By Scott Flavin | From the January-February 2022 issue of Strings magazine
Let’s face it, how often do we really need to play double-stops in seconds? Apart from passing harmonies in repertoire, you don’t encounter them very often. Hard to tune and uncomfortable to play, they rarely appear successively in scales. However, there are great potential benefits to working on double-stops in seconds. Like in octaves, you primarily use the first and fourth fingers, but because the fourth finger is on the lower string, there is a greater stretch, giving scales of seconds an added challenge and added benefits—sort of like octaves on steroids! Smooth and controlled shifting becomes important in successive seconds, as does enhancing proper framework and balance of the left hand. Lastly, tuning in seconds is much more difficult, increasing your sensitivity to intonation.
First of all, try to isolate the upper and lower voices of each double-stop second and play those pitches on the same string. This will get you used to hearing proper intonation. You may need to go back and reference those pitches often, as successful tuning of double-stops in seconds can be difficult. Another factor is the interval between the double-stop: if there is a half step between double-stop seconds, the hand will be in a more open position, meaning there will be a greater distance and stretch in the hand. This semitone also sounds more dissonant and as a result is more difficult to tune. As you work on intonation, you will find that your perception of pitch becomes much clearer.
As in successive double-stops in octaves, in order to maintain a consistent distance between the first and fourth fingers, you will need to shift with the arm, transporting the left hand and fingers as a unit from position to position. Also, constantly monitor tension, making sure that all elements of the left hand are flexible. In order to hear and feel the distance between positions, shift slowly and steadily—a glissando while practicing shifts is a good thing! By using a slow and steady shifting speed you will hear the arrival pitch coming, which prevents shifting too far. When control of speed and reduced tension are consistent, then accelerate shifting and eliminate the glissando.
Because you are primarily using the first and fourth fingers, the smaller and weaker fourth finger always needs extra focus. Beware of excess tension on the fourth finger, making sure to balance the weight of the left hand primarily on the first finger.
Most important of all, don’t give up! After even a few days of practicing double-stops in seconds for just a few minutes, you will find them easier to tune and play.
Here are some exercises to help you on your journey toward successful double-stops in seconds:
Nail the Span
Example 1 (below) prepares the left hand for the span between the first and fourth fingers on successive strings. It also gets you accustomed to the fourth-finger shifts and shifts from one pair of strings to the next (4 and 1 to 3 and open string) that you encounter in scales of double-stops in seconds.
Example 2 is centered on preparing the left hand for the double-stops and further solidifying shifting, especially shifting correctly to the next string on the ascent, by playing the shifting finger’s arrival pitch (for example, in m. 3 the fourth-finger F on the third beat shifts down to fourth-finger D in first position on the last eighth note).
D major Scale in Seconds
In Example 3, I have marked the half steps and labeled open-hand positions; this may help if you’re having difficulty with intonation. I have also bracketed the second octave of the scale as an option once you have attained a degree of fluency in the first octave. Practice the scales in various bowings (start with separate, then slur two, three, four, etc.).
Example 4 is a simple little étude, based on echoes, that lays the groundwork for better intonation, alternating intervals in seconds on one string, followed by the same notes on two strings. Play at a slow and comfortable tempo and take your time on the difficult two-string echoes, making sure that the framework between the first and fourth fingers is consistent (especially during shifting) and that your shifts are smooth and controlled (practicing each shift initially with an audible position change will help you control the speed and accuracy of each shift). Remember to constantly monitor tension.