Melodious Etudes - The Art of Legato Playing for Violinists

May 9, 2020, 11:43 PM · If you are looking for etudes that will help you hone your expressive and melodious playing, you might want to look beyond Rodolphe Kreutzer's famous 42 Studies.

Kreutzer’s Etude #1 of the 42 was an attempt at a melodious etude. It is not the etude that most people remember. It’s aggravatingly slow and has an uninspired melodic theme. I doubt that anyone started his 42 Studies with #1. The main purpose of etudes is to instill patterns and formulas into budding musical minds. #2 satisfies that with lilting one-octave arpeggios and tiny broken thirds. It sets up simple phrases that teach us how to add dynamics when there aren’t any written and how to observe a measure by its arc rather than its notes.

Kreutzer 1 and 2

But Etude #1 -- I call it Kreutzer’s "Long Day’s Journey." (It may be as long as the other 41 studies combined.) I would have preferred something with a tune that was actually melodious. What’s missing is the ease and emotion connected to melodies which make them so endearing to us.

Kreutzer and Bordogni

Fortunately, there is a book designed to make lovely melodies useful as a teaching tool. The Melodious Etudes for Violin, Selected from the Vocalises of Marco Bordogni (Carl Fischer) are edited by Doris Gazda. I find them well suited to developing a warm, rich sound. Practicing these 15 minutes a day rounds out the vibrations of the strings and encourages a healthy vibrato to match the expressive bow.

Melodious etudes

A Tenor Who’s a Teacher

Marco Bordogni (1789-1856) was a man who sang the leading tenor roles of several first performances of Rossini’s operas. He later became a teacher at the Paris Conservatory, and Hector Berlioz wrote that he was the best singing-master of his time. A vocalise is "a singing exercise using individual syllables or vowel sounds to develop flexibility and control of pitch and tone." (Oxford) When I practice the 54 etudes that Bordogni composed, I benefit from the gift of a man who sang the leading tenor roles of several first performances of Rossini’s operas.

Let’s absorb our knowledge of legato from a tenor who understands that dynamics, tempo, and texture change with every dramatic turn.

Expressing the Melody

Putting life into a melody requires attention to certain details which may or may not come naturally. This list of reminders helps me start the melody with the right attitude.

  1. It’s better to start the practice with an awareness of what’s happening musically. Remember, technique serves the music, not the other way around.
  2. Choose a simple, easy-to-remember shape of the phrase. Then play in the manner of following your inner voice, which you’ll find is very good at producing legatos and staccatos. The hardest thing about music is finding something to follow. It doesn’t just spring out of nothing.
  3. Notes that get higher should get louder AND vice-versa. Sounds simple enough, but getting ready for that higher note takes some build-up. Look for the "prompt," that moment when something starts developing. Great composers make it obvious when emotions are changing. However, it’s our privilege and our job to see more than just the notes. Most dynamics will be implied, not stated on the page. Written dynamics are like Hebrew vowels – once a student is past elementary schools, the vowels disappear on the written page and students are just expected to know where they are.
  4. Expression starts with the smoothest and most aerodynamic touch you can achieve between the hairs and the strings. Let the hair "sink" into the string, as if gravity knows exactly where to settle comfortably. It’s all about the groove, or channel, in which the hairs reside. As the notes get higher and the sound becomes richer, the channel "expands" and provides just the amount of space for the hairs to connect freely. If you’re pressing, your hair is most likely creating friction. On the other hand, when the bow flows, the music breathes. Expression does not equate with heaviness. Opera singers are our models – they make vocal chords vibrate perfectly, while we spin strings.

Knowing When to Pick Up the Tempo

If you’re like me, sometimes the rhythmic nuances that the composer felt was obvious slips right by me. A melodious etude trains us to see the beginning of a sequence that builds to a climax. A diminuendo may start on the last measure, but the music implies that you should start earlier. Even if you’re a metronome junkie and a bit of a robot, you can learn the skill of bending to the will of the music.

The greatest skill of all time is to be able to lead and follow at the same time. For most of us mortals though, it’s enough that we follow the will of whichever group we happen to be in. We can derive a lot of satisfaction from that. There are three benefits:

  1. It’s easier to get along with people that way.
  2. It makes you a more flexible player.
  3. It matches the skillset of great ensembles, including quartets and orchestras.

Making music is not about bending other people to your will, but about everyone finding the common thread.

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May 11, 2020 at 04:51 PM · As both a singer and a violinist, I particularly enjoyed this article. Thank you!

May 11, 2020 at 05:06 PM · Nice post! I love the way you say this: "you can learn the skill of bending to the will of the music".

This is also an opportunity to point out that Mazas's studies are also excellent material for this sort of learning; he too had a gift for melody.

May 11, 2020 at 06:32 PM · @87, All I can say is, you’re a very lucky person. I wonder if, as a singer, you’re less likely to run out of bow?


May 11, 2020 at 06:39 PM · I like Mazas as well. Rode had some nice melodies. Gavinies and Dont must not have seen any need to include them.

May 12, 2020 at 05:23 AM · Kreutzer # 1 is also symbolic of the big change in equipment and bowing style that happened gradually 1780--1820, with the universal acceptance of the Tourte model of violin bow. Kreutzer #1 is impossible with the older, lighter and shorter Baroque bow. An apocryphal story that I have read somewhere but can't substantiate is that when the young Wagner was in Paris he was impressed with how the orchestra strings were bowing, with the long sostenuto melodic line. It affected his composing after that, breaking the "tyranny of the bar line"

May 12, 2020 at 11:42 PM · As a trombonist, Bordogni via Rochut was my bread and butter training.

May 12, 2020 at 11:58 PM · Joel, I’m a huge fan of apochryphal stories because they usually give us insight and are really interesting. I’m not surprised at all that Wagner talked about the “tyranny of the bar line”, a quote that’s as good as his famous statement about Beethoven’s 7th Symphony being “the apotheosis” of the dance”. Thanks for clarifying why Kreutzer may have place the slow etude at the beginning of the book.

May 13, 2020 at 12:02 AM · Edward, I can’t think of a better instrument to benefit from Bordogni than the trombone. Those wonderful long Mahler melodies need a lot of breath and real planning. The Bordogni books still in print are for viola, violin, cello, and trombone.

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