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Corwin Slack


April 6, 2008 at 2:12 PM

I was watching someone play a little fast lick at the end of the second movement of the Sibelius Symphony No. 2. The first thing I noticed was a sense of impending doom. A fight or flight panic set in. The moment arrived and a furious struggle ensued. Arms and fingers flew as the threat was confronted.

Who hasn’t been there?

I have even seen professionals in this predicament (years ago I attended a performance of Schoenberg’s infrequently performed Gurrelieder that seemed very tense because of the virtuosity required.) On the other hand professional performances usually ooze confidence and assurance in fast passages. Everyone seems to sit very coolly whipping out furiously fast passages.
It started thinking about the critical success factors for increasing velocity. How can we achieve confidence in playing fast passages?

This is my list:

  1. Minimize the number of motions
  2. Minimize the extent of any motion

Sometimes these have to be balanced against each other. For example, one might be able to play one long bow (extent) instead of many detached bows (number). But the music dictates and the musician doesn’t always have the liberty of making this optimization.

How does one accomplish this minimization process? The answer is: thoughtfully and with great consideration. Does one shift or cross strings? Does one extend or cross strings? Does one play at the limit of the hand stretch or does one skip a string?

The questions above address really legitimate questions that may have a particular answer for one passage or piece. There are even aesthetic issues. (e. g. consecutive broken tenths are usually played on two adjacent strings.) But there are some general rules that almost always apply.

  1. Keep as many fingers preplaced as possible. If you are playing 4-3-2-1 on a string in a descending passage, 4,3,2, and 1 should be placed from the start of the passage. It is just a simple matter of lifting the fingers in succession. It is amazing to see people struggling to get 3 then 2 then 1 down in time to play the passage.
  2. Play in second and fourth position and be ready to make half and whole step shifts. One’s technique will take a quantum leap forward with the mastery of the even numbered positions. A corollary to this is the half step and whole step shift on the same finger. Why shift from 2 to 1 so you can go up to 3 if you can shift 2 to 2 and then play 4?
  3. Don’t avoid playing passages with 4. It is the weak finger but avoiding 4 frequently means a superfluous shift or string crossing.
  4. Don’t rule out shifting on 4.
  5. Don’t shun diminished finger patterns. One can play 1-2-3-4 with half step intervals. There may be no good reason to shift in such a passage. The mind struggles with playing an F# on the D string with 4 but it is entirely possible and should be considered if the it will minimize the number of motions or the extent of a motion. But by the same token don’t shun playing with half step slides in chromatic passages. The finger is already down minimizing the number of motions and the distance is short minimizing the extent.
  6. Don’t avoid extended finger patterns. We learn to use extended patterns in the upper positions but we ought use them more in lower positions. Of course this may increase the extent of a motion but it may be justified if it decreases the number of motions.
  7. At the risk of wearing out a concept: think patterns! Everything gets easier when you prioritize forming patterns over placing fingers.

Being able to realize much of this does depend on basic hand posture. It’s easier to play a fast passage if the finger is poised just above the string and only has to drop a tiny distance. For years, I was first finger dominant and I had to rotate my hand towards the fingerboard to place the fourth finger. When I lifted 3 and 4 the hand flapped back outward. I have become much more conscious of this in others and I see it rather frequently in amateur players.

Did I say anything about synchronizing the bow with the left hand (or vice versa)? When I have something to say I’ll be back…

A hat tip to Buri Sensei

From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 6, 2008 at 2:13 PM
Karen, I have been working on this for several days and it is not a response to your blog entry Rushing.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on April 6, 2008 at 3:53 PM
Even if it were, it would be a nice synchronicity. Great minds thinking alike and all that :)

Thanks for your thoughts!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 7, 2008 at 6:29 AM
Thanks for writing this. I've been thinking about the same issues lately, but not solely relating to speed. How do I make up my mind when and where to shift? If I'm preparing a piece for a student, I have additional considerations. I especially like your suggestion to shift by one half or one full step. It's such a simple idea that I couldn't see it before I read your blog. I guess I should familiarize myself with the fourth position some time.
From Joel Arthur
Posted on April 7, 2008 at 7:47 PM
this is where technique is involved.
In fast passage work you don't play fingers but hand positions. If your hand is set up correctly and you've honed your technique to keep your fingers quite and in position over the violin (not flailing all over the place), you shouldn't have too much of a problem with fast passages. Of course, you know we need both hands to play the violin and believe it or not, the bow plays an integral part in being able to play with speed. Whether your playing a fast sautille or slurring the bow there is a flexibilty in the fingers and wrist needed to control the bow. Your choice of where to shift or not to shift but rather use finger extensions will also be used, or if it would be better to stay in position and cross over to the adjacent string to continue the passage. All of this is worked out during your practice. It is during practice where you find out what works and what does not.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 7, 2008 at 11:07 PM


From Joel Arthur
Posted on April 8, 2008 at 1:51 PM
Actually, it is on the stage where you find out what works and what doesn't. I know this is 20/20 hindsight, but it is all part of the learning process.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 8, 2008 at 2:52 PM
Yes indeed but woe unto the violinist who learns too much on stage. They risk not being on stage again.
From Joel Arthur
Posted on April 9, 2008 at 12:41 AM
that was not exactly my point.

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