Welcome to my site, about all things violin and viola. Here you will find interesting tips and pointers, and thoughts about playing these beautiful instruments.

17 Sept 2012

Circle of 5th - part 2

Please refer to my first post on the Circle of 5ths to explain the basics.

So we've looked at what the circle means at a glance. Now let's get a little more in depth.

As you can see from the circle, there is a pattern to the sharps and flats in a key signature. The sharps increase one at a time in this order F C G D A E B. There are a few different rhymes people use to remember this, but the one I always learnt was: Father Christmas Goes Down All Escalators Backwards. The flat keys go in reverse, B E A D G C F (which is the rhyme backwards). Using this you can work out easily that if a key has 4 sharps, they will be F C G D. If a key is 5 flats they will be B E A D G.

Now as I said before, each key signature is shared by two types of scale - the relative major and minor. These two scales are always one and a half steps apart from each other (three semitones). To find the relative minor of a major scale, step 1½ steps down from the major. To find the relative major of a minor scale, step 1½ steps up. Have a look back at the picture of the circle, and see how that all fits together.

Now you should be able to work out what sharps or flats are in a particular key, as well as the relative major/minor of a key.

12 Sept 2012


Have you ever heard reggae played on the viola before? Neither had I until I stumbled across videos by Shenzo Gregorio on YouTube.

Here is a great video by Shenzo showing how to play reggae on the viola (all techniques can be used on violin as well), and the kinds of sounds you can make using extended techniques such ricochet, left hand pizzicato, guitar hammer ons, and rhythmic riffs.

One of the main techniques Shenzo uses in this video is a bow stroke called ricochet.  Here are some tips to help you practise this stroke:
  1. Firstly, make sure your bold hold and right hand are very relaxed... particularly your thumb.  The stroke won't work properly with a tight grip.
  2. Now try dropping the bow onto the string with a slight down bow stroke.  If you want a slower ricochet, drop the bow near the balance point.  For a faster bounce drop the bow further towards the upper half.
  3. The bow will bounce best with full flat hair.

11 Sept 2012

Circle of 5ths - part 1

The Circle of 5ths is a fantastic visual representation of the relationship between different scales and keys in western classical music. It can look a little daunting at first, but once you start to understand how it works, it can be very helpful in understanding music theory. Here's what it looks like.

(image from circleoffifths.com)

So what does all this mean?

The circle works using the interval of a 5th - the distance between the open strings on your instrument eg. D to A. Or on a piano, counting seven semitones (half steps) up from a note (seven notes including black keys to the right).

This means that every step to the right of the circle moves up a 5th. Every step left moves down a 5th.

The starting point of the circle is the key C major. This key (or scale) has no sharps or flats. A step to the right gives us G major, which has one sharp. Each step to the right gives the new key (a 5th up) which has one extra sharp.

This also works in the reverse direction (from our starting point of C major) with flats, moving down a 5th each time.

The outside circle of the diagram shows you the major scale keys. However every key signature is shared by two types of scale - the major and minor. The major and minor scales that share a key signature are often referred to as 'relatives'. The relative scale of C major is A minor. The inner circle therefore shows you the minor scale keys, starting with A minor (with no sharps or flats). It then works in the exact same way as the outer circle.

This is the basics of the circle. In Circle of 5ths - part 2 I go into further detail about the order of key signatures, and 'relative' scales.

10 Sept 2012


Vibrato is a wonderful colour to add to your music - it can add warmth, tension and drama, or just bring out important and beautiful notes. However, it can also end up masking bad intonation, or becoming uncontrolled. So, it's very important to be conscious of where and how you use vibrato in your playing.

Make sure you practise completely without vibrato at times!

Firstly, take care that your vibrato isn't masking intonation issues. Make sure you practise your scales and arpeggios without vibrato so you can hear they are perfectly in tune. Then practise with vibrato, and see if you can get a consistent vibrato on every note. Can you keep the vibrato moving through the change of notes?

Next, let's look at how you use vibrato in your pieces. Try and play your piece with no vibrato at all. This might show up some intonation issues you hadn't noticed before. It might also show up areas where you have used vibrato to cover technical issues without realising. Try to keep the music expressive by using other techniques such as bow variation.

When you can play your music beautifully without vibrato, now is the time to start adding some. You should now be able to add vibrato consciously and to colour specific notes, rather than in an uncontrolled way on every note. If used a little more sparingly, it can create really poignant moments throughout your performance.

9 Sept 2012

Michael Rabin

Michael Rabin (1936 - 1972) was an American violinist, considered one of the best of the 20th Century.  He started studying violin at the age of 7, and had his Carnegie Hall debut at the age of 13.  Studying with the famous teacher Ivan Galamian at the Meadowmount School of Music, he was renowned for the perfection of his recitals.  Here is a wonderful video of Rabin playing Kreisler's Tambourin Chinois at the age of 15.

There is a lovely story about Rabin at Meadowmount.  Galamian put a challenge to his students playing a particular study  that he would "give a dollar to any student who could play that etude from beginning to end at the lesson without a single note out of tune."  The only student who got that dollar was Rabin.

So how did Rabin create such consistent accuracy in his playing?

When he was a child, Rabin had a little bowl with 6 marbles with him while he practised.  Each time he played through a specific section of his music perfectly, he would put a marble in the bowl.  If he made any error in a play through, all the marbles would come out, and he would start again.  The goal was to have all 6 marbles in the bowl from 6 perfect run-throughs in a row.

It's a great way to prepare yourself for a concert!  If you can perform a difficult section of music 6 times in a row... perfectly... you know you can get it perfect in concert.

8 Sept 2012

Reaching 4th finger comfortably

Do you have problems reaching to play 4th finger at times?  Is the stretch uncomfortable or painful for your hand?

This is something that I've had to really work on over the years.  Growing up playing violin, it wasn't an issue playing 4th finger.  I have a medium sized hand, so no problem there.  But during my years studying at the Conservatorium, I changed to playing viola... and a big viola!  Since then I've had to constantly work at stretching out my hand and finding ways to reach 4th fingers, double and triple stops, and other difficult intervals.  One teacher in particular gave me some very good advice for finding a way to comfortably shape the hand.  And that was this:

Always place the 4th finger comfortably first, then stretch back to place the 1st finger.

Try it on your instrument at home... put the 1st finger down and stretch up, and see how far you can reach.  Now try putting the 4th finger down and stretching back.  Is there a difference?

It's very important whenever you are trying to stretch into uncomfortable positions to keep your hand soft!  If you try to force your hand into a position, you can cause strains over time and injure your hand.  Relax the hand as much as possible, stretch back softly, and experiment with how you can gently shape your hand to reach.

If your hand is relaxed, it should be able to find the best way to comfortably reach everything.  Every hand is different, and will need a slightly different way to set.  Rather than trying to force it into a position (that may work perfectly for another player), let it find a way comfortably and softly.  It might not be the way you thought it should be, or what works for your teacher or other musicians.  But it may be much better for you.

Once you have set your 4th finger and softly stretched back, take note of what part of your first finger is now pressing down the string (where on the tip of the finger). What shape is the 1st finger - how bent are the joints?  How close is the knuckle of the 1st finger to the neck of the instrument?

After trying this a few times, shake out your hand out and see if you can return to the same hand position, placing down only the 1st finger.  Now it should be easier to reach the 4th finger...

6 Sept 2012

Klezmer Music

Last night I went to see the London Klezmer Quartet in concert, and had a great time.  So today I'm inspired to write a bit about Klezmer music.

If you're wondering what Klezmer music is - it's the traditional folk music from the Eastern European Jewish community, usually played in a group at weddings and celebrations (with lots of tunes for dancing).  The music came out of ancient Hebrew melodies chanted during synagogue.  This is what it sounds like:

So, how to play something like this yourself?  There are some specific Klezmer modes (scales) around which the melodies are built.  Here are a couple of the more common ones, the Freygish and the Misheberakh.  Try  playing through the scales as written, then improvising around the notes to create your own melody.

These scales were taken from Klezmer Fiddle, a how-to guide by Ilana Cravitz.  If you would like to learn more, this book is full of information about Klezmer, the tips and techniques for playing Klezmer fiddle, and traditional tunes.

4 Sept 2012

Candle imagery

Here's a relaxation exercise you might like to try, to experiment with your posture.

Stand with feet hip width apart.  Check that your knees aren't locked, and you feel relaxed and comfortable.

Now imagine your body is a warm candle, wax melting thickly down through your body.  Your shoulders are melting down through your hips, hips through your knees, knees through your ankles... and down through your feet into the floor.  Everything is heavy and sinking down through the body through the floor.

On top of your shoulders, your head is the candle flame... floating up from your body, weightless.  Try not to stretch your neck up.  Just let it float up weightlessly,  perhaps slightly wavering in a gentle breeze.

  1. Are both sides of your body melting evenly?
  2. Are there any places the wax hardens?  Can you soften this area?
  3. How or where is the weight balanced through your feet?
  4. Can you find a place (gently rocking back and forward) where you don't need to tense any muscles to stay balanced?

Now try and lift your arms up and down to their position when playing.  Imagine your heavy, wax dripping arms are being lifted by puppet strings attached to your wrists.  Try experimenting with how this feels, where do you stay relaxed, and where do muscles tense... How easy can this action feel?

Lastly, try this out with your instrument.  Is it possible to hold your violin or viola easily in that balanced position?  Can you lift the instrument without tensing your shoulders or neck?

  1. Do you need to move the balance point through your feet?
  2. What muscles are you using to hold the instrument up?
  3. Are there any areas you can feel tensing that you might not need to use?
Try it out... and let me know if you find anything interesting.  

3 Sept 2012

10 Top tips for string practise

  1. Practise makes permanent. Perfect practise makes perfect. Make sure that you carefully practise and reinforce the technique and musical style that you want. If you allow mistakes to go uncorrected, they will become habit.
  2. Quality over quantity. If you are practising when tired or not concentrating, you are likely to practise in bad habits. Try shorter sessions more often, so that you can concentrate fully. It is very easy to let bad habits slip into your practise when you aren't careful. Don’t let bad habits become permanent.
  3. Slow practise! Practise difficult passages very slowly and perfectly, building up the speed gradually. Only play the passage as fast as you can perfectly, then increase the tempo with a metronome. Keep shifts fast, and pay particular attention to string crossing difficulties.
  4. Metronome practise! A metronome will help you to slowly build up speed in difficult passages, help you to keep a steady beat and not rush, and ensure even and regular bow technique. Metronome practise will also highlight areas where you take time in the music without realising, particularly important when being accompanied by piano or orchestra.
  5. Rhythm! Correct rhythm is critically important, particularly in ensemble and orchestral playing. Practise clapping difficult rhythms with a metronome without looking at the notes. Practise clapping cross rhythms against a metronome beat.
  6. Fingerboard geography. Work on building a mental map of your fingerboard, and the distances between notes across the fingerboard (e.g. imagine notes across strings as a double stop, and note the distance between the fingers – tone, semitone, augmented etc). Be aware of the relationship and distance between one note and the next.
  7. Listen to recordings of your piece. Follow along with your music as you listen. Practise your piece mentally away from the instrument, imagining how you will play difficult passages, and how you would want it to sound if there were no technique issues.
  8. Breathe! Always remember to breathe with the music – breathe in on the upbeat, and out on the downbeat. This will help you to prepare your entries, and to play in time with other musicians. An ensemble that breathes together, plays together. Vividly imagine how you want the beginning note of an entry to sound in the rests before you start playing it.
  9. Plan your practise sessions. Ensure that each practise starts with a warm up, then technique, then repertoire. Vary technique exercises, but try to always cover aspects of both left hand technique, and bow technique. Keeping a record of your practise plans will help you ensure you cover all aspects of technique.
  10. Scales & arpeggios! Use scales and arpeggios to practise intonation, different bowing patterns, fast shifts even when playing slowly, etc. Practise scales in groups of 3, 5, 7, 9 etc as well as usual groupings of 2, 4… Practise scales in one position and broken 3rd to improve fingerboard geography and intonation