Ricci's 'Glissando': a historical technique?

December 22, 2008 at 07:25 AM ·

I finally got my copy of Ricci's Glissando, and although I am in no doubt as to the value of the book on several levels, I was surprised by Mr. Ricci's description of violin technique before the advent of the chinrest.

According to the book  "there were no such concepts as positions or shifting in the old system".   Well, actually positions and shifting are mentioned in several baroque era tutors, as well as Geminiani in 1751, and Leopold Mozart in 1756.

But I am not familiar with the pedagogical literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so my question for you all is:  is there any documentation of a widespread (i.e. Paganini aside) school of technique which fits Mr. Ricci's description of the 'glissando' technique?


Replies (21)

December 22, 2008 at 02:53 PM ·

My professor actually has this book sitting somewhere underneath some papers in his office...unfortunately with Winter break here-that is of little help :>(


Now on matters of "shifting", here are a few quotes quoted in Stowell, Violin Technique and Performance Practice in the late 18th and early 19th c. (Chapter 5 Left Hand Technique)....feel free to skip all this-since you're aware of the shaky claim of there not being "shifts". 

"The student should adopt whatever method he finds most comfortable in each case and he should therefore practicse the hand shifts in every possible way so that he is prepared for every situatio that may arise"

-Tartini circa 1771

"Th rules for shifting depend on the expression to be given to a passage and on the quality of notes, which for the sake of smoothness ought to be played on the same string"

-Jousse (and others) 1811

Stowell later claims, and cites Galeazzi (1791) amongst others-that back in those days violinists tried to keep shifting to a minimum by fitting as many notes as elegantly possible into one position.  He also has an extended citation from Baillot's book (1834)-showing 3 specific types of shifting.

But, you'll note in all this pedantic scholarly citing that I haven't yet actually mentioned the mechanics of how on actually executes a shift.  Whooops.  Very few writes, according to Stowell did.  He cites Perrin (1815) as one who goes into Galamian like detail....Stowell also goes on to word parse from Baillot, Perrin, Galeazzi, and Geminiani to figure out what all they mean (when cross referenced with examples).

I include all the above to show that the notion of "shifting" in word or deed was not foreign in any sense to contemporary violinists in the period-at least those who either studied with any of these violinists, or who had read their treatises.  They themselves used the word in their books.

Insofar as Paganini and Glissandi and things not called "shifts"...I need to get my hands on the book first, both I and my professor haven't had time, and we both raised our eyebrows when we skimmed it.  It is quite easy to make a case for "shifts" with portamento being somewhat common in the period--even in Spohr's own fingerings (and he poo-pooed the notion publically); Stowell as well as Boyden make a brief case for the possibility of it in their books (note I used the word "possibility").


December 22, 2008 at 08:24 PM ·

Thank you Marc, nicely done!

December 22, 2008 at 08:38 PM ·

There are many useful things in this book, mainly the teaching of the chromatic scale from the early stages. However, there are some things that I wouldn't use, such as his philosopy of intonation, using drones. I'm not a fan of this. Also, some of the pictures used in the book I find strange, using very flat fingers and a bent wrist.

December 23, 2008 at 07:44 PM ·

I like the Ricci books but I am more convinced of their value pedagogically than I am of their historicity.

One avenue worthy of exploration is old recordings of great violinists. Do they sound like they use the Paganini technique? To a degree I think they do.

I do think that the drone technique is very worthwhile.  

December 24, 2008 at 07:01 AM ·

First a clarification: You can't expect too see much in common 1800 literature on how to play violin that corresponds to how Paganini played the violin. Paganini was a bit unique ;)

The same can easily be applied to Auer's students. Both Auer and Maia Bang wrote violinischools that show us in great detail how the Auer students was taught, but look at Heifetz, Seidel and Milstein. Three totally different way of playing, fingering and even holding the violin. Auer's and Bang's books only show us how Auer (and probably Bang) taught the students, not how they played.

Now that we have that out of the way :)

There are evidece in Pag's manuscripts that Paganini used the same finger repeatedly in melodic passages - glissando shifting if you will. The reason is obvious: to resemble the way singer sang in those days.

There is also evidence that Pag stayed in the same position and "reached" for notes up and down to simplyfy his playing. I have quite flexible hands and it is quite naturally for me to do similar things, but Pag was extremly flexible so he probably used it quite a lot more.

But then in faster passages? I would say that the 3 octave scale in one position that Ricci shows is a good example of how paganini didin't play.

Could he? Of course! There are examples in both the Locatelli caprices and Guhr's explanations of  Pag's technique that requiers the knowledge of this technique. But there are more examples of Paganini using other techniques.

My conclution is that Paganini didn't have this technique as his primer way of playing fast passages, but often in melodic.

It is interesting to note that Ricci himself, hailed as one of the supertechnicans of the 1900 century never used this way of playing in Any of his Paganini recordings.

December 24, 2008 at 03:17 PM ·

 I have a hard time seeing how one could just reach for the notes without shifting. I can readily see how the thumb stayed in more or less one place (say roughly third position) but I think that the hand moves in a Paganini shiftless glissando.

So I will accept the expression "no shifting" if it means no (or limited) thumb movement but not if it means no hand movement.

December 28, 2008 at 03:16 AM ·

I came to the same conclusion as Mr. Ricci several years before his book came out, although I do not profess to any genius in this idea. As he says in his book, the enemy of the violinist is the shift. Shifting as I define it is moving the entire arm as one unit. Therefore, most players must shift going from 1st to 3rd position. After that though, they can "crawl" to upper positions, or extend back to lower positions using the wrist. Depending on the flexibility of one's hand you can extend back or forward through a number of positions. I like to think of having three positions, rather than a bunch of them. There is the lower position which is 1st and second, the middle position which is 2nd through up to 5th depending on your hand flexibility and size, and then the upper positions.

The historical basis of my conclusion is that in earlier playing Baroque and Classical before the invention of the chinrest and the shoulder pad, the instrument was supported by the hand. In fact in my playing in the historical instrument field, I found that I had to find a different way of shifting. Since Paganini had no chin rest or shoulder pad, he must have, similarly found a way to get around the technical difficulties by devising a special technique.


Leopold Mozart, by the way in his book on violin playing does not advocate  holding the violin with the palm of the hand. He subscribes to the more "contemporary" way of holding the violin with the left hand.

If you closely exam Itzahk Perlman's technique, he goes more towards the Paganini approach. Due to the fact that he has great extension possibility and a large hand, he simply stays pretty much in one position (middle position) and moves his hand back and forth.

What this all comes down to is that there is no right way to play the violin. A flexible approach which works for each individual student is best. Bruce

December 28, 2008 at 05:09 AM ·

I was discussing this with my mentor this evening. He pretty much agrees with you Mr. Berg.  

The word he described for this style of shift is a half-shift. A full shift is the arm moving as a unit. In the half shift the hand moves but the thumb is more or less stationary. 

When he was formally my teacher he encouraged half shifting backwards for downshifts. At times the thumb follows fairly quickly and other times the thumb stays in position anticipating the return of the hand.



December 28, 2008 at 06:50 AM ·

I have not gotten a chance to read this book, but it sounds quite interested.  I know it may seem elementary- but are shifts and glissandi/slides the same technique? What are the mechanics of a successful smooth slide?


December 28, 2008 at 07:34 AM ·

Isn't it obvious that we can't use a whole-arm shift in the higher positions? There's an upper bout that prevents it.

January 11, 2009 at 09:39 AM ·

I wonder what would happen if Paganini plays Bach. Would he just bend his wrist, keep the thumb and hand at 3rd position and extend the fingers to play all the chords that are more comfortably  to be played at 1st position?

I guest the statement "there is only one position" is perhaps a little exagerating and cannot be taken literally :p. It is probably just another way of saying "avoid shifting by extension of fingers whenever possible".

January 16, 2009 at 09:21 PM ·

Those who are interested in this issue may find this article from The Strad magazine of interest.  It is one of many which they have been kindly putting up for free on their website.


January 17, 2009 at 11:21 PM ·






March 13, 2009 at 12:13 PM ·

Beginner's question:


Would you suggest to a beginner (book 2 of Suzuki...just to give an idea of where I am at...no far!) to read and follow the advices of that book or is it just to advanced for somebody like me ? For sure I do believe that there are different - ane more efficient - path to gain knowledge...

Secondly: by not having the chin rest, can we suppose that Paganini was not using is chin to hold the violin but solely depended on supporting is violin with the left hand ?

Thank you very much!



March 13, 2009 at 04:46 PM ·

It is possible that you could get some good ideas for SOME things to practice from the book, but you would also find it confusing as it contradicts things said in other books and by most teachers.  If you treated it like a supplement and stayed focused on the mainstream you will probably be fine.

I don’t say ‘focus on the mainstream’ as a value judgment, but only because that is what there is most access to (not to mention track record of) in terms of lessons and additional material.  You have more ‘backup’ for success this way.

As to Paganini’s chin, the chinrest was invented to fill a need which already existed.  If you look at original old instruments you’ll see that they all have a lot of wear from being held by the chin.  In fact if you look at Paganini’s own violin it would seem he probably held the violin to some degree with his chin:


March 14, 2009 at 07:50 AM ·

I had a lesson with Mr. Ricci once a few years ago at his beautiful house for about 2 hours.  I remember he had me play scales for about 20 minutes including double stop scales in 3rds, 4ths, and 5ths. Ricci is a really fascinating violinist and a very good teacher.  At this lesson he did show me some of these ideas in his book but he did not in any way advocate throwing out conventional shifting.  He is right that before the invention of the chin rest players had to find ways to balance the instrument by way of supporting the instrument with the left hand against the rib in 3rd position and reaching back to notes in lower positions.  I remember him demonstrating this to me very clearly. 

On a side note this doesn't relate to the left hand technique discussion, but he told me that he used to after scales play through the 24 Caprices each day.  He said it so casually too like it was no big deal  :)

March 14, 2009 at 11:39 AM ·

Thank you . I will try to find that book in any case.





March 14, 2009 at 01:59 PM ·

Some excellent posts! I've hesitated to comment here so far, as I've only glanced through the book at a store at this point. But a while back I did read the Ricci article - can't remember where, maybe the Strad? - where he introduced some of these concepts. So here are a couple of thoughts:

As far as holding or supporting the violin entirely with the left hand prior to the invention of the chinrest, a few sources that I came across mentioned that players would would actually use the chin for at least partial support by placing it to the right of the tailpiece. Try it; it works - if not gloriously. In fact it ties in with selecting a middle position, and reaching up and down where feasible. Feasible is the operative word. I can't imagine Paganini (or anyone else) being able to or wanting to stay in that middle position and reach down for say that chromatic first position scale in the 5th caprice.

Also, even if Ricci is historically right in re-discovering, with this, and with the stance with the feet, etc. Paganini's way of playing, is this necessarily the model that we should all aspire to? Even at that time, as someone pointed out in another thread, Spohr, a worthy rival, used an early chinrest. With all due respect, Paganini was a towering giant, truly unique in the history of our great instrument. But to me, he was like the Isaac Newton of violin playing - the giant on whose shoulders so many after him stood on - or tried to. But Heifetz is like the Einstein of the violin. And even with the great H, emulating say, his way of holding the bow, is not for everybody. As the famous martial artist, Bruce Lee said, "take what is useful for you, and discard the rest."

But speaking of considering what's useful, would this be the place - or should we start a different thread  - to speculate about Paganini's own assertions that he had discovered a special secret?

March 14, 2009 at 03:24 PM ·

I was fortunate in a way to learn with a teacher who did not advocate using Sevcik materials. Some years ago, I had a stand partner who would go by the book and kept busy shifting up and down all the time which was very annoying and detracting to me.

March 15, 2009 at 05:03 PM ·

Right from the beginning, my teacher taught finger and hand extension (although not one-position) and one finger scales. Those kids with one or two years Suzuki would have to go through the re-training. The fingers should be flexible and ready to play any note on the fingerboard; the exact location is guided by the ear and NOT by the position of your left hand. If you so depend on the left hand position, you would have difficulty playing Pag. Caprice (e.g., #5). Many violinists are handycaped by their training and complained that they cannot play this violin or that violin just because it has different feel of the neck or different string length. When I progressed to playing Kreutzer 42, I immediately realized same concept in there.

One summer I was referred to take some lesson with an old man who boasted that he was an expert in Sevcik Method. He immediately put me on a regimen of intense repeative finger drilling. I hated it and stopped going to him after two lessons. By looking back, I really "saved" myself from getting "sick". That kind of repeative drilling will not increase finger dexterity but lead to carpa tunnel syndrom. In his life time, Sevcik never trained any virtuoso performer, probably many tendonitists.

March 15, 2009 at 06:40 PM ·

I believe that there is a time and a place for position conciousness and for extensions and contractions. It depends on the passage, its context, the musical effect you want, and the inherent size and stretch of your hand. I use both.

To be fair to Sevcik, he taught Jan Kubelic and Erica Morini, among many others. I've long since deveoped my own system of technical training which I may publish one day. I went through a lot of Sevcik as a young man. I got over it. But my poor father never quite did. He used to say that I could break leases with those excersises!

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