Article: How To Play the Violin, Girl’s Own Indoor Book, 1880s

Here is a chapter from The Girl’s Own Indoor Book. There is no date, but it appears to date from the 1880s, possibly 1883 or 1888. It is indicative of the popularity of the violin amongst girls in this decade that an essay on how to play the violin was nestled between such uncontroversial chapters as “How to Paint on China”, “Bridal Etiquette”, and “Salads in French Cookery.”

Aside from the fascinating glimpse of how Victorians viewed women violinists, this article is also interesting for the many wise tips the author shares, most of which are still relevant today. This piece was written by a woman named Caroline Blanche Elizabeth FitzRoy, who, after her marriage, became Lady Lindsay of Balcarres. I can’t seem to find much biographical information about her, save that she was a patroness of the arts, a painter, a writer, and a violinist. She eventually separated from her husband and moved between London and Venice. Here is a beautiful 1874 portrait of her, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

***

I have been asked to write upon the art of violin playing, but, whilst doing so, I am well aware that it is far easier to say how the violin should be played than to play it, and many a girl who reads this chapter, and who has grown discouraged and despondent over the manifold difficulties of her favourite instrument, will doubtless agree with such a statement. Still, there are some beginners and students who, though persevering and conscientious, are uncertain whether they are really following the wisest course of study; to them much conflicting advice is usually given, until they scarcely know what they should do or leave undone, and to them, perhaps, a few words of explanation and encouragement from a fellow-worker may not come amiss.

First of all, there is no doubt that the violin, whilst it is perhaps the most beautiful and fascinating musical instrument we possess, is difficult in absolute proportion to its beauty. No one should attempt to learn the violin who is not prepared to give up much time to it, to make many sacrifices for it, and to serve, like Jacob, many years for his beloved object. Very much work is required for the smallest result. The beginning is possibly not so difficult as might be fancied; our friends and we ourselves are surprised to find that we can pick out a popular tune on four strings. We are delighted; but, as time goes on, and we leave the comfortable harbour of the 1st position and the safe anchorage of open strings, and sail out amongst the stormy seas of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th positions, grappling with double stopping, arpeggios, and passages, the intricacies of which are felt much more keenly by performers than listeners, we begin to know something of the hard work and toil that lies before us, growing seemingly ever harder and more uncompromising.

Yet such work is not without its reward. The greater the struggle the greater the reward, and it sometimes happens that, as it is darkest before dawn, when we are most out of heart we are making the most progress. It is best to place our standard of excellence high from the very first, however far off and unattainable it may appear. After all, it is like climbing a hill to see a fine view. Though it be a steep hill, we may get a good deal of pleasure during the ascent; it is not all fatigue. Nor is the view, when we at last come within sight of it, the only gratification we shall have gained. Surely a walk on a summer’s day, as we go cheerfully up the hillside, is worth something; there are many lovely sights and glimpses of pretty country on the way, and, above all, we have pleasant companionship. For, as we toil up the side of the steep and rugged hill of musical knowledge, it is not necessary to wait until we become first-rate performers to spend many a happy afternoon or evening of music, to grow keenly interested in our own practising, and glean much delight from the playing of others, nor, more than all, to enjoy the companionship of the great composers who have written so much for our benefit, and whose works no one can thoroughly know or appreciate without learning to play them.

Perhaps of all instruments, the violin is the one to which the performer – and, therefore, as a rule, the owner – becomes the most attached. Its great advantages over other instruments are: –

1. Its extreme portability. You need never part from your instrument, need entrust it to no one, and, carrying it about with you, can always play on the same violin, and are not therefore puzzled or dispirited, like many unfortunate pianists or organists, by the complications of a strange or inferior instrument.

2. The violin greatly resembles the human voice in its tone, and whilst possessing a far wider range of compass than the voice, has a similar capability of creating a responsive vibration in the hearts of its hearers, together with the same power of portamento, that is, of blending or carrying one note into another.

3. The notes are not ready-made, but have to be created by the player. Every player brings out a different quality of tone to that of other players, even when using the self-same instrument, and this adds much to the charm and personality of the music.

4. The violin is tuned in perfect and natural tune, and not according to the tempered scale, as are of necessity all ordinary keyed instruments (where the notes are divided), such as the piano, for example. Its vibrations are, therefore, infinitely more pleasing to the ear than the sound of any instrument tuned according to the tempered scale.

5. The violin is less monotonous for practising than many other instruments: it is more interesting to train the ear, together with the hand, in seeking after beauty and quality of tone, and not mere manual dexterity. Also, music written for violin is often simple, and so easily learned by heart that much practising may be gone through by moderately-advanced students whilst walking about the room, thus gaining a pleasant change and rest, though such a method is scarcely to be recommended for careless players.

6. Lastly, and not least, the violin is the leader in an orchestra, as in a quartet; and, even among its own family of beautiful stringed instruments, it is more brilliant and more capable of variety of tone than the viola or the violoncello.

It is not very long since the violin was considered an ‘unladylike’ instrument, ungraceful and impossible for women. I remember, as a child, reading in a story-book of a little girl who had surreptitiously bought a red fiddle, and who delighted her schoolfellows by playing to them in secret. This unfortunate girl was not allowed to become a great violinist, but was, on the contrary, reprimanded by the schoolmistress, who advised her to choose a more ladylike occupation for the future. I have also in former days known girls of whom it was darkly hinted that they played the violin, as it might be said that they smoked big cigars, or enjoyed the sport of rat-catching. But now all this has changed; there is scarcely a family of girls where there is not at least one who plays the fiddle. (I heard lately of a lady whose six daughters are all violinists!) Classes are held for female violinists, who likewise play in the orchestra of the Royal Academy of Music, and in that of the Royal College of Music, and it is no uncommon sight in our streets to see a girl carrying her fiddle in its black case. Besides this, in almost every programme of a concert we find the name of some lady violinist, who probably plays with fine tone and execution, for there are many good artists among us now.

For this change we are indebted to Madame Norman-Neruda (now Lady Hallé). She, by uniting with the firmness and vigour of a man’s playing the purity of style and intonation of a great artist, as well as her own perfect grace and delicate manipulation, has proved to the public at large what a woman can do in this field. Madame Neruda’s masterly playing is not to be surpassed by any one, whilst her feminine ease and elegance add an unusual charm to violin-playing.

Even in former years there were some notable exceptions to the universal custom which precluded women from such performances, viz.: the sisters Ferny, the sisters Milanollo, and others; but these ladies, while achieving much reputation, seem to have had but small influence on others. It was reserved to Madame Norman-Neruda to head the great revolution, and to enlist an enormous train of followers. And yet it is difficult to say why a prophet should have been so sorely needed, for in the Middle Ages, and later even, women and girls were taught to play on viols and similar stringed instruments, held sometimes downwards like violoncellos, but also often beneath the chin as we hold our violins, whilst in the old Italian pictures, in the works of Fra Angelico, Bellini, Raphael, and many others, angels and feminine figures are constantly depicted playing on the violins of the period, so that we may assume that, in the eyes of the great painters, such doings were by no means unwomanly or ungraceful. Be this as it may, the question need no longer arise, the crusade need not be fought anew; Madame Neruda, like a musical St. George, has gone forth, violin and bow in hand, to fight the dragon of prejudice, or rather, like a female Orpheus, has made captive all the wild beasts about her by the sweet sounds she has evoked. Certainly, no one requires now-a-days to be encouraged to learn the violin, but rather the contrary. Nay, sometimes, I am haunted by the fear that all ‘girls of the period’ of the next generation will scrape unmercifully on their fiddles, with much complacency, perhaps, but with little time or tune. There will be no one left who does not play the fiddle, and with our modern system of mental cramming, patience and leisure will alike be wanting for necessary practising; consequently, but few will play well, and, alas! the pianoforte, the harp, the organ, the guitar, the zither, and many other beautiful instruments will be altogether laid aside, or left to the sterner sex.

The best axiom, therefore, for our present times seems to me: Let no one learn the violin who has not a distinct and earnest vocation thereunto; and let whoever is determined to learn, learn well and thoroughly. Or, as Mr. Haweis wisely says: ‘Do not take up the violin unless you mean to work hard at it; any other instrument may be more safely trifled with.’

To those who work, and want to work, I would venture to give a few practical hints.

Use every endeavour to learn from a really good master at the very outset, and to have as many lessons from him as possible. Later on it will be easier for you to practise alone. At first, by working alone (however carefully, even with the help of books written for students), many bad habits are engendered that are afterwards hard to cure: the violin is held wrongly, or is imperfectly tuned; the bow is not drawn straight, nor is the whole length of the bow used; the wrist of the left hand is allowed to support the instrument for the comfort of the player.

When you have advanced sufficiently to play fluently you can get on tolerably alone, though by no means so quickly as under the guidance of a master. But, having a naturally correct ear, you can make progress, using a metronome, a practical school of violin-playing, and, occasionally, a looking-glass.

Remember that each hand has its special work to do; each different, yet very necessary to supplement the work of the other. Your right hand represents tone, your left hand tune. Your right hand gives expression, your left hand correctness. Most people think that the left hand does all the work – that bowing consists of sawing the bow up and down across the strings. Yet the right hand has perhaps the harder task of the two, as its duties are manifold, pure intonation and careful fingering, though important, being the sole occupations of the left.

It is very difficult to bow well; to hold the bow aright, lightly, and in what seems a constrained attitude; to keep the thumb steady, and the four fingers straight (not curved outwards), the tips resting firmly on the bow. It is very difficult in slow passages to bring out a full and mellow tone, to give fine expression, to draw the bow to its utmost limit (for there must be no tell-tale greyish mark on the horsehair near the nut to prove that the whole length has not been in constant use), also, to learn the different short, quick styles of bowing, staccato, saltando, etc., to mark a crescendo or diminuendo by more or less pressure, to prevent the bow from squeaking or slipping on the strings, or from giving a little grunt of disapprobation whenever you come to the end of an up or down bow, and proceed to draw it in the opposite direction. All these difficulties and technicalities can scarcely be overcome without the help and counsel of a master, whose patience and endurance must equal the docility of the pupil. But these are the difficulties of all beginners – nay, or all students, and many a moderately good artist has by no means conquered them.

It is absolutely necessary to stand well in a steady, upright, yet graceful attitude. Many girls, whose movements are natural and positively pretty before playing, undergo an extraordinary transformation the moment they take a violin in hand; they contort their features, turn their heads overmuch round, place their elbows and wrists at fearful angles, and look as though they were enduring frightful torture. Believe me, if from time to time you attempt a few bars before the looking-glass, it will by no means feed your vanity, but rather prove a wholesome lesson of humility.

It is very ugly to see a girl place a pad like a large pincushion on her left shoulder before playing, or to see her use a piece of wood like a patch of black sticking-plaister on the violin itself. All that is required to prevent the violin from slipping under the chin (thus causing premature double chins and all manner of wry faces) is, to raise the shoulder very slightly, keeping the elbow well forward and a little turned inwards. Hold the violin high, that is to say, quite horizontally, and you will soon forget that it was ever disposed to slip away. Habit will become second nature; even in changing the positions the attitude that at first was so trying will grow perfectly easy; you must, however, remember that in the lower positions the wrist must never be allowed to touch the violin, but your hand must slide comfortably up and down, the neck of the violin merely resting between the thumb and first finger.

In all this, I fear, my hints are chiefly negative. It is easier to point out probable faults than to give instruction on violin-playing merely by writing. As I said before, the practical teaching of a master is absolutely necessary to all beginners.

I will, however, now suppose that you have mastered the first difficulties, that you have had a certain number of lessons, and have profited by them sufficiently to play little pieces and moderately difficult exercises fairly well. I will suppose that you are in the country, unable for some time to come to obtain any further instruction, yet anxious to ‘get on.’

I should recommend you, above all, to practise regularly – that is, every day at stated times, one, two, three hours, as the case may be. Practise regularly, even though you are disinclined; unless you are really ill, a little weariness or fatigue soon goes off, and after playing for ten minutes you will probably feel fresher than before you began. Play good music, but do not disgust yourself with well-known beautiful things by playing them badly. Preserve them rather for by-and-by; pull them out of the drawer every few months, and play them through once or twice; then you will see how much progress you have made.

It is a good thing when you are working alone to vary your form of practice on alternate days. Let one day be devoted to difficult exercises, and to studying hard whatever pieces are to be studied. The following day, go through only a certain number of finger exercises, and then read at sight some easy sonatas, with or without pianoforte accompaniment, according to your opportunities.

In practising pieces that you have learned, but cannot quite conquer, do not play them all through, or you will tire of them quickly, but pick out the difficult passages, and leave the easy ones to take care of themselves.

Invent small exercises and new combinations for yourself; try to add thirds and sixths to notes in different positions, thus accustoming yourself to play chords; learn by heart as much as possible, for two reasons, viz., that you should not always have the trouble of preparing a music-stand, candles, &c., also because you will never play any piece really well that you do not know by heart, even though you play it from the book before your friends.

Whenever you are studying any new music, play it through once or twice with a metronome. Even though no metronome time be marked, the indications of allegro, andante, or adagio, will give you an idea of how to adjust the pendulum.

It seems to me more difficult to play in time on the violin than on the piano, because there is no bass for a foundation. The bass in pianoforte music is almost to the eye what a metronome is to the ear, and is a natural guide. In violin music you have but one stave; you cannot see what is going on below, and cannot, therefore, grasp the true nature of the composition.

A correct appreciation of time is very requisite. We often hear of amateurs who play charmingly, with wonderful genius and expression, but without any sense of time. That is very dreadful. Never allow your love of sentiment to put more rallentando passages into the music than are absolutely marked by the composer or dictated by your master.

It is a good thing to play often with pianoforte accompaniment, so as to learn the piece as a whole, to grow accustomed to the sound of the piano, and also to learn to play in time. But if you have no accompanyist, play the violin part once or twice from the book in which both violin and piano parts are written. Or, if you are a sufficiently good theoretical musician, look at it well and study it, and hear the whole composition, as it were, in your mind. But the best plan of all is to play the accompaniment yourself on the piano, for, indeed, every violinists should be somewhat of a pianist also. In most conservatoires a slight knowledge of the piano is obligatory. The pianoforte is, in our drawing-rooms, the nearest approach to an orchestra; on this instrument alone can you get any orchestral or complete effects; and, as a musician, if you do not study it at least a little, you will debar yourself from much musical knowledge and advantage.

In playing before an audience, however limited, however friendly, you will probably be nervous, more or less nervous according to your nature. Some people unfortunately never quite get over nervousness; but it is best to do our utmost from the very first to struggle against it. Do not begin to play without careful consideration; see that your bow has a sufficient amount of rosin; tune your violin steadily; try to avoid being flurried. Practise the art of beginning well, not with a scrape nor out of time, so that the accompanyist must needs begin again.

Wash your hands always before playing (as, indeed, before practising), and keep your violin nice and clean, carefully wiped before putting it away within its case under a silk handkerchief and flannel coat, the strings always in good order.

If you know that you are to play to an audience, try the strings a little beforehand. If you put on a new E-string, play on it for an hour or two in your own room before using it in public. Play enough beforehand to be in good practice, and to feel your fingers comfortably supple. Avoid if possible practising at the very last the piece you have to perform. Chopin, who usually performed his own pianoforte compositions, used immediately before his concerts to practise Bach’s fugues.

As you progress in your art, you cannot fail to grow more and more devoted to it; violinists are, as a rule, as enthusiastic and ‘shoppy’ in their talk as the keenest sportsmen, racing or hunting men, golfs, &c. To play or even to practise will be your greatest delight; you will lament the very shortest separation from your dear violin.

Do you remember the old rhyme? –

“Jacky, come give me thy fiddle,

If ever though hope to thrive.”

“Nay, I’ll not give my fiddle

To any man alive.

Were I to give my fiddle,

The folks would think me mad;

For many a joyful day

My fiddle and I have had.”

If possible, go often to good concerts, and hear good music, which, like good pictures, and indeed all good art, is thoroughly inspiring. We may be depressed by hearing a moderate player, but we become ardently anxious to work as we listen to something really great and fine. Such a performance incites our best efforts at imitation; we feel that it is worth while to work. You will learn a great deal by going to the Saturday or Monday Popular Concerts, by hearing and seeing Madame Norman-Neruda, the queen, and Herr Joachim, the king of violinists; or Signor Piatti, to whom his mighty violin of larger growth is a true slave of the ring, a potentate that conquers us but obeys him. You will learn more of bowing, phrasing, more of attitude, more of style, tone, or tune, than can be taught by a mountain of books or essays. You will learn, in fact, if not how to play the violin, at least how the violin should be played.

I have said nothing about books, violin-methods, or schools, as they are called. Any master you learn from will probably prefer one or another. To me, the elementary or first part of De Bériot’s violin-school seems the best and easiest for beginners. Berthold Tours’ Violin Primer (Novello) is also useful for beginners, and very cheap. At the commencement of De Bériot’s and many other schools, you will find drawings of mild young gentlemen, in different attitudes, that will show you clearly how both the violin and the bow should be held. As you progress, you will probably learn to play the exercises of Kayser, Dont, Kreutzer, Dancla, Léonard, Ries, and others. As for drawing-room pieces, there are a great many, more or less pretty. You must choose these for yourself. Messrs. Stanley Lucas, New Bond Street, can provide you with as many as you wish, especially those published in cheap German editions. As you gain mastery over your instrument, you will love more and more the Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, the old music reprinted in the Hohe Schule; by-and-by, trios, and quartets.

We have no space, unfortunately, for the history of the violin. It is an interesting history through these last three centuries, during which time the instrument itself has been scarcely altered in any way. ‘What a little thing to make so much noise!’ says the ignorant observer. ‘What a little thing to have so stirred the hearts of men!’ responds the philosopher. And, as we hold the treasure in our hands, reverently and affectionately contemplating the delicate work of Stradivarius, Guarnerius, or Amati, we wonder through whose hands before ours our fiddle has passed, whose magic touch, long since silent and dead, evoked sweet melodies resonant from the brown wood that still shines with its fair coating of varnish almost as of yore. We seem to hear divine and strange harmonies; we can almost see the shades of Corelli, Tartini, Haydn, Spohr, or Paganini, beckoning us to follow their example, leading us on in the path of music, and teaching us in truth, by those traditions that are our tangible heirlooms, how to play the violin.

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