Complex chords...any advice?

April 13, 2011 at 05:37 AM ·

Complex chords. If you've looked at Erlk├Ânig, Partita No. 2, or just about any violin concerto, you've probably seen them in large quantities. It seems a composer can't write a concerto without requiring you to play at least one or two long runs of double-stop thirds and/or long passages of three- and four-finger chords that by their very nature must be played with constant position-shifting.

How do you practice these? It's rather painful (and probably unhealthy) to practice them, so surely playing slowly through a piece, searching for the notes and proceeding once I've found them is more detrimental to the condition of may hand and back than it is good for anything. back...I just sightread Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy....

The double-stops and triple-stops I play normally are nothing, but the ones in these concertos are absolutely horrendous. Is there a trick to learning these passages, or should I put these songs away and buy the CDs of Hahn, Bell, Chang, and Garrett playing them?

Replies (15)

April 13, 2011 at 06:13 AM ·

I've been learning Bridge's "Lament" and one of the Reger Suites on viola that are full of double stops that are finger-twisters (Lament more than Reger).  During practice, I will break down a measure or two:

First I'll play the upper line in position, then the lower line.  Once the upper and lower lines are "in my head", I work on the chords one note change at a time in slow arpeggiated chords (as if they were written out as an arpeggio and not a chord or double stop).  My next step is to take each chord one at a time and build it up - low note, middle note, top note then play it 2 by 2.   Finally, I'll put it all together as written.  This can be a long process in difficult passages.

It takes time to build up left hand strength and flexibility without tension.  The key is to do it slowly while focusing on hand and arm position as well as being particularly attentive to relieving tension. 

April 13, 2011 at 09:24 AM ·

That's an interesting strategy that I've not tried yet; I'll have to try that and see if that helps.


April 13, 2011 at 10:30 AM ·

Later on, I sometimes try playing such chord sequences pizzicato. (at the suggestion of my teacher)

April 13, 2011 at 12:48 PM ·

I don't think there are any easy ways to learn those nasty chord sections. Finger size & spacing, and how flexible your hand is across the palm smake a big difference in how you, compared to any other player, work those things out. I'm for judicious editing lol. I'll bet many of those composers didn't play a lot of violin. Sue


April 13, 2011 at 11:15 PM ·

The guitarist Julian Bream commissioned a piece from a composer (German, I believe). When the manuscript arrived he read through it and noticed a chord sequence that was physically impossible to play on the guitar. He contacted the composer and explained the problem. The composer forthwith changed the layout of the chords and the harmonies in that passage.

There's a moral there.

April 14, 2011 at 01:11 AM ·

Lol...I'm pretty sure Ernst wouldn't have made that mistake, yet der Erlkönig seems to defy all awareness of the natural shape of the hand.

April 14, 2011 at 01:51 AM ·

How about getting three other players to stand behind you?

April 14, 2011 at 03:05 AM ·

Hi Rob,

A few things you might try:

Work on any exercise with complex motions. E.g. Dounis' Artist's Technique Op. 12 can get you started with combining vertical and horizontal motions (lifting and sliding fingers); start working slowly on the double stop exercises in Singer's Daily Studies:

Of course double stop scales will help, especially 4ths, 8ves, fingered 8ves -- also double stop trill exercises. But also, make up exercises: play the same double stop/chord with different fingers in succession, making sure that the pitch stays true; practice extending and contracting between intervals, e.g. octaves and tenths, moving one finger at a time, then moving both fingers at the same time. 

Finally, when you practice a difficult passage pay close attention to the following:

1) Keep track of an anchor finger in every chord -- that will be the finger that's easiest to place first -- and measure the other intervals from the anchor finger; always keep track of which finger you're measuring from

2) Think finger patterns across strings, measuring from the anchor finger; in your example, it's probably easiest to place the 3rd finger on G string first, then measure the 1st finger from the 3rd (either a maj/min 3rd pattern across strings), then measure the 2nd finger (maj/min 2nd pattern across strings) 

3) Shift on anchor fingers and use it as a guiding finger for new positions; always look for successive parallel intervals and practice those before adding the changing finger

4) Work out any difficult bowing patterns as open string exercises until you can play the left hand in a steady rhythm 

Mendy's exercises are great; although I would work on double stop exercises first, as it helps you to think in blocks (you can sound one note at a time, but move in double stops)

It'll take time, and you'll want to build up slowly as your fingers/hand/arm muscles strengthen and gain flexibility. But it'll be worth the effort. Lastly, make sure your elbow swings to follow where your fingers want to go. Sometimes you might have to smush your fingers/hand, and you don't want your arm fighting the hand. Also it helps to feel different levels of the elbow for every interval in double stops -- it doesn't have to be precise but it does free your arm and makes you more aware of finding the optimal angle of your arm for your fingers.

So: intervals across adjacent strings, from elbow out to the left to elbow swung to the right: 5th, 6th, 7th, 8ve, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, Unison

Hope it helps,


April 14, 2011 at 03:13 AM ·

Dont No. 1

April 14, 2011 at 03:44 AM ·

And Sevcik double stops volume 4, and Gavinies. 

April 14, 2011 at 11:02 PM ·

I don't enjoy scales, but I'd never even heard of double-stop scales aside from octaves. I'll have to try that out; it actually sounds sort of fun, not to mention useful.

I'm a bit puzzled, JK, by your instruction to try to "feel different levels of the elbow for every interval in double stops". Not exactly sure what you mean...can you elaborate?

April 14, 2011 at 11:11 PM ·

 Behold, The Bible of Scales.


April 15, 2011 at 12:56 AM ·


>I'm a bit puzzled, JK, by your instruction to try to "feel different levels of the elbow for every interval in double stops". Not exactly sure what you mean...can you elaborate?

JK is quite correct but be careful about the way you think this through.  At the end of the day it is what the fingers are doing which will dictate the position of the elbow, not vice versa.  Imagine you were picking up a cup of coffee.  Would you pay attention to your hand contacting the cup or the position of the elbow in order to allow your hand to touch the cup.....



April 15, 2011 at 01:46 AM ·

Hi Rob,

Admittedly, the use of swinging the left elbow from side to side becomes more important for smaller hands and shorter arms (or even medium sized hands with short pinky, or big difference in length between 2nd and 4th fingers.) If you have large hands (and long arms,) you can probably get away with not moving your upper arm at all.

But for most, if the wrist is bent sideways, it changes the spacing between the fingers and in turn the finger pattern or the intervals between fingers. So when taking the fingers from say, D string to A string, it helps to move the fingers by rotating the whole arm around an axis between your thumb and 1st base knuckle (in the centre of the neck of the violin,) keeping the line through the wrist straight. Some people call this the 'steering mechanism' and it helps us with greater accuracy (at least for most people.) In a similar way (again depending on size, proportion of your hand) when you start to play double stops it helps to have an optimal alignment for where your fingers have to go. Try playing 1 on G, 2 on D, 3 on A, 4 on E (the easy setting of the hand across 4 strings); then play 4 on G, 3 on D, 2 on A, 1 on E (the difficult setting.) You notice that with the difficult setting there's quite a bit more pull through the tendons at the back of the hand, and twisting of the forearm (supination). To ease that tension it helps to rotate through the whole arm (use the steering mechanism) taking the elbow to the right, into your body. Try the opposite of what's natural: play the difficult setting and try to stick your elbow out to the left; play the easy setting and stick your elbow far to the right. The steering mechanism helps with the rotations within the arm (as the elbow moves right, it's easier to supinate the forearm and rotate the upper arm counterclockwise; as the elbow moves left, it's easier to pronate the forearm and rotate the upper arm clockwise.) These rotations will help the fingers get to where they need to go for each interval played as a double stop across two strings. So, the 5th is easier to play with elbow to the left; the 1-4 unison is easier to play with the elbow to the right; all the intervals in between could theoretically have it's own angle in the steering mechanism.

I agree with Buri about going for the target. But sometimes when things seem difficult it's because we're fighting ourselves; one part of the body is going for the target, but without knowing it, we resist with some other part of the body. This often happens in shifting for example: the fingers go for some high note, but the thumb gets stuck at the button. The same is true for double stops/chords and the alignment through the wrist.

I hope that makes sense... let me know if it doesn't.


Hey Buri, it's great to hear you're safe and sound! It must be difficult there right now...


April 16, 2011 at 01:01 AM ·

Thanks, that makes much more sense now!

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