Beginner Violin Tips


Learn to Read Sheet Music Fast

One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning to play the violin is sight reading a new piece of music. “Sight reading” is when you are looking at the music for the first time and performing it on the fly without much prior practice. It is the first step that helps you to get a feel for the piece of music.

The best tips for becoming a great sight reader of violin sheet music are different from the typical practice techniques for learning to play the violin in general, in that the focus is on being able to play the music as best you can within the knowledge that you have never seen it before.

Blindly “putting in the time” will only get you so far. Use your time efficiently and you will have more fun and advance faster.

Practice hard, but practice smart

Many teachers will simply tell you that learning to read sheet music is a matter of how much time you spend practicing. It is true that it will take a while to learn, but some methods are much faster than others. Here are some tips that will help you to learn to sight read as efficiently (progress vs time spent) as possible.

Employing some new techniques vastly reduces the amount of time it takes to learn versus the traditional methods that are usually taught. Spending a lot of time practicing without a solid plan can make everything take much longer.

One program we’ve found is very good for beginner violinists to learn step-by-step is the Virtual Sheet Music Violin Package from VirtualSheetMusic.com. It includes an instructional book, DVDs full of sheet music and accompanying audio files to help you learn, as well as very basic sheet music that gets more advanced as you improve.

It’s okay to make mistakes

When sight reading, don’t go back and fix individual notes, just try to get through the piece (or the line or the phrase). This is the opposite of what you should do to get better at the violin, but exactly what you should do to get better at sight reading music. Stay in rhythm. Focus on maintaining a smooth flow from one note to the next. Wait to fix individual notes on the next run-through.

One helpful trick is if a particular measure is giving you problems, rehearse just that measure or just one small section over and over a few times. Then expand outward to play the whole passage and see if the section has improved. If you can play it in isolation then you should be able to play it in a larger context as well.

Don’t think too much

Reading sheet music needs to be an automatic reaction from your eye to your hand, and doing lots of mental calculation gets in the way of that, making progress incredibly slow. Many beginners make the mistake of looking at the note, then counting up how many lines/spaces it is from the next lowest open string, then pressing their finger down.

While doing these calculations let you figure out any note, they take far too long in practice and you won’t be able to play at a reasonable pace. No matter how fast you get at this process, professionals don’t follow a hyperspeed version of it; they use a different method entirely. So, you ask, what should I do instead?

Focus on fingerings, don’t learn note names

It scares us a bit to recommend ignoring note names, because it is a very important thing to know. But to be honest it’s not necessary at the very beginning for learning sheet music, and only gets in the way. In your first few weeks (maybe even months) of practicing, focus on memorizing the finger number of each note, and don’t worry about the names of the notes.

As long as you commit to learning note names a little later in your training, skipping them for now limits the amount of wrote memorization you have to do, which speeds things up in terms of practical information you have to download as you first start out.

Eventually you will want to learn some more advanced music theory because it can only make you a better musician. If you know music theory as a violinist, it can help you stylistically to “get in the head” of a composer to figure out what they meant in a certain passage or even with a specific note or phrase.

Look ahead

As you learn to automatically associate written notes with the correct fingerings, begin to try to look at least one note ahead of the note you are currently playing, and if possible a full measure. This will help you to anticipate what is coming up and transition to it more naturally as you go from one note to the next.

Professional sight readers can take in several measures or a whole line of music at a glance, which allows them to look away from the music for extended periods. This is a good skill to have because it provides an opportunity to make eye contact with other musicians or watch the conductor more closely (depending on the type of group), which can help with timing and synchronization, especially at key dramatic parts of the music.

Get sheet music for easy songs you like and already know well by ear

Don’t underestimate the motivational power of playing music you love. No matter what your main practice music is (which we’ll cover soon), make sure that you find sheet music for (or figure out by ear) your favorite songs, ones to which you have an emotional connection. Ones that you can learn to impress your friends and family. Songs that are inside jokes. Find music you love and play it, and that will help you improve faster at the violin and at reading sheet music.

A lot of beginner violin sheet music books focus on music you probably know from your childhood, songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Mary Had a Little Lamb. Already being familiar with the music you’re trying to read sheet music for is very helpful. We’ll cover some great examples in another article (coming soon).

Focus on a specific result you want

Have a goal every time you practice. It might be the same goal for several practice sessions in a row (in fact, sometimes it should be). Make sure at all times you understand specifically what you’re trying to improve right now.

Simply spending time with the violin and running through the music without an objective in the hopes that you will just generally “get better” will not get you anywhere fast. While that approach can help you feel more comfortable with the violin, your improvements will be marginal when compared with results-oriented (goal-oriented) practice. Don’t just run through the music aimlessly for half an hour and call it a good day’s practice unless you don’t care about improving quickly.

What’s Next?

Go to the next lesson, about Open Strings.

See a list all our lessons about How to Read Sheet Music for Beginner Violin.

Check out our favorite book/CD combo for How to Read Beginner Violin Sheet Music.

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