Learn the necessary preparation and bow control through these musical exercises
Double-stops can sound great when they are played correctly, but they are often maddening to work on. Getting them in tune is a daunting task and transitioning smoothly from one to the next can seem nearly impossible, but it can be done. Instead of using the “my fingers are too short” excuse, understand that you don’t need long fingers. You simply need good technique. Here are some tips to help you successfully navigate the treacherous territory of double-stops.
First and foremost relax, relax, relax. Any tension in your left hand will quickly tie it up and cramps are sure to follow. Don’t mistake tension for strength. They are very different sensations.
Take frequent breaks. It’s very easy to wear out your hand when you are starting to work on a new double-stop passage. If your hand gets tired, stop playing or work on something else and come back to the double-stops later. In the beginning, several very short practice sessions are much more effective than one long session that ends in cramps and aches. As you build up strength and endurance, you can practice for longer periods.
Also, make sure your left elbow is far enough forward. This will help your fingers reach the fingerboard more easily.
You don’t need any extra pressure with your bow to play two strings at the same time. To ensure this is the case, first make sure your bow is positioned evenly between the two strings you want to play. Then experiment with how little pressure you can get away with and still make both strings ring clearly. Start with open strings to get comfortable with your bowing. This is a nice way to work on achieving a beautiful, focused tone quality. Use whole bows. Keep your bow hand relaxed and keep track of how you must adjust it to maintain a focused sound in different parts of the bow.
Start by playing a D major scale, but play the D and the A strings at the same time (see Ex. 1 on p 28). The trick here is to keep your fingers curled up on the D string so the A string will still ring. Arch your fingers over the A string and touch the fingerboard only with the very tips of your fingers. Playing the open A with your fourth finger on the D string is the most difficult part. Pull your elbow forward just a bit more for this double-stop and keep your left hand relaxed.
This is a helpful exercise because it’s very easy to hear and adjust your intonation, given that there is always an open string sounding. Once you’ve got D major down, try G major with the bottom two strings and A major with the top two. Again, it will be easier to hear and adjust intonation in these keys because of the open strings.
Now comes the fun part: working on a passage of double-stops in the context of real music. For the best results, first play only the bottom part of the double-stop, and ignore the top part completely. Use the same fingering, bowing, and dynamics you will use when you are playing all the notes. Play slowly and be extremely careful of your intonation. Playing with a tuner can be a good way to check this. Don’t go on to the next note until the one you’re playing is really in tune.
After you get the bottom line in tune and it feels comfortable, use the same approach with the top line. Play it with the same fingering, bowing, and dynamics that you will use. Ignore the bottom line completely this time. Go slowly and continue to watch your intonation.
Once you’ve got that down, play the bottom line again, but finger the top line at the same time. Don’t play the top line with your bow, only finger it with your left hand. Keep your focus on the intonation and comfort level of the bottom line.
Then play the top line and finger the bottom line in the same manner.
After you can play each line independently while fingering the other part, it’s time to put them together.
Relax and go slowly, one double-stop at a time. If your hand gets tired, take a break, shake it out, and come back to it later. Soon you’ll be up and running.
To take things a step further and add some triple- and quadruple-stops, I’ve included a section from the second movement of Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor, the Sarabanda (see Ex. 2). I’ve broken up all the double-stops for easy practicing. (Note that I did not break up the double-stops that use open strings.) Practice each line independently, making sure each part is in tune and comfortable.
Then play the first line while fingering the second line. When that is comfortable, try playing both lines. Then play the first two lines together while fingering the third line. Finally put all three lines together.
When you’ve played one passage of double-stops correctly, they will get easier and easier. In time, your technique will transcend any one piece and become part of your regular vocabulary.