Practising the Carnatic violin? Wonderful! Would you like a daily practice routine that you can follow easily? You’ve come to the right place. We have some great techniques which will teach you how to practise the violin effectively.
Stirring and devotional, sweet and melodious – the sounds that a Carnatic violinist can produce can stay in your heart for a long time. Of course, beginners will not quite sound the same! But, don’t worry, those eminent violinists that you admire all sounded like you at some point of time. But, how did they cross over to that haunting world of melody? Did they know some special violin practice exercises and techniques that helped them develop? Yes, they did. The good news is that you can follow them too.
Here are some basic violin practices and exercises for beginners that can help you on your way to sounding mellifluous with this slender and graceful instrument. When you practise these exercises well and regularly as a beginner, your basics will be sound. And you can always build upon strong fundamentals on your way to becoming a good Carnatic violin player.
Music is a vast ocean and no one can claim to know it all. The more you know, the more you realize how little you know. It is an eternal quest.
– Dr. L Subramaniam, violinist
If it has been a while since you played the violin or this is your first time, here is a beginner’s guide to playing the Carnatic violin. Find out all about the parts of the violin, how to hold the bow and violin, how to sit in the right posture, and how to read various symbols of Carnatic music notations.
Violin practice routine & tips for beginners playing the Carnatic violin
1. Move your bow in straight lines
Ensure your bow is straight, moving it up and down the open lower Sa, lower Pa, higher Sa, and higher Pa (fifth) strings – one string at a time, and slowly.
- Try to make sure that your bow moves parallel to the bridge.
- Ensure your forearm and elbow are in line allowing your wrist and fingers to move the bow up and down smoothly.
- Repeated practice will help you understand the pressure that you need to apply on the string to get a clear, non-scratchy sound.
- Focus on ensuring that you play on only one string at a time. In later lessons, you may play on two strings at a time but for now, it is important to achieve a clear sound on each open string.
- Observe the sound and feel with respect to the direction of the bow as well.
Over time, with a daily practice routine, you will learn to play smoothly and avoid that scratchy sound that comes when you press the strings too hard or too soft or too slowly. This is one of the most basic skills you must master as far as practising violin techniques goes.
2. Adjust your elbow position as you play on different strings
Move the bow across all the strings starting from the open string Lower Sa to the Lower Pa, higher Sa and higher Pa. Elevate your elbow as you move across strings.
You can play the bow up and down on each string one by one and observe your elbow position go up as you move from the highest string to the lowest string. You could also move gradually from the highest to the lowest string all in one bow. This will give you a good idea of how your elbow position should change.
3. Watch yourself play
Posture is very important with the violin. The position of the elbow will lend flexibility to the wrist enabling you to play more fluidly and smoothly. And for a longer time. It can be challenging at first to maintain the elbow position. A good way to ensure correct posture is to play in front of a mirror. You can then check yourself visually as well as aurally.
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Quick tips for beginners of the Carnatic violin
- If you’re wondering how many hours you should practise, we would suggest that you practise for about 30 minutes to begin with. Break your practice sessions into two 15 minute sessions rather than a half an hour session at first. And practice every day! As you progress, slowly increase your practice time, but ensure that you practise mindfully when you do.
- If possible, it is best to practise early in the morning. When you are able to play at this time, you will find that your fingers flex easily at any time of the day.
- Ensure you fix a time to play the violin. This will ensure you identify that time slot as violin practice time.
- Make sure your bow is always between the bridge and the fingerboard.
- Keep your elbow position aligned to the string you are playing.
- Avoid hunching – keep your shoulders straight. This will ensure you don’t get back aches with prolonged practice.
- Play with the wrist, keeping it loose – when you need to play fast, hold the bow with fewer fingers of the right hand; it gives you more flexibility.
- Keep your metronome on while you practise.
4. Practise playing on different parts of the bow
It is important to be able to play smoothly and with control on each part of the bow. Similar to techniques for playing the Western violin, here also, if you practice this well as a beginner, it will help you as you progress to more complicated lessons farther down the road.
Play up and down each string using different parts of the bow exclusively; first with only the top part of the bow, then with only the middle, and then with only the bottom to make sure that you’re comfortable with all parts of the bow. You might sound scratchy at first. But over time, you will get a good feel of the bow and how hard it has to be pressed in each part to get a sweet sound.
Note: You will notice that playing on the middle part of the bow is best for playing at fast speeds.
5. Practise all basic exercises
Carnatic music has 72 melakarta ragas – i.e. ragas with all the swaras (notes) in them. So, there is ample scope for practising finger placements. You could practice all the beginning exercises to gain dexterity and flexibility.
A. Sarilai varisai – This is generally played in Shankarabaranam or Mayamalavagoula raga. Starting in one of these ragas is a good idea because the hand position is the same for all four strings. As you play different ragas, you will familiarize yourself with the fingering of the notes of each raga. The more ragas you play, the more well-versed you will become in different finger placements.
B. Janti varisais – Here, you get to play the same note two times without changing the bow. The second note is heard by releasing and pressing the finger on the string. Try not to lift the finger off the string. This is a good practice exercise for beginners and can help develop tremendous finger strength. You can also practice repeating each note three or four times.
C. Basic songs – Try to play simple songs like nottuswarams – simple melodies without any gamakas that help you practice different finger combinations – as you move across notes.
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Note 1: You can even make your own practice exercises. Go up and down the arohanam (ascending scales) and avarohanam (descending scales) ensuring that you stick to the notes in the scale. Venture into different octaves if you feel confident enough to do so. To ensure you are playing correctly and not practicing wrongly, it would be best to consult a teacher. You could also record yourself and catch your mistakes. It is a fun exercise where you will learn more as it is a practice for your ear too.
It is important to remember that tala (beat) is a key element of music. Carnatic vocalists count beats with hand clapping, tapping on the thigh, or with their fingers. Since violinists cannot do it with their hands, they keep count using subtle foot movements. This may be hard for you as a beginner, so you could use a metronome instead to keep time.
Note 2: Practice all the basic exercises playing one note per bow; So, you play a note with a down bow and the next note with an up bow. Try this at different speeds.
Protip: As a beginner, it would be good to stick to one raga initially, and its janyams (derivatives) so that you are comfortable with that hand position. For example, if you do the Shankarabharanam first, play janya ragas that have the same notes such as Mohanam, Hamsadhwani, Sama, Shuddha Saveri and so on.
Benefits of practicing scales
- Improve intonation
- Get your fingering in place
- Play at different speeds
- Correct your strokes & bowing technique
6. Practise 2 or more notes per bow movement
Once you feel reasonably familiar and comfortable with playing the exercises with separate bows, you can advance to playing two notes per bow. So, you play two notes with the down bow and then two notes with the up bow. Try to ensure that you equally distribute playing the length of the bow between the two notes. Slowly increase the number of notes to up to four per bow movement. Getting a smooth and accurate sound with these movements and finger placements is the basis of melody in songs, a perfect practice technique for future lessons.
7. Practise open string notes on other strings
While playing on the open strings is important for bowing, a good fingering exercise is to practise playing the same note on the string with lower octaves. So, you can play Sa on the open string and then compare it to the sound it produces on the lower string with fingering. Similarly, you can be adventurous and play other notes on different strings. Even the non-open string ones. This is a good idea because the hand position is the same, but it will be a bit harder because the strings are thicker and your fingers have to extend a bit more to reach the lower strings.
These exercises are exciting to practice. But it is best to try them under the guidance of a good violin teacher.
Finger exercises to warm up
You can do finger exercises before you begin practicing. Open your palm stretching all your fingers; now, make a fist. Repeat this 10 times; it will help warm up your fingers before your exercises. You can also do it one finger at a time. Do some wrist and shoulder rotations. Once you have loosened up, you will feel more flexible. These exercises will serve you well for when you play for a longer period of time later on.
8. Slow and steady masters the violin
When you start practicing basic songs, ensure that you play them at slow speed first – to get control of the bowing and fingering as well as to get a hang of the raga and tala. Once you play it with reasonable fluidity, try faster speeds.
9. Listen to Carnatic music with a discerning ear
You have the notes before you, you know them by heart but to sound like you are playing a song, you need to have an ear for music. Only then will your playing start to sound like a flowing melody rather than notes put together. When you listen to Carnatic songs, try to discern the raga. Observe the different variations in notes played by the violinist and the sound differences of up and down bowing technique. More advanced violin lessons will include how to practice gamakas (oscillations), in the violin which give the ornamentation, beauty, and melody to different songs. Yes, it only gets more exciting!
The Carnatic violin is normally accompanied by instruments such as mridangam, flute, and ghatam during concerts though there is a movement today for the violin to have its pride of place as a solo instrument as well. Make sure you practice well to be able to give that solo performance! You could also consider taking up Carnatic vocal classes to boost your understanding of Carnatic music and playing.
Regularity and focussed application during practice will ensure that you can fall back on muscle memory for years to come. It’s never too late! Start out on this beautiful journey and you will have a skill for life that will keep melody and harmony close at hand. Join Carnatic violin classes at SaPa now! Don’t be in a hurry to get ‘there’. Here’s a secret that you should be in on – the fun is in your journey of getting ‘there’!