Bach Gigue in D minor: Tight hand, fumbling over notes?

Edited: November 23, 2017, 12:50 AM · Hi everyone, I understand you're all busy so I'm not expecting anything, but would really appreciate if someone could help me with this as my teacher is overseas at the moment and unavailable to contact. Thank you :)

I'm playing the Gigue from Bach's 2nd Partita (the one that's 99% fast notes), and I'm having two major difficulties: 1. my left hand tightens up to the point where it becomes painful & difficult to play, and 2. no matter how much slow practice I do, I still fumble over some notes.

I've played more difficult repertoire than this, I just don't know how to solve these problems in this situation.

Replies (14)

November 23, 2017, 2:07 AM · How many hours have you put into this piece so far?
November 23, 2017, 4:17 AM · Hard to say - definitely at least 5-10
Edited: November 23, 2017, 4:44 AM · Hi Gabbi,

It is hard to say without see you play, but from your description, here are some suggestions of things to explore:

1- Tension in the left hand by pressing the thumb into the neck. To ensure that you don't get tired, the thumb has to be released at all times. Make sure also that your thumb is lined up with the first finger so that the frame of your hand is good.
2- Sympathetic tension caused by pressing the thumb into the bow. Once again, the thumb needs to remained release or the right hand will tense up and the left one may do so by sympathy. An over-spread bow hold may cause the same problems.
3- Correlation of slow practice to fast playing. Both of the issues above will cause problems of correlation. Another is where you are playing your détaché. Make sure that you are playing at the square (where your right arm makes a square) so that the stroke is executed from the forearm/elbow (for most people, somewhere in the upper half of the bow). Playing below the square will cause the shoulder to become too active and this will cause problems in coordination in this piece. Also, planning of the left hand and keeping the left hand fingers close to the string and that the action of the fingers is vertical and not "slinging" for lack of a better term. Lastly, thinking ahead should be avoided as it will cause a disjunction between your mind and body that will cause mishaps to occur. It is better to keep the mind exactly one where you are one action at a time.

Based on your description, this would be most of the things that I would look at first when I give masterclasses. If this doesn't help identify the sources of your difficulties, perhaps a more detailed explanation could be helpful.

Hope this helps! Cheers!

November 23, 2017, 5:41 AM · To reduce tension in the left hand, practice with "whistles." That means, play with your fingers just barely touching the strings, as if every note were a natural harmonic. This should sound terrible--the worse it sounds, the better you're doing it. Then add *just* enough weight to your left hand so that the notes speak clearly; no more. This should result in significantly less l.h. tension than before.

To help with clarity, practice with a pause just before every string crossing. And even in the slowest practice, be sure you are in the same part of the bow (middle) using the same amount (very little) that you will at tempo.

Edited: November 23, 2017, 6:17 AM · In addition to what Mary Ellen said, use added pauses and added stresses. After you have her 'no pressure' left hand + 'very little' bowing down pat, start adding solid tones, and (ever so slightly) longer bows, e.g. on first of every 4 or 8 notes. Also, to check tension use added pauses. Simply play 4 notes, pause and wiggle your left thumb, release your right thumb, play next 4, pause and release, etc. Next time play 8 notes, pause, etc. gradually increasing how much you play in between pauses. As you do such exercises you should be more and more aware of where and when you're tensing. Make note of problem sections, but more importantly, patterns of tension in certain types of fingering or bowing. Address those further in various contexts. After you do such abstracted exercises, start looking for pauses and stresses which make musical sense, note grouping according to sequences, shapes of phrases and dynamics. If you're 'working' every note, not only is it physically taxing, your playing will sound 'notey'. Feel single impulses and let the rest of the group of notes 'rebound' away so to speak (like skipping stones, or dropping a basketball) so there's the initial impulse and reduced effort and action for subsequent notes in the group (unless otherwise notated in the score.) Grow and wane.
Edited: November 23, 2017, 6:22 AM · I had this problem with this very piece in the past. I believe it was the result of just working too hard to get the job done. Therefore I endorse the suggestions that others have made here:
(1) The lightest-possible-touch technique suggested by Mary Ellen.
(2) The watchfulness for sympathetic tension from elsewhere, especially your bow hand, as mentioned by Christian. I am working on a piece now where there is a passage where my LH tenses up. If I break the bowing (twelve 16th notes in each bow) into smaller bites (four 16th notes each), suddenly my LH is fine. Weird but true.

Jeewon this piece is mostly notes in groups the three, so just wondering if you intended your advice to include groups of 4 and 8 or whether that's a generic technique that we would adapt to the 12/8 time signature of this gigue.

November 23, 2017, 6:30 AM · Yes thanks Paul. Generic advice, so adapt to 3, 6, 12 (although sometimes it's useful to work in hemiolas and also just for fun :)
November 23, 2017, 7:30 AM · Very good advice above. I'll add a bit...

It may seem intuitive, but if you find your LH tensing up, stop. It is a mistake to soldier through the piece in and attempt to build stamina or some such thing. You don't want to reinforce bad habits. Perfect practice makes perfect (i.e. doing it correctly builds the habit).

Instead of practicing the entire piece, pick a short section and work through it in the ways described above to release tension. Repeat it several times finding the minimum LH pressure you need to make a good sound. This is your efficiency point.

One thing you may notice is that when you're practicing what Mary Ellen described as "whistles" -- lightly touching with the left hand -- the RH also wants to be light. Practice scales with a very light (or whistle) left hand with still a moderate amount of weight in the RH. It takes some time for the brain to get used to this dichotomy. Unfortunately, at first, the LH and RH want to do the same thing.

Check in when your teacher when they return so that they can observe your progress and make additional recommendations (since we cannot see you).

November 23, 2017, 8:19 AM · Thanks, that's a good point about the right hand. I agree about the difficulty of keeping appropriate weight in the right hand while playing with no weight in the left.
Edited: November 23, 2017, 8:54 AM · Also, for the Gigue and Bach in general, you need to master Sicilienne bowing and "travelling" along the bow, and travelling through the air. There's nothing like getting stuck in your bowing to make you tense up. And as Douglas says above, you must develop bow control which is independent of left hand function (especially pressure; as long as you have control over it, sometimes you also want heavy left hand and lighter strokes.)

Sicilienne bowing is long-short-long = down-up-down (or up-down-up,) where the long strokes are arm strokes and the short strokes are hand strokes. It's like a long down bow interrupted by a slight up bow, or vice-versa. This idea can help you travel to the best part of the bow after you've spent a lot of bow on several slurred notes, for example, or bow many even notes, using uneven strokes to travel to a different part of the bow.

Also, you need to learn to reclaim the up bow after a down by lightening the up bow and moving part of the stroke through the air. So if you have a quarter-eighth = down-up, for example, you play something like 4" of bow on the down bow, but on the up bow you play 1" on the string and travel the rest of the way in the air to get back to where you started (to avoid falsely accenting the up bow.)

I hope you're doing "up, dow-own up, dow-own up" at the beginning (I now despise that hooked down-down at the beginning.) You can either play down-up down-up, travelling from lower third to upper third, or you can travel in the air on the up to play two similar down-ups, depending on the character you want to bring out. This all presupposes you already know how to change the speed and density of the stroke at all subdivisions of the bow, in both directions.

P.S. it's also useful to play everything separate and subdivide all longer note values into sixteenths to work on left hand alone.

November 23, 2017, 2:55 PM · Thank you everyone! That was really helpful :)

Yes - I am doing that bowing at the beginning. A lot of soloists (e.g. Vengerov) seem to do the hooked bowing, but I don't like the sound & it doesn't seem to suit the Baroque style very well.

November 24, 2017, 6:44 AM · For "fumbling over notes" - the only things I can suggest are the following (after you have addressed the tension issues!)

: very slow practice with lots of intentionality - e.g. pausing before crossing strings/placing fingers to observe exactly what you are doing
: "slow to fast" practice - start at a slow tempo with a metronome and play through accurately. Repeat the piece with the metronome a couple of BPM faster. Rinse and repeat, but never advancing tempo until you are completely accurate
: having in your mind the musical line and not the actual notes! Don't know why it works but it seems to...

Edited: November 24, 2017, 12:48 PM · Mary Ellen wrote, "To help with clarity, practice with a pause just before every string crossing."

I've been trying this in some of my passage practicing, and it's quite effective. So my question is, why does it work? I have my own hunch about this but would be interested in hearing your rationale first.

November 24, 2017, 2:10 PM · Paul, I believe it's a way of programming the right arm to "categorize" string crossings as a different movement than simply "playing the next note."

There are at least 3-5 movements involved in a note that has a string crossing, whereas there might only be 1-2 movements in a "normal" note change (for example, B to C on the A string). But our brain naturally tends to want to treat every note change as identical, and then the resulting disparity causes disruptions, particularly in a run of very quick notes. So by stopping between notes that have several movements involved, whether that's a string crossing note change or a shifted note change, or really anything odd at all, we can program our brain to disrupt its normal thought process for just those notes, and insert a "thought-macro" or "script" or whatever you want to call it. As we eventually speed that thought-macro up, then the result appears seamless because conscious actions have been replaced up unconscious ones, which are much quicker to activate.

I have also found that we can manifest a similar effect by -accenting- complex note changes while still playing slowly. For example, if I'm playing a 3-octave arpeggio and I find that the shifts from 1st to 4th, 4th to 7th, and 7th to 10th positions are sloppy or acting as speed bumps, then I'll play the arpeggio slowly in general, but "burst" the shifts themselves. Then, as I speed the tempo up, this "burst" macro will stay and allow the shifts to match the speed of the regular note changes.

Another example of this technique could be used in something like Kreutzer #2, especially in the places where we have a very quick double string crossing. While practicing slowly, I would do the double string crossing as quickly as possible, while leaving all other notes to be played normally.

I think my "accent" method essentially accomplishes the same idea as the "stop on string changes" method, but of course each is more useful to particular situations. "Use the right tool for the right job" as they say.

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