By Isabelle Ai Durrenberger | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Harmonics are among the most mesmerizing and astonishing sounds you have at your disposal as a string instrumentalist. Pure, open, and ethereal, these bright and magical overtones dazzle in the concert hall but only after hours of head scratching and frustration in the practice room. The technical execution required for a successful harmonic can easily trigger cognitive dissonance because the physical requirements of executing the technique contrast with the easy ring of the resulting sound. Fortunately, by understanding how harmonics are produced and by following a few guidelines, string players can master this expressive (and impressive) technique.
Harmonics are sprinkled everywhere throughout the repertoire and serve a wide variety of purposes, so they’re well worth the effort. They can add color to wondrous dramatic settings or variation pieces (Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy, Wieniawski’s Faust Fantasy, Ernst’s The Last Rose of Summer); serve as the cherry on top of virtuosic runs (found everywhere in works by Paganini, Saint-Saëns, and Wieniawski); and conjure eerie, distant sounds (the opening of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2). Appearing in a wide array of speeds and articulations, harmonic passages require a creative and flexible approach in the practice room.
Every note you hear or play is accompanied by a harmonic series, or spectrum of other notes called overtones. Overtones are not prominently heard when a single pitch sounds but can be highlighted on stringed instruments when the string is lightly touched at specific nodes or points as the string is plucked or bowed. These “spoken” overtones are harmonics—the high flute-like sounds are so reminiscent of wind instruments that the German and French term for harmonics is flageolet, an instrument similar to a flute recorder.
There are two types of harmonics on stringed instruments: natural and artificial. Natural harmonics are produced by lightly touching open strings at a fixed interval in accordance with the harmonic series. Artificial harmonics require a lower finger to stop the string and another to lightly touch the string. Double harmonics tend to be the most painstaking of all: a double-stop constructed of two harmonics. More often than not, both harmonics are artificial, thus requiring an especially exact technique.
Harmonics are often discussed using “sound” or “speak” as the operative verbs (e.g. “getting a harmonic to sound” or whether the harmonic is “speaking”). The complication in getting harmonics to speak lies in the fact that while the sound quality of a harmonic is airy, light, and bright, the fingers and the bow must behave and perform in a way that is often in contrast to the sound you hear. But before you dive into harmonics in the practice room, you should dismiss the popular presumptions that won’t serve you.
Two Important Harmonic Myths
Myth 1: To create an artificial harmonic, the bottom finger must press the string down completely.
Especially during quicker passages of artificial harmonic runs and chords, a successful execution requires a lightness and sensitivity on the fingerboard. It is not necessary for the bottom finger of an artificial harmonic to stop the string completely. Eliminating the distraction of balancing the left hand allows for a simpler approach, calmer mind, and a more responsive and agile left hand.
Myth 2: Harmonics should be played with a light and lifted bow.
It is easy to imagine the glow of harmonics and automatically float the bow. Don’t be deceived by the luminosity of overtones or the lightness of the left hand—lifting your bow out of the string while trying to make harmonics sound is a common trap. It is all too easy to “whiff” the end of an upward arpeggio and miss the harmonic at the top. This is usually because the bow is being lifted out of the string alongside the left hand. In his book Principles of Violin Playing & Teaching, renowned 20th-century violin pedagogue Ivan Galamian shares the following: “Harmonics are as much a bowing problem as a left-hand problem… Not only should the [left hand] fingers be set very precisely, but also the bow should have a clear and even pressure. Sometimes one of the harmonic notes will change pitch because of the unevenness of the bow pressure. Generally speaking, it is possible to play out of tune because of wrong and uneven bow pressure.”
Galamian singles out intonation as a typical pitfall—the other common grievances are a harmonic squeaking or not speaking at all, signaling lack of clarity and purity from the beginning of the stroke. To problem solve for these frustrations, here are some ideas and tips with which to experiment in the practice room. Remember that every variable is an element that can and should be adjusted depending on your technique and the particular harmonic passage in question.
Six tips for playing better harmonics
- Use flatter bow hair.
- Touch the string with the roundest part of your left-hand fingers. Approaching harmonics with more finger surface area and a horizontal orientation (leaning your left hand backward) will help the harmonic resonate.
- Play closer to the bridge.
- Use a slower bow speed. Tips 3 & 4 are especially helpful for harmonic passages made of sustained long notes—when used in combination with flat bow hair, the bow will grab the string in a rich and open way. The bow will be relaxed and pulling with great intensity on the string, so the sound and projection of the harmonic will be magnified.
- Keep the left-hand fingers on the string long enough. This is especially helpful for virtuosic arpeggios or scales that end on a high E-string harmonic. It is tempting to pull the left hand away too soon (because it is inadvertently matching the bow), losing the harmonic at the top, so try practicing with the bow speed increasing and lifting off with excitement and character while keeping the left-hand finger down during the release of the bow.
- Allow the left hand to feel quite different from the bow. It is natural for our hands and arms to mimic each other, but more often than not, this tendency obstructs our technique. When playing artificial harmonics moving in quick succession, it is important to imagine a “bell-strike” quality (deep initiation with fast release for resonance) with the bow while achieving a lightness in the left hand that allows the fingers to travel quickly—pressing too deeply with the hand isn’t necessary. The bow “speaks” the harmonics clearly, and the left hand glides up and down the string with a gentle touch.
Harmonics can be challenging for any string instrumentalist, but experimenting with these elements to balance clarity and richness in the bow arm while maintaining light agility in the left hand will help harmonics to speak and sound with greater projection and sound quality.