One of the most common musical ornaments is the trill. It varies between different instruments and styles and it can be found in virtually all music styles. But how can you play trills on the violin? This article is an easy guide on how to learn and improve trills as well as recognize the different types of trills, and determine which one to use.
How long should you keep the trill? From which note should you start? How do you learn to trill? How can you make your trill faster? Read on to get all the answers and download a booklet with easy trill exercises!
Violin Trill Exercises
a free set of exercises
What Is a Trill on the Violin?
A trill on the violin is a rapid alternation between two notes. The notes should be adjacent, which is usually a semitone or a tone apart. A trill is often used in cadences, especially during the Baroque era, but its use is not limited to that.
What you have to do as a violinist is quickly move your finger up and down. So it’s a rapid movement back and forth between two notes, for example, C and D.
The speed of the trilling finger is not set in stone – it varies on the speed of the music, and you may adjust the details depending on your style and taste.
There are some guidelines for how to execute a trill, mostly based on the musical period, but also different composers might require different trills. It even depends on where the trill is, and whether it’s in a cadenza or not.
It is easy to execute a trill on the violin and the other bowed string instruments, compared to some brass instruments or the piano where it may be between the fourth and fifth finger. On the violin, viola, or cello, you only have to move one finger, while the other one stops the string. On rare occasions, the trill may be between the first finger and an open string.
What Note Do You Trill To?
You always trill to the upper note. For example, if C on the A string is a trilled note, you trill with the D note. Usually, you should start on the lower note.
To play a trill from this example, hold C with your second finger while moving your third finger up and down fast. It should sound like 16th notes or 32nd notes; however, depending on the rhythm, they can sound like triplets too. Always play all the notes of a trill on one bow stroke.
There are some variations depending on the era. As a general rule of thumb, when you play Baroque music, usually you should start from the lower note, so in the example of C and D, you start from C and move your third finger to stop the D note.
This is a general rule, and it might not apply to all Baroque period composers or all the trills you’re going to face. As you become more experienced, you will be able to decide for yourself if you should start from the lower or the higher note.
Also important to point out is that sometimes you might trill with the same note when it has an accidental. It could be, for example, C and C#, or Bb and B natural. If that’s the case, and it’s not one of the accidentals in the key signature, it should be notated.
A Trill in Violin Sheet Music
In the sheet music notation, the letters “tr” are used, and sometimes a wavy line known as a chevron. Usually (but not always), if there’s a chevron, it shows how long you should hold the trill; otherwise, you should hold it for as long as the note that has the “tr” would be held.
The mordent is also an ornament that you can find in violin music. It is kind of an inverted trill, with the difference that it is only one rapid alteration. It means that if you see a C, you play B – C or C – B – C.
As you can see, the notation is similar to the trill. Moreover, there is some confusion because in the Baroque era, the ornament symbols weren’t all standardized yet. If it’s not a Baroque piece, what you should be playing is pretty clear. If it is, there are countless different interpretations, so it’s kind of an aesthetic choice on your part.
Other Symbols for the Trill and Similar Symbols
There are some variations and similar symbols you should be aware of. Most of them are for Baroque music or old editions. Here are all the different ways you might encounter a trill, and what is required of you to play it:
- You might encounter only the “t” instead of “tr,” with or without the chevron. Most likely this will be within a Baroque piece and an old edition, probably Italian (though that’s not exclusive).
- Also in Baroque pieces, you might only see a chevron, but it might also be just a mordent if it’s too short.
- If an accidental is required (for example, to trill C – C#), it will be shown above the “tr.” Any of the three signs: sharp, flat, or natural might appear.
- A chevron split in two by a thin straight vertical line is an inverted mordent.
That may seem a bit much, especially if you’re just beginning to learn to play the violin or you’re not so familiar with the Baroque repertoire yet. In this case, I’d advise you to use new editions of the sheet music, which most likely will have a notation that is easy to understand.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions if you see a confusing sheet music notation! You can post your questions on the Facebook group (Julia’s Violin Academy members only). I’ll try to help you as best as I can.
Moreover, if you have a chance to play in an orchestra, the conductor will specify how he or she prefers the trills, especially if it’s Baroque, so it’s totally ok to ask, even if you’re a more experienced player.
How to Do a Trill on the Violin
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to do a trill on the violin:
- Get into the playing position.
Ensure that your posture is correct and that you are holding the violin and the bow properly.
- Keep proper left-hand position and make sure it’s relaxed (do not tense it up).
- Stop a note with your first finger.
- Prepare your second finger to play.
To make sure that you are placing your fingers on the correct spots, you can always check your intonation with my online tuner.
- Start bowing when your first finger is in place, then rapidly stop the next note using your second finger. Release immediately so as to play the principal note again.
- Repeat the rapid alteration and continue it for one whole bow stroke. Yay, you’ve just played a trill!
6 Tips for Playing a Trill on the Violin
When learning to play a trill, make sure to follow my tips:
Check the length of the trill
Depending on whether you’re playing a half note, a quarter note, or another length, you may need to hold the trill longer or shorter. Knowing the tempo you’d like to play at, you can check how long the trill should be using my free online metronome.
Make sure you know the starting note
Sometimes you might need to start the trill from the auxiliary note. Make sure to double-check what the starting note is in the piece you’re practicing!
Split the long trills
Keep in mind that you can split the trill over different bow strokes if you’re playing very long notes.
Watch out for your intonation
Always be aware of your intonation, as the auxiliary note has the tendency to slide back, especially if you’re trilling between semitones.
Tension in your left hand will make it very difficult to play anything, or may even cause you pain, so make sure to stop, relax, and continue with the left-hand position that feels comfortable to you.
It’s ok to struggle, especially when you’re learning a new violin technique. So add some trill exercises (see below) to your daily practice routine. You can, for example, practice trills on one string a day or choose a pair of fingers and trill with them on all strings.
Fillable Practice Plan [PDF]
How Do I Improve My Violin Trill?
You can improve your violin trills by practicing them every day. You can change the fingers used, speed, amount of bow in a bow stroke, and use the metronome, especially when practicing slow trilling.
There are many trill studies that can help you with improving your trills, as well as simple exercises you can work on. Let’s have a look at them!
Easy Trill Exercises
It’s very important to have flexibility in the fingers as you tap the string. Having a relaxed left hand is one of the two most important aspects here. The other is to have the necessary speed, which you shouldn’t worry about too much, as that comes with practice! The following three exercises will help you with that.
Exercise 1 – Trilling with adjacent fingers
Set the metronome to a comfortable speed – not too slow and not too fast. You can start at 60 BPM, for example, or a bit more.
Play notes on the A string with the first and second fingers as quarter notes. Make it sound legato, two notes on a bow stroke.
Next, without changing the tempo, play the same notes as eighth notes. Practice playing quarter and eighth notes on a bow stroke, still keeping it legato. If you can do that, try playing 16th notes, and then 32nd notes. As the last step, try to tap as fast as possible.
For extra difficulty, you can add triplets before the 16th notes.
Try to execute the exercise with all combinations of nearby fingers, as well as the open string and first finger, and on all strings.
Exercise 2 – Trilling with non-adjacent fingers
A similar exercise to the first one is to do the same thing, but now with other finger combinations! For example try 0 – 2, 1 – 3, 1 – 4, and 2 – 4.
You will find trills with fingers that aren’t adjacent more tricky, but it’s a good exercise for technique and finger agility, so it’s a good finger exercise overall.
Exercise 3 – Tapping
The next exercise is to play a tenuto and tap quickly once, just like when you’re playing a grace note. Then add two taps, then three. You can continue to add as many grace notes as you want.
If you’re a member of Julia’s Violin Academy, make sure to also have a look at Improver level 5, where you’ll find my video instruction and two easy trill exercises!
Bonus: Exercise for Advancing Students
If you’re more advanced, you might want to try double stops trills.
There are two kinds of double stop trills. The easier one is when you stop a note on one string and trill on adjacent string. A more difficult one will be when you trill simultaneously on both adjacent strings.
You can practice the easy one the same way you practice regular trills, only you have to add a note on a string above or below, which can be an open string to start with.
As for the second type, you will have to play either 0/2 – 1/3 or 1/3 – 2/4. Be careful of your intonation, as your fingers might easily slip backward. Study the trills separately and play them together only when you’re can play them well.
Check the books below for trill exercises on two strings.
Violin Studies for Practicing Trilling
There are many trill studies scattered across several books but if you want to focus on them, there’s only one that has many exercises and covers everything you might need: Violin Studies, Op.7 by Otakar Ševčík.
Book 1 has exercises in the first position, while Book 2 delves into other violin positions. Both books include exercises for playing double stop trills.
Violin Studies, Op. 7 by Otakar Ševčík
Book 1 and 2
You’ll find yourself using trills regularly with the more advanced repertoire you learn, especially if you happen to play with an orchestra. It’s an interesting violin ornament that adds playfulness to the music.
I hope that my guide has helped you understand this technique. If you feel ready to add trills to your playing, make sure to download the exercise booklet and add these exercises bit by bit to your daily practice.
Violin Trill Exercises
a free set of exercises