Violin Bowing Exercise: Practicing Solo Bach on Open Strings

March 1, 2023, 4:03 PM · Recently I was puzzling over why a student was playing in tune, doing all the written bowings, but still sounding pretty untidy. We were working on the violin version of Bach's "Gavotte" from the solo Cello Suite No. 6, otherwise known as the first piece in Suzuki Book 5:

Bach Gavotte

The more I observed, the more it became clear: she needed a lot more precision with the many string crossings, double-stops and triple stops in this piece. But how do you practice that?

The key is to hone in on the bow, and to isolate what it is doing.

In most music, we play on single strings, and so we can think about four angles, or "planes" for the bow: one each for the E, A, D and G. We tend to become very familiar and comfortable with holding the bow at these angles.

But in something like solo Bach, which is also full of double- and triple-stops, we must add in three more angles where the bow would be touching two strings at a time: EA, AD, and DG. But we don't always account for this in our practice.

Fortunately, there is a very simple way to practice getting these angles exactly right: play passages from the piece, completely on open strings. Here is a little video demonstration I did, and then below I describe the process in words:

Of course, I say this is easy. But in reality, it takes quite a lot of mental and physical concentration. It might be shocking, the first time you try it, to realize that you actually don't know which string you are playing on, and when. It can be hard just to figure out what those open strings are! Then even when you do figure it out, it can be difficult to consistently play correctly, making a full and resonant sound on each string.

But practicing these kinds of passages on open strings will greatly increase your bowing accuracy, coordination and comfort. It's pretty magical, a little like practicing in rhythms!

Here's how to do it:

I hope you find these suggestions helpful, and I invite any other practice suggestions below in the comments. Happy practicing!

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March 1, 2023 at 11:35 PM · This is good practice. You can sing the actual line in your head to help with the timing and expression.

Even though he was playing Paganini from an early age, Tedi Papavrami said that starting on Bach challenged his bowing technique more than anything else.

March 2, 2023 at 01:53 PM · My last teacher always urged me to play a piece using only the open strings on which the notes occurred to get a sense of the bowing and string changes before trying to add the actual notes. It is an excellent practice.

March 2, 2023 at 10:00 PM · I agree. It never occurred to me to expand the technique to double stopping though. But for spring crossings it is almost magic. But here is a note of caution: When you try a passage on open strings for the first time it will seem more difficult than with the left hand also working. Sometimes I find it nearly impossible. It seems that the two arms communicate somehow and the bow arm "knows" on which strings the left hand is working. Without this "knowledge" the bow arm tends to refuse doing it for a while.

However, overcoming this difficulty is well worth the effort.

March 3, 2023 at 10:57 AM · A detour-- that is the beloved R&A G that you do so well with?

March 3, 2023 at 01:19 PM · I like the method of stopping before the string change (or shift). The weakness of that method comes when you have as many (or nearly as many) string changes as notes. That's where the open-string technique really shines.

March 3, 2023 at 04:01 PM · A lot of that is making sure your gross motor movements are correct before getting hung up on the small stuff. You avoid confusion that way.

March 4, 2023 at 03:25 AM · Stephen, looking at my strings are you? LOL I just changed them all, EPG this time around. I've been using Obligatos but just was in the mood for the Evahs. :)

March 5, 2023 at 08:00 AM · I was thinking the Italian beast you put the Evahs on.

March 5, 2023 at 04:53 PM · Re: Practising all Real Notes of Bach on Only Open Strings! {#9}

Interesting and healthy Idea/s yet The Bow Technique Is Whatmakes Bach Unaccompanied Violin Sonatas & Partitas happen in a loving and smooth fashion. I can only speak from my own In Studio Experience and Concert Performing Experience All of 6 Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas over a veteran career, by now, but the Most Important and Revelatory Miracle occurred when being invited to private study with Nathan Milstein, GOAT Violinist & of The Bow, and coming under his NM Watch, literally altering my Bow Arm which was mostly Franco-Belgium, but w/a touch of Auer from Heifetz and Sascha Lasserson, prior, and in the beginning of playing violin, studies with my Franco-Belgium taught father, from Eduoard Dethier, Apostle of Eugen Ysaye, and at Juilliard where Poppa studied and graduated Top of his Class ...

I can only say, the Bowing Ideas perpetrated in the US by those who are most well known in America, excepting Nathan Milstein, and Only Milstein, addressed, and most naturally, the Mystique of smooth bowing of two strings, three strings and All Four of the strings on a Violin and this technique Milstein passed on to me, applies to all String Cousins, even Double Bass ... I cannot give a Lesson here nor wish to interfere with Laurie Nile's fine idea re practising Only Open Strings in Bach minus any finger's down ... Therefore, the only clue I will provide is to re-think the entire idea of a "Straight Bow" which is folly in the Milstein Idea of Bowing ... It requires, and unfortunately, Mr. Milstein, to be here or myself to do a video, but not going to for it is a precious Idea which Works, but took me over 2 years to Change my Idea's, re Bowing, but did so due to Nathan Milstein's encouragement & insistence I change, which liberated my bowing to accommodate all Four Strings, aka, Chords, smoothly and joyfully. This NM Idea and, again, I repeat, Naturally of Nathan Milstein, elevated my own abilities to reproduce an imagined mentally smooth as an Organ playing upon the Violin in All Bach and All technical string double/ triple and quadruple stops in Violin Concerto Repertoire & easily!!

One's Mind must be sharp to calculate keeping fingers above the strings and knowing How to not get confused in so doing to really improve the bow crossings & in double/triple/quadruple stoppings to smooth out many bumps and scratching heard from those fine young pupil's and including Pro's, never having been exposed to a Milstein Bowing Technique Up Front and Personal ... A Clue: It is based on Common Sense of the Body itself and on Personal Follow Through of the Bow going With The Violin movement in all chording in Bach and other similar passages in the Concert Violin literature ...

Thank you, Laurie, for addressing this time 'in memoriam' quandary of most violinists and string cousins through Centuries of Playing a String Instrument!!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ Elisabeth Matesky ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Fwd ~ dmg

March 5, 2023 at 08:37 PM · It is indeed my old Italian fiddle.

March 6, 2023 at 01:33 PM · Yes!!! So important and always revealing when I do it and only train the right side of the body. I heard that Dorothy Delay would sometimes have students do an entire lesson on open strings only...I don't know if this is folklore or true but the idea is inspiring. Thanks!

March 7, 2023 at 01:51 PM · To all this excellent advice, may I humbly add another practice mode: Moonwalk!

Since two thirds of our technique lie before and between the notes, I play with little tone, but slow enough to observe both hands at once and the economic way they move from one note to the next.

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