Kurt Sassmannshaus: Teaching Left Hand Basics

June 12, 2015, 12:11 PM · As Dorothy DeLay used to say, now and then one must "clean the pots and pans." Kurt Sassmannshaus invoked his former teacher's saying in introducing the first of his two lectures at the 2015 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies at The Juilliard School, one about left-hand basics and one about right-hand basics. This article will focus on the left-hand basics.

Kurt
Kurt Sassmannshaus. Photo by Violinist.com

First, about Kurt Sassmannshaus: you may know him as the man behind Violinmasterclass.com, or as professor and chairman of the string department at at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), as founder of the Great Wall International Music Academy or from the The Sassmannshaus Tradition method books, written by his German father and edited and published more recently in English by Kurt. Sassmannshaus's concepts are clear and straightforward, as is his way of explaining them.

Finger motion

Finger action is obviously a very important part of left-hand technique. The entire reason we drop our left fingers onto the fingerboard is to stop the old vibration as quickly as possible and create a new pitch, "preferably in tune," Sassmannshaus said.

That powerful, quick action of the finger needs to be followed by an immediate release of the finger, though, "so that the hand stays completely relaxed," he said. One drops the finger, then releases it to the minimum pressure required to keep the finger on the fingerboard. Sassmannshaus demonstrated a clever way to practice this: to get that feeling of truly releasing the finger but keeping it on the string, drop the third finger to a "D" on the "A" string then release the finger to the point that it creates a harmonic. This dramatically demonstrates how to immediately relax the finger. Here is a brief video of that exercise:

Once this is comfortable, then try dropping the finger to the same place and immediately relaxing the finger, but keeping the finger on the fingerboard. Then practice this kind of finger action, using Sevcik Op. 1, No. 1, starting with the metronome on 60 and eventually working up to 168.

In general, the left-hand position should be based on the comfort of the fourth finger. A position that allows little bit of bend in the wrist is all right. Sassmannshaus said that his father's violin method, written first in the 1970s, is based on starting with the second, then the fourth finger, "all in an effort to make sure the hand position is correct."

In young students, the size of their instrument can affect their position, especially if the instrument is too heavy or unwieldy. So err on the side of the smaller, rather than the larger instrument. "Keep the instrument as small as you can, for as long as the parent will let you," Sassmannshaus said. "It's healthier for the child to play on a smaller instrument."

While it's great to build fast fingers, speed is not actually the highest point of achievement on a stringed instrument. One has to make artistic decisions based on what an audience member can actually hear, taking into consideration the capabilities of the human ear as well as the characteristics of a concert hall, with its two-second sound delay.

"We can't necessarily hear all these notes swirling around a concert hall, with a two-second delay. At some point, the human nervous system can't take it any more and perceives it as a glissando," Sassmannshaus said. He has a little saying: "I spend the first two years speeding my students up, and I spend the next 10 years slowing them down."

Vibrato

Vibrato is another left-hand technique that takes long years to cultivate.

"The goal is to enhance the color of the sound," he said. How high should vibrato go? "The highest point is the correct pitch; the goal is not to go above the pitch," Sassmannshaus said, adding, "Do not discuss this with singers."

"The human ear will always take the highest pitch it hears as the melody," he said.

One way to start vibrato is to place the wrist on the bout and one finger (Sassmannshaus did not have a preferred finger for starting) on the purfling by the fingerboard then rock in rhythms. (Put the metronome on 60 and do one rock, two, three, four, six, etc.) "The fingertip should roll toward their face, to avoid a sideways motion," he said. The next step is to try vibrato in fourth position -- say, with the first finger on an E on the A string -- leaning the wrist against the violin. "Then we do the same thing in first position," he said. Here is a brief demonstration of rocking the finger in rhythms:

A few rules: "Don't allow students to use a cramp in their arm" as a stand-in for vibrato, he said. Also, Kurt says he teaches wrist vibrato first because "it's the more difficult motion. Once a kid has a good arm vibrato, he'll see no reason to change that." In a wrist vibrato, the hand moves back and forth from the wrist. In an arm vibrato, the forearm moves from the elbow, and the wrist is not moving. Galamian, in his book Principles of Violin Playing and Teaching, refers to a "finger vibrato," but (as has been the case in years of discussing this concept on Violinist.com), Sassmannshaus said he's never found a good explanation of it.

It's important to practice all kinds of vibrato: narrow and slow, wide and slow, narrow and fast, wide and fast.

"In real life, there are a lot of options," Sassmannhaus said. Which vibrato to use in which situation? -- this is a very personal decision. "The nice thing about art is that there are no rules. Our profession depends on the perception of others; if it works for the audience, it works."

That two-second sound delay in a large hall remains a consideration for vibrato speed -- "fast vibrato in a large hall is more like a nervous sound," Sassmannshaus said. A good vibrato gives a note a certain quality -- Dorothy DeLay used to say, "Sugar Plum...it's this fat thing in the sound that you can almost touch" -- like chocolate mousse with whipped cream.

When it comes to transferring vibrato from one note to another, "theoretically, it does not work," Sassmannshaus said. You have to stop the motion in order to place another finger down in tune. One can create a perception of continuous vibrato, though, by speeding it up right before the change of finger.

Shifting

A shift to a note in a higher position can be reduced to three motions: lift, shift, drop. During the actual shifting, the finger should press the string only a little more than it would for a harmonic as it moves up or down the string. Sassmannshaus said that he shows students how, if you push down your finger, the fingertip turns white, and when you don't push, the fingertip is pink; "I ask them for pink shifts." Here he demonstrates the very basic motion of shifting, in a slow shifting exercise:

How fast should a shift be? Start the shift fast but then slow down at the end of the shift. "For most of the shift, you don't need 100 percent accuracy"; for the end of the shift, you do. One way to practice no-pressure shifts is to do scales with one finger, making sure that each shift is "lift, shift, drop."

And a word about shoulder rests: use one if you need it, don't if you don't. "It's not a religion," Sassmannshaus said. "Someone may say, 'That's not natural' -- the whole thing's not natural!"

Back to shifting: Nearly always, "a shift that ends out of tune is too fast," Sassmannshaus said. You can exchange fingers during a shift, but only one finger should be on the string at a time.

In order to practice speed and accuracy when shifting from one finger to a different one, practice using an intermediate shifting note -- "that is what eventually makes shifts very safe."

When doing a glissando to a very high note, "you don't need accuracy until the end of the shift," so shift quickly to about a half-step below the desired note and then vibrate. The glissando is placed on the new bow with new finger sliding to the top note -- not at the end of the bottom note.

When it comes to picking a high note out of the sky, first, find the note. Then drop the left hand to your side. Raise the hand and place the note. Is it too high, too low, or just right? Fix, repeat until you are consistently getting it right. "After 10 years of violin playing, your hand knows where that note is. You just have to trust it. If it was out of tune, it was too fast."

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Replies

June 12, 2015 at 08:30 PM · The last paragraph is particularly interesting. This is exactly the technique my cello teacher used when I was 11. I use it today on the violin.

[Edit added 6-14-2015] Btw, I really liked Sassmannshuas's comment about singers (I for one can't stand the wobbly vibratos of some opera singers):

"The highest point is the correct pitch; the goal is not to go above the pitch ... Do not discuss this with singers."

June 12, 2015 at 08:47 PM · Thanks for sharing this article. As a primarily self-taught violinist, even basic instruction is very helpful.

June 13, 2015 at 03:56 AM · In the vibrato exercise, I see the movement being in the wrist. My son's teacher says not to move the wrist but rather to keep the wrist stiff and the movement is suppose to be from the elbow to the last knuckle of each finger. Do you have a response to this? Thank you.

June 13, 2015 at 05:14 PM · Yes, your son's teacher is teaching him arm vibrato, and that's one of two ways to do vibrato. The video above is an exercise for learning wrist vibrato, which is also known as hand vibrato. Ultimately, it is helpful to be able to do either kind of vibrato, as different kinds work better in different situations. Trust your teacher, though, about which is the best to learn right now for your son.

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