By Laurie Niles | From the January-February 2021 issue of Strings magazine

“Bariolage” is a French word for a bowing technique that involves rapid changing of strings, often between open strings and “stopped” strings—that is, strings with the fingers down. The effect, which produces a rapid flurry of notes, is used in a great variety of music, from Bach to bluegrass fiddle and beyond. One of the keys to success in playing bariolage passages is to master the various techniques for crossing strings—and then to know when to apply each technique. A good place to start is to work on two of the most basic techniques for crossing strings, then learning how to apply them to bariolage.

Crossing Strings: Large-Muscle Motion from the Shoulder

To put it simply: playing on different strings requires different angles of the arm, and changing from one string to another involves changing that angle. For example, to play on the violin’s G string, the arm and elbow are quite high. Moving to the D string, the arm and elbow drop lower (hinging from the shoulder joint), dropping again for the A string and again for the E string. It’s important to know the proper arm and elbow angle for playing each of the strings, as well as for the double-stop EA, ED, DG, and, on the viola, GC strings. The double-stop angle can be very useful when toggling between two strings with the hand.

It is possible, to a degree, to use the larger muscles to change strings for bariolage passages with separate bows, but once one gets to a very rapid speed, the arm begins to look like the manic wing of a flustered chicken. That’s why a string player also needs to master how to use the smaller muscles of the hand for string-crossings (see next section).

But it’s important to remember that the large muscles play an important role in two respects: first, you’ll need to accurately set and adjust these larger angles of the arm to facilitate string-crossings. And second, the larger muscles often work better than the smaller ones in cases when the bariolage also involves slurs or more than two strings. 

Crossing Strings: Small-Muscle Motion from the Wrist

Toggling rapidly between two strings often requires using the small-muscle motions of the hand, moving from the wrist. If you’ve never done this before, your first step may be simply finding those muscles and strengthening your brain’s ability to activate them. Here’s one way to do that: holding your right wrist with your left hand, wave up and down with your right hand, not moving any other part of your arm to do so. Next, make clockwise circles with your hand, moving the hand from the wrist but not moving any other parts of your arm.

Moving to the violin: first rest the bow on the A string. Using the same motion as above, flip up your hand to rock the bow to the D string. Flip it back down to rock back to the A. Rock back and forth, using that flipping motion in the hand. You can try holding your bow wrist with your left hand, to make sure you are not moving any other part of your arm as you rock between the strings. 

This may feel like a sloppy motion at first, and your bow might fall sideways onto the stick. In the beginning, allow for that sloppiness, just to get familiar with the motion. Then, as you get better at it, loosen your fingers more and see if you can angle the stick to stay upright as you rock from string to string.

Next, try toggling between the open A and open D using small bows: play down bow on the lower string and up bow on the upper string—in this case, down bow on D, up bow on A. Now send this motion out into your hand, using those clockwise circles, until you are not moving anything but your hand, from your wrist, to cross strings. You can use some horizontal motion from your forearm for the up and down bows, but the string-crossing motion comes completely from the wrist. 


How to Apply String-Crossing Techniques to Specific Bariolage Passages: Three Examples

1. “Devil’s Dream”
In Example 1 (below), from the fiddle tune “Devil’s Dream,” the bariolage occurs between two adjacent strings, using separate bows.

String crossings are achieved primarily with circular hand motion from the wrist, going down bow on the lower strings and up on the higher strings. Practice by playing it as usual, but when you get to the measures with bariolage, play open strings (Ex. 2).

A note about the left hand: don’t lift your fingers for the fixed notes played on the alternate strings. To keep your left hand calm, try practicing the notes on the lower strings as quarter notes (Ex. 3). Continue to finger this way, even while doing the bariolage.

2. Allegro by Bach
The Bach Allegro that appears as the fourth piece in the Suzuki Violin School Book 8 provides a lot of practice for bariolage. A portion of it (mm. 5–15) contains the basic two-string toggling described above, however everything changes at m. 16 (Ex. 4), with the addition of two-note slurs that last through m. 19.

Students very often try to continue to employ the (often newfound) wrist motion to this passage, but wrist motion here results in unevenly executed notes. Here, one must change to an arm motion. To stop the motion in the wrist, imagine having a cast on your wrist while using all larger arm motions.

Start by practicing this with open strings (Ex. 5): bowing from the wrist for the separate bows AEAE; then change to bowing from the arm for slurring DA EA DA EA. Practice the slurs on open strings until the arm movement is completely smooth from the shoulder and the notes sound completely even. It can help to accent the lowest and highest notes.

Incidentally, when this passage goes into four slurred notes at m. 20, the motion remains mostly from the arm, with some very subtle wrist motion for movement to the lowest string. 

3. Preludio from Bach Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin
The introductory movement in the last of J.S. Bach’s Six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin contains perhaps the most popular examples of bariolage in the violin repertoire. The movement contains plenty of two-string toggling, but things get trickier when Bach adds a third string to the mix (Ex. 6). (This passage occurs in mm. 17–28, then again in mm. 67–78).

Here the player must go between three strings consecutively, using separate bows. Technically, one must use the wrist motion for the upper two strings, between the A and the E, then use a modified arm motion to rock down from A to D and back. So it is a constant alternation between the two kinds of motions—very tricky in the beginning.

Start by separating the two different motions (Ex. 7): A-E-A-E from the hand and wrist; A-D-A-D from the arm and shoulder. (It may be helpful mentally to think of this as lifting from the “elbow” to reach the D, or tiny elbow circles.)

On open strings, put these motions together: wrist-arm-wrist-arm (or wrist-elbow-wrist-elbow). The arm must swivel back and forth, from the EA level for the wrist crossing to the D level to catch the lower note. The hand will remain in motion for all of these notes (Ex. 8). When this feels comfortable, add in the left-hand fingers.