Multiple Stops, Multiple Headaches

October 17, 2016, 2:48 PM · The harmonic world of the violin doesn’t come easy. Chords in first position require an advanced technique of blended intonation and blended sound. While wind players breathe, blow and create air cavities, string players make strings spin and create as little friction as possible. When the bow glides over two strings, and then switches to two other strings, the unique angles and planes must be observed and mastered. Chords invite us into the world of movement, planes, and unlimited possibilities.

Multiple-stops -- chords played on two, three and even four strings -- are usually performed in the lower half of the bow, and the bottom part of the chord is often played slightly before the beat. Typically, the two parts of the chord get short-changed, with the pick-up too short and the down beat not prepared adequately. To correct this rhythmic distortion, figure how much excess speed you used to play the pick-up, then slow it down by the same amount. Also, subdivide the two parts of the chord. A divided chord has a similar type of "rhythmic nuance" as grace notes, in which the even pulse is finessed to "fold" in the extra notes.

Handy Tips

The ideal bow movement for multiple stops is as unobtrusive as possible. To discover the magical qualities of the bow flying and gliding through the air, visualize the actual movement of the bow, then simply let the hand and arm go for the ride. Don’t micro-manage the bow hand technique. Instead, follow the motion. Following the motion has several benefits:

  1. No unwanted finger or wrist pressure will crush the strings.
  2. The bow will find the correct height above the strings, likely much higher than you would expect. Remind yourself how much lower the hair is below the hand. The bow will even be higher to allow the hair to spin the strings, and to allow the fact that the strings are rotating up and down, in constant motion like a wave.
  3. The elbow will not be a hindrance or a cumbersome anchor. Since it’s "going for the ride," it will take on a role similar to a tail of a kite. It adds balance and heft, but no willful or clumsy weight.

Changing Planes - No Shortcuts

Chords require sudden changes of strings, with a light touch on the upper and lower part of the chord. Changing from two strings to two different strings involves an enormous change in the angle of the bow, and the plane in which it moves. Make sure you’re thinking about the transition. The brain is equipped with this knowledge, but not at birth. (Possible exceptions are Perlman, Szeryng, Hahn, Heifetz, etc.) The mind can develop this skill of observing geometry; about five minutes a day of constant reminder should "re-wire" the stubborn brain waves.

The key to smooth bow movement is to bow straight, with the bow parallel to the bridge. One common problem is the bow veering, even careening, towards the bridge accompanied by strident sounds. A strong image is necessary to make the student aware of this undesired force of nature. Suggesting a "reverse rainbow" will equalize the problematic detour.

reverse rainbow bow

It not only stops the rapid skid towards the bridge and relieves the intense sideways pressure, but it also gives the bow the freedom to find its organic path.

Collé and Parlando

The lower part of the chord must have an extra amount of strength because it serves as a pick-up to the upper part. Because of its quick, fleeting rhythmic nature, the sound is often diminished. The part of the bow that actually is touching the string at that given moment seems to go unnoticed. To pay attention, let’s first give a name to this rapidly changing bow segment. Since "sounding point" is the term used for the segment of the string that is played between the bridge and fingerboard, I use the expression "playing point" to get the player’s attention focused correctly on the part of the bow that’s being used, the pinpoints of energy.

There are names for strong strokes in various parts of the bow, and mastering those strokes help create strength in bowing. For example, the French term collé describes a quick, biting, staccato sound, played usually in the middle of the bow with quick finger action. Collé means "glue," but I think the operative and most practical description would be "strong." Parlando teaches the player to develop strength and consistency throughout the bow’s length. It is a series of indentations into the string as the bow travels from frog to tip. Include parlando in your practicing to enlarge the scope of collé.

When playing multiple stops, create strength at all of the various playing points, and the chords will be full and incisive, no matter which part of the bow you’re using.

Left-hand Landscape

Open strings, blessings that they are, are the ideal place to begin finding comfort in the left hand. A G Major chord with open G and D strings is a good starting point, then all subsequent chords will see the wrist bend every which way. Harold Wippler, former concertmaster of the Denver Symphony, now known as the Colorado Symphony, showed me an exercise that highlighted the subtle movements of the hand: simply move from the first to second finger, then the second to the third, then third to the fourth. The hand changes shape with each placement, with the largest metamorphosis happening on the fourth finger. The worst-case scenario is all too common: that the hand is immobile, even when switching from first to fourth finger.

When it comes to the left-hand fingers, remember three things:

  1. When the left fingers move from string to string, be sure to account for the substantial in the angle of the hand. This change mirrors the change in "planes" where the bow travels. To illustrate this distance between "planes," place the bow at the tip, and move from string to string. The substantial drop and distance that’s experienced visually will take away the illusion that the strings are "close" to each other. In reality, each string has its own set of related dimensions for both right and left hands.
  2. The hand may help the fingers get to their desired spots, but it needs prompting. Give the hand and fingers well-timed reminders.
  3. If the stretch between the second and fourth fingers is especially wide, center the hand around the fourth finger, then reach backwards. Reach as far forward with the fourth finger as possible. Because of its short length, it’s almost impossible to reach too far (too sharp) with the fourth finger.
  4. For those particularly awkward intervals that involve the second and third fingers on two strings, make the stretch impulsively, like a snake suddenly lunging at its prey. Then just as quickly release this unnatural use of the hand. With the energy of this "darting motion", you can place the fingertip farther than you thought.

Do not attempt what pianist and composer Robert Schumann did when he placed his hand in a stretching machine!


October 18, 2016 at 08:28 PM · Great food for thought. I am currently struggling with 4-string chords (on viola, even), and your article gives me another way to think about it. Thanks.

October 23, 2016 at 03:13 AM · Excellent article and wonderful to read a reference to Harold Whippler-- an amazing teacher and an incredible human being.

October 24, 2016 at 05:01 AM · Harold Wippler will always epitomize to me a highly respected concertmaster. I had just joined the Denver Symphony and he had moved to the 3rd chair, first violins, because of an injury he had sustained. I remember the high esteem every one felt for him. He has the utmost respect for his colleagues, and demonstrated the great quality every concertmaster needs: maturity and character. He was the Jimmy Stewart of concert masters.

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