Kurt Sassmannshaus: Developing High-Level Violin Technique in Young Artists

June 28, 2019, 7:13 PM · You may know violin pedagogue Kurt Sassmannhaus for his ground-breaking website, ViolinMasterclass.com, which is full of wonderful tutorials and articles and has been on the internet nearly as long as our own Violinist.com (around 20 years!). Or, perhaps you know him from the The Sassmannshaus Tradition, a violin method series by his father, Egon Sassmannshaus, which Kurt recently translated into English and has made available in beautifully illustrated Barenreiter editions.

Kurt Sassmannshaus
Violinist Kurt Sassmannhaus. Photo by Violinist.com.

But here is another thing to know about Kurt Sassmannhaus: he's simply a fantastic violin teacher. One of Sassmannshaus's specialties is in working with young (and very young) violinists, laying the foundations for them to start developing high-level technique at an early stage in their learning. His methods have been highly successful, and you'll find his name in the biographies of international competition winners and soloists all over the world, including Tessa Lark and Charles Yang, to name just a few. "Developing Young Artists" was the focus of two lectures that he gave at the 2019 Starling-DeLay Symposium on Violin Studies last month at the Juilliard School. Aimed at teachers, his advice nonetheless provided some great exercises and ideas for all levels of learners.

In developing a plan for learning technique, it's important to first assess what skills you have, and what skills you'll need for the next level. For his lectures, Sassmannshaus addressed several different levels of skill acquisition, based on benchmark pieces and concertos, which I'll use here. For acquiring any new skills, Sassmannshaus emphasized "deliberate practice. It's a pain in the neck, but it is the key to success." He also recommended assigning just a few minutes of daily practice for any new technique, but he emphasized that the practice must be daily for new skills to take effect.

From First Position Pieces to Vivaldi A minor

Once a violinist has learned basic first position skills, one of the first landmark pieces to work toward playing is Vivaldi's Concerto in A minor. Incidentally, the first and third movement of this concerto appear in Suzuki Book 4 and the second movement in Book 5. The Suzuki books use the arrangement of this concerto by Tivadar Nachéz. A more recent Barenreiter version (2010), edited by Sassmannshaus, hews more to Vivaldi's original, which is the sixth concerto in Vivaldi's collection, L'estro Armonico, Op. 3.

At this point Sassmannshaus is assuming that the student has the following basic skills: the ability to play in first position, to play high and low second and third fingers, and to play a scale in first position, without using open strings. For the Vivaldi concerto, the student will need to learn how to play in positions and how to shift; as well as martelé bowing and bow control.

Here are some of his ideas for acquiring those skills.

First, a student should learn some basic finger patterns that create a major and minor scale, with whole steps and half steps. In his Early Start on the Violin Book 2, Sassmannshaus has these patterns written out on p. 35. Once you can play a scale in first position, without open strings, you can transfer that to anywhere on the violin, and this is one way to start practicing in different positions.

You can do the same thing for simple songs with no open strings. "You can play these songs all over the violin, in various positions," Sassmannshaus said. (In the same Sassmannshaus Book 2, there are such songs on p. 30; you can also use Suzuki tunes or other songs). To get started with reading music while playing in new positions, students can read a song or piece they already know, but in a new position. The reading in a new position will be difficult, but having familiarity with the song helps.

When adding new techniques and assignments to a student's practice, Sassmannshaus suggested doing the new skill for only about three minutes a day. Also, don't assign multiple new things at once to the practice routine.

"We have the child learn one thing at a time -- if we have a new technical skill, we don't also introduce a new piece," he said. "The idea of multi-tasking is a myth," he added, "we can do many things, but the brain is still thinking about one thing at a time."

Also, "don't ever give a student a piece in order to teach a special skill," he said. "Their pieces should be the easiest thing they practice."

When it comes to shifting, it's important to teach the proper technique, in detail. One must lift the finger until it is no longer pressing the string but is still touching it, then glide along the string, then press the finger back down in exactly the right spot for the new note. In his words, "Lift, shift, drop." Sassmannshaus demonstrated:

He also reduced all shifts to 16 possibilities for the fingers, with three kinds of shifts, showing it in this simple (but profound!) chart. The numbers on the right are the fingers that shift, for example, first finger to first finger. Then the kinds of shifts are described on the left:

shifting patterns Sassmannshaus

He also talked about gaining more control over the bow, in regard to:

He demonstrated several exercises for bow speed, bow pressure and sounding point:

Sassmannshaus also talked about introducing the martelé bow stroke, the fast, accented strong stroke. Here he talks about the importance of being able to reach the tip, and he demonstrates how to do martelé in the upper half of the bow:

Pieces he suggested for playing between first position and Vivaldi included Oskar Rieding's "Rondo" and "Marcia,"; various concertos by Friedrich Seitz, Rieding and Leo Portnoff; and the Fiocco Allegro (which interestingly is in Suzuki Book 6). In general, play pieces that utilize first, second and third positions.

From Vivaldi A minor to Mozart

Once the Vivaldi A minor concerto is well in hand, the student can set his or her sights on the Mozart concertos (generally Nos. 3, 4 and 5). These will require the development of new skills such as: playing in higher positions; speed in both fingers and bow; increased coordination between the hands; double stops; vibrato; spiccato and sautillé (off-the-string bowings); and bow speed patterns.

At this point, it's time to introduce the three-octave scale, and one good option is Galamian scales. Galamian's Contemporary Violin Technique book comes with an entire pullout supplement of rhythm and bowing patterns, which are useful as the student progresses. With a 48-note pattern for the scale, "you can do all the rhythms, and you always end up right," Sassmannshaus said.

To acquire speed in the left hand, one has to practice finger dropping and lifting. One often-overlooked aspect of this is that a tense hand is not a nimble or fast one. To achieve speed, one must have a certain lightness of touch. Here Sassmannshaus describes reducing finger pressure, so that the fingers are using only the minimum pressure required to produce a good note:

For speed, one can use exercises in Sevcik and Schradieck to increase finger dexterity. Sassmannshaus warned that working on speed does not mean playing fast immediately, "Find out which speed the child can do easily, and that is the top speed," he said. Practicing patterns correctly is what allows the brain to get efficient with the patterns. "If we practice speeds that don't work our brain properly, then we get what I call sauerkraut. Never practice faster than it works. Over time, it will go very fast."

Likewise, learning scales in octaves will require very slow work, and learning to shift to exactly the right notes will be just like beginning shifting. Sassmannshaus demonstrates:

For scales in thirds, the student will have to know where the half and whole steps are, and in the very beginning the teacher can go through and have the student actually say it out loud before playing the next note. "It's very slow, but it only takes two minutes," Sassmannshaus said. "Unless that is clear, they are completely guessing where they have to go."

In practicing vibrato, it's important not to develop "the electric doorbell, which is a cramp in the arm." Instead, very the width and speed. Practice doing vibrato combinations of slow and narrow; slow and wide; fast and narrow; and fast and wide.

Off-the-string bowings become increasingly important in more advanced repertoire. Sassmannshaus describes how to get started on both spiccato (basic off-the-string bowing) and sautillé (fast off-the-string bowing) in the video below:

Putting some of these skills together, it is important to use bow speed, rather than bow pressure, in the stylistic bowing used in the Mozart concertos. "Speed is almost always preferable to bow pressure," he said. Sassmannshaus has a special bow that he uses just for teaching, which has marks dividing it at the 1/2, 1/4 and 1/8 points. He uses this bow to help students with bow division and also measuring speed. For example, in certain "sighing" figures in Mozart, the bow may start with speed, using half of the bow for the first note, then slow down at the end and use just 1/8 of the bow for the second note. Sassmannshaus demonstrates:

From Mozart to Bruch

To get from the Mozart concerti to concertos such as Bruch's Concerto No. 1 for violin, a student will need to continue to progress with scales, double stops, and bowings such as martelé, spiccato and sautillé. The student will need to become secure in playing in higher positions. For scales, the student can add more complex patterns. For double stops, add fingered octaves and tenths.

The collé bowing motion helps with many of these upper-level bowing skills. Collé is more of an exercise than a bowing that is used in the repertoire, and it can be introduced early. Sassmannshaus describes how to introduce collé:

Also, it is important to develop a good concept of tone and to learn sound production. For this Sassmannhaus recommended very slow scales, with six beats per note and every note at maximum sound.

Some of the pieces he recommended to play on the way from Mozart to Bruch are: DeBeriot's Scene de Ballet and Concerto No. 9; Kabalevsky Violin Concerto in C Major; Viotti 22 or 23; Kreisler pieces; and Sarasate's Introduction and Tarantella.

Concerto Schedule

Sassmannshaus said that Dorothy DeLay - his former teacher - recommended teaching as many pieces of standard repertoire as possible to a student before the age of 16. Learning concertos early helps with memory; then "when they get to college, they can start repeating them and making them special."

Here is a general list of concertos, in the order to learn them:

Some of the skills to acquire and improve in this phase include ricochet, chromatic glissandos, staccato, harmonics, and double-stops harmonics. A few tips about these techniques:

Ricochet: This is a stroke where the bow bounces several times in the same direction. Try playing a smooth up bow, and then "interrupt" it by whipping the bow down-bow and letting it bounce as many times as it will, just to get the feeling of a bow continuously bouncing. The ricochet bow stroke happens between the middle of the bow and balance point.

Chromatic glissando: this is basically a sloppy-wide vibrato that moves up and down the fingerboard. Try it initially without the thumb to get the motion going.

Harmonics: play at the bridge, using a tilted bow. Use a lot of bow speed, but not pressure, and use brush stokes, not martelé, as that will squelch the sound of the harmonic.

Up-bow Staccato: You can do this three ways:

  1. By rotating the arm
  2. As a tremolo from the wrist (the up-bow from the arm cancels out the down-bow from the wrist)
  3. Pinch the bow between the index and the thumb

From Paganini to Vivaldi

That's right, it's not over, once you have acquired all this technique and learned so many pieces.

"Success needs to be redefined constantly," Sassmannshaus said. Now it's a matter of making artistry in everything you play; in securing your memory for performance and continuing to practice slow intonation.

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Replies

June 29, 2019 at 05:50 AM · Interesting! Where do the Bach Sonatas and Partitas fit into this pedagogical progression through?

June 29, 2019 at 11:26 AM · I like the end "from Paganini to Vivaldi". very true.

June 29, 2019 at 01:13 PM · How old is KS and who is the heir apparent of his empire?

June 29, 2019 at 05:02 PM · Joe, Kurt has several graded repertoire lists, here is the one that includes solo Bach. He puts the S and Ps at "Level 6" and up, so in the context of this article, that would be starting them somewhere between the Mozart concertos and Bruch.

Paul, how old are you? :) As this lecture demonstrates, Kurt is training teachers whenever he gets a chance. His methods are well-represented on ViolinMasterclass, in his books and in the hundreds of former and current students out in the world. It's always inspiring to watch him teach and learn more about how he does it!

June 29, 2019 at 06:20 PM · Thanks for bringing more of professor KS's wisdom to us Laurie

Am ever grateful to him for his incredible website and YouTube videos !

June 29, 2019 at 09:48 PM · Dr. Sassmannshaus is absolutely amazing! He makes even difficult techniques seem so obvious and easy. His explanations and demos are so easy to follow and reproduce. I had a chemistry professor in college who had the same gifts. I never could have made it through p chem without him. I also really like the way he interacts with his students on his website. He always treats them with understanding and respect.

June 30, 2019 at 12:04 PM · Kurt Sassmannshaus at the 11th International Violin and Viola Teachers Exchange Conference in Germany, November 1 – 4, 2019.

Dear Violin and Viola Teachers,

Not everyone has been able to get to know Kurt Sassmannshaus personally and learn from him. Therefore I would like to invite you to the IMTEX Conference.

Suzuki and traditional music teachers from all over the world will gather together at the International Music Teachers EXchange Conference in Remscheid/Germany to share their experience in an open, interactive, and inclusive learning environment where all are welcome!

More information:

https://en.germansuzuki.com/?page_id=2800

The conference languages are English and German.

By the way, Kurt Sassmannshaus and I studied together at the Musikhochschule in Cologne. He then went on to study at the Juilliard School with Dorothy DeLay and I went to Japan to study with Shinichi Suzuki for two years. Now we meet again after almost four decades and will teach together at the IMTEX conference.

Life is sometimes very exciting....

I would be pleased to meet you at the conference.

Kind regards,

Kerstin Wartberg

Conference Director

July 4, 2019 at 07:38 PM · This was a very inspiring post. Im kicking myself for not going. I signed up and paid the registration, but couldn't face NYC!

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