Susanna Klein gives advice on left and right hand dexterity and coordination for violinists wanting to improve their virtuosity
Virtuosity is intoxicating. All of us would like to play faster, but more easily, right? We yearn for greater finger independence, cleaner runs, and better coordination between the hands. There is an art and science to working up the faster bits in our repertoire. Gradually cranking up the metronome is only moderately effective. This is because playing fast is very different from playing slowly - physically, neurologically, and psychologically. Before I give you some practice advice, let’s talk about the important physical principles that we need to adhere to.
In fast passages, the most important goals should be:
A great left hand set-up
Relaxed arms (both left and right) and a spongy, loose left hand
Fast fingers, whether they are moving up, down, sideways, or along the string
Concise, carefully planned bowing
Here are some seven ways to practise that focus on these four principles:
1) Get close to the next target
If a finger is far from its intended spot, you will have to move even more quickly to get to the note in real time, since you will have to travel further. This is why a great left hand set up is key. Make sure fingertips are ‘looking’ towards the fingerboard and not up in the air, and straighten the wrist so you have full access to the fingerboard without having to stretch. To double check your set up, try this:
Play your first note VERY slowly, and while you are doing that, hover your next finger over the second note. Then play that note and hover your next finger over the third note. If you are playing a note below, like moving from 4 to 3, you can go beyond hovering, you can actually place the finger down on the string early.
So this Mozart Concerto No. 5 excerpt
Becomes this in practice:
Getting close to our next destination sometimes means letting go of pitches we already played soon, letting fingers get ready for the next thing. Here is an example from Lalo Symphonie Espagnole.
Getting close includes preparing for string crossings in the left hand. This means horizontal movement in the fingers as well as vertical movement. String crossings allow us the opportunity to put fingers in ahead of time. Try practising early placement of fingers that happen after string crossings:
The concept of ’close to target’ also applies to the bow. Minimise extraneous bow movement in string crossings. Advance the elbow towards the new string a bit ahead of time so you are well set up for the next string level, and the transition is round and smooth. Here is a practice trick for the right and left hands: For the string crossings marked here with the red circle:
Practise like this:
Or like this:
2) Loosen up
Tension acts like a handbrake. Tense your arm in the air (without your instrument) and try to wiggle your fingers really fast. Difficult? Next, relax the arm and wiggle fingers quickly again. See? Loose muscles are quick muscles, so we need to practise releasing tension.
Here is a potential tension-buster for practice:
Play two notes quickly, and pause.
Let go of all notes, and wiggle your fingers freely in the air.
Then play the next two notes, wiggle again, and keep working through the passage this way.
Try more notes between the wiggles, like threes and fours, until you have a bigger passage.
On the right side of the body, relax the shoulder and wrist and let the arm move freely all the way from the shoulder blade. Try to be ‘too loose’ in the bow grip as part of practice. If you have a string of separate notes, aim for fewer impulses - feel the notes in groups rather than each individual one.
3) Work on your action speed
Finger action, whether its up, down, or sideways, needs to be quick, even in slow practice. Aim for playing ’far apart in time’ rather than slowly. This means play a slow note, finger the next note very quickly. Then play that note slowly, finger the next note quickly, and so on. You will be playing slowly with the bow, but fingering quickly. For most players, lifting fingers is more sluggish, so we need to train extra fast for lifting fingers. Shifts also need to be practised much faster than usual. Whoosh - try some shifts that are super light and super fast.
4) Know it forwards and backwards
There is no better way to prepare the brain and the hand for what is coming up than to play a passage backwards (back to front). It will be challenging at first, but stick with it. Playing passages backwards helps with hand set up and truly understanding the passage. When you go back to the original (left to right), it will seem easier.
5) Play only one hand at a time
Practise a passage only with the bow, i.e. on open strings. Keep at it, until the passage is clean. Then, and only then, go faster (still on open strings.) Aim for a sense of ease with few impulses. Do the same for the left hand, play the fingerings without the bow. Listen for audible ‘plops’ that are strong and even. Loosen the hand and make your fingers feel bouncy before you add speed. For practising fast shifts (without the bow), aim for a ‘whoosh’ sound rather than a sticky sound. Consolidate by going back to the original.
6) Aim for short, even bows
Too much bow can lead to coordination problems in passage work. Aim for quasi-even bow speed for notes that have the same rhythmic value. In a passage with two slurred semiquaver (16th) notes and two separate semiquaver notes, aim for a bow length that is proportional. Even within the slur, each semiquaver should get the same bow length.
Looking for more tips? Stay tuned for my next article on practising in rhythms and check out my ’Fast Passages Playlist’ on YouTube: 13 Ways to Practice Fast Passages.
Susanna Klein is associate professor of violin at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. She is the author of the Practizma Practice Journal and creator of the Practice Blitz YouTube Channel. Her mission is to empower practising musicians in the practice room.
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