Target Practice for Violinists - The World of Left-Hand Pizzicato

December 2, 2021, 12:10 PM · Left-hand pizzicato - when a violinist uses the fingers of the left hand to pluck the string - has a significance far beyond musical and virtuosic effects. If used as an exercise, It offers the opportunity to make rhythm more precise and to organize your musical mind.

Left hand pizzicato

In fact, the little plus sign which denotes a left-hand pizzicato comes up in early repertoire, in books meant for elementary school orchestras and pieces for beginners. In these cases, it’s a neat effect and relatively easy to perform, since it’s usually on the open E string. After the novelty wears off, it’s replaced with more complicated techniques and virtuosic examples, such as in Paganini's 24th Caprice and Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen." In these cases, the bow hits the string while the fourth finger plucks the string - so how do you manage that?

The Power Within the Fourth Finger

Left-hand pizzicato requires using fingers that are normally engaged in drumming out notes on the fingerboard to pluck the string. Very often, it falls to the pinkie to perform the pizzicato.

So how do you transform the weakest, tiniest finger into a pinpointed powerhouse? First you need to focus your energy and pressure on the fingertip. Since the other fingers are playing their own notes, it’s easy to forget the fourth finger. If that happens, wait a moment before you use it, then strike with a rhythmic precision. It’s like having a "freeze-frame" moment, a satisfying experience of rhythmic and technical spontaneity.

Here’s an exercise for finding the most precise moment to pluck with the finger. Start with a short pickup, the shorter the better. The pickup can be physical (lifting the violin) or mental (seeing and hearing it in your imagination.) The second step of the exercise is to feel a longer pickup while visualizing the length of the beat. Then fit the pizzicato halfway inside the beat, plucking an offbeat. With this exercise, you develop a visual and spatial sense of beats. You also learn to be spontaneous, which helps you play in an ensemble. The beat will happen when it happens. It’s never at your convenience.

Finding the Point of Most Power in the Bow

Left-hand pizzicato often comes between notes that are supposed to be played with the bow. The best stroke for these "in-between" notes (or at least the stroke used most often) is a bouncing bow, at the very tip. It's unlike a spiccato, which takes place below the middle of the bow. When your bow bounces, there should be a magnetic, spontaneous connection between the points of contact. If your mind is drifting, the target can become vague and evasive.

To get used to this unusually energetic bounce at the tip, it's important to get familiar with what it feels like, compared bouncing the bow in other parts of the bow. A little experimentation helps. Create an exercise in which a specific part of the hair takes center stage with a power that is indisputable. Try various bowings - spiccato, staccato, and detaché - so that the strength transfers as the bow moves. These pinpoints of power don’t have a name that I know of, but their absences are felt. I call them “playing points”, to differentiate them from the “sounding points”, which refer to where the bow plays between the bridge and the fingerboard. The bow is a miracle of efficiency in how it generates sound and color, but without attention to the lightening-speed changes of playing points, volume and texture can evaporate.

To learn to be in control of the bow’s energy, remember that any part of the bow will have enormous possibilities if your mind is right there with it. Don’t let yourself think that you have to be in just the right part of the bow. The bow’s placement is somewhat random, and we accept that. What’s special about violinists is the ability to link the mind to where the bow is, not the other way around.

The Percussive Nature of the Bow

Since most of our bow strokes are on the string, with horizontal and long strokes, let’s consider the nature of quickly striking the string at the tip. Just like a piano, xylophone, or chime, a quick jab with the bow produces a ringing sound. Because of the spiccato’s short life span, some conditions have to be satisfied:

1. Concentrate. Both the bow’s energy and the mind’s energy need to be focused on the playing point. Coupling that with rhythmic spontaneity limits the bow’s tendency to bounce at unwanted times and in unwanted places.

2. At our disposal is the absorbent quality of the hair and the springy texture of the string. That is all we need to have a slight, but ample, moment for full sound. As the bow flies towards the string and bounces like a basketball, avoid the thud or scrape. At the moment of impact, pull slightly away from the string to help the natural bounce to occur. By doing this, you’re setting the right conditions for the production of a clear sound. Like a diver who prepares himself for his impact with the water, you’re helping to engineer the bounce. If you wait to think about it during the bounce, it’s too late.

3. Raise the bow high enough after the bounce so the vibrating string doesn’t get caught in a low-flying bow. It’s better to be too far from the string than too close. It doesn’t take more effort to approach the string from farther away. Rhythm and spaciousness give the violinist a sense of planning and proportion.

Find the Simplicity in a Complicated Stroke

The material in many left-hand pizzicato sections is essentially open strings using the fourth finger and a first finger held down on the fingerboard. Practicing the introductory exercises or those charming ones like The Harlequin in first position by Goby Eberhardt that give the violinist’s mind a chance to take things one at a time. (Click here for the sheet music - or you can find it in Violinists’ First Solo Album selected by George Perlman (Carl Fischer)) You can also find another example in String Builder, Book One, by Samuel Applebaum (Belwin) - on p. 26 he has a series of exercises meant to strengthen the fourth fingers through left-hand pizzicato.

For all the emphasis on playing two hands together, it’s the mastery of each individual hand that matters the most. When you develop the hands separately, you sense there’s a mechanism somewhere inside of your ear or body that puts the two hands together. It’s there to make the movements match the music.

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December 3, 2021 at 02:11 PM · great article, thanks!

December 3, 2021 at 02:56 PM · Thank you, Jean

December 4, 2021 at 01:55 PM · I am surprised that the E-string is thought to be the easiest string for LH pizz - As a thin string, and steel, I'd have thought it was the most punishing on the finger.

My introduction to the technique was the Canary Polka, which I think I actually performed at a House Supper, in the presence of housemaster and family, monitors, house monitors, senior boys and junior boys (I'm not sure that we ever boasted a prefect while I was there - first time that question's ever crossed my mind!). It can't have been long after that that I saw and heard its serious use (in the Berg, complete with lighted cigarette in the soloist's mouth, the year after we had Tessa Robbins playing the Frank Martin - without a cigarette in her mouth).

December 4, 2021 at 05:36 PM · Wow, John!! Thank you. What a trove of information you have provided for me and others who haven’t heard these. I didn’t know about the Canary Polka by Poliakin, only The Hot Canary by Paul Nero. I’ve now downloaded it from IMSLP. Also I am new to the talents of Tessa Robbins. What a remarkable player. Please tell us more about the cigarette in the mouth of the Berg performer.

Yes, the e string hurts, but I think it’s taught right away in left hand pizzicato because there’s less danger of hitting another string.

December 4, 2021 at 06:33 PM · Thanks for your encouraging reply, Paul. From about the age of about 14 I used to go with my family to the Bernard Robinson Music Camp in Bothampstead, where in my second summer there, Tessa led the orchestra and played the Frank Martin (I didn't appreciate it that much at the time, but having listened to the first movement online recently, I think it's much underestimated). The following year we had the chain-smoking soloist playing the Berg (That year, Alan Richards, a retired doctor was leading - The leader was always either Tessa or him, but of the two it was only Tessa who performed solos to us, normally accompanied on the piano by a Cambridge Professor of Theoretical Chemistry, who was also the most chilling statue I ever heard). I'm afraid I never noted her name, and when I asked my father many years later about the one soloist and teacher I'd heard was a chain-smoker, he didn't think he'd ever played with or accompanied her. The Berg performer we accompanied was playing, chinrest under her left cheek and smoking fag dangling out of the other side of her mouth, ash probably falling on to the varnish and bouncing off - but I don't think there was anything wrong with her playing!

December 4, 2021 at 11:18 PM · I haven't actually worked on left hand pizz. because I will never be that kind of soloist. But when I did a Sarasate piece I "enhanced" a ricochet spot with left hand pizz. I felt a little guilty about that kind of cheating. Some of our colleagues in the Cello section will add left hand pizz. to arco on a descending line. The theory is that because of inertia the string does not want to immediately drop down to a lower pitch, needs extra persuasion. Banjo players are probably the best at this pulling-off and striking-on.

December 5, 2021 at 02:35 AM · Joel, Your idea of enhancing the ricochet with left hand pizzicato is very logical. The pizz helps the rhythm of the ricochet - one hand always helps the other on the violin. If you try something new and it works, it’s not cheating, it’s plain old clever.

I’m trying to wrap my brain around what the cellists you mentioned are trying to do. If the left hand pizz reminds the finger to play the pitch on time, that’s a good way of making it happen. Cellists are known to have a lot of style. I like the way they pluck the open

C string at the end of a bravura passage and raise their arm triumphantly.

One last thought about one hand helping the other. Whenever notes change on one string in a slurred passage, the bow helps by staying engaged. It can be done by reminding yourself to stay connected. Broadus Erle taught parlando to continued a legato, sostenuto connection. For him, parlando is a slight undulation of the bow to keep a pretty sound going.

December 6, 2021 at 07:37 PM · continued,- another time to use left hand pizz. is whenever a natural harmonic connects to the same open string, on a slur. It will continue ringing at the harmonic without it.

December 7, 2021 at 10:17 AM · I've been practicing left-hand pizzicato with my third finger. I've never tried it with my fourth.

As far as Joel's comments on banjoists and left-hand pizzicato goes, left-hand pizzicato - pulling-off - is a feature of the folk-popular music world: it's much more flexible with fretted instruments. You aren't restricted to open strings, because the frets act as a nut, stopping the string whereever.

Does anyone do it on the viola da gamba?

December 8, 2021 at 03:17 PM · Great article! Since the repertoire I play rarely calls for left-hand pizz, I've not worked on it much. But I will start to incorporate your ideas as a way to strengthen my pathetic pinky!

December 9, 2021 at 05:48 PM · Thank you, Wesley, for pointing out the advantages of fretted instruments. It reminds me to place my first finger firmly when playing “fingered”or artificial harmonics (which are the same). I’m grateful that violinists use the bow when playing fingered harmonics. I imagine it’s delicate to pluck a string on the banjo or guitar when playing harmonics.

Diana, I have a lot of empathy for anyone who bemoans their pinky. It’s been my nemesis since forever. I’ve had moments of coming to terms with it, though. I realized that when I use it to pluck a string, I tended to overdo the plucking part. I approached the string with one trajectory and came away from it with another. Now I think the trajectory should be the same in both directions. Let’s all be proud of our 4th finger!!

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