Violin Exercises, Etudes and Scales

Violin exercises, études and scales: are they valuable or necessary? And who are they for, after all? Considering their widespread use the answers might seem obvious, yet many student violinists feel they are just an obstacle to overcome on the way to their heart’s desire – the music.

Exercise

Photo courtesy of Dominik QN

For the Love of Scales

When the subject of scales arose in a music curriculum meeting I was attending, a university professor known for his strong views commented, “I’ve never yet seen scales played at a concert.” He was making a forceful point against the robotic playing of scales and exercises. His words contained a truth, but there’s another side to the story.

At least half of my own practice sessions as a young child at the piano consisted of scales, as indeed did my lessons. They were an inseparable element of the music examination system in which I was obliged to participate. Despite my ambivalence towards exams, I learned to appreciate the musical beauty in scales, and retained the same sense when I took up the violin.

The diatonic major scale arises from the deep natural harmonic structure of sound described by the circle of fifths. In a way, each note ‘elects’ the next in the chain of fifths, creating the 7 golden steps we know so well, and the 12 tones of the chromatic scale.

Fifths have a special resonance for string players, if you’ll pardon the pun. I remember the moment of epiphany when the architecture of the diatonic key system appeared before me in radiant visual simplicity on the violin fingerboard in the perfect fifths between the strings. The circle of fifths was under our fingers (and noses) all along!

In contrast to pianists, the first scale for Suzuki violin students is A major, which – along with D and G major – is one of the natural keys of the violin.

Unlike the white-note purity of C major on the piano, it may seem confusing to start with a scale that has three sharps. In my experience, young children take this in their stride, especially when you abandon finger names (A, A1, A2l A3 etc.) for notes on the fingerboard and use real note names instead (A, B, C#, D).

A practical knowledge of scales helps students understand basic musical elements such as sharps, flats, intervals and leading tones, and has benefits for reading and studying the music.

The Wide World of Exercises and Études

The Suzuki violinist’s introduction to the world of exercises is Shinichi Suzuki’s Étude in Volume 1. Do Étude’s medicinal virtues exceed its artistic qualities? As I’ve said elsewhere I rather like it, but I’m a teacher.

Sadly or perhaps inevitably, in many compositions designed to improve technique the musical side takes second place to the important task at hand. There are important exceptions, the most famous coming from Frederic Chopin’s treasure chest of sparkling piano jewels. His three sets of Études are musical wonders.

Just take a moment to listen to his most popular one, Op.10 No.3 in E Major.

Lang Lang

Valentina Lisitsa

Alessandro Deljavan

There are copious, abundant volumes and collections of violin studies, exercises and technique manuals available to today’s aspiring string instrumentalists. A short list includes works by Kreutzer, Ševčík, Keyser, Wohlfahrt, Dont, Doflein, Mazas, Beriot, Flesch, Singer, Dancla, Fiorillo, Rode, Galamian and Fischer, plus caprices from legendary violinists such as Wieniawski and Paganini – enough for several lifetimes of study.

Many of the best ones are suitable only for advanced students.

    

So which ones should you study? It’s a great question. Every teacher has an indispensable favourite or two or three, and you’ll likely delve into several at different times depending on the music you’re working on. Pavel Spacek’s Violinwiki .org is a great source. Among my favourites is Simon Fischer’s Basics.

Free digital copies of some of these volumes are generously made available by violinsheetmusic.org and the Petrucci Music Library.

Kids’ Stuff

What about violin exercises for beginners and less advanced students? Much written for the early stages suffers from being too general, rudimentary or let’s face it, boring.

The pieces Suzuki wrote for Volume 1 – Allegro, Perpetual Motion, Andantino, Allegretto (and let’s allow Etude to slip in) – artfully combine technical and musical elements and demonstrate his masterful understanding of how violin skills should be sequentially built up and practised.

This is one of the great strengths of Suzuki’s work.

The repertoire he assembled is attractive and engaging for very young children and his compositions are an inspiring example for music teachers, to create interesting, imaginative and tuneful music that seamlessly combines technical and artistic qualities.

I don’t believe it’s necessary to labour through uninteresting violin calisthenics. In the same way young children learn to read easily from engaging stories, they’ll learn to play from well crafted music.

Suzuki showed us how to let great music become our exercise and make the study of the technique an inseparable part of our music making.

Sound advice.

Cheers,

John

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