By Katharine Rapoport

Trills are great fun to play on the violin. A trill, which involves a rapid alternation between the printed note and the next note above it, often happens near the end of a phrase or movement of music. Trills are musical ornaments, something like the glittery decorations on wedding cakes. A trill really draws the listener’s attention to a particular note. The composer is asking for a trill when the sign tr appears above the note head.

Trilling on a note can be a thrilling move— if your fingers are up to speed. These tips show you how to trill effectively and have fun with it. Trilling looks very simple, but it takes some coordination to sound really good. Taking it step-by-step sets you up to deal with trills in any situation.

Establish a firm, secure, and flowing bow action on trill notes before getting too busy with the left hand. Practice notes without the trills at first, and then adding the trills when you’re in control of tone and timing.

Building speed of repetition

Your starting move is to loosen up those fingers and get them to tap with agility by working from an open string to each finger individually. When you can spark each finger — meaning getting it to spring quickly and lightly into action— trilling is much easier to broach.

My first piece of advice about trills is to perform them calmly: Don’t make any vibrato-like hand movements on your trills. Just tap the trilling finger from a quiet hand to make it sound just right.

This little trilling exercise involves the first finger pattern (though you can try it with other finger patterns later to develop even more trill skills).

Start with finger 1 ready on the D string, and then lift each finger smartly and actively when it’s time to move on to the next note.

Keep your fingertips closer to the string as the speed increases, so that the fingers don’t have far to travel and can get there sooner.

Thrills with trills.

Thrills with trills.

Speeding from finger to finger

Here, you find out how to build speed and agility from one finger to the next. Trills almost always involve tapping your finger on the next note up from the main note you’re playing, so that’s how you practice in this prep exercise. Finger 1 remains lightly on the string while finger 2 does the tapping.

To help make your trills work well, avoid pressing the lower finger too heavily on the string.

Trilling from finger to finger.

Trilling from finger to finger.

After you try trilling with fingers 1 and 2, try the same idea with fingers 2 and 3. If you want a challenging workout, try fingers 3 and 4 as well. Though to tell you the truth, violinists try to arrange trills to happen on other finger combos other than fingers 3 and 4, because little ol’ finger 4 finds trilling really hard to do— that’s where changing positions comes in very useful.

You can see the difference between the two alternatives below, so that you can try the two methods for yourself and have a choice if you meet a similar situation in music. The first time, you play the trill using fingers 3 and 4. Hard work, huh? During the rest measure, slide up to third position and prepare finger 1 on the note D. Then play the same trill notes as before, but using fingers 1 and 2. Just shift down to first position for the final C.

In a good position to trill.

In a good position to trill.

A question of timing

If you’re trilling on a short note, a couple of quick taps is all that’s needed. If your trill happens on a longer note, stop the trilling action before the end of the note so that you can prepare the next note. Here’s an example of a longer trill and indicates the spot (at the beginning of the fourth beat) where you can stop the trill (stop on the main note, B) and just play the plain eighth note.

Knowing when to stop.

Knowing when to stop.