Trills, Vibrato and Doublestops -- Oh My! Violympics Event No. 5

August 18, 2020, 4:58 PM · As the summer is winding down, so are the Violympics, the Olympic-themed violin technique course designed by Los Angeles Philharmonic Associate First Concertmaster Nathan Cole. The 12-week program -- designed as six two-week events -- is now entering its final weeks, and I'd like to bring you my observations from Event No. 5, which just ended. It was all about trills, vibrato and doublestops.

Claire doing thirds
Practicing thirds and....enjoying it!

First, a word about how it all works. Nathan's way of structuring material is very different from my typical learning style. From the beginning, I like to know what I’m learning and why. His way is more suspenseful: during each two-week "event" he starts by giving assignments with seemingly minimal context or only tantalizing clues dropped in his videos. Those make sense only when we arrive at the second week, when the "challenge piece" is revealed. Many of my fellow Violympians really enjoy this approach, at least judging from the enthusiastic theorizing that happens in our Facebook group. But as a tired violin teacher, most days I'd rather just get straight to the point.

The first week of Event 5 started with technique work focusing on doublestops, trills, vibrato, and combining the above! The value of the summer’s earlier work on hand frame and fourth finger was immediately clear.

During Week 1 of Event 5, each day involved trills and one- or two-octave scales in thirds, sixths, and doublestops. In theory, this should be a part of every violinist’s daily routine. In practice.... Let’s just say that one of my motivations for doing the Violympics was to have some extra accountability and support for my own playing. I also wanted a break from assigning myself work, after assigning work to my students all day. So I enjoyed having this work assigned to me by Nathan, and then having his insights on playing doublestops to help me along.

The interval scales really helped me. Octaves used to be somewhat scary for me, but these days I find them very centering. Even a few minutes of octaves a day helps my left hand feel more organized, and it makes my intonation much more accurate! Nathan told us that when playing octaves, your hand should always maintain an in-tune octave interval, even when shifting and crossing strings. It’s definitely more challenging initially to practice and listen this way, but the results are worth it.

Thirds bring back slightly traumatic memories of butchering the third movement of the Bruch Concerto in a grad school jury, but practicing them this week, especially with the work earlier this summer on hand frame and fourth finger, was different. Thirds felt like something my hand *could* do effectively, not like something I was dreading.

I think the lesson learned here is that sometimes, the solution is not to practice a tough passage over and over, but to take a step (or five) back and really look at the skills needed to play it. In my case, it started with the way my head balanced on my neck and how the violin balanced on my shoulder. This summer, working on hand frame, fourth finger, MVP ("Minimum Viable Pressure" -- see Nathan’s video here), and careful, methodical exercises in thirds has made more of a difference than practicing passages of the Bruch blindly for hours every day ever did.

Sixths have always been a mystery to me, and Nathan's ideas helped shine a little light on the situation. This week, Nathan went over which fingers to move in what order and how to choose both effective and expressive fingerings. For example, the finger that is staying the same has to change strings before the new finger. And, to make a passage smoother, it helps to use same-finger shifts for a sixth, in order to avoid crossing strings just for one interval.

Trills were a central feature of our technique work, both single notes and trilled thirds. Nathan has YouTube videos on his trill technique, so I'll let him explain that himself to you so you can join in the fun if you would like:

Trill Video #2

Trill Video #3: Double Trouble

Finally, we revisited our vibrato exercises from the previous event - but this time, we did them in doublestops. After years of trying to make a beautiful tone on my doublestops, I’m ashamed to admit I never actually put much effort into doing vibrato exercises in doublestops. That’s an error I’ve corrected in my own practice and will soon be assigning to my students. If any of my students are reading this, look out!

We also got to have a little fun applying our new skills to the second movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto and the octaves passage from Paganini 24.

Week 2 revealed our Challenge Piece: an excerpt from the second movement of Louis Spohr’s Violin Concerto No. 2. You can find the sheet music here on IMSLP if you’d like to give it a try for yourself. (Spohr Violin Concerto No. 2) Our excerpt was the first five lines of the Adagio.

As expected, this piece combines doublestops of all kinds, trills, trilled doublestops, and lyrical playing that cries out for vibrato. Nathan’s videos led us to practice material from the concerto using the same methods as last week. I quite enjoyed working through this movement. Choreographing doublestops and trills is like solving a puzzle, and it was very gratifying to see and hear all the pieces coming together.

If you’d like to hear my performance, it’s here.

Only one event left - onward to Event 6 and summer’s end!


August 19, 2020 at 07:39 AM · Claire I enormously appreciate your regular reporting from the Violympics!

August 19, 2020 at 03:45 PM · Claire, You are my hero! And the motto on your t-shirt in the video you posted is absolutely appropriate to the Spohr that you so beautifully played. Thank you for taking us on this journey with you.

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