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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Which is the most difficult fancy violin technique to execute?

October 2, 2009 at 4:28 PM

We've been talking so much about Sarasate this week; it made me think about all the crazy wicked tricks a person can perform on the fiddle. Adele Anthony said it well in this week's interview, that Sarasate "was also a violinist, so he wrote very well for the violin – everything is possible, if you work at it hard enough."

I can remember the first time I realized this; I was a teenager, learning "Introduction and Tarantella," which was definitely at the outer reaches of my capabilities at the time. I recall the sheer panic I felt, looking at the music. In particular, I saw the barriolage passage, didn't know at all what that was about, and had a minor panic attack. Visually, the message my eyes sent my brain was something like: "Back...away...slowly..." I considered staying home from my lesson. It looked thoroughly impossible.

And then, the revelation, when my teacher showed me: it works, and it works like a charm.

And that is very often the case, particularly with the tricks that the great violinists like Sarasate and Paganini did: Once you know the trick, you realize that it absolutely fits the violin, like a glove. Not that it's always so easy to get that trick, but you can usually at least understand the fit, before it starts sounding great. Then, of course, crossing the chasm between seeing how it works and making it happen can take years off your life.

Which leads me to this week's question: Which of these violin tricks do you think is the most difficult to execute well? Undoubtedly, I've left some out, so please describe below if there's another one you'd like to add to the list. Also, feel free to list specific passages in the violin repertoire where you encounter these tricks, and perhaps some of your thoughts about how to make them happen.


From Casey Jefferson
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 4:42 PM

What a fun poll!

From Donna Clegg
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 4:41 PM

Whew!  I was glad to see that others chose rapid spiccato.  I think it is wicked hard and wonder if I'll ever master it.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 4:47 PM

I learned Tarantula this summer, as it was one of those pieces I never got around to.  It would have been tough in High School, but now, not so bad.  All those Dont etudes finally paid off...

For me, Fingered Octaves and Tenths are tough because of short pinkies, but I can do them, after proper warm up.  

I voted "Other" because of the 9th etude in Ecole Moderne Op. 10 by Wieniawski.  The 3rd variation has LH pizz and bowed arpeggios.  At the same time.  For five pages!  Bleh.  I can't do that, even at Poco piu lento, and I'm not wasting YEARS by trying.  Life is too short. 

Nice Weekend Vote!

From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 5:15 PM

 Those are all relatively hard techniques and some of them are beyond attempt. But I voted other.

1. I didn't see double harmonics on the list.  

2. The original bowing for Paganini's Caprice No. 5  is super super difficult (in my opinion)

3. You listed up bow staccato but that is almost easy by comparison to down bow staccato. Many a violinist plays Hora Spiccato but only a very few play Hora Staccato.

From Lawrence Price
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 8:57 PM

I believe that double stop harmonics are the hardest to do in a clean and good sounding way.  I voted for harmonics because of this and then realized it should be a separate category.

From Christopher Ciampoli
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 10:00 PM

I secodn that down-bow staccato should be on the list...except that I'm weird and I actually had to work to bring my up-bow up to the level of my down-bow. Anyway, I think fingered octaves are the hardest technique, from this point in my journey. Maybe my opinion will change in 10 years

From Laurie Niles
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 11:23 PM

Doh! Down-bow staccato! Yes, with the harmonics, I was thinking of, say, when there's a whole variation in harmonics, or that movement from Rumanian Folk Dances. I wasn't thinking of double-stop harmonics. What else did I miss?!

From Gail Tivendale
Posted on October 2, 2009 at 11:27 PM

From a teaching point of view I think sautille is one of the hardest techniques for students to grasp. I wasn't sure if that was what you meant by rapid spiccato.

From Brian Hong
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 12:14 AM

 To me, clearly fingered octaves.  They seem to be something that some people can do and some people can't, very much like up bow staccato.  It's just so.......difficult!

From Dottie Case
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 12:25 AM

 I need to confess that I have just cast an uneducated vote, in that some of these techniques are more advanced than I am. :)

From Tasha Miner
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 2:07 AM

 10ths, upbow staccato, lh pizz, and fingered octaves.  However, there was no multiple vote option, so I chose 10ths

From Casey Jefferson
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 2:35 AM

Just wonder what are the chances you'd use down bow staccato beside playing hora staccato?

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 3:48 AM

Dottie, me too!  I haven't even attempted a number of things on that list.  I voted for something I have attempted and find difficult--picking a high note out of the sky.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 9:09 AM

I don't understand why I can't play tenths.  My hands are large and my fingers are long, but I just can't do it.  I could probably do it on a 1/4 size violin.  ;-)

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 10:15 AM


it`s the double harmonics on down bow staccato thta are a real problem.

Some of these things depend on inherited abilities.  The Wieniawski style of staccato tends to be an either can or can`t. If unable then plemty of alternatives including just playing a nice spicatto.  Likewise left hand pizzicato. But even players who do this with ease can get really tired after a work like I Palpiti.

I am peverse enough to vote for playing beautifully in high positions.  uberman used to complain that players did not work on this skill enough and I think that is still true today.   For a perfetc demonstration of what the violin can be in this region listen to Grumiaux playing the slow movement of the Beethoven cocnerto,  or preferably watch the DVD.  IT isn`t just playing on the e string,  he has so much skill that he connects seamlessly with the high postions on the a string which a lot of wanabes just cannot do.  This is also connected to use of vibrato which leads me to y suggestion for something that is doen very poorly :  artistic use of vibrato.  That to me is a true virtuoso technique. And rare...




From Michael Divino
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 12:34 PM

For me right now, I chose fingered octaves.  Anyone recall the passage with B flats in the Romance from Wieniawski's Second Concerto?

From Deborah McCann
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 1:52 PM

I am always having to re-work the Sarasati Navarra where you go between the spicatto and the left hand pizz.  Love it, but to do it clean is another thing.

From Dessie Arnold
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 2:50 PM

I chose "Other" to indicate "MANY of the above (including ones listed in the responses but not in the poll)!  Interesting poll.  Makes me want to go practice.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 2:58 PM

Fingered octaves on viola are a stretch.  10ths are impossible, at least with my hand size/viola size.  In comparison, octaves are easy on violin and 10ths within the realm of possibilities.

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 3:56 PM

The hardest for me: up-bow staccato. I can never seem to find the right feel for it and have never had a teacher who can truly explain it to me or give me good ways to practice it.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 7:45 PM

 I went to a conservatory concert lat night. The strings are all very talented and they play in the modern style. But the lost technique (to add on to Brivati-Sensei's comments) is making a tone. I don't think taht it is a very hard technique but so few seem to do it that I deem it lost.

From Eitan Silkoff
Posted on October 3, 2009 at 8:53 PM

double stop artificial harmonics -_-

From Malcolm Turner
Posted on October 4, 2009 at 3:24 PM

I think I'll vote for "all of the above"

Luckily, I've never come across an orchestral passage that requires any of them!


From Michael Snow
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 2:14 PM

While one could pick any of these techniques as being difficult, I have to throw my vote to left-hand pizzicato, not because it is harder to do the plucking itself, but because it is very hard to get it to happen perfectly in the right rhythm. There are many high-level virtuosos who can pull off all of the above techniques, but very, VERY few (I mean one or two) that I have ever heard do left-hand pizzicato passages with the notes perfectly in rhythm and all equally present in terms of volume. So this technique seems easier to start to get the hang of than most of the others, but much harder to perfect.

From Peter Kent
Posted on October 6, 2009 at 5:05 PM

In formative years, I'd make manuscript copies of favorite pieces by ear and try to duplicate/play them......the 1st time seeing a film of Heifetz doing Hora Staccato, and realizing it was DOWN-BOW staccato had a major iconoclastic effect and sort of equalled up my love for Jascha and Nathan,  though still worshipping at the Milstein Shrine.....therefore, down-bow staccato gets my vote for How-do-they-do-that technique. 

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