Fiddle Tips: for Beginners
In this tips for beginners article is advice I often give to pupils in the 1st few fiddle lessons. These are often bullet points written down. They should help to learn and improve your technique. An important thing is to avoid bad habits that can limit progress later on. The effect of good technique is to give the very best chance of learning to a high standard without hinderance. There are also subtle things and inferences that would be difficult to get across here, but most of the basics are covered.
Posture is very important. When people play fiddle or any instrument for long periods it can have long them ill effects if posture is not correct. Try to practice standing. The back should be straight (but not rigidly so) when playing. This will also help to have more correct holding of the fiddle and bow. Sit upright on a chair, avoid sofas!
I cannot stress this enough. One of the most common points! The forearm needs to get used to moving independently and almost the full length of the bow. This needs to be practiced diligently. I always say it like and athlete warming up. Always bow longer in practice than you would in a session or in a playing environment.
Left hand position:
The neck of the fiddle should be cradled between the thumb and the base of the finger of the left hand. Where the last line of the finger meets the hand. It is important that it is not gripped. With the fingers of the left hand moving so much tension can result in the left hand. Be careful not too press too hard on the fingerboard. Have your fingers over the fingerboard so the tips comfortably reach. The fingers(or finger tips) should be flush with the fingerboard.
Nails need to be kept short. Long nails will hinder finger placement. Get used to cutting them regularly if you play the fiddle!
Left Thumb Position:
The Left thumb position is important for the positioning of the left hand. The left thumb should not be too high and encroach over the fingerboard. Only about half of the thumb should be higher than the fingerboard. Also important is, the thumb should be gently pressed in. Definitely not away from the neck and out to the left.
Left Hand Steady:
Sometimes their is an inclination for the left hand to move when fingering across the strings, especially the ‘E string’. Consequently the grip of the neck alters. There should be minimal movement of the left hand. Let the fingers do the work.
Gap at left wrist:
This part of technique many can find difficult. The left wrist should not collapse underneath the fiddle. It is possible to play like this! But it really prevents the hand opening up and the fingers stretching to certain positions. I have seen players play like this and play well. It is often because they learned this when young and the hand adapted over time to be able to reach certain notes.
Hold the Fiddle Up:
This is basic but common point for beginners.In some cases it can be held too high and this will result in the left arm getting tired. Keeping the fiddle at the right height will be better not only for general posture but also for the left arm and forearm position. It will allow the elbow to stay slightly(a few inches) away from the body. This will avoid any tucking of the left elbow into the body, this is a bad habit and one to avoid.
Bow just above fingerboard:
This relates to where the bow lies on the strings. In my experience about an inch above the fingerboard is about right. You don’t want to be to close to the bridge, play just above the end of the fingerboard. If you play above or further down the fingerboard some of the natural fiddle resonance will be lost and the sound will become muddy. Equally avoid playing too close to the bridge. The sound will taper and become dry or glassy. Again this is not ideal for the best sound. Do plenty of long bows (with bow parallel to the bridge)with and without slurs(more than one note in one bow) and keep an eye on bow placement. There is personal preference with bow placement, watch other players.
The bow should remain parallel to the bridge at all times. The bow needs to go directly across the strings as much as possible. If done correctly the bow will grip the strings better and better contact(and therefore sound)will be made. When doing long bows and having the bow parallel to the bridge, you should be getting a full sound. Almost as loud as your fiddle/violin is going to get.
This is one of the most common difficulties starting the fiddle and can be very technical. Each way of playing the fiddle is unique and the bow hold is quite personal. With the correct bow hold, the bow should feel natural in the hand and not in any way awkward.
Often the thumb straightens on the bow hand. It is easy to miss for the beginner because it is out of the line of vision of the player. That’s why it is important to check it 1st as you pick up and grip the bow. The thumb should be bent on the bow. Bent halfway rather than fully bent. This will allow the hand to remain loose and avoid tension. Having the thumb straight is certainly to be avoided and the thumb should not touch the bow hair when playing. incorrect thumb hold will almost always create tension in the hand and playing the fiddle can be difficult enough!
Fingers Closer on bow:
It is quiet common to see a gap between the 1st and 2nd fingers on the bow. This could tense hand and therefore the bow hold. The bow grip should be natural and feel ‘right’. Imagine picking up a pencil from a table, the hand needs to be relaxed. This is similar to how the bow hangs underneath the hand. With my hold the fingers do not touch each other, but are just millimeters apart.
The wood of the bow should be tilted slightly away from the player. The bow is played at a slight angle.
Right Elbow lower:
Sometimes the fight elbow can pop up. It should be high enough to support the hand holding the bow. It should not be too low where there is a strain on the hand (or at the wrist)supporting the bow. The right elbow height changes slightly according to what string is being played.
Fingers on tape:
Put tape and on the fingerboard on the 1st,2nd and 3rd positions. Make sure it is tape that will not damage it. Paper tape is usually quite good and it does not leave much of a residue. You will need an experienced player to put the tape in the correct position. If you already play another instrument your ear should guide you.
No gap at Neck:
The Fiddle should be placed gently at the neck(of the body!). But firm enough so that a gap cannot be seen. It there is a gap it could cause the holding to be loose.
Don’t Look Down on Fiddle:
This happen with some pupils from time to time. This is when there is a gap at the neck and the head is slightly over extended looking down on the fiddle/fingerboard. This could cause pain in the long term and is certainly to be avoided.
Keep the bow on the Strings:
Some pupils lift the bow off the strings at the start of a bow stroke. Often without realizing it. The bow should remain on the strings. You will need control of it on the strings.
Shoulder Rest: I would recommend using a shoulder rest. It will help very much with the posture and especially allowing the left hand to not have the extra task of holding the fiddle at the neck. The neck of the fiddle should rest on the left hand and the gripping of the fiddle is at the neck and chin. The shoulder rest I use is Bon-Musica (link). Picture below. It is more of a professional shoulder rest. It is quite expensive but I would recommend it. It is very sturdy and hard wearing. Initially it can be uncomfortable but this only lasts a short time as it moulds itself to the shoulder shape making it very comfortable. A good student- intermediate shoulder rest is ‘Willy-Wolf’.
I hope you have enjoyed this fiddle tips for beginners article and that it can help you on your fiddle playing journey. More about technique, bowing, ornamentation and lots of tunes in my book below.
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