Schmaltz - A Love Affair With Glissandos

March 24, 2016, 7:49 AM · Glissandos -- those tender-sounding finger slides into certain special notes -- may disappoint you the first time you try them, but keep trying. Chances are, the bow lost a little of its sound, the rhythm got a little rickety, and the pitch got lost in the shuffle. When you try it again, make one of those things a little better, while keeping a sense of wholeness; one unifying thought will keep us on track, look at the big picture, and focus on the music. When you think musically and naturally, it’s also a good time to take in each detail and deviation, and get rid of them one at a time.

Names and Feelings

The two major types of glissandos -- otherwise known as slides, portamentos, and "schmaltz" (Yiddish word for chicken fat) -- are known commonly as "Heifetz" and "Kreisler" slides, named after the artists who used them so well -- Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler. (BTW Does anyone know the derivation of "schmaltz" as a word for glissando? I don’t think it was Sarasate, and would be surprised if it were Joachim. Ivry Gitlis?)

Here is an example of how to slide from a first-finger B on the A-string to a third-finger F, in third position on the A string, using the two different kinds of glissandi:

glissando

Some slides are so intimate, they don’t even travel from one note to another. They start on one string, like first finger on B in first position on the A string, then with a slight diminuendo, you slide with the third finger on the D string, same pitch in third position. Such a slide has no melodic impact, but takes your breath away with its harmonic one. With the right amount of diminuendo, it could aptly be named a shy slide.

How Glissando Technique Motivates Us

While you’re practicing your slides up and down the fingerboard, you may notice that your bow arm takes a back seat. The minute you notice it, take action and put your priorities first with the bow. Make it smooth and liquid. If the bow has issues with its path, find one that fits and feels organic.

The glissando enriches the effect of the left hand, and consequently it needs an equally rich sound from the bow. While this kind of expression is used sparingly in orchestra, you can experiment to your heart’s content in the privacy of your practice room. Experiment with dynamic changes by swiftly dipping into your string, like throwing yourself onto a trampoline. Such actions, and their reactions, will motivate your left hand to feel musical, not just mechanical.

Music and technique are one. If one stops motivating the other, something is off.

Smooth Slide or Bumpy

It’s very common for the first attempt at glissando to have a uncooperative finger, one that doesn’t want to move at all, let alone a longer distance. This could mean that the finger trying to move by itself, instead of moving as a result of motion from the arm. What we actually want is for the finger to move with the arm, and the arm to move from the elbow. The finger should move as a passive reaction to what the arm is doing, just like the toes go along for the ride when we walk. When the finger tries to move independently, it will be dragged kicking and screaming, and just sort of putter up and down the fingerboard.

How much pressure should you actually apply to the fingerboard? That would vary according to the player, and a heavy pressure by one person would work fine, but be totally unacceptable to another. In other words, don’t change your basic nature. Light, medium or heavy can be fine, as long as the finger makes a smooth movement. Nothing should stop it, and it should land decisively on the final pitch.

Even if the rhythm is a little off, make sure the slide has a decisive, confident quality. If you’re not sure what it should feel like, then start instead by thinking about what it should sound like. Then, keep experimenting until the technique produces the sound you want. When the ear trains the hands, it can make our technique soar. You will have arrived at the proper technique for glissandos without words being used. Then you can explain the technique in your own words.

Another Reason Why Rhythm Is the Most Important Factor in Music

You can’t rush the glissando, but you need to know when to start and when to end.

First thing is to be confident where the beat is and have a beautiful bow sound in motion. Now that you’ve taken care of the preliminaries, be ready to slide without any hesitation. Don’t be afraid to slide with oomph. Better to start out with too much slide than not enough. Sound is no less a commodity than marble, and like Michelangelo, the next step will be to try again and carve it away until you get just the right sound. (Well, maybe suede or velvet would be a more apt metaphor, and shaping instead of carving, but you get the idea.)

I can’t talk about rhythm very long before relativity enters the picture. Glissandos are no exception. If your glissandos tend to shoot by more like Roadrunner than Baryshnikov, there’s a good reason. We would expect to move our finger in the slide at the same tempo we are playing. If your fingers are moving a certain speed and your bow is moving a certain speed, wouldn’t you assume the slide would move the same?

Music, however, has several speeds all going at once, with great attention paid to the master speed. So a nice, juicy slide is going to have its own speed, and most of the time it’s slower. Know when the beat starts and when it ends. Whether you call it a beat or a pulse, it has an arc that resembles a rainbow. Conductors demonstrate that visually all the time, and the more we internalize it, the better our rhythm becomes.

The glissando -- it's a tiny rainbow within a rainbow!

Replies

March 24, 2016 at 08:37 PM · Glissando shifts are much more difficult if your technique requires a shoulder rest.

March 24, 2016 at 09:51 PM · Ohhhh Nooooooo! But go ahead and explain, Corwin. :)

March 24, 2016 at 10:39 PM · Help, please! I'm lost in the "shy slide." More explanation?

March 24, 2016 at 11:02 PM · Basically, you are just going to the same note on another string. One famous example of it is in "Meditation from Thais," mm. 38-39, when one goes up to a very strong B on the E string, then slides up on the A string to the very same note, "B," only now the note sounds more muted, with the different color of the A string. The glissando there is not written, nor is it very strong, but most violinists do have a faint little slide in there, which contributes to the effect.

March 25, 2016 at 12:11 AM · Greetings,

these days there is a family of four wild boar living behind my house which is next to a mountain. My crazy cat will fight anything on the planet but he was a bit outclassed this time so he tends to run up the next door neighbours house and get stuck under the eaves. The only way I can get him down is to place one end of a long plank of wood against my chest and the other directly under the eaves. Psycho feline then splays all four legs and slides down until he is stopped by crashing into my chin. On ocassion he make sa slight and rather playful 'wheee' noise as he slides down. This is refrred to as a Buri slide and any attempts to label it in other way will be met with immediate and relentless legal action, paid for by Donald Trump.

Cheers,

Buri

March 25, 2016 at 12:18 AM · schmaltz means 'chicken fat' put some on your bow for smoother

and tastier playing

March 25, 2016 at 05:58 AM · Buri we need a demonstration, clearly. Don't want to accidentally mislabel, and end up in a legal bind.

March 25, 2016 at 09:40 AM · Great article :)

We have something called 'smalec' [smalets] in Poland - it's pig fat. I wouldn't put it on fingerboard nor on bow ;)

March 25, 2016 at 10:12 AM · Thanks for the clarification about pig fat. I didn't know the derivation of schmalz from smalec, but it sounds like a perfect match. The Yiddish language is an amalgamation of German, Polish and several other languages. Now, which violinist or violin teacher first used schmalz to describe glissandos? Other possible candidates: Alexander Schneider, Isaac Stern, Joseph Gingold, Miriam Freed. We may never find out.

March 25, 2016 at 12:06 PM · Schmaltz is rendered fat, often chicken fat but also goose, etc. Pork and beef fats are much more solid at room temperature and generally go by different names (lard, tallow, etc.). A few beads of golden fat coasting on the top of a bowl of chicken soup are an endearing promise of rich flavor; but you wouldn't want to drive your spoon through a quarter inch of the stuff. The phrase "too much of a good thing" applies perfectly. We cooks generally go to extra measure to skim and thereby remove as much as we can. Probably for this reason, schmaltz connotes decadence. Thus "schmaltz" in music does not refer to a glissando, per se, but rather to gratuitous sentimentality, which one might effect in various ways including vibrato, rubato, etc.

Because the existing definition seems to apply fairly well in a musical context, I don't think anyone can claim to have invented it as a neologism.

March 25, 2016 at 03:53 PM · To me a glissando/slide/portamento is in essence a vocal technique, so listening to good solo singers to hear how they do it is, I think, a prerequisite for executing it convincingly on the violin.

March 25, 2016 at 05:02 PM · My band instructor first used "schmaltz" back in the '60's refering to musical selections for the band to play that required a little more feeling that we, as clueless teen agers were able to muster. He would exaggerate his request by rolling his eyes,tilting his head, shyly smiling and making a "violin gesture." (Remember we were band members) I have since felt that music that was sweet and sentimental would be made more so by applying a little more "schmaltz."

March 25, 2016 at 10:10 PM · Dear Laurie,

I am afraid I am already involved in complex litigation with my cat who inists that since he is the protagonist the said effect sbould be called 'Po's Portamento.'

Buri

(Founder and sole member of the anti furbag league)

March 26, 2016 at 12:42 AM · @ Laurie, or any other kind soul. Back to the shy slide, Po not included :) I'm getting it, maybe. So, you're saying that you

1. Play B on E string. Quickly stop playing on E string as you

2. Slide on the A string from wherever all the way up to B on the A string. Play this B a little quieter.

You will hear strong B, a few quiet notes played gliss, then a quiet B, right?

"Such a slide will have no melodic impact" is what threw me. You go from B to B, but there will be a quick slide of a-few-notes-that-are not-B. I think.

Thanks!

March 26, 2016 at 01:33 AM · You got it!

March 26, 2016 at 01:36 AM · I don't understand the authors' description of the Heifetz and glissando slides. Are you supposed to hear the note D on the A string when you do these slides?

Buri, I respect your cat's musical and legal abilities.

March 26, 2016 at 02:40 AM · Pauline, no. To connect the b and the f the first way you would play the b and the 3rd finger would fall in say the d position as it begins a quick slide at the same time up to f. It doesn't have to be d -- the point is you slide into the note from some point below with the same finger. With the other slide you play the b and quickly slide on the first finger to an equally indeterminate place and then plop the 3rd finger down on f. I would say usually the first kind of slide starts on the beat and with the second kind the f plops down on the beat so the slide is before the beat.

March 26, 2016 at 03:22 AM · When you're playing a glissando, none of the pitches during the slide are meant to be highlighted. The arrival of the actual pitch should be strong and obvious. The slides simulates what singers do, and singers make glissandos more often than string players.

One more thought: A common weakness is when the slide is started too far away from the destination note. Generally, the slide should begin just below it.

Also, I was wondering if cellists call them Kreisler and Heifetz slides. I was surprised when one cellist told me that's what he would call them. You'd think they wouldn't give them the same name as violinists.

March 26, 2016 at 09:23 AM · Pauline,

what makes this discussion just a tad murky is that what is being discussed is actually the sounded out version of what you already know about shifting. The Kreisler shift (never heard that name before) is actually a classical shft or sometimes called the French shift. The Heifet shift is more usually cale dthe Romantic shift and I was taught to call it the Russian shift. The Heifetz shift is actually not taught so often these days. The basis of modern playing is the traditional shift on the figer that played the note before. Firstly it is technically safer most of the time and secondly the Heifetz style shift is , subjectivity aside, not appropriate sound wise for much of the repertoire. It is more of a special effect which is indeed the way Heifetz tended to use it. Heifetz intensified the effect of this shift by changing bow before th shift ended so the focus shifted more onto the slide component of the shift. When Heife used it in the climaxes of ultra romatic music it was awesome. However, This kind of shifting is rarely taught to beginners and is really something that one can live without. Im too sleepy to look at the example again but suppose you were going to shift from b first position on a string with the next note being a d on the a string a tenth higher. Traditional technique simply slides up on the first finger and plops the third down efficiently in the corrct place. If ine really wanted to do a Russain shift one would plop the third finger down on d in first position and then slide up on that. I asked Po about it but he just said `da` and went back to sleep.

Cheers,

Buri

March 27, 2016 at 10:03 PM · Actually I slide all the time, with all fingers. I call it "finding the notes." :)

Thanks, Mr. Stein, and all the commenters for this tutorial.

March 28, 2016 at 09:42 PM · Why a shoulder rest makes glissandos difficult:

When the left hand is holding the violin it has to work against the weight of the violin to shift. In fact, making shifts quietly without a glissando is one of the challenges of playing without a shoulder rest. SR-less players work to disguise the glissando with the bow etc. or they figure out how to incorporate it into the sound.

On the other hand SR users (at least many of them) are using their hand over the violin somewhat like a pianist playing on a keyboard. There isn't an organic connection between the left hand and the violin. Thus a glissando shift becomes a real technical problem, something that must be learned and studied. I won't say its not possibly but I never hear any that remind me of Kreisler or Heifetz.

March 28, 2016 at 10:35 PM · Ok, so far, Heifetz gliss is on the beat, Kreisler gliss is before the beat, I think.

Buri said Heifetz used this in ultra romantic music. Can we correlate these slides to periods of music history like grace notes? Classical period, play grace notes on the beat, Romantic period, play grace notes before the beat? They seem like grace notes to me.

March 29, 2016 at 02:39 PM · Shoulder rests might influence how a glissando is executed -- which muscles are used and in what order. I've played both with SR and without SR, and there's really not all that much difference.

And in the end, a glissando is defined by the twin functions of pitch and volume vs. time (which might not be linear functions, glissandos can speed up or slow down once they are underway), and by boundary conditions such as vibrato before and after. All of these parameters are well within the control of top violinists who use shoulder rests. If you asked Josh Bell to play a certain Kreisler favorite with "Kreisler Glissandos," he can probably match the recording with little effort despite his use of a shoulder rest.

It would be much more productive, in terms of musicological research, to take a particular recording of a Kreisler glissando that you enjoy and map out the pitch-vs-time and volume-vs time profiles of that glissando and then compare those to the corresponding profiles for recordings of the same passage by other artist. Thereby we might come to more objective definitions of "romantic" and "classical" glissandos, possibly among others.

March 29, 2016 at 07:05 PM · That description of the Kreisler glissando is right on. I found myself using it when trying to play Kreisler's own "Preludium and Allegro", where I slid my first finger up from a B on the A string, then dropped my third finger onto the F# in third position.

As for the usage of "schmaltz", I've always found it appropriate. One of my favourite passages from Robert A. Heinlein's 1961 novel "Stranger in a Strange Land" has one of his characters dictating some particularly sentimental piece of prose to his secretary:

He went on talking while watching her. When tears started to leak from her closed eyes he smiled slightly and closed his own. By the time he finished tears were running down his cheeks as well as hers, both bathed in catharsis of schmaltz.

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