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Laurie Niles

Fugues on Fiddles: Getting the angle right

December 30, 2009 at 2:34 AM

I had a little revelation – an epiphany, a moment of realization – as I was playing the Bach A minor Sonata the other night – the “Fuga.”

Or I could call it a “Duh!” moment.

The fugue is such a monster movement, not only because of the numerous double stops that require a fair amount of  left-hand contortion and right-hand string crossings, but also because of the sheer length of it – five pages in most of my editions. After studying the sonata about five years ago, I made it my aim in 2009 to put in my reps –  to play the entire sonata several hundred times (okay, I wanted to do it daily and didn't quite get there!), so that I could reach a level where I'm playing it with fluency and feel I have a degree of mastery over the piece.

With 2009 nearing its end, I've come to the point where I'm comfortable playing the piece and feel like I can play it whenever I want to do so, without having to re-learn anything. I'm also getting some insights that come from a lot of repetition and long-term living with the piece. Which brings me to the fugue.

When the notes are basically in hand, one wants to bring out the various lines in a fugue. Thus, this was my aim: smoothing out the lines and bringing out the important one. Specifically, in mm 18-30, we have a two-line conversation going on, and I was trying to make this as fluid as possible. But what was going wrong? I was losing clarity. And then: “Duh!”

I was thinking in terms of two lines, but when it came to the bow, I needed to be thinking in terms of three angles. The bow is at a different angle when playing one note on the E string, when playing a double-stop on the EA, and when playing on the A string. That's three different angles. I was thinking: two strings, trading lines, sometimes the line is on the E, sometimes the line is on the A. I was trying to keep the line, say, on the E while, scooping up a few notes on the A, and vice-versa.

Certainly, I can focus on the dual musical lines there, but I'm going to have to do so while also keeping well aware of those three angles. I'll probably play the entire passage with just open strings, simply to clarify exactly what the bow is doing and should be doing.

And, an aside, I'm going to be interviewing Simon Fischer (author of Basics) in the next few days, and when I opened my Strad magazine, I noticed that his column for December is on this very problem of bow angles. Hah! Perhaps I'll warm up with the exercise he prescribes, as well!

From Bruce Berg
Posted on December 30, 2009 at 3:02 AM


Concerning your comment about bringing out lines, I have found it useful to keep the bow arm level on the line you are trying to bring out. For instance in the passage you mention M. 18-30, favor the A string level from 18-23, then favor the E string level from 23-30. In extreme cases for instance m. 281 do not allow the arm level to go to the E string level. This will favor the lower strings and weaken the upper strings. in 283 have the arm on the A string level. In 284 D string level. 285 E string level.

From Roland Bailey
Posted on December 30, 2009 at 3:59 AM

 Laurie interviewing Simon Fischer!  That will be great.  Laurie is a master interviewer.

From Ioan Harea
Posted on December 30, 2009 at 5:51 AM

Dear Laurie, first I thank you for helping with my password!

Related to the Fugue:  I would suggest practicing to produce a perfect even sound on both strings . Upon mastering this, you won't have any problem in favoring one or the other.

Have a good practice!


From Dee Ann Fleming
Posted on December 30, 2009 at 3:21 PM

 Laurie, I was lucky enough to study the Fuga with Marylou Speaker Churchill last year.  (For those who haven't heard, our dear Marylou passed away in November--a tremendous loss to all who knew her.)  Her advice was to practice thinking of bow levels and distribution, bringing out the voices, and of course, perfecting intonation.  Then, her advice was to LOVE the piece!  She would write hearts above those particularly difficult 'finger-twisters', so I would think of them as wonderful, instead of difficult. Try will change your Bach!

From Laurie Niles
Posted on December 31, 2009 at 4:13 AM

Thanks for all your thoughts!

It's all very mental, at this point. Yes, one can think just of the string one is trying to emphasize, but there is no denying that the angle is different if you are playing a string alone and if you are playing two strings together, even if you are playing one string more softly than the other.  I suppose, for the passage I mentioned, one could think of four angles: one E, one A, one EA emphasizing E and one EA emphasizing A. Then there would be a fifth angle, if you wanted to emphasize EA equally! But my revelation was the fact that you must change angles for the double stops versus the singleing notes, even if you are just barely mentioning the note on the other string. You can do it with just pressure, I suppose, but that's pretty dicey and compromises the tone. The act of changing the angle disrupts the mental flow of the line a little, though I think repetition cures that.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 31, 2009 at 5:27 AM

Laurie, I'm really looking forward to reading your interview with Simon Fischer.  One great interviewer and one great interviewee are an unbeatable combination.  I'm also interested in his bowing exercises which you alluded to.

From David Russell
Posted on December 31, 2009 at 10:14 PM


I teach "bridging" for voice leading in Bach. I'm sure you do this, too.

Bridging is the art of leaving one note of the double stop, "bridging" with the bow's plane to the string (note/line) you want to bring out. If done at the very end of the double stop, it creates tremendous clarity in voicing--and can even help with memorization.

Your description seems to be dealing with this subject. Love that fugue.


From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 2, 2010 at 6:17 AM

David, indeed that is something I was doing (especially in the twoing area I was describing, it's easier there than it is in some of the other places!), butI like the way you articulate it. It is always very helpful to have a name for something and to be thinking of it in a more conscious way, so thanks!

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