Welcome back. In this Part B, Focus on Stringed Instruments, I will discuss what to expect when beginning lessons on non fretted stringed instruments such as violin, viola and cello. Previous posts in this series have discussed beginning lessons on piano and drums; and guitar and bass. As previously stated, guitar and bass are a bit more difficult to begin learning than piano and drums. Violin, viola and cello are bit more difficult to begin learning than the guitar and bass. Once again, instrument choice should ideally be determined by your love for the instrument, your being drawn to a particular sound or feel not by the individual instrument’s learning curve. This information is provided so that you can approach any lessons you begin with reasonable expectations.
Violin, viola and cello are examples of non fretted stringed instruments. Unlike the guitar or bass, the fingerboard’s of these instruments are completely unmarked. Another difference is that the strings are drawn over a raised and arched wooden bridge rather than a flat bridge. Like the bass guitar, violin, viola and cello each have four strings tuned as follows: violin E, A, D, G; viola and cello A, D, G, C but in different octaves with the cello sounding lower than the viola and the viola sounding lower than the violin. Most frequently the non fretted stringed instruments are played in a classical setting such as an orchestra, chamber group or quartet. However, it is becoming more common to find all of these instruments in other genres as well, including jazz, rock and pop.
When played acoustically sound is produced by string vibrations that are transmitted through the bridge and sound post (small dowel set between the top and bottom pieces of the instrument) to the body of the instrument, which allows the sound to effectively radiate into the surrounding air. In a traditional setting the instruments are played in their natural acoustic forms. However, the violin, viola and cello can be fitted with electronic pick ups which are often needed when the instruments are played in non classical settings.
Like a guitar sound can be produced by plucking the strings, which is called pizzicato; but it is most commonly produced by moving a bow over the strings which as known as playing arco. A bow is a specially crafted stick traditionally made of wood and strung with a hank of horse-hair. Like guitar the instruments will each have to be tuned each time they are played. Once again, pitch is determined by the gauge and tension of the strings. Tuning will involve tightening or loosening the strings to create the right pitch for each string, a process that can be aided by the use of an instrument tuner or tuning app. For more on the basics of tuning please refer to Part A of this discussion.
Now that we have covered all of the basics it is time to talk about the challenges and rewards of learning to play the non fretted instruments. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with the complex beauty of an orchestral performance or the moving magnificence of a stringed soloist knows what draws students to the violin, viola or cello. Now would be a good time to gently remind you that it takes many years to master any instrument. As a beginner you can not hold yourself to the standards of the performers you admire. But, dedicated practice can produce dramatic results enabling students of all ages to enjoy their playing and even eventually performing with one of the amateur orchestras in our community.
As a life long cello student, I would say that the two greatest challenges of playing a non fretted stringed instrument are learning correct finger placement technique and bow control – basically learning all of the different techniques required for both the right hand and the left hand.Without frets to guide left hand placement on the fingerboard, students must rely on their ears to find the proper notes. With practice you will train your ears to recognize correct tones and your muscles to memorize exactly where to place your fingers to create any given note. Bowing technique too will become natural in time but at first it can be quite difficult to get the hang of holding the bow correctly while applying the correct pressure and controlling the rate of motion required in various situations. In the beginning it is most important to be patient, practice diligently and allow yourself the time you need to develop the rudimentary skills required.
Violin music is written in treble clef, viola music is written in alto clef which is unique to the viola, and the cello music is usually written in bass clef. All three use standard music notation. Each instrument is commonly played one note at a time though two or more notes can be sounded simultaneously. In it’s most basic setting the violin plays the melody in an orchestra, viola and cello play harmony though in reality both harmony and melody can be shared and passed around.
Most teachers will go no further at the first lesson than identifying parts of the instrument, teaching the proper instrument hold and perhaps naming and plucking the open strings (pizzicato). In the lessons that follow note reading and bow use will be introduced. As previously mentioned there is a bit less instant gratification when pursuing lessons on the non fretted stringed instruments than piano and drums for instance, but don’t despair, the reward for your perseverance will be worth your efforts! Violin lessons are appropriate for some children as young as three and a half years old, using a properly fitted fractional sized instrument. Viola and cello are larger and even in their fractionally reduced sizes are best to start once children are at least seven or so. For the purpose of learning to play, method books will provide students of all three instruments with familiar melodies so that they can enjoy creating music they can identify well before they can take on all of the magnificent repertoire that we hear the professionals perform.
Coming next, What to Expect When Beginning Lessons on Different Instruments – Focus on Woodwind and Brass Instruments.