By Laurel Thomsen
Considered one of the world’s greatest violin concertos since 1845, when it was first premiered by its dedicatee, violinist Ferdinand David, Mendelssohn’s thematically lyrical and structurally innovative violin concerto has inspired composers and generations of violinists. After tackling what are considered “student” concertos—Vivaldi, Bach, Haydn, a Mozart concerto or two, and perhaps a few shorter pieces from the Romantic era, like Massenet’s Meditation—the progressing violinist may feel like the Mendelssohn is within reach. That is, if it weren’t for a few intimidating double-stop passages.
It’s a shame that many students first encounter double-stops only within advancing repertoire. There’s no reason why a beginner can’t learn to bow on double open strings or play single-finger notes against open-string drones. Most students are excited to try double-stops when they’re first presented as a way to spice up an easy melody, such as the old-time fiddle “Boil ’Em Cabbage Down.”
While the serious player can’t avoid scales in thirds, sixths, and octaves—as detailed in Carl Flesch’s scale system as well as exercises like those presented in Ševčík Op. 9—double-stop étude books, such as those by Josephine Trott, Enrico Polo, and Harvey Whistler, provide students with progressive and tuneful double-stop practice beginning with drone-style double-stops in the first position. Later on, Kreutzer’s Études Nos. 24 and 25 and Wohlfahrt’s Étude No. 60 offer supplemental octave practice for the first double-stop passage players encounter in the Mendelssohn.
Regardless of ability level and current repertoire, playing double-stops incorporates so many aspects of technique that practicing them usually has the positive side effect of helping clean up other issues.
Double-stops present two primary bowing challenges—the need to stay balanced on two strings and to be more accurate in string crossings. You should look to the bow first any time you hear your tone suffering. As you try to get the bow to settle onto two strings, it’s tempting to press harder into the stick. Sometimes excessive bow pressure also shows up in reaction to left-hand fingers pressing more forcefully (more on this in a moment). Either way, the goal is to glide.
Figure 1 (p 73) shows a beneficial exercise for all playing levels. Start on one string and follow the natural curvature of the bridge, slowly and smoothly arcing over until the pitch of the second string appears. No additional pressure is needed. Simply rest your natural arm weight into the connection of bow and string. When moving from a lower string to a higher string pair, allow your bowing arm to relax into gravity. When moving from a higher string to a lower string pair, follow the gentle curvature of the bridge with complete trust that the lower string will be there.
Figure 2 presents Mendelssohn’s first double-stop passage as isolated open strings. It looks deceptively simple on the page, but it’s important to recognize that you must travel further to reach new string pairs than adjacent single strings. Use the middle string to pivot between string pairs in order to keep your transfer smooth and the bow connected to the strings at all times.
Choreographing the Left Hand
As Sir Francis Bacon (allegedly) said, “Knowledge is power.” With double-stops you can minimize frustration by initially learning the finger choreography without the bow. Map the feel of the hand and the distances between each double-stop when moving from one to the next. Does it help when one finger of a double-stop leads a shift or the movement to a new string pair more than the other?
Any excessive finger pressure in single melody lines is amplified with double-stops, but this presents a wonderful opportunity to rework your left-hand approach. Start with a single double-stop and only harmonic pressure, just barely resting the fingertips on the surface of the strings. Bow freely and understand that the initial sound will be glassy and unclear unless you happen to be playing natural harmonics. As you continue to bow, gradually sink your fingers into the strings, but only until a clear pitch emerges.
This is the moment when most of us realize we’ve been using twice the finger pressure we need!
All that extra pressure leads to thumb cramping, hand tension, and makes it time consuming to move between double-stops. Try playing a few double-stops in a row, or an entire passage with only harmonic pressure. Then, add a bit more finger weight, but only enough to hear clear tones. It takes vigilance to develop a new playing habit, but hopefully you’ll soon be enjoying much more freedom and ease in everything you play.
If your left hand and fingers are rigid, double-stops present the perfect challenge to help you become a hand yogi. Fingers must contract and lengthen, knuckles spread and twist, while the hand, wrist, and arm must gracefully set up for each unique finger combination (and sometimes, contortion!). Taken from the second solo section of Mendelssohn’s first movement, consider an exercise like that in Figure 3. Holding the first double-stop, tap each finger of the next double-stop individually, then together, for a subtle, yet effective way to both stretch and strengthen.
Practicing an étude like Polo No. 3, where many pitches are shared between consecutive double-stops, is a supplemental way to promote better left-hand flexibility. Allow the comfort and accuracy of your fingertips to inform what happens with the rest of your left hand, wrist, and arm. Does your elbow need to swing to the right or left? Do you need to move your wrist slightly in or out? Adjust your typical left-arm posture as you discover your most relaxed positioning for each new situation.
Like with finger pressure, issues you might have with shifting are amplified with double-stops. It becomes even more necessary to familiarize yourself with the feeling of each new fingerboard location beyond just the fingertips—where’s your thumb, the palm, your elbow in space? Knowing the entire left-arm setup for each placement allows you to more easily find your way back. Less finger pressure certainly also helps your shifting, as does ensuring that you complete each shift with the whole left arm, including the thumb, setting you up in your new location. Often, one of the two fingers will feel like it’s “leading” the other, but the finger that wants to lead is not always the most successful.
For example, take the final double-stop passage of the first movement and the measure provided in Figure 4. You may often rely on the first finger to help you find a new position, but in this situation, the first finger is at a disadvantage—shifting up to fourth position while also changing strings. Meanwhile, the third finger is free to simply glide up the A string. If you focus most of your attention on the first-finger B in first position shifting up the A string to a third finger G in fourth position, you’ll smooth out your transition and the first finger can quickly and seamlessly cross strings to find the high B once the third-finger G is secured. See Figure 5.
If you don’t know what a double-stop harmony should sound like, it’s impossible to tune it, so listening to good recordings is the best place to start your intonation study. Next, it’s helpful to practice isolating the upper and lower lines of the double-stops while continuing to build the general left-hand form. You can accomplish this by placing both fingers but bowing only one of the notes. You might play the passage several times for both the upper and lower voices before putting the harmonies back together. See Figure 6 to practice this idea with the first double-stop passage of the Mendelssohn.
Next, place both fingers of each double-stop, but try playing each of the pitches back and forth as a series of slurred 16th notes. While the previous exercise helped you tune just one of the pitches and the upper or lower harmony line from one double-stop to the next, in this practice you hear the individual pitches, while learning to tune them together. See Figure 7.
The path to mastery on any instrument is paved with a lifetime of unique challenges. It’s important to recognize that double-stops will require regular, focused practice for players of any age or ability level. No one picks up a bowed stringed instrument and plays perfect double-stops the first time. However, with perseverance, sensitivity to the sounds you hear and the sensations you feel, and creativity, double-stops are among the most rewarding aspects of your technique, allowing single melody lines to blossom into new dimensions of harmony and polyphony.
Études & Method Books Mentioned
Carl Flesch: Scale System
ŠevCík: Preparatory Exercises in Double-Stopping, Op. 9
Josephine Trott: Melodious Double-Stops, Books 1 & 2
Enrico Polo: 30 Double-Stop Studies
Harvey Whistler: Developing Double-Stops for Violin
Wohlfahrt: 60 Studies, Op. 45, Books 1 & 2
Kreutzer: 42 Études or Caprices for the Violin
All titles are available in violin shops and online, or otherwise can be found on IMSLP.org.