Learning to play the violin is a simple way to bring joy to many people, including violin instructors. It’s not just violin instructors, of course; you also bring joy to violin salesmen, manufacturers, and distributors. That doesn’t even get into the powerful Violin Marketing Board and its renowned publicity arm that each year puts violins under the chins of dozens of schoolchildren who were just yawning. Considering the number of people who’d be made happy by your learning to play the violin refusing to learn makes you sound perfectly antisocial. About the only people you make happier by not learning are the neighbors.
Much folklore says the violin comes from the medieval instrument of the viol, a violin-shaped musical instrument not used anymore. This is a folk entomology, however, a bug-filled derivation which mistakes two things as one on the basis of roughly similar-sounding names and shapes. Do not open the derivation if you’re the least bit squeamish. In the late 1830s, Adolphe Sax, the Belgian-born instrument maker, used a violin-shaped metal template to carve a figure out of a piece of maple wood, opened up a hollow box, and given a neck, bridge, toll both, and frontage road in order to assemble the first violin. While filing for his patent he was heartbroken to discover he was beaten to the work by over two hundred years by Italian musicians. Sax went on to invent the harpsichord, the theramin, the Reuben sandwich, and the photoelectric diode before his friends finally wrestled him to his senses. He put his time more productively into creating the Adolphephone, at which point his family and friends said fine and called it that in front of him. And only then.
The violin is tuned in perfect fifths, so if you see any you should take the chance to tune your instrument immediately, even if you are on the subway. There’s no way of guessing when you’ll see your next perfect fifth. Some wild youths rejecting the wisdom of tradition will accept a marginally flawed fifth or even a pretty good sixth. If you do try this route elder musicians will point at you and snicker during quarter rests. To tune the violin, turn the pegs, which can be found in any music store next to the sheet music for popular tunes of the 1910s clockwise until the instrument sounds clearly out of tune, and then reverse the process by turning the violin over and repeating.
There are several ways to make the violin produce sounds. The most sociable is to simply ask it in a calm, respectful tone. Unfortunately many mass-produced violins are made with few social graces and will respond poorly to such requests. The next technique is to hide a small CD or MP3 player underneath the violin’s body, and press play when your performance is to begin. If you are the lead character in a teen-oriented sitcom this will work for most of the scene, and then fail in a way which forces you to confess in front of many people you wished to impress. It would be less embarrassing to play on your own.
A manually-operated violin, then, can make a sound by the pizzicato method, in which one pizzicatoes the strings in quick, clean motions, or by stroking a bow along a string. It is better form to make strokes perpendicular to the string. With four strings a violin can make four distinct tones easily. To produce a different tone you place a finger in the appropriate spot along one of the strings. If you should find out how, please share the secret with me. I always got stuck while trying. I’m pretty sure I was putting my fingers in the designated and officially correct spaces. The instructor could do this and get a nice clear note, say, B-flat above middle C. I would repeat the motion and get a consoling hug and, somehow, first-chair placement at the fifth grade winter concert (“A Collection of Songs You Don’t Have To Hold Down The String For”). If that doesn’t work you can try sticking to songs which have mostly the same notes played over and over, such as Baudot Code, invented in 1874 by Adolphe Sax, who was recovering from overhearing his friends talking about him by overachieving. You know how instrument makers will get.