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I'd like to take up the violin, but I travel too much to take lessons.

  • Is it reasonable to learn violin without a teacher? And I take 'unreasonable' to mean "don't even bother- you'll be much better off learning another instrument if you can't take lessons"

  • How much harder is it to learn violin without a teacher than other instruments (e.g., the guitar, which I already play)?

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Traveling shouldn't exclude you from lessons. Make sure you take at least one when you first get the instrument, and then continue taking lessons from whatever teacher is in your current locale whenever you can! Even one hour with a single teacher is better than no hours with no teachers. –  NReilingh Sep 25 '12 at 3:57

6 Answers 6

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I have a child who started school this year and also began learning violin this year.

I personally have learnt guitar for over 20 years and can easily sight-read music.

Prior to my son starting lessons I spent a few weeks trying to figure out how to play. I had access to many beginner lessons and color coded or numbered sheet music but this didn't help. I also tried watching a few videos on Youtube.

My opinion is having a background in guitar, reading and understanding the music is no problem, but it may make taking up the violin slightly harder because there are little things which are slightly different and the way the frets are structured on the guitar and how you are used to placing your fingers feels different.

You are going to make leaps and bounds by taking some lessons. My son went to an introductory class for about 10 lessons and this made things a heck of a lot clearer for me (I sat and watched during his lessons).

My suggestion is taking an intro course and you can take it from there. But, you will likely need to take other courses later to pick up further techniques.

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I've been trying to do just what you're discussing. I've owned a violin for several years and I'm still at the sucky stage. I'm beyond the skinning-the-cat stage, though.

In transitioning from guitar to violin, there are three major differences:

  1. The tuning: Violins are (generally) tuned in fifths, not the fourths (mostly) that guitars are tuned in. This is easily the easiest change to get a handle on. The tuning is the same as the mandolin, and for a melody instrument, the fifths tuning makes great sense. This has been discussed here before.
  2. The intonation: Coming from a standard guitar, I first hit this issue when trying lap steel. In essence, my sense of what a G sounds like came from what comes out when I hit the sixth string while fretting the third fret, and when it came time to sync my sense of in-tune, it turns out that my ear did not remotely match the world. You can get better, you can train your ear, but it takes time and tuned accompanyment. This has also been discussed here before.
  3. Ergonomics: You strap a guitar to your body or hold it on your knee while sitting down. This means you have a fairly free range of motion. Plus, your picking corresponds to the rhythm of the piece you're playing. A violin is held in place by your chin, and you play it by rubbing a number of rosin-encrusted pieces of horsehair across the string. There are points where you change notes by changing direction with the bow, but the cool flowing violin passages are done so that you cannot tell by listening where the bow direction changes. If you bow like you pick, you sound very choppy, and if you end up holding the weight on your hand and not your chin and shoulder, you get stuck in one position. This is where I'm at. I'm too stuck with the mechanics of playing a violin to improve playing the music of the violin.

I'd say that you'll get the form together more quickly if you take lessons. If I knew someone around here who gave lessons, I'd probably take them.

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I think it would be easier if you are clear about what skill level you want to acheive in what kind of time frame.

How I started?

I have been playing for about 6 years. I am with my 4th teacher now. When I started I had no background in music. After about 3 months with first teacher, I thought, "Now I can read all sheet music. It's only slowly, physically pressing the string to produce the correct note." Since I have the almighty tuner, maybe I can self-study. I was in college and unwillingness to spend on lesson fees also contributed.

What happened to me without a teacher

Subset of problems I had:

  • Failed to understand what exactly pitch is and how to develop this sense. Because the first few months were spent making non-noise, I tended to think any sound without a screech is not that bad. This is made worse because I played songs that I was familiar with. Say Pachelbel's Canon in D. I spent maybe 6-7 hours figuring out where to press (I have yet to learn to treat sight-reading as a skill). Then, once I can get the sound shape roughly correct, I was a happy man. Yippee! I can play it :)!! I have lived up! Perhaps, this is what they mean by ignorance is bliss.

  • I played pieces that are too hard for me. It is difficult to suppress the urge to impress people. I was trying to get 1-2 bars just to make roughly similar sounds (as the mp3 sample) for days and weeks. It would have been faster to master an etude first then come back to it later. More importantly, it did not result in impressed audience (a friend or two). Even more importantly, I did not get an indicator of how much I was sucking. That's because they were thinking "hmm... hey I knew that song! suteki da ne! You kinda sound slightly different in certain parts, but hey, you have only played for one year. That's very good!!" Bliss indeed!

  • Ok, I acquired an inflated sense of self skill. Why is it undesirable? Because I tended to choose harder pieces to study. When, everywhere I went, there lay an impossible great wall, motivation diminished and a downward spiral began. Then, I decided that I needed a teacher if only for enforced regular practice.

Among other problems, I had to slowly standardize fingers' point of contact and the ever wrong bow hold:"view youtube performances;view self in mirror;copy bow hold to look like pro players;hand painful;etc". Inefficient. Yes?

What I have learnt so far

Constant thinking self-feedback during practice is necessary to progress. That means with every note I need a quick way to tell how wrong it is. E.g., pressed D in 3rd position. Is it flat? Then I moved my finger slightly forward. How's the new sound now? Oops, too sharp. Go back. Ok, sounds about right. Now repeat until I can land the finger in the same position for 5 consecutive times. Of immense aid to practice that I did not know of at first are "singintuna" for iPad or "singandsee" for Windows. They do the same thing but singintuna > singandsee.

Examples of how a teacher can help

  • When I was starting, I used this tuner. http://www.skysun.co.za/musical_instruments/images/WST-552V-LARGE.jpg . The ones with lcd screens respond too slow. My practice target would be like, "get every note within +/-3 of the green bar". 10 minutes later, I was barely looking at the tuner. 20 minutes later, I am on automatic mode. Keep playing the same wrong notes in the same wrong tempo. With a teacher, he can tell me, "slow down" or "stop and repeat until you get it right". So, when I come back from the lesson, I will remember the annoying interruptions and less likely go auto.

  • Another way a teacher was helpful to me was acquiring sound sense (dunno how to call it). I did not know what unison sounded like let alone a fifth. And apparently, knowing intervals is important for some reason. So he accompanied me. I reckoned it's a necessary component of learning intervals. Unfortunate that my mind is open only to the green bar of the tuner. He decided it's not working and asked me to sing. He played piano middle C. I sang "do". He corrected me until I got it right then told me that's unison. I didn't get it. Then, maybe the problem is the "do" word. Perhaps "la" will work. Then he sang "la", and asked me to sing along. "Aha"! the eureka moment happened. I knew unison!

tl;dr?

The purpose of all the above is to let you know that there will be problems and some problems may be too specific to you that the generic guidance available will leave you with too much trial-error time before you even realize that you have a problem. If I were you, I would set aside maybe 1 month to try self-study. Then re-evaluate.

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You can learn to play the violin, or near enough any instrument, with enough time, patience and practice - teacher or no teacher. But in my experience, the thing that really falls short in many instruments, but especially the violin, without a teacher is proper technique. Without decent tuition, you'll in all likelihood end up holding the bow wrong, the violin wrong, end up using your hand rather than your chin to support the weight, and so on.

The main big problem with this isn't that it causes major issues straight off - because it doesn't. At least, not noticeably major issues. This is in fact the big problem, because you can go on with a crappy technique for years before you start to notice it becoming an issue, but when it hits it's going to really hit, and it's going to be incredibly difficult to un-teach yourself and gain the right technique, even with a proper teacher. Sure, it's possible, but it's damn hard.

For example, without a balanced bow hold, it's nigh on impossible to get a good, fluid staccato, and could really cause your arm to ache after a while of hard playing. You'll struggle to get a smooth, constant sound as well. A bad violin hold will make shifting positions much harder (again, something you don't do when you first start) and make tuning much more inaccurate. You'll also struggle to move your fingers quickly and accurately if you're supporting the weight of the violin too.

So while you don't need a teacher if you want to play the violin, I'd say it's definitely worth it - especially if you're planning on reaching a decent level.

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The existing answers cover much of what I would want to say but I would like to add a few points.

  1. It would be unwise to argue that any one instrument is harder than another: each takes more than a lifetime to master. But it is easier to make really horrible noises on the violin than it is on, say, a piano or a guitar. For that reason getting basic technique right as smoothly and as quickly as you can will be important for you and your family's sanity. (My daughter once said "Dad, please don't practise, the neighbours will give you an ASBO").
  2. As with all instruments different elements of violin playing technique become important at different stages in your mastery of the instrument. Perfecting vibrato before mastering basic fingering wouldn't make sense. A teacher will have seen what works and what doesn't work at various stages of play hundreds of times and will be able to suggest the studies and pieces that help you overcome your most pressing weaknesses. Your teacher will probably (I'd argue) see your weaknesses more clearly than you would yourself.
  3. People forget this advantage, but it really is one of the most important: motivation. As an adult there are 1,000,001 demands on our time and it is very easy to let practising the violin fall off the bottom of my daily list of things I need to do. But come Thursday lunchtime I have my violin lesson and though my teacher specialises in teaching adults, and so knows the demands we have on our lives, I still feel ashamed and embarrassed if I haven't practised since the previous week. This makes sure that even if things are really hectic, I'll still pick up my violin.
  4. Lessons are fun! To work on my sight reading (which is awful) we often pick up a short duet (Bartok and Telemann are favourites) to play together, swapping parts after a couple of run-throughs. I get lots of sight reading practise from orchestra too, but they are not going to stop and help me understand difficult rhythms or fingerings etc.

I'd recommend lessons.

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The violin is one of the least anatomically sane instruments. Left to your own devices, you'll end up cramping it into position, and cramping your handling into something with as few variables as you think you can manage.

Once you've locked yourself into this kind of corner, it will take a lot of work getting out of there again.

And violin is not a self-sufficient instrument in almost any setting (you are not going to play the Bach solo partitas/sonatas any time soon): you need others to play it sensibly. The situation you describe as precluding you from engaging with a teacher consistently will also impact your ability to find musicians to play with.

You'll likely be better off playing the guitar or a keyboard instrument.

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Not if he isn't motivated to play the guitar or keyboard he won't be. Also, I've yet to find an instrument that absolutely requires accompaniment –  CurlyPaul Oct 17 at 14:37

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