As choro—samba’s instrumental precursor—gains international popularity, many string players are drawn to its charms and challenges. It’s a good vehicle for classical players seeking a path toward improvisational confidence. Whatever your motivations, the experience and joy of playing in roda de choro sessions is unparalleled—and it helps to understand some of the basics.
The European elements of choro (melody and harmony) are in constant dialog with its African rhythmic roots. Although a “violinistic” singing tone lends itself to many beautiful slower choros, on medium to fast tunes I prefer to run counter to expectations with a strongly rhythmic bow approach that actively contributes to the groove. Personally, I prefer to start from this angle, and later dial in other expressive aspects.
“Receita de Samba,” some of which is included here, by Jacob do Bandolim is an excellent standard to have under your belt. It’s in two sections—G major and E minor (to be repeated as you wish)—and its harmony is very characteristic of choro. Because most published charts are treble clef–centric, I have chosen to give my examples in bass clef, but the material here can be used by all, and is applicable to all choro repertoire. Let’s start with a simple warm-up.
Relaxing into an Energetic Groove
Set your metronome on slow quarter notes and start playing easy 16th notes starting on a down bow, and slightly accenting every other quarter note for a 2/4 feel.
1. Imagine your right elbow is resting on a high table, and keep shoulders level.
2. Let your hand hang loosely from your wrist, but engage your index and pinky finger on the frog.
3. Play in the third quarter, just past the mid-point of your bow.
4. Look for a slight see-sawing motion in your forearm.
5. Use your bow economically, just enough to initiate each note.
In Ex. 1 the “x” noteheads indicate a circular re-take where the bow does not quite leave the string, but as little sound as possible occurs on these white or “ghosted” notes.
In each of these warm-ups, you may vary the pitches or add string crossings, while maintaining the pattern of sounded and ghosted notes.
The goal is to transmit the constant pulse from your body to your bow, and gain the ability to accent or silence notes using impulses of your right forearm and hand.
Ex. 2 highlights two prevalent rhythmic elements in choro; I suggest working toward being able to place these in the beat structure at any tempo.
Ex. 3 brings us to samba accents (they derive from West African bell patterns). I recommend that you first clap these, and memorize them one at a time, before putting them in the bow. Ex. 3.3 is the most typical of these samba patterns, but many variations exist.
In the context of tunes, you won’t be always playing or ghosting every 16th note, but you do want to keep that sense of a motor turning constantly, the melody catching smoothly into the pulses. So, at first, practice the tune in moto perpetuo.
Shaping ‘Receita de Samba’
All that work you did with accenting and ghosting can apply not only to syncopated phrases with many “holes,” but anywhere you want to give more rhythmic definition. You can achieve the effect of an accent without making extra effort to dig in, but by releasing the less-important notes. Observe which shapes and notes of each phrase seem most definitive of the piece. These “peak notes” are the best ones to accent. (See Ex. 4.1 and Ex. 5.1.) And as you gradually build speed, you can treat the notes in between as “negative accents”—quieter, simpler—to reveal the peak notes without extra effort.
Also look for “arrival notes” where your constant 16th notes will likely halt, like in Ex. 4.1. Very often these occur on weak beats; they naturally carry a slight accent, and are good opportunities to create color and dynamic contour of the overall piece.
If you’re hearing too much noise in the rests, try a slightly higher right elbow.
Developing Bow Ambidexterity
Due to the placement of peak notes and arrival notes, some phrases initially feel comfortable in one bow direction and less so in the other. In a sequence, accents and string crossings may alternately fall on up bows and down bows. Try Ex. 4.2 and Ex. 5.2 both ways (or select another passage containing shifts) and practice it “goofy” with the goal of sounding indistinguishable from “regular.” Make conscious the choreography of the bow arm—the circles and half-circles—until you can bow the phrase both ways at a moderate tempo. (If you try this in passages with shifts and more left-hand action, you know you are succeeding when you can do it both ways without messing up the left hand!)
You may discover places in the phrase that actually feel easier in the way that first felt uncomfortable. Rather than unfamiliarity building tension, locate the places that allow moments of release in your arm.
Ex. 6 narrates a variety of ways you can treat the melodic contour of the B section. At a medium-fast tempo, ghost notes can propel the energy forward, but at a very rapid tempo they can cause it to drag. I’ve suggested combinations of constant 16ths and detaché melody notes, and some slurs that both are efficient and make musical sense. If you practice each of these approaches for an entire section you’ll have many options to adapt to the tempo and energy level of each playing situation.
Depending on your stylistic experience, this kind of flexibility could feel quite easy, or hard, if you’ve spent your life marking bowings into parts, and faithfully following your teacher’s directions. (Many of mine were inherited from Casals, thus Gospel!) While leaving this much open to chance may feel loosey-goosey, practicing it is actually quite a discipline. No doubt you will find your preferred foot to lead familiar passages, but this work prepares you to succeed when spontaneous moments (which good choro playing is full of) lead you into a phrase on the “wrong” foot.
The left hand’s job is to step in line with the gestures of the bow, and you will likely want to work out some fingerings that place shifts strategically. When you encounter a passage that lies awkwardly on your instrument, listen to recordings and observe how choro masters play it. Chances are you’ll hear some variations—so take that as permission to modify, play 8va or 8vb or otherwise be creative to deliver your phrase. Striving for 100-percent perfection is not always the best use of energy! Embrace open strings as the opportunity that they are to release tension from the left hand. Especially in faster tunes, you may want to commit your fingerings to muscle memory, but keep some options open for ornaments and expressive variety.
In the roda, or informal group playing session, if you stumble it’s not the end of the world—you may discover new things on the horizon of your abilities—and finding your way back to the melody is much of the art and fun of choro.
The subtle shadings of the style come across when you work on imitating choro’s typical solistas: flute, mandolin, and sometimes saxophone and clarinet. The variety of articulation is endless, and listening and imitating the great players is time well spent. Notice that there is not a lot of portamento, so if you use that as an effect, make it deliberate. And I suggest you use vibrato as an expressive effect, not a default.
As you gain control of your time and your ability to accent and shape phrases idiomatically, you will develop the balança, or ginga—some of the expressions that describe a deep familiarity with the feel and flow of Brazilian popular music. Playing along with classic recordings (and play-alongs) is an excellent way to do this. Listen for the pandeiro (tambourine) laying down the 16th-note grid and the cavaquinho (four-string treble guitar) dancing along the accents.
Dance to the Music
I play much more relaxed when I am aware of my whole body. If you feel tense, or disengaged, pay attention to your feet on the ground, and the flexible column of support all the way up your back that allows your shoulders’ freedom, and for changes in energy to travel the length of your skeleton. When you play with a group or a play-along, letting your body be receptive to the groove is just as important as positioning your arms and hands. Take a moment, and let the sound guide you into the phrase, as if initiating a simple dance step. Don’t be macho with fast tempos; a choro has to swing and feel good. If your audience starts dancing, this is a good sign!
Learning by Eye & by Ear
Choro is at heart an oral tradition. In Brazil, most students learn repertoire in the roda, sitting beside peers and more experienced players. We can approximate and even accelerate that process with YouTube and recordings. As a reader, I started out using charts and taking the additional step of memorization. Now, the tunes I learn phrase by phrase from a recording (whenever possible the composer’s) are the tunes that stick the deepest, and are also, paradoxically, the ones I feel the most secure in making my own variations. Keep in mind that charts, while helpful for reference, are limited in what they can convey, sometimes contain errors, and carry a danger of reinforcing a single interpretation.
A good solista will seldom repeat a section without subtle variations.
Listen to performances that make you feel good! Like a good sports team, the best players are fully engaged with their cohorts. You may notice pushes and pulls on the time, or some players having a consistent unevenness; such things can personalize one’s sound as long as they work with the whole of the group. It can add excitement to a performance to zoom up to peaks or convincingly delay phrase arrivals, as long as your ears are engaged. Listen to recordings for ideas (after Jacob do Bandolim, check out the rhythmic feel of Mike Marshall, and the greater liberties taken by avant-choro band Tira Poeira) and make your own choices. When you listen intently to a recording you are absorbing the repertoire and the style, and it can stimulate your own ideas.
Pronounce the song title correctly! The “R” at the beginning is pronounced like an “H”, and the word “de” is pronounced roughly “gee.” But if you want to call a tune the way chorões have been doing for 130 years, just play the first phrase or two and others will jump in.
Catherine Bent is a freelance cellist and associate professor at Berklee College of Music. She has been a guest soloist with Conjunto Época de Ouro on Brazil’s Radio Nacional. Ideal—her 2018 release of original compositions in Brazilian styles—is available at catherinebent.com, and she welcomes questions and feedback.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Strings magazine.