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The Weekend Vote weekend vote: Which are the most difficult double-stops to play in tune?

July 6, 2013 at 6:04 AM

I've been playing a lot of solo Bach lately, and that means that I've been playing a lot of double-stops.

Playing on two string requires a certain agreement of pitch between both notes. I was pondering the idea of which double-stops are the most difficult to play in tune, and I've chosen five for this week's vote. I didn't include all possible intervals because A. The poll only allows me up to five answers, and B. I just didn't think that, say, sixths, would make the grade for the most difficult to play in tune. The intervals I've chosen all have their difficulties: seconds are simply awkward for the fingers, which compounds the difficulty of getting the intonation right. Thirds have so many possibilities (major, minor) which makes them tricky when played in succession. FIfths would seem easy, just block two strings with one finger, but getting them consistently in tune? Help! Octaves require extreme precision. Anything beyond an octave gets tough on the hand, but I chose 10ths because they are rather common in the repertoire and definitely require a serious torque of the hand.

So for you, which interval wins the award for trickiest double-stops? And if I haven't included it in the poll, be sure to write about it in the comments.

From David Beck
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 6:26 AM
Alas, pianist/composer types think double-stop fifths must be dead easy. The further the player goes up the string, the more excriciating they get.
From Sacha Standen
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 11:51 AM
Was it Ruggiero Ricci who said that if you could only practice one exercise, for him it should be scales in thirds? I completely agree.
From Paul Deck
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 1:51 PM
My daughter noticed that sixths are not even on the list. :)

I think fourths are hard too, you really need them to sound beatless.

From Mendy Smith
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 3:00 PM
I think 10ths are impossible on viola, let alone play in tune.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 3:24 PM
They are all hard to tune but I think that thirds have the most utility in developing technique.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 3:40 PM
Your daughter might read what came before the poll, Paul! ;)
From Josh Thomas
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 3:40 PM
I'm working on the third movement of the Bruch right now, so I said tenths. Keeping track of half and whole steps while keeping the hand all stretched out and still trying to have good tone...yikes. I get relieved when the octaves show up.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 3:42 PM
Corwin, a long time ago you sent me a great system for working on consecutive 10ths. Can you share that with us?
From Tom Holzman
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 8:27 PM
Sounds like the correct answer to the question is "whatever chords I am working on at the moment." I have a wonderful scale book by Nadaud ("Gammes Pratiques") that has scales in a combination of fourths and sixths. My teachers have all loved these, and I am not sure any of the traditional ones have anything similar.
From Michael Pijoan
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 9:25 PM
For me this depends a lot on context. Tenths are traditionally pretty rough but there are lots of passages I can think of where the tenths are the reasonable part and the passages with 3rds are harder. Oh and seconds are fine until you find them hiding in any chord with a stretch involved. Haha fun times.
From Ellie Phillips
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 11:04 PM
I find tenths by far the hardest because I'm a violist and even attempting them practically breaks my fingers off. Other than that, I would vote for either fifths or octaves.
From Paul Deck
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 11:03 PM
Laurie, I skipped ahead to the vote too. LOL
From Paul Deck
Posted on July 6, 2013 at 11:08 PM
Tenths are not so bad unless one is also trying to play left hand pizzicato.
From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 1:59 AM
Here is the link that Laurie was referring to on learning passages in consecutive tenths
From Bruce Berg
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 8:33 AM
I disagree with all of you, or let's put it that I have a different take . Major and minor 7ths played consecutively are the most difficult for me. You find these in pieces like Roger Sessions Solo Sonata and other 20th c. pieces. They are very difficult to hear, but it is possible to train your ear to hear these intervals as "consonant."

Corwin, by the way, I was fortunate to have also read Szigeti's comments about practicing double stops a number of years ago and it certainly helps a lot. Of course it also works with passages in 3rds.

From Eric Won
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 11:12 AM
Over a period of time, I was having difficulties with my double-stops, as they seemed to have wandered about. Fifths were no longer exactly across strings, so I was forced into weird contortions to get a pure fifth to sound. Also, strange wolfs that I never had appeared and sympathetic tones were thin.
While visiting the luthier for the viola's regular check-up, he looked at me and quipped: "having trouble with double-stops and wolfs?" I was taken aback; he was reading the furrows on my forehead.
It turned out that my bridge had gently warped, which was enough to throw everything off. He straightened out the bridge and "voila!", all the double-stops are back where they always had been.
Ten minutes (and $15) later, all was back to normal. Another reason to schedule regular instrument check-ups.
From Nicky Paxton
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 12:11 PM
The situation whereby fifths are no longer exactly across strings can also arise if your strings have been on the violin considerably too long.
From Bruce Berg
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 6:13 PM
I second your comment about having your violin checked out periodically. I went through a long period of time (while studying with Galamian) that I could not for the life of me play anything in tune. The revelation occurred when I took the violin in to Vahakahn Nigogosian who observed, "I imagine you are having trouble playing in tune." My jaw dropped and of course said yes. It turned out that the fingerboard needed to be planed. Once he did this I could again play with decent intonation. Galamian was very pleased that because of my "hard work." I was able to miraculously play in tune!
From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 7, 2013 at 9:15 PM
Bruce, undoubtedly consecutive sevenths are difficult to tune but in terms of technique they do not offer as significant a challenge as any other interval. Practicing thirds would throw off some technique benefits for sevenths as they occur in major and minor intervals and frequently using the alternating pattern 1&3, 2&4.

Sevenths lack the turn of the hand and the non-intuitive 'smaller space equals larger interval" that bedevils thirds.

From Martha Yasuda
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 5:39 AM
I think the perfect intervals of unisons, 4ths, 5ths and octaves are the most challenging b/c they cause the listener the greatest degree of discomfort when played out of tune. I have always thought they were called perfect intervals (just guessing, actually) b/c they needed to be played perfectly in tune or the listener will just die and gasp for air! My biggest difficulty is playing thirds quickly in a progressive scale passage. My 4th finger is just too weak to keep up a quick pace!
From Eric Rowe
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 6:34 AM
I like to keep in mind the fingering relationships between harmonic intervals of less than a fifth and those greater than a fifth as in the table

m6 d5/a4
M6 P4
m7 M3
M7 m3
P8 M2
m9 m2
M9 Unison
m10 -m2 (higher string note lower)
M10 -M2 (higher string note lower)

From Bruce Berg
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 7:47 AM
Corwin, I consider "tuning" to be a technique. If that is the case, then I find the technique of tuning consecutive 7ths to be much more difficult than other intervals.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on July 8, 2013 at 11:03 AM
Fourths are the bane of my existence.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 9, 2013 at 2:33 AM
Bruce, Thank goodness that consecutive sevenths are relatively uncommon.
From Emma Otto
Posted on July 9, 2013 at 9:13 PM
I have strangely shaped fingers. All of my left playing fingers, except for the pinkie, are bent at the joints closest to the tips. My pinkie is also considerably shorter than average. This has never caused me any major problems, but I think it makes left-hand pizzicato more difficult than it should be. And it also causes my double stops in seconds to be difficult.

The one really nice thing about my hands is that they're pretty flexible and most of the fingers are long. That makes double stops like tenths and eighths pretty easy.

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