Chromatic studies

Edited: October 3, 2019, 7:42 AM · I have a few pick-n-mix study books with scattered chromatic studies in, mostly musically horrible.
Then last week our community orchestra started rehearsing Puccini's Chrysanthemums. I'm in a semi-dilemma - do I look for better chromatic studies than I've got, or do I simply practise the Puccini on the grounds that it knocks spots off any chromatic study(lol)? I think I'll stick to the Puccini for the time being, but if you have any recommendations (especially if it's a free online pdf)...

Replies (10)

October 3, 2019, 6:31 AM · Gordon, I don't know the Puccini, but you have my sympathy! The 2nd violin part of Sibelius's "En Saga" (which we're preparing for a concert), is also chromatic, particularly the last two pages where we're faced with a particularly evil key in 5 sharps plus a double sharp. A general tip I can give when faced with awkwardly chromatic music such as this, in order to find out what is going on and to work out the harmonic structure - which I think is important - is to first play the violin part on the piano.

Towards the end of "En Saga" Sibelius is using a symmetric scale, characterised in that the intervals are the same descending as ascending. In this case, if you play it on the piano starting on C it would be C-D-E-F-G-Ab-Bb-C', except that Sibelius starts on D# on the D string!

I think when faced with music like this (with a concert performance in the offing) it can be more productive to use the music itself as the study material, because it is real life and will almost inevitably come up with challenges that may not be in the formal studies.

October 3, 2019, 7:43 AM · Wise words, Trevor. Thanks.
Edited: October 3, 2019, 9:13 AM · If you've got a tough orchestra part, then you practice your tough orchestra part. That's the short-term solution. Longer term it's useful to do a lot of studies that contain chromatic bits, in addition to basic chromatic scales. Chromatic scales are very hard to practice and it's wise to get expert instruction because the correct intonation is not necessarily obvious.

An excellent pro violinist told me that a quick rule-of-thumb is that the half-steps between notes that have the same note-name (e.g., D and D#) are wider than half-steps between notes that have different note names (e.g., D and Eb). He did not offer an explanation but it seems logical to me. Let's say the key of the piece (or section of the piece) that you're playing is in D major. Then as you play up the chromatic scale, D# will be a leading tone to E, G# will be a leading tone to A, etc., but F is not really a leading tone to F#, because F# is already a leading tone to the G (hence the small interval there). Of course it's helpful if the composer has cleaved to standard conventions when assigning accidentals. Obviously, if anyone else has a better theoretical understanding of this, I'd be keen to learn more (or to learn differently if I've got it wrong).

October 3, 2019, 11:57 AM · Paul, what you've said about D-D# being wider than D-Eb is what I've always been taught, except by my piano and organ teachers for some mysterious reason. My cello teacher was the first to explain that C# is sharper than Db, and mentioned that was also the teaching of Casals. The explanation for all this lies deep in the mathematics of intonation.
October 3, 2019, 12:21 PM · I think which one is sharper should not be something one memorizes, but something that is always understood within the context of the diatonic scale in operation at the moment. I don't know what kind of principles might apply to 12-tone music. But I don't really listen to 12-tone music and I have no interest in playing it -- one cannot do everything in life -- so it's kind of "not my problem." I've got plenty of other problems without needing to deal with that.
October 3, 2019, 2:28 PM · I have a different rule of thumb for tuning the chromatic scale: half-steps played with adjacent fingers are played small,tight. Half-steps played with the same finger are played wide. This is partly an illusion. It compensates for the natural, physical tendency to play out of tune. If you try to play all tight half-steps going up, it gradually gets flat. Half-steps in non-tonal and fast chromatic scales can use piano style tempered tuning. That Casals-style, Leading tone or Expressive intonation can ocassionally get you into trouble when the pitch does not fit with the chord. Leopold Mozart in his technical book wrote that F# should be LOWER than Gb .
Fingering the chromatic scale. I am amused when I see all those pages of chromatic scales in my Sevcik or scale books. There is only one chromatic scale ! But it can be notated with sharps, flats, or mixed, and, within first position, there are three traditional and three "modern" possible fingerings. For fast chromatic scales one can avoid mental confusion by preferring one option; like [0-1-1-2-2-3-4-0]
Edited: October 3, 2019, 2:31 PM · I'm not sure that one needs "chromatic studies" per se. I would say to have a basic fingering system by practicing the chromatic scales in Flesch so that they can be applied to the repertoire as needed.

I wouldn't try to overthink minute differences between half steps as Paul has suggested (or has passed on). The important things are 1. have a fingering philosophy and 2. try to keep the half steps well enough in tune so that you get to the open-string notes in tune (any notes that will ring with the open strings).

The hardest intervals to judge are the half steps, which is why we piano technicians simply ignore them. Equal temperament means, by definition, that the octave is split into half steps of equal distance. Although that's our stated goal, we can't tell anything by listening to the half steps. We have to use other, roundabout "tricks."

My point about tuning the piano is simply that people are not very good at judging half steps on the violin, especially when they're fast. They're not going to sound "pure." So the goal is to pick important notes as landmarks (the previously-mentioned open-string relatives), make sure you get to them in tune, and fill in the others as well as you can. Naturally, you don't want large, obvious jumps because all the half steps were too compressed.

I know that people do temper half steps. But one has to take into account the level a string player is at and his/her goals for a certain passage before trying to overthink things.

The 1-1-2-2 fingering is too slow. I prefer 01212340.
Yes, there is shifting, but it results in a faster, cleaner chromatic scale.

October 3, 2019, 3:32 PM · Gordon you've already been given some fingerings, also try 123123 fingering when going up on the same string.
October 3, 2019, 4:47 PM · Scott I was also advised that its only really a pressing issue with slower, more lyrical pieces. Think Beethoven romances here.
October 3, 2019, 6:35 PM · -Scott, et al,-- Yes the traditional fingering 1-1-2-2- can be slow.
The faster fingerings are 1-2-1-2-3-4-0, or the Cello style 1-2-3-1-2-3-(4,0)-.
Less experienced players have some trouble tuning them because they shift between 1/2 and second position ascending, While the descending version uses the crawl-shift.

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