Open strings

February 11, 2019, 5:45 AM · Hello all,
There's something that kind of confuses me when it comes to playing. My teacher sometimes uses open strings, but other times uses a 4th finger (prinmarily on the top E string and top A string). Why is this?
I feel like I'm beginning to understand, but would like as much input as possible (as I don't see my teacher often).

Replies (5)

February 11, 2019, 6:23 AM · There are at least a couple of possible reasons. With the violin, and particularly the E string, using fourth finger on the string below to play the same note tends to sound better and the tone richer. The open E string can sound quite shrill. That said, it is usually easier to use an open string in a series of notes if you are going on to higher notes on the same string. Obviously, these are simply practices and not hard and fast rules, but I think many players tend to follow them. There may be other reasons I am forgetting, but those are probably the two main ones.
Edited: February 11, 2019, 9:36 AM · In the early years when I was being taught I was told to play my scales open strings going up and 4th finger going down.

All open strings produce a different timbre than the same pitch sounded on a lower string. I think, at lest in part, this is due to the way the strings are stopped. A string "softly" stopped with finger tip or pad causes a different sound than a string "hard" stopped by the wood at the instrument's nut.

An "ideal" string that produces A fundamental pitch and clean harmonics is the mathematical concept or an infinitesimally thin string. A "real" string has a finite thickness that creates a small pitch range around the fundamental and all harmonics. The thicker the string, the wider that "small" pitch range. You can really hear this on the low, thick single strings of a piano - especially on a spinet model with its relatively short strings. So this thickness effect also changes the timbre of identical pitches on different strings.

So you pick the way you finger any note based on how you can most closely create the sound you want. If you look at music edited by Menuhin you can see that he often avoided using his 4th finger - I presume because he could not vibrate it the way he wanted to (4th finger vibrato is more problematic). I recall a professional violinist's performance (55 years ago) of the Beethoven Op. 50 Romance in which he favored the open E string to fantastic effect over alternate fingerings in the opening theme. I obtained a recording of that performance and in my opinion it is a far superior solo performance to any of the more than 12 other recordings in my collection.

February 11, 2019, 9:53 AM · When playing Baroque it is acceptable to use open strings a lot of the time, particularly the E if it is gut. A gut E does not have the shrillness of its steel brother but has a sound more in keeping with the gut A next to it, and, imo, gives a better sound from the 7th position upwards than most steel Es. Furthermore, when playing baroque music you don't use vibrato much, and when you do it will be as an ornament, usually in a slow movement. A lack of vibrato means that an open gut E fits in better.
February 11, 2019, 10:07 AM · Jake, when you have to play a fast passage in first position, make use of open strings to your benefit (if it makes those passages easier to play, and I would say, regardless of whether the passage is ascending or descending). For slower notes, the sound of the open strings comes into consideration. But, as Andrew notes, you can make an open string sound beautiful too. So, there are no strict rules, but a lot of common sense and musical options.
Edited: February 11, 2019, 4:36 PM · Sounds like you're a beginner/intermediate player -- so just do what your teacher says. :) Your goal is to develop a robust 4th finger so you might as well use it a lot.

Now if you're an advanced player, whether to play an open string or not is a musical question and there can be different answers for different players at different times.

In many contexts violinist want to avoid the open E because E strings are steel and they will sound loud and harsh. But if you have good bow technique and you need to play an open E, you can soften it with less pressure or tilting the bow and blend the sound in with your fingered notes.

Beginners play a ton of open strings because it helps them stay in tune. Intermediate players just reflexively avoid playing open strings because are developing fourth fingers or playing more in 2nd and 3rd position and they want to vibrate on every note.

But once you have a well developed left hand, the question becomes a musical one, and you'll find you want to use open strings for musical effect. Sometimes the extra resonance, even the extra sparkle of the open E, might be something that adds to your performance. Sometimes open strings mixed in with vibrated notes can make a phrase sound a little more interesting.

Young pros -- maybe it's because of the baroque training so many people now get in conservatory -- are more willing to use open strings in recordings, just like pros are more selective and more varied in their approach to vibrato. If you listen to recordings from the last 10 years you'll hear a lot of it.

It's a little like playing harmonics. Used sparingly it's a lovely effect, it's like ringing a little bell. It's a splash of color. But used too much it's too much. Now that I think of it, I think a lot of people use harmonics too much and open strings not enough.

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