Violin Technique: How to Play Clean, Strong Chords

September 1, 2022, 1:16 PM · I've seen it happen - a student is playing a well-learned piece beautifully, getting to the final bars, building to that climactic ending, when - SPLAT! The chord at the very end sounds less like a triumph and more like a dumpster truck emptying its load. Ouch. What happened?

I'll take a guess: those chords got very little attention and very little practice. With so many other notes to learn, a couple of chords at the end just didn't seem all that significant. Plus, they were at the end, so they were the last thing learned.

But chords do require some devotion. The triple- or quadruple stop has its own kind of technique that is quite different than running 16th notes, melodic lines and even double-stops. You can't take it for granted - it needs special attention, and it needs special practice.

The video below contains some pointers and exercises for practicing chords, focusing on the bow. Below that is a written summary of what is in the video. Happy practicing!

When it comes to using your bow to produce a strong, ringing chord, it boils down to two basics: the beginning of the chord and the end of the chord. In a nutshell, set the bow at the beginning of the chord, and sustain both strings at the end of the chord. And in both cases: gravity will try to bring you down in multiple ways!

Let's take the case of a basic G major chord, a quadruple stop that begins on the open G Here is an example, from the end of Fiocco's "Allegro," which ends in a triple-stop followed by the G quadruple-stop:

Fiocco Allegro

First of all, especially in a four-note chord, make sure you actually play the bottom of the chord. Gravity plays a role here: you have to lift your arm, and humans are lazy. On many occasions, a student will completely miss the bottom note. They've practiced it that way so many times, they don't even notice that it is missing.

Setting the bow on the G and D strings will ensure that you will not miss that bottom note. When you practice this, start by taking a good amount of time and care to set the hairs of the bow on both strings. The more you practice setting the bow, the less time you will need, until you can do it at full speed.

Setting the bow on the strings also means that you will not come flying at the strings from above. If you do, gravity plus the weight of your hand will cause an inevitable crunch. From a technical perspective, coming in from above does nothing for your chord. You can get all the volume and power you need, using the regular weight of the bow and horizontal motion. So even if you want the visual drama of a large arm motion, technically you will still actually set the bow on both strings before starting any horizontal motion of the chord.

For a quadruple-stop, you can think of it as "two plus two" - GD to AE. Place the bow on the G and D, and then roll to the A and E. Use less than half of the bow for the bottom two strings; you can trust that they will ring.

When you roll to the A and E, this is where gravity will hit you from the other side. Gravity is going to pull your arm down, especially if you roll the chord with a little too much energy. Aim to sustain both the A and E strings together, all the way to the tip of the bow. If gravity pulls your arm down, you'll wind up on just the E, which makes for a weaker-sounding chord.

Practice rolling a quadruple stop this way on open strings. Can you actually do this ten times in a row, hearing both the G and D, and then sustaining the A and E, all the way to the end of the bow? It's harder than it seems like it will be!

The same rules apply to a triple stop: place the bow on the bottom two strings, then roll to and sustain the top two strings. Using the example above, the equation looks just slightly different: two plus two - DA to AE. That example is an up-bow. Whether up-bow or down-bow, still make certain that the hair of the bow is touching both strings at the beginning of the chord, then it is sustaining the top two strings at the end.

A quick note on playing "triple stops" in a way that sounds like just one chord: it starts with "two plus two." If you fully engage both at the beginning and end of a triple-stop, you can "break" it in such a way that is so fast and subtle that it really doesn't sound like a break; it sounds like three strings all at once. At least for short notes - doesn't work if you want to sustain three separate notes on three strings for four beats!

In general, the bowing technique for chords that I've described is aimed at creating strong and full chords. If you are "voicing" chords in Bach, for example, you may roll a chord note-to-note for the effect, or partially roll it, or purposely roll up to just one note - or even play the chord and roll down to one of the notes in it. Those are more sophisticated techniques, requiring a different discussion! But being able to control the way you start and end basic chords, as described here, will give you a foundation for when you experiment in pieces that require even more finesse with the bow.

Happy practicing!

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Replies

September 2, 2022 at 05:55 AM · A practical video and written explanation, Laurie: thanks. It also serves as a reminder that in music one does not relax until the silence two or three seconds after the piece has ended. No 'coasting' to an easy finish! One (irrelevant) point I'd add is that I am fascinated by the bouquet of scissors behind you!

September 2, 2022 at 05:31 PM · I often (not always) use a lowish elbow for the whole chord, achieving the string crossing via thumb and fingers (as if turning a knob).

Shorter and heavier on the low strings, longer and lighter on the others.

September 4, 2022 at 02:53 PM · Thank you, Laurie.

I have been thinking about this technique quite a bit. Anne Akiko Myers uses this technique quite brilliantly in O Magnum Mysterium. I’ve been rewatching her live performance on YouTube with pianist Akira Euguchi.

I’ll watch the video and try to reproduce parts of the piece on my violin. As an adult learner, I’m quite a ways behind, but love the way Anne expresses the music with her playing, especially her vibrato, something else I’m trying to tackle.

Thanks again.

September 4, 2022 at 05:12 PM · There is a simple solution for a difficult, common problem. On triple-stops and quadruple-stops end "Up" bow on the treble strings. It will be easier and sound a whole lot better.

September 8, 2022 at 04:24 PM · Interesting that the subject should come up now, because I've been reviewing this part of technique over the last 2 weeks. About 5 years ago, I went through a stretch of breaking a lot of bow hairs - partly from faulty chord execution; but I had also gotten into the related habit of "crash landing," a subject linked in the "You might also like" section at the end of this blog.

With a few practice sessions, I gave careful attention to bow placement and control on chords and saw the trouble clear up fast. I do a lot of double-stop and chord practice but haven't broken any bow hairs for at least 4 months. I'm going heavy right now on technique reviews, so these instructional videos are the next-best thing to having a teacher in person for brush-up instruction.

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