Practicing double-stops can profoundly change and benefit a string player's overall left-hand technique. But how to get started, and how to keep it up?
Double stops were the focus of a lecture called "Double Troubles: on Double Stop Techniques and Pedagogical Approaches," by violists Renate Falkner and Karin Brown, at the 2018 American Viola Society Festival in June at The Colburn School.
Falkner and Brown met as students at Oberlin College, where both studied with Roland and Almita Vamos, the married teaching pair that has produced so many highly accomplished violinists and violists, including Rachel Barton Pine, Jennifer Koh, Benjamin Beilman, Aimee Kreston, Cathy Basrak, Christina Castelli and many more.
"This era at Oberlin in the mid-90s was the Golden Age of the Vamos studio," Falkner said, "we were surrounded by these exceptionally talented musicians."
When it came to violists, Roland Vamos had a firm philosophy: There is no reason that a violist should not play as well as a violinist.
To that end, he put violists on the same rigorous diet of technical studies as violinists, including scales and arpeggios, Schradieck, Dounis, and "a notorious photocopied paper of double-stop exercises based on Korguof." As it turns out, that photocopied paper was a key ingredient.
Sergei Korguof was a Russian pedagogue whose double-stop book was given to Vamos back when he was a student. Vamos expanded on that book, and the photo-copied exercises that Vamos created were published in 2014 as books, including a Double-Stop Exercise book for Viola and a Double-Stop Exercise book for Violin.
"These double-stop exercises are a cornerstone of the Vamos' technical teaching," Falkner said. They consist of seven basic finger patterns, covering every possible set of intervals. They are to be practiced in seven positions and on all sets of adjacent strings. There are also bowing exercises that go along with them.
"These are the most useful and comprehensive exercises for fixed double stops," Falkner said, adding that the exercises don't include shifting. "If a student practices these in a consistent and diligent way, the student will have created a map of the fingerboard."
Brown demonstrated the exercises (a very admirable feat to do live, before an audience of high-level teachers -- well done!)
Roland Vamos emphasized the following, when doing the exercises: keep the left thumb relaxed and flexible. The fingers should go up and down the same way, each time. The fourth finger should be as curved as possible, making sure that the base knuckle is not protruding. The left arm and elbow should be slightly farther forward, especially in first position. Also, it helps to have a practice partner, to watch for all of those factors. "It's infinitely better to have a person present, than to rely on a mirror," Brown said. She added that "these are really high-maintenance exercises." Handle with a great deal of care and do not injure yourself! While it's important to make the exercises sound good, it's equally important to attend to coordination and avoiding tension.
Violists must also adapt for the differences in the instrument. This is very important: You just can't do these exercises the same way that you would, on a violin. Falkner and Brown listed some of the potential pitfalls, as well as violin requirements that might be unrealistic for a violist:
About fingered octaves (Pattern 7 in the Vamos book): "Those are brutal for most violists who have a regular hand size," Falkner said, especially in positions lower than fourth position. Since fingered octaves are only minimally required in the viola repertoire, use moderation and good judgment, and don't injure yourself, they recommended.
What is the ideal time to introduce double stops?
"The sooner a student is introduced to double-stops, the better," Falkner said. "I sincerely regret that I was not more formally introduced to double stops, earlier on." Many violinists and violists do not seriously encounter double stops until the find them in the literature. But studying double-stop etudes and exercises can be beneficial in ways that go far beyond the double stops themselves.
"Double-stops are present all the time, even when they are not being played," Falkner said. Here are some of the benefits that come from the regular practice of double-stop exercises:
Of course, the Vamos double-stop exercises are not the only ones available to us. Here are a few other books with double-stop exercises (this includes a mix of violin and viola methods, some which apply to both):
One final word: if you are confronted with a difficult technical passage of any kind in the literature, just break it down and get going. As Roland Vamos often said, "There's no time like the present, learn it now!"
* * *
A little more about the two violists who gave the lecture:
Dr. Renate Falkner is an active performer and educator; currently, she is Adjunct Prof. of Viola at the University of North Florida, performs regularly with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and serves on the board of the American Viola Society.
Karin Brown is Assistant Principal Viola of the Baltimore Symphony orchestra. She is a past prizewinner of the William Primrose International viola Competition and Is on the faculty of the Baltimore School for the Arts and NOI.
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