Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Detuning the Violin

            Detuning the violin is a very common technique but there are some risks to the violin so care should be taken. Wherever possible the violin should tune down as too much tension could damage the bridge and weaken the strings. Constant retuning will damage the strings. Slackening the strings too much could result the bridge falling off if knocked and the sound post could fall as well. 

Prepared Violin

            Prepared instruments are instruments that have had their timbre changed by having various objects on or between the instruments vibrating strings. It is usually found on piano’s but there are compositions for prepared violins.
            Wrapping a small piece of wire around a string causes the wire to create a buzzing effect. The amount of buzz can be controlled by bow speed and bow pressure. The wire buzz works on all strings, but I used it on the G, as it resonates the most the buzz lasts for longer. As the wire is vibrated it travels along the string touching harmonic nodes and these nodes can be heard. Care must be taken when performing this technique as the strings could be damaged by the vibrating wire and the bow hair could become damaged.
            Another technique is to place a hairpin over the strings of the violin and to pluck it. This gives a plethora of different pitches. Stephen Montague introduces thimbles to the strings in Silence: John Yvar and Tim. He instructs on how to play the prepared violin.

1.     Violins and violas are held in the lap with the scroll against the chest (similar to the cello position). The bow is not used. The strings are played with 2 thimbles – one  thimble on each hand (probably easiest to play if it is on the middle finger of each hand). In general each thimble (right hand and left hand) plays across two strings. Each of the strokes of the thimble across the two strings produces complex non-harmonic pitches due to the pins. The right-hand hits the E and the A strings, producing a higher pitched timbre, while the left hand strikes the A and D strings, producing a lower.
2.     A “hairpin pizzicato” is produced by plucking on the end of the pin


3.     On occation the players “slap” the strings with the flattened fingers to produce a very different sound from the thimbles. However the thimbles simultaneously hitting the fingerboard help with the intensity. 

Percussive techniques

As the body of the violin is hollow it does make a good percussive instrument. Tapping the body in various ways has become popular with composers and using different parts of the hand can create different timboral effects. For example you can slap the body of the violin or tap with the pad of a finger. The composer should explain what is wanted by either writing in the notes at the front or in the score. The violin gives slightly different sounds depending on where it is being struck and also with the different parts of the hand. The option to dampen the strings is again there as striking the body of the violin will create the to resonate.
            The violin can either be held like a cello when performing these techniques or as normal. Caution should be taken when striking the instrument, I would advise using a spare if you have one, also one of the techniques that can be used is to strike the violin with the fingernails. This will result in a short tapping sound but may cause varnish to chip off the violin causing damage.
            It should also be noted that if one hand is used to perform the technique then it leaves the other hand free. For example if the violin was in the normal playing position and tapping with the right then it would leave the L.H. able to perform other techniques such as L.H. pizz such as in George Crumb’s Black Angels.


Nail Pizzicato

            Using the nail to pluck the string creates a sharper attack than when plucked with the pad of the finger. If the nail of the left hand is used then a more metallic sustained sound can be heard.
Violinists usually do not generally grow their fingernails as it interferes with their day-to-day playing. Using plectrums could be an option. Using a banjo fingerpick can reproduce the sound of plucking with your nail and if it is needed using a thimble on the L.H. can produce the more sustained sound. Care should be taken when using these items for sustained periods of time as violin strings were not designed to be plucked with hard objects, composers should bare in mind that a set of strings can cost £80!



                                        Crumb Black Angel (1970)

Subharmonics and A.L.F’s are relatively new and not really understood. With the correct bow placement, pressure and speed then it is possible to perform an octave below the fundamental. For example playing an open G on the violin with a frequency of 196Hz then performing a subharmonic of this creates an octave G at 98Hz. Using this technique it is possible to play all the notes in the octave. This technique was one of the hardest for me to get to grips with as there are so many different variables that affect whether it is possible to play or not. The bow has to be at the correct speed, the bow has to be at the correct pressure and it had to be at the correct position along the string. I also found that it was easier on some violins than others, for example I found that it was much easier on my lecturers violin than my own and I think that was because my violin the tension of the G string was less so it would be much more difficult for it to ‘catch’ the subharmonic.
            To play this technique there seems to be 3 factors mainly at work:
1.     Bow pressure
2.     Bow speed
3.     Bow position

Bow Pressure
            Lots of consistent bow pressure is needed, basically as much pressure as you possibly can. Start off right at the heel trying to get the crunch sound, then try to maintain that same pressure throughout the full length of the bow, meaning that you will have to apply much more as the bow reaches the tip. I found that holding the bow at the frog helped to get much more leverage and pressure.

Bow Speed

            The bow has to be a consistent slow bow, too fast and you will not get or you will loose the subharmonic. Too slow and it will not be an even pace and you will not get the subharmonic.

Bow Position

            This will differ slightly depending on your violin but I found that playing close to the fingerboard, about 1 – 2cm away was the best position on the violins that I tested.

It must be noted that you can only play subharmonics on the G string as the pressure needed and the angle of the bow means that the G string is the only option.

            George Crumb was the first person to compose for subharmonics in Black Angels calling them pedal tones. He used them to depict the devil in one of the movements.

A.L.F’s are related to subharmonics but are not true subharmonics. Mari Kimura has mastered this technique and people compose pieces containing subharmonics specially for her. 


Harmonic Glissando

            This can either be played as a natural harmonic glissando or a false harmonic glissando both resulting in different effects.

Natural harmonic Glissando

            Using this technique I found that a firm even bow stroke was best so that the harmonics can catch, with a fast glissando it works best on the lower strings as the higher harmonics don’t have time to catch. A slow glissando on the G would optimise all the harmonic series and would bring out all the minute sounds between the nodes. I particularly like the effect when the finger sliding from the end of the fingerboard to the bow as the effect is a light fluttering sound.

False Harmonic Glissando


            There are two ways of producing a false harmonic glissando, the first being to perform a false harmonic with the first finger stopped slide the fourth finger, lightly touching the string, towards the stopped finger. The closer the fourth finger gets to the first finger the higher the pitch of the harmonic.
            The second way to perform a false harmonic glissando is to perform it with a fixed hand. This means that when you perform the harmonic you slide the whole hand. As a performer you would have to remember that the higher up the fingerboard you went with the glissando you would have to move your fingers slightly closer together to keep the tone correct. Legeti uses this technique in his piece Ramifications

Sul Ponticello – playing near the bridge

Crumb Black Angel (1970)
            This technique can be used to create either a timberal effect or a pitched effect. Depending on the distance of the bow to the bridge it can change the effect, the farther away from the bridge more tone will be produced.
            The tone of this technique reminds me of n overdrive pedal on an electric guitar, it also works extremely well with overpressure. The closer to the bridge will result in higher harmonics being produced. If a constant dynamic is required then more bow pressure will be needed as the bow reaches the tip.
            Playing on the bridge will result in a timberal effect as the bow hair will be divided across the bridge and it will also be playing the actual wood of the bridge. For example William Sydeman writes a chord to be played on the bridge and indicates that specific pitches are not wanted.  This is depicted with the note heads looking more like drum notation than a normal classical notation. For shorter more sticatto sound it might be needed to dampen the strings by clamping the L.H. to the fingerboard. 

Sub Ponticello – playing behind the bridge

            Playing behind the bridge creates a high pitched, slightly scratchy sound. The interesting thing about this technique is that different violins will produce different pitches. This is because the length of the string between the tailpiece and the bridge would differ, the tension of the strings behind the bridge would also differ slightly from violin to violin. This means that using the technique with multiple violins would create a unique tone cluster.
It can also be noted that changing the tuning on the violin would change the tuning behind the bridge. This should be done with caution as time will be needed for the performer to retune if needed and frequent loosening and tightening of the strings will weaken them and make them prone to snapping. Also slackening all the strings too much will create less pressure on the bridge meaning that there could be a risk of the bridge slipping and possibly the sound post slipping.
            As the performer is bowing behind the bridge this frees up the L.H. to perform other techniques such as L.H. pizz, as in Thursday Afternoon by Alvin Vurran, or by tapping the body of the violin.  Crumb also uses a tremolo arpeggio of Sub Ponticello in Black Angels


            Multiphonics are a phenomenon usually reserved for brass and wind instruments. It occurs when it is possible to alter the way of blowing to produce two or more tones at the same time. With the violin this is obviously possible by performing double stopping but it is also possible to perform a real multiphonic producing two notes whilst only bowing one string. It gives a slightly distorted sound and is the breaking up of the various other partials.
            This seems to be a relatively new technique as such I was not able to find notation for it, although Patricia Strange suggests a possible notation for it.

            Tracy Silverman describes how to play it:

“Start with the note E on the A string. I prefer to use my second finger (3rd) position. If you play a harmonic at that node, you will hear a note one octave higher…. Now, increase your finger pressure just slightly. Not enough to lose the harmonic, but enough so that if you slide your finger down to a D you will still hear a note one octave above the normal note.”

I found this a little hard to understand but the way I managed to do it was to play the harmonic in 3rd position and to slowly apply pressure with your finger until you hear the E at ‘normal’ pitch as well. I found that if you keep firm bow pressure it helps to keep a consistent tone.


It is important for the composers to work closely with the performers as the possible multiphonics will differ from performer to performer and instrument to instrument. 


                                            Praxis for 12 Jani Christou
                                           Hammering notation          

            This is quite a delicate technique and evolves from guitar and banjo technique. The difference between the fingerboard on the violin and the banjo is obviously the fact that the banjo has frets, meaning that the sound of the L.H. can be heard much more easily. On the violin this is a much more delicate technique one which I feel that could benefit from amplification or would be extremely effective as an orchestral tool. 
            I found that hammering works best on the G and D strings as they are naturally louder and thicker meaning that it is possible to trap the string between the fingerboard and your finger. It gives a very percussive sound to the violin. 

video video


                                                       Rounds David Ernst
                                                      Bow pressure Graphic

Overpressure is one of the most commonly used extended techniques. It creates a loud scratchy white noise sound, which can be very effective to create a completely different sound. It is not a sound usually wanted from a violin as the sound is usually a sign of someone who has not developed proper technique as violinists usually strive to create a pleasant tone.
Overpressure can be used in two ways, one where the strings are dampened and the other where a pitch is wanted to be heard by the composer.  To dampen the strings the violinist simply clamps their L.H. on to the strings restricting their ability to vibrate properly. To create overpressure the violinist has to, as the name suggests, create large amounts of pressure. I found that the best way was to have a heavy right arm and really pull threw the bow stroke whilst pinching and pressing hard with the first finger on the R.H. remembering that if constant overpressure is wanted then more pressure will be needed nearer the tip of the bow.
                                                  Crumb Black Angels (1970)

 There are various different symbols for overpressure to be notated with.  Crumb uses this technique in Black Angels, starting with a normal note at pp increasing in volume and pressure depicted by the zigzag line to fff. As a composer you would have to realise that this technique can only really be played loud as the more pressure created on the string then the more louder the volume created. Another way to depict differing amounts of overpressure is to create a graphic above the stave as in Rounds by David Ernst. Although written for cello the theory is still the same. The bigger the graphic the more pressure needed.


Col Legno


Col Legno means to play with the wood of the bow and is not as new a technique as some other extended techniques. It does however change the timbre that the violin can produce as the performer is not using the hair of the bow that produces a clean sound. The sound created by Col Legno is much more faint and whispery.  
            Col Legno Butatto means to bounce the wood of the bow and creates a much more percussive sound, this is used by Chopin in Piano Concerto no. 2 in the final movement. It gives a feel of wood being struck together sticking with the peasant dance theme that he had throughout the final movement.
            If it is to be bowed then Col Legno Tratto is to be used, its gives a whispery white noise effect. Crumb calls for this in Black Angels which is used in a section called ‘Sounds of Bones and Flutes’ using this technique gives it that haunting feeling that you would expect from bones and flutes.

            Care must be taken when writing Col Legno as this can be a destructive technique towards the bow, it may chip or scratch the varnish on the bow and serious players could have an extremely expensive one. For violinists that are thinking about performing extended techniques a lot then they should think about having a cheaper spare bow.
            When playing this technique I found that it was easier to have my thumb underneath the leather with the other fingers on top, as you may have done when you were first learning to play the violin. I found that it gave much more control and when playing Butatto it gives a good pivot point to help keep a striking rhythm.

Circular bowing


This technique gives an intermittent tone, some people describe the sound that this makes as a sighing sound. The idea being to move the bow in a circular motion across the string, as shown in the diagram below. This means that as the bow passes in a vertical motion to the string then a clear tone is produced, when the bow is on a horizontal motion to the string then a scratchy ‘non’ tone is produced. The frequency of the intermittent tone can be increased and decreased depending on the size and speed of the circle.
            I found when I started playing this technique it to be quite tricky as you are doing something quite unnatural with you R.H. I found that the best way was to make sure that you have a firm bow hold as when you are making the ‘scratch’ noise you have to push the bow away from you and the towards you  and you want to be in full control of the bow. You want to start off thinking that you are making a square and gradually smooth out the corners until you have created a circle.

            This technique can be used on all strings and, as with a lot of these techniques, they can be used in conjunction with others for example bowing behind the bridge or, as in Cadenzas and Variations, I & II br Richard Wernick (1995) he calls for the violinist to “make circular motion (with wood of bow) from bridge to nut to bridge on open D and A strings; allow only sufficient weight of bow to produce upper partials .“ There are many different ways to notate this technique but they all seem to have a circle above the note being played as in the examples below. 

Bowing behind L.H. fingers

This technique is used by composers to create a muted and haunting tone, it also gives a great visual component to a performance. George Crumb uses this technique in Black Angels where he tells the performers to hold the violins between their knees to give the appearance of playing a viol.  The other version that can be used is in the normal playing position where the performer has to reach their right arm round. I found playing the second a lot more difficult, surprisingly, than the ‘viol’ version. I feel that this is because whilst you are concentrating on bowing in a position that is completely different the performer also has to consider the fact that the fingers are going in reverse. Say you go from a D to an E in third position on the G string, the pitch gets higher as the vibrating section of the string is decreasing in length whereas if you play behind the fingerboard then if you play the same notes it comes out as an A to a G on the E string.


            Composers should also take note that the only strings that this technique is suited for is the G and the E string on the violin. It should also be noted that there will be a rosin build up on the strings where it would be usual for the fingers to go meaning that there should be adequate time for the performers to wipe away any rosin. If it is a substantially long passage then a second violin may be needed.
            For performing this technique in the ‘viol’ position I found that playing about 1cm away from the nut gave the optimum sound. As a performer you also have to be wary of clipping the D and A strings, as they will resonate more it is very noticeable. Playing this technique in the normal position I found that having a very strait bow was very useful so that other strings were not touched accidentally.  With both of the positions I found that using quite a fair amount of bow pressure helped to create a pleasant tone. It should also be noted that fingers have to be lifted after each note so that the next one can be heard.
           A written instruction above the music is usual for this technique 

Bartok Pizzicato

                                                              notation for Bartok Pizz

Bartok pizzicato, or snap pizzicato, is produced in two ways. The first way is to place the forefinger of the right hand underneath the string an pulling upwards and releasing so that the string snaps against the fingerboard. The other way is to pinch the string pulling vertically upwards and releasing creating the snap against the fingerboard. The second technique creates a sharper attack sound.