Baroque Violin Troubles

September 15, 2010 at 05:50 PM ·

Just thought I'd ask for advice here.  I've recently switched to baroque violin practice, ( on baroque violin)  I am finding it nearly impossible to get the response necessary to make a good sound. I have read that it is difficult to find a 'good'  new baroque violin, and I'm certainly hoping this is a major reason the violin sounds unpleasant. Playing the Bach sonatas and partitas seems equally impossible: I'm finding that my strings are not speaking while playing fast passages, so I can't clearly voice each 16th note in a run.  I studied hipp techniques in grad school, so I understand an extent of baroque technique.  What I'm finding is that it isn't just switching to a 'modified' instrument, but rather learning a completely different instrument altogether.  Does anyone have any advice on practice technique applied to the baroque violin?  things, like response, tonal clarity, etc...

Very much appreciated

Replies (21)

September 15, 2010 at 07:28 PM ·

There is some good advice in one of the past threads here on baroque playing for learning to sink into gut strings and get them sounding.  Another thing I'd try is tuning the instrument up or down to see how changes in string tension affect the issue--you may discover you want a different set of strings on the instrument.  Depending on the quality of the strings you may want to switch to a different brand.   Ideally you'd get some feedback on the instrument's set up from an experienced HIP player and luthier.

Same thing with the bow, a different hair tension from what you are used to may work best on this particular setup, or for that matter a different bow.

This is obvious but have you explored different contact points and different ways of holding the bow, and different (slower) bow speeds?

September 15, 2010 at 08:23 PM · Switching from "modern" to "baroque" is quite an adventure. It really is a different instrument. Left hand technique is more or less the same, just more relaxed. It's more in the bow stroke. Geminiani is a help. The small softness at the start of the stroke. More with the fingers than with the hand. Bow speed is also slower. A good way to develop your sound is the long, slow bow. 10-15 seconds a stroke, p to f, f to p, p-f-p, f-p-f, you get the idea. Always with a good, focused sound. The short notes will come out of the long ones. It's all in the fingers. Enjoy the journey. Good luck. Michael Ishizawa

September 16, 2010 at 01:48 AM ·

First of all, hold off on the Bach for a good long while. This is for two reasons.

Reason one is that it's too technically difficult to allow you to really focus on the mechanics of the new instrument. Reason two is that approaching high baroque music "backwards"-- i.e. without having first studied earlier repertoire on the period instrument-- is an unnecessarily complex task, burthened with the process of unlearning.

Rather, begin by focusing on the basic principles: the tension is lower, so you want less arm weight. Generally speaking therefore, a lower elbow than you would use for modern is desirable. However, you /do/ want to be in the string with a focused sound.

Also, chin-off playing, while not the only good way to play baroque violin, is a good starting place because it minimizes bodily tension; it gives the right hand a sense of sympathetic strength in the left hand; and it forces you to hold the violin more in front, bringing the right hand to the right and back, which brings an element of newness and difference to the process which will help you focus on the basics.

September 17, 2010 at 01:17 AM ·

 Jude, I like that advice, particularly the bit about not tackling the high Baroque repertoire until you have learnt the mechanics of playing the Baroque violin.  In that case, would it not be a good idea for the beginning Baroque violinist to explore the 17th c repertoire of fiddle folk music of the British Isles? Playford comes to mind.

September 17, 2010 at 03:07 AM ·

Trevor, absolutely! I began with anonymous Dutch fantasias and English masque tunes, followed by Playford.

September 17, 2010 at 05:50 AM ·

Hi. Thank you all for this great advice.  I am experimenting with different contact points, finding the soft spot.  And what a relief to put the Bach away for now!  What was said about beginning earlier in the period makes complete sense to me.  Thank you.  I just got a shipment of guts from a maker in Boston, and they make a significant difference.  The Chorda set I had been using was just not cutting it.  I'm looking forward to revising my approach to more of a 'beginner' mentality.  You're right about it being an Adventure.  I've been dreaming of crossing over to baroque violin for several years. I thought about keeping both up, but I'm finding it's too difficult to go back to modern setup/technique, as I feel like totally different muscles are used for each.  



September 17, 2010 at 01:50 PM ·

 Some years ago Yo-Yo Ma had his Stradivari modified to near to its original Baroque setup with gut strings, Baroque bridge, no spike, and a Baroque bow in order to play Bach and original Boccherini with Ton Koopman's Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra - I referred to this a few weeks ago in another post, from a slightly different perspective.

Ma soon found that playing a Baroque cello was no trivial matter - quite apart from the entertainment (!) of no longer having a spike to support the instrument he had to learn not only how to get and project an authentic Baroque sound and attack out of his now significantly changed instrument but also to forget today's ubiquitous 12-tone equal temperament and to learn Baroque intonation instead.  He said it took him weeks.

September 19, 2010 at 03:01 PM ·

You're getting a lot of good advice and I'm glad to see that nobody is hijacking the thread to start arguments against HIPP.

Since you've already had some training in baroque principles I would say spend a little time and money on finding out if your violin could be causing a problem.  Have someone who is an experienced baroque player test it out, and also take it to a baroque luthier to see if any adjustments can be made.  The strings you use also makes a big difference and I prefer to use Dlugoleckis.  If you're in the market for a baroque violin don't be deterred by cheap chinese violins, some of these sound fantastic and are much easier to play than original baroque violins.

Michael gave you a good idea about practicing long slow bows.  I would say 15secs per stroke is a bit advanced if you haven't done it before.  I started out with 5 pulses at 60mm and worked my way up from there.  Remember it's the quality of the sound that you're focusing on.  I'd say that themost difficult transition from modern to baroque is the speed of the bow.  With modern I'm used to using lots of speed to draw sound and in the baroque bow you really have to make do with less.  Slow the bow down, apply firmer pressure and learn to use less bow.

I know it's frustrating to switch back and forth between modern and baroque.  Suddenly you feel like you can't do either very well.  But if you stick with it then you'll see that it becomes more comfortable over time.  At first I needed a full day of practicing to switch, now it's gotten considerably easy.  Good luck.

September 26, 2010 at 03:21 AM ·

I am taking your advice on having a luthier and baroque player check out the violin as soon as I can find them. Things have gotten better over the past couple of weeks.  The new strings made a big difference in sound and response. Also, I've finally found more comfort in chin off playing.  I just got another baroque violin, so I have one newer chinese baroque, which is fine, but doesn't seem to work well the bow, and the one I just received is an older instrument with a beautiful tone.  The latter is an old tyrolean violin reset to baroque. I didn't have to spend much, and the difference in what I can do with this vs. the other one is immense. What I notice on both is the neck angle isn't parallel to the body, which is what I expected on a baroque instrument. It actually has a nearly identical angle as a modern, and is only slightly shorter in length.  I am wondering if a parallel neck angle is not standard on all baroque violins.  Well, yes.  Things have been getting better.  I'm sticking to simple music, excerpts from Monteverdi works, and earlier composers.  I am more comfortable now shifting upward without the shoulder/chin rest, but shifting back down is difficult. I suppose this will come with time. The 15 second bow exercise is difficult at this point, so sticking to a more moderate distribution for now.

Thanks for your support!


September 26, 2010 at 05:36 AM ·

It is very rare from what I have seen for a Chinese "Baroque" violin to be fully baroqued, although I guess there are examples.  Similarly, someone who sets out to make an inexpensive instrument 'baroque' may not wish to spend the significant money to reconvert the neck.  Since many 'baroque' players use such instruments and don't play "chin off", this is not unusual.

It is actually pretty rare for a modern baroque player to be 100% "chin off".  Sigiswald Kuijken is, but to think of a few:  Rachel Podger has her chin on the tailpiece much of the time (incidentally she has a new Bach concerti album coming out finally, huzzah!), Amandine Beyer was putting her chin down for downshifts at the time of her Vivaldi CD, as does Andrew Fouts, despite his extremely high violin position.  (Video links added at the end.)

Fabio Biondi has been using a sort of little 'sausage' custom chinrest, and Enrico Onofri of Il Giardino Armonico uses a scarf threaded under the tailpiece and tied around his neck.

You will find downshifting much easier with a truly baroque neck.  Have you seen Laurie's blog about baroque shifts with her friend from Tafelmusik?   About neck length--I wouldn't worry about this for now.  The evidence is that there were a variety of neck lengths historically, so unless you are going to specialize very narrowly or need it for some other technical reason you can leave that alone.




Enrico Onofri


September 26, 2010 at 01:00 PM ·

 Since you used to be a modern player, I feel like I may have one tip that may help.  In modern violin, one needs to grip the bow more, so to speak.  The fingers should be more curled around the stick to allow more weight and more pronation create a bigger sound out of the tauter steel strings and higher bridge.


On baroque instruments, it has to be the opposite.  Do not grip the bow....rather, hold it very loosely in the VERY tips of your fingers.  Don't go beyond the first knuckle....the bow should literally feel limp in your grasp, like you're barely holding it.  The weight to play the instrument comes from a very low, loose and relaxed shoulder and elbow, much different than the modern violin.

September 26, 2010 at 07:17 PM ·

Although I can understand recommending a lighter feeling, fingertips-only is extreme as a blanket prescription for a baroque bow hold.  At the least, many HI performers do not use such a bow hold.  I am not aware of specific instructions for it in any tutors.  Indeed since it is widely stated in period tutors that pressure comes from the index finger it would be very inefficient to restrict yourself to the tip segment.

By the end of the baroque the bow grip was essentially the same as the basic modern hold, although often a bit up from the frog.  For a summary of the evidence see Tarling, Baroque String Playing, or just have a quick look at the Leopold Mozart tutor.


September 26, 2010 at 08:26 PM ·

 Mr. Sender, I am not trying to make myself come across as an expert...I am not nearly anything of the kind :).  However in my lessons with musicians such as Julie Andrijeski, Marilyn McDonald, Marc Destrube and Cynthia Roberts, they all recommended a very loose bow grip, as a modern bow hold allows too much weight from the wrist to come into the loose cut strings, causing them to choke.

September 26, 2010 at 11:55 PM ·

Andres, Fouts is amazing.  I wish I could be so comfortable playing chin off.

Brian, you've disappeared from facebook?

September 27, 2010 at 01:29 AM ·

 It occurs to me that a player's neck proportions could have something to with whether they play chin-off on Baroque violin.  Someone with a long neck might find it awkward and would therefore develop the chin-off technique.  Someone with a shorter neck might find it easier and would therefore use the chin more, especially with downward shifts - although appropriate fingering techniques were developed and used.  In this connection see Andrew Manze's thoughts on the subject in "A Performer's Guide To Music Of  The Baroque Period" pp 72-76, published by The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music.  In particular, he gives an example of  the musical implication of Baroque fingering technique (as opposed to modern fingering) being used in a passage in the Bach Chaconne (bars 56-61). The Baroque fingering turns out to be much simpler and easier than  the modern fingering and furthermore gives the illusion that the violin is polyphonic.

These Baroque fingering techniques can obviously be applied to most violin music written before 1830 (when Spohr invented the chin rest).  It is instructive to examine closely a violin part in, say, a symphony of the period. You will see that downward shifts were often coped with by a variety of measures, such as staying in a high position across the strings until a brief rest in the music gave the player an opportunity to return to the first position; or an open string or a 1st harmonic would be used for the same reason.  Alternatively, of course, a quick application of the chin to the tail piece or the table of the violin could be used to briefly stablize the instrument during a down shift.

November 11, 2010 at 03:29 AM ·

I'm resurrecting this thread to clarify one point about the meaning of "chin-off" playing. I haven't studied with Kujiken, so I'm not positive about his views or his practice, but all the chin-off players I have encountered use their chins for some downward shifts. Identifying as a "chin-off player" is not the same as never letting the chin touch the fiddle, any more than being a modern player means you never take your jaw off the chinrest.

November 11, 2010 at 09:19 PM ·

[edited] ah never mind I said it already.

November 15, 2010 at 10:25 PM ·

if the bow is skimming over the strings, then perhaps you are using too much "arm", and not enough "fingers" in the bow strokes? the arm should hang loose, the bow gives natural weight. i don't think the bow grip should be loose as such - relaxed yes, but not floppy.

November 16, 2010 at 04:08 AM ·

This is the danger of making maxims of things said in lessons. If a (good) teacher says looseness is required, that's probably to counteract the stiffness they see; a certain well-known (modern violin) pedagogue horrified a friend of mine and her teacher by saying that she was too loose, and things needed to be tighter-- such statements are meant relative to the individual student's playing at that time, and in any case are without absolute meaning.

If I may venture a guess about what Marc, Julie, and Marilyn meant (I've worked with all three of them), baroque bowing does not include the collé motions or martelé stroke which are so central to modern bowing. As such, especially relative to students trained in the Galamian tradition, I've noticed that many baroque violinists play with the fingers slightly-- slightly!-- less curled than they would on the modern violin, but also without ever extending the fingers as much as modern players do at the tip, and certainly with less pronation in the upper half than is required by the modern setup.


January 11, 2011 at 06:57 PM ·

I believe I may have discovered this dialogue too late to be of contributing value, but I agree with the discussions of bow speed and attack. I personally have found that RH index finger comes into play a lot with regards to distinctly biting the string for quick response. It also helps to mentally envision using the bow to literally pull the sound out of the string as though it consisted of some sort of solid matter.

One issueI have encountered with recent converts to HIP (including myself 20 years ago) is a presupposition that baroque playing involves less aggressive playing and a lighter-weight sound. When one approaches it with that in their subconscious, they might be prone to producing a wispy sound with not enough attack, too many upper partials, and not enough fundamental. This could lead to the string not speaking quickly enough in fast passages. I think it is important to play the instrument to its fullest capacity, as Corelli and Vivaldi clearly did, by the historical accounts. The instruments and bows by their design have inherent thresholds for volume and projection. Don't add more by playing like a wimp!

Another critical point is that just because the strings may not seem to speak right away under the ear, doesn't mean they aren't speaking to the audience. I had a long conversation about this with Jorg-Michael Schwartz of Rebel. He demonstrated to me how, particularly with roped strings, they appear a bit gritty and maybe even sluggish to respond directly under the ear, but the audience hears a clear, silvery core tone. Roped strings belong in a whole other discussion forum. Many, like myself, have switched to them irregardless of their authenticity for violins (we know lutenists used them) because they seem to project better than conventional gut.  The trade-off is that slight grittiness you hear as the player.

After 20 years of playing, I am still experimenting with string gauges for the E. This is another VERY important consideration. I find that every time I dare to go even thicker, I like the results better. Thin E's were not used in the days of Bach, but were used a lot early in the HIP movement by people used to playing on modern wire E's. I think you would really benefit by playing around as much as you can with string gauges.

In short, the bottom line is that gut strings take considerable time to get control of, and a lot of that control simply comes from fine motor control developed over a period of time.

January 12, 2011 at 01:50 AM ·

Thanks, Steven, for an illuminating contribution.

I do think that there's danger inherent in using the term "bite" with new converts simply because it has very specific connotations for those of us raised up in the Galamian tradition, and the motion involved in the collé "bite" simply won't make a decent sound on the baroque violin.

I agree that a lot of not-great playing results from the presupposition of light sound. But there's a lot of talk in the treatises-- Tartini and Mozart come immediately to mind-- about a gentle start to even the strongest of notes. That seems to me some justification for not making a general practice of sharp attacks. 

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