beautiful sonority, as applied to each individual string. It goes without saying that the quality of tone depends also, in great part, upon the perfection of the instrument, and that we cannot obtain the same richness of timbre from a violin that costs 20 francs as from a Stradivarius ; but in the hands of an awkward pupil the two instruments will not present much difference, whilst the pupil and the professor, or even two pupils playing alternately one and the other of the two instruments, will produce tones that have not the slightest resemblance.

It is therefore absolutely useless, so far as the elementary studies are concerned, to place in the hands of a pupil an instrument of value of which he can make no use ; and this so much the more on account of a most mysterious phenomenon, conceded without question, a violin deteriorates and loses part of its qualities when it is badly played. Inversely, it improves under skilful hands.

Besides the qualities of good intonation, purity, and timbre, there is a third quality that is still more difficult and takes longer to acquire, and that is the flexibility of the bow, upon which depends the supreme elegance, the spirit, and the variety of subtle shading, as also the distinction so necessary to an instrument that has to serve the most varied and sometimes the commonest uses ; for the violin of the fiddler, the village violinist, is the same as that of Paganini. How do they differ? By the manner of playing them, the timbre and the boldness of the strokes of the bow. This study of the bow is, so to speak, a perpetual study by every violinist who has already arrived at perfection. Long after he has vanquished difficulties of all kinds, and attained impeccable accuracy, purity and richness, he still studies and will always study the infinite varieties of bowing, with its innumerable combinations, inventing new ones, and trying to apply them, and will find in this study, which is to him what breathing and vocal inflections are to the singer, an inexhaustible source of artistic satisfaction.

On no account should the study of the violin occupy more than six hours a day. Four hours will suffice perfectly, even during the finishing studies of pupils who are really well endowed. During the first years, it would be wise not to work more than two hours a day, and even less during the first months.

Just as in the case of the piano, numerous inventors have employed their ingenuity in inventing apparatus of various kinds to facilitate the study of the violin : there are some to indicate the place on the finger-board for the fingers of the left hand, and which thus pretend to teach how to play in tune; there are some that are made to force one to draw and push the bow across the strings exactly at right angles ; there are some to force the right hand to hold itself in the most correct manner; there are some to force the instrument to be held in the proper position ; there are many others, infinitely more than might be believed. I have never been able to get a violinist to point out a single one that he considered of the slightest advantage ; from which I conclude that they are all useless and infantile, good only for simpletons.