Left-hand pizzicato - when a violinist uses the fingers of the left hand to pluck the string - has a significance far beyond musical and virtuosic effects. If used as an exercise, It offers the opportunity to make rhythm more precise and to organize your musical mind.
In fact, the little plus sign which denotes a left-hand pizzicato comes up in early repertoire, in books meant for elementary school orchestras and pieces for beginners. In these cases, it’s a neat effect and relatively easy to perform, since it’s usually on the open E string. After the novelty wears off, it’s replaced with more complicated techniques and virtuosic examples, such as in Paganini's 24th Caprice and Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen." In these cases, the bow hits the string while the fourth finger plucks the string - so how do you manage that?
The Power Within the Fourth Finger
Left-hand pizzicato requires using fingers that are normally engaged in drumming out notes on the fingerboard to pluck the string. Very often, it falls to the pinkie to perform the pizzicato.
So how do you transform the weakest, tiniest finger into a pinpointed powerhouse? First you need to focus your energy and pressure on the fingertip. Since the other fingers are playing their own notes, it’s easy to forget the fourth finger. If that happens, wait a moment before you use it, then strike with a rhythmic precision. It’s like having a "freeze-frame" moment, a satisfying experience of rhythmic and technical spontaneity.
Here’s an exercise for finding the most precise moment to pluck with the finger. Start with a short pickup, the shorter the better. The pickup can be physical (lifting the violin) or mental (seeing and hearing it in your imagination.) The second step of the exercise is to feel a longer pickup while visualizing the length of the beat. Then fit the pizzicato halfway inside the beat, plucking an offbeat. With this exercise, you develop a visual and spatial sense of beats. You also learn to be spontaneous, which helps you play in an ensemble. The beat will happen when it happens. It’s never at your convenience.
Finding the Point of Most Power in the Bow
Left-hand pizzicato often comes between notes that are supposed to be played with the bow. The best stroke for these "in-between" notes (or at least the stroke used most often) is a bouncing bow, at the very tip. It's unlike a spiccato, which takes place below the middle of the bow. When your bow bounces, there should be a magnetic, spontaneous connection between the points of contact. If your mind is drifting, the target can become vague and evasive.
To get used to this unusually energetic bounce at the tip, it's important to get familiar with what it feels like, compared bouncing the bow in other parts of the bow. A little experimentation helps. Create an exercise in which a specific part of the hair takes center stage with a power that is indisputable. Try various bowings - spiccato, staccato, and detaché - so that the strength transfers as the bow moves. These pinpoints of power don’t have a name that I know of, but their absences are felt. I call them “playing points”, to differentiate them from the “sounding points”, which refer to where the bow plays between the bridge and the fingerboard. The bow is a miracle of efficiency in how it generates sound and color, but without attention to the lightening-speed changes of playing points, volume and texture can evaporate.
To learn to be in control of the bow’s energy, remember that any part of the bow will have enormous possibilities if your mind is right there with it. Don’t let yourself think that you have to be in just the right part of the bow. The bow’s placement is somewhat random, and we accept that. What’s special about violinists is the ability to link the mind to where the bow is, not the other way around.
The Percussive Nature of the Bow
Since most of our bow strokes are on the string, with horizontal and long strokes, let’s consider the nature of quickly striking the string at the tip. Just like a piano, xylophone, or chime, a quick jab with the bow produces a ringing sound. Because of the spiccato’s short life span, some conditions have to be satisfied:
1. Concentrate. Both the bow’s energy and the mind’s energy need to be focused on the playing point. Coupling that with rhythmic spontaneity limits the bow’s tendency to bounce at unwanted times and in unwanted places.
2. At our disposal is the absorbent quality of the hair and the springy texture of the string. That is all we need to have a slight, but ample, moment for full sound. As the bow flies towards the string and bounces like a basketball, avoid the thud or scrape. At the moment of impact, pull slightly away from the string to help the natural bounce to occur. By doing this, you’re setting the right conditions for the production of a clear sound. Like a diver who prepares himself for his impact with the water, you’re helping to engineer the bounce. If you wait to think about it during the bounce, it’s too late.
3. Raise the bow high enough after the bounce so the vibrating string doesn’t get caught in a low-flying bow. It’s better to be too far from the string than too close. It doesn’t take more effort to approach the string from farther away. Rhythm and spaciousness give the violinist a sense of planning and proportion.
Find the Simplicity in a Complicated Stroke
The material in many left-hand pizzicato sections is essentially open strings using the fourth finger and a first finger held down on the fingerboard. Practicing the introductory exercises or those charming ones like The Harlequin in first position by Goby Eberhardt that give the violinist’s mind a chance to take things one at a time. (Click here for the sheet music - or you can find it in Violinists’ First Solo Album selected by George Perlman (Carl Fischer)) You can also find another example in String Builder, Book One, by Samuel Applebaum (Belwin) - on p. 26 he has a series of exercises meant to strengthen the fourth fingers through left-hand pizzicato.
For all the emphasis on playing two hands together, it’s the mastery of each individual hand that matters the most. When you develop the hands separately, you sense there’s a mechanism somewhere inside of your ear or body that puts the two hands together. It’s there to make the movements match the music.
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