I want to learn to play some songs that are cool and sound great but are simple enough for a beginner. I don’t like the songs beginner books offer — things like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or worse, songs I’ve never heard of! Can you recommend a good book or specific songs to look for?
– Robert K., age 51
I know exactly what you mean; it is neither fun nor productive to learn songs that you’re unfamiliar with. Because of the fretless nature of violin, you really have to know what you are going for before you can try to play the notes in tune.
I have searched high and low for a replacement to Twinkle as a first violin tune. I planned to proudly stamp my teaching materials with a big circle with an X through it saying “NO Twinkle Taught here!”.
But… as I’ve gone through the options, I can’t find anything that is as beneficial or accessible as a first tune on violin as good ol’ Twinkle.
I’ve looked through beginner fiddle tune books and beginner gypsy violin books, and it’s the worst of both worlds: the tunes are completely obscure so you don’t know how they are supposed to sound AND they still don’t sound very good or fun to play. On top of all that they are also sometimes still too complex for a beginner to tackle without incorporating some bad habits along the way.
Here’s my “beginner story”:
I had no interest in playing classical music, so I studied with an Irish fiddle teacher for the first year and learned about 30 tunes. I didn’t know how they were supposed to sound, and my technique was all over the place. I was just kind of winging it to get the tunes out to the best of my ability, but after a year they all still sounded terrible. That’s when I went on my quest for a classical teacher to help me sort out these techniques. I went through about 3 teachers over the course of that next year but it all still felt very aimless. I remember sitting on my bed thinking, “Is there just something wrong with me? Maybe my arms just aren’t attached right to play violin…”
Then I found a new teacher who started me on the Suzuki method. At that point I was so desperate to play a single thing with good tone that I didn’t care if it was Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. After about four months of going through the simple initial steps of the Suzuki method, I was able to go back to some of those Irish fiddle tunes I knew and play them well. After a year and a half of combining Suzuki method with my interest in world fiddle music, I had a few very simple Irish fiddle tunes under my belt that I could play for an audience and people would actually enjoy listening and maybe even dance. At the five year mark I was jamming many styles of world music, but I don’t think I would have gotten there without the Suzuki method.
Part of the process of learning violin is developing muscle memory for particular movements: bowing, left hand intonation, certain string crossing patterns, etc… This muscle memory has to be in place before you can put it all together to play nice tunes. If you try to go the other way around, it just makes the whole process take longer and many people quit before they get there because it feels convoluted and frustrating. It’s different from guitar or piano where you really can learn great sounding tunes right off the bat just by hitting certain keys or using a certain pattern of frets and strings.
I think the Suzuki method is the BEST for training your body to do those basic techniques. Each piece only introduces one or two new techniques while most tunes that actually sound good combine many techniques. Many of the pieces are recognizable melodies, and it comes with a CD so that you can listen to all the pieces and get them in your head. (I know… yawn….) But it works! And it doesn’t take forever. After about 6 months of going through the methodical process of the well designed method, you would be opened up to playing a wide variety of good sounding fiddle tunes.
I’ve dreamed about creating my own beginner method using simplifications of the cool fiddle tunes I know. Once I started looking closely at the tunes to see what techniques they require, and tried to analyze the sequence in the Suzuki method books, it gave me a much deeper appreciation for how genius Suzuki was. Even if it was possible to create a beginner book just as beneficial only with hipper tunes, I’m frankly not sure I’d have the patience! I’m pretty patient generally, but not like him! This method was his life work:
I have just ordered a new book in the hopes of finding something good: Mark O’Connors Beginner Fiddle Method. I will let you know what I think of it.
All that being said, here is a well organized website with a few beginner violin tunes (including audio so you can hear them): http://www.fiddlestudio.com/search/label/Beginning%20Tunes
Be warned, though: the offerings on this site have many of the common problems I talked about above. The first tune is legitimately a beginner level piece and it doesn’t really sound like much more than a bowing exercise. The second piece sounds very nice, but is a HUGE jump in difficulty level.
Good luck and keep me posted!