There are three things I practice, every day that I practice (which, according to Dr. Suzuki, should be every day that I eat). Four things, if you count scales. But those go without saying.
The other three are:
At first, they may seem like an odd trio of skills to lump together. But look more closely, and you’ll see similarities. All three are repetitive actions. There’s great benefit to practicing them all with a metronome. And most people want theirs to be faster!
Two of these skills, vibrato and trills, have obvious “up-down” or “back-forth” elements. But in fact, all three are best imagined as one-directional. Think of tossing a ball in the air: the energy goes up, and gravity takes care of the down.
Vibrato is active “up” and releases “back”
Up-bow staccato is active “up”, with quick releases
Trills lift “up” and release “down”
Simon Fischer often speaks of the example of clapping hands when discussing vibrato. When you clap your hands, you’d never think of pulling them apart, then bringing them together! Like the violin skills we’re discussing, applause has only one direction; whether that direction is out or in is up to you.
The Need for Speed
With vibrato, staccato, and trills, is faster necessarily better? Generally, yes. That’s because speed implies ease; part of learning to perform these actions quickly is learning how to lose extra tension.
Therefore, let’s explore how to make each of these three techniques “reactive”: one cycle flowing into the next without apparent effort.
In this article, I won’t dive too deeply into the mechanics of vibrato, staccato, and trills. But with some exploration, and the help of a metronome, you can begin to experience the reactive nature of all three.
Quick Up, Slow Down
Let’s begin with trills. I’ve made a whole series of videos on trill work, but the most important concept is “active up, passive down.” In other words, active finger lifting and passive dropping. In fact, the drop should simply be a reaction (there’s that word again) to an energetic lift, rather than a deliberate motion.
Turn on a metronome at 60 bpm, and practice trilling between 1st and 2nd fingers. Lift your 2 exactly with each click, letting it fall slowly sometime during the beat. As you repeat the lifts, see if you can let your drops fall just before the click. When you time it just right, your 2 will only be on the string for a split second before lifting precisely on the click.
It’s possible, of course, to split the beat in half and to perform 2 evenly-spaced lifts for each click. But a more effective way to practice is to double-up the lifts instead. I call it a “two-for-one”.
With a two-for-one, you lift twice with one burst of energy. Then you use the rest of the beat to recover and drop lazily for the next burst. If you need a slower beat in order to get used to this feeling, go ahead and bring the metronome down below 60.
As I outline in my Trill Drill series (linked above), you can play around with ending the bursts on the upper finger, or the lower, then adding another lift, etc. But the key concept is to focus only on one direction (up), rather than two (up and down). And instead of starting with a slow trill and using the metronome to speed it up gradually, you’re starting with the fastest trill motion you can manage. You’re only using the metronome to time the bursts.
What about vibrato?
You can work on vibrato using the same process. There are different ways to produce the rolling of the finger tip, and I won’t get into the details in this article. The fewer “big” muscles you use, the better. But however you produce that impulse of energy, start with one timed to a metronome click. Then double-up and go from there. I suggest playing around with “rhythms” for these impulses, as Simon Fischer outlines in his book Warming Up.
Staccato is an Option
Finally, we come to staccato. If anyone has a foolproof method for teaching up-bow staccato, by the way, please sell it to me. I’ll pay anything! Until that happens, though, I can confirm that I’ve had the most success personally (and as a teacher) using the same practice method for staccato that we’ve just used for trills and vibrato.
Begin (in the upper half of the bow, of course) by setting tension into the bow stick. I do this by pronating my forearm and pushing the thumb up into the bow leather. Then release to produce a single collé note, also known as “pizzicato of the bow.”
Once you get the hang of producing this single note with a consonant at the front, you can bring the metronome into the process as you did for the other techniques. Time your release so that the note appears exactly with the click. Then double-up… in this case, literally! Remember that you’re looking for two notes with one impulse. When you can, move on to triples and beyond.
As far as staccato goes, remember that it only rarely shows up in repertoire. As James Ehnes told a class of mine, “If you’re a touring soloist, you might encounter staccato once… in an entire season.” Even so, he admitted devoting part of a year to mastering the stroke so that he could record Hora Staccato!
Just a few minutes a day of trills, vibrato, and (optionally) staccato will bring you noticeable gains in speed and confidence. Keep in mind, too, that trill work is foundational not only for executing trills, but for every kind of passagework. So your daily trills will pay huge dividends to your overall facility.
Visit Nathan at www.natesviolin.com
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Jim Hastings mentioned Oistrakh, and his colle was amazing. It's like upbow staccato, except that instead of slow bow consumption, none is consumed whatsoever, and he makes it look so effortless, like he could just stand there and do that all day. Which, probably he could.
Also like Jim, I found trills came naturally to me as a child. But I wonder if my trills are as fast and as clean and as even as they could be. Probably not. Plenty of Kreutzers with trills.
I find I need to keep after my spiccato bow strokes.
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February 12, 2023 at 11:17 PM · You have a fair amount of overlap here with my own practice routine. I start with bow arm exercises, although I haven’t focused much lately on staccato. Next I do trills with multiple finger combinations in strict, moderate tempo. These drills really pump up the left hand muscles. With the left hand opened up this way, I find that the vibrato drills come more easily. I round out warm-up sessions with shift review and double-stops. My warm-up routine takes about 20 minutes. Once it’s done, then I dive into scale practice.
On the subject of trills: As a kid, only a few months into lessons with my first teacher, I discovered that I had a knack for trilling. It just came so naturally to me, without my teacher having to demonstrate it. I was undoubtedly doing my best to imitate what I heard on the vintage recordings of my early musical role models: David Oistrakh, Arthur Grumiaux, Isaac Stern.
One thing my teacher did point out, though, was to avoid using vibrato when doing a trill - a view I fully subscribe to - and I could see, and hear, why. BTW, this first teacher also felt that I was ready to start learning vibrato fairly early in my first year - right around the time she introduced me to position-playing. She was right. From what I’ve heard, these two technique elements don’t come so early for most learners, but I took to both quite readily.
I will definitely mark this blog page of yours and give your practice methods a try.