Saturday, May 23, 2009

Hearing Double

Until yesterday, when I had a violinistic epiphany, I always had difficulty playing double stops on the violin. I practiced them all the time, and I practiced them in every possible configuration, taking care to have the best of all possible left hand positions, yet somehow with intervals physically larger than a sixth (where the fingers on the left hand are very close to one another, making the lengths of the two strings nearly the same), I would often find my double stops unstable.

My epiphany came, I believe, as a result of playing scales in octaves on the piano. Both hands articulate with equal weight and at the same time when you play scales on the piano. I realized that although on the violin both hands to do need to carry equal weight, both strings in a double stop need to have equal attack. In other words, the bow has two points of contact with the two strings that are being played.

Obviously the bow needs to be perfectly straight, at least initially, in order for both points of contact to have equal ability to articulate, and obviously the left-hand fingers need to be strong and secure, but they do not need to bear a full 50% of the burden of producing the pitches. It is the division of weight between the two points of contact with the bow that happens at the beginning of a double stop that insures that the pitches will be true and in tune. The kind of bow stroke doesn't matter, the direction of the bow doesn't matter, and the place on the bow doesn't matter. All that matters is that each string gets its equal point of contact. The fingers on the right hand will adjust according to what you ask them to do, but you do have to ask. And then the left hand fingers, freed from their immense burden, can relax and adjust.

Perhaps this is "no-brainer" normal thinking for most string players, but for me, still being a wind player in much of my physical orientation to playing, it is a revelation. I used to think of double stops as having a dominant pitch, and I used to think of of dragging the bow along on the string that held the secondary pitch, but now I know better. And now I play better.

Update: I tried this with my students, and now they play better too. I now refer to the red spots on the above diagram as the "red zone." Thinking about the "red zone" works for single notes as well as for double stops.


Anonymous said...

Not obviously! For example, with octaves it's best to put more weight on the lower note. Also a perfectly straight bow is not necessary to get a perfect tone. Just look at many of the top players on youtube. Just a thought...

Elaine Fine said...

You are right. Since making this post I have come to understand that it is the point of contact--the sounding point--that makes a good sound and not a straight bow. It is far easier to control the sounding point than to control the relative straightness of the bow (though a straight bow often is the result of a consistent sounding point.

As far as octaves are concerned, I have recently found that octaves are often a matter of context. There are times when it is best not to put more weight on the lower note, as well as times when it is.