When I introduce students to double stops on the violin I hope it will be pleasant for them, that the strings will blend and the fingers will find their half and whole steps. This is a big milestone, and after months of playing only melodies, harmony instantly deepens their experience, if all goes well. Double stops present several challenges, but I can remember one book that stood out in particular. I don’t ever wax philosophically about Wohlfahrt or Kreutzer, and I don’t get chills thinking about my debt to Sevcik for learning muscle memory. However, when I found the music in which double stops and hymns merged, I wanted to sing its praises.
Marilyn Carlson arranged Amazing Grace, My Faith Looks Up to Thee, and 10 other selections in Hymn Tunes for Unaccompanied Violin(Mel Bay, 2005). There is a certain beauty that is part of sacred songs which makes double stops more inviting to play. While exercises that introduce thirds, sixths, and octaves help develop the independent fingers, they don’t motivate the bow arm and the ear like a poignant hymn.
The last hymn in the book is Wondrous Love, a melody in William Walker’s Southern Harmony, 1835. Carlson arranged it into a Fantasia, evoking the serenity of hope and love, followed by a quick dance of joy, ecstasy, and rich harmonies.
Carlson is active in musical ministry in churches, nursing homes, and retirement communities. A native of Seattle, she was raised in a musical home. Starting piano at the age of six and violin at the age of nine, she played in school and community orchestras while growing up. She holds degrees in math and musicianship and was employed at the University of Washington Medical Center.
Balancing the Bow on Two Strings
Often, when you work on double stops, the right hand plays second fiddle to the left. Hymns level out that disparity, because they’re meant to be expressive and to be played with deep sonorities. The bow arm is more likely to play a significant role, and when truly inspired, take the lead. The left hand will appreciate that.
As the bow is the ultimate in vulnerability and randomness, here are a few suggestions to keep it balanced and dependable during double stops:
Making Fifths Reliable and Strong
Amazing Grace has an even mix of double stops with one open string and intermediate-level fifths and sixths. You would think that fifths would be the easiest of the double stops because you use only one finger, but it takes practice to place the finger exactly square with the fingerboard. There are two steps to learning how to play fifths in tune:
Experimenting with Intonation
If you’re looking for a maximum workout for the brain, playing double stops in tune will fill that need. Going from thirds to thirds is like a cumbersome four-part experiment. Aren’t all experiments cumbersome by nature? You have to measure space intervals and think about them in time intervals. This leads me to believe that it’s excellent training for a scientist, and that it takes the mind of a scientist to be a great musician. I would love to know where Einstein would have stood on this issue.
It can get rather complicated because the mind needs to hear the individual notes in the double stops while they’re camouflaged. As soon as you hear an out-of-tune chord, leave your fingers where they are, and play each note separately. It will be clear which notes are out of tune because ear memory is such a reliable tool. The confusion comes when you don’t separate the notes in your ear. Being patient should be built into the tempo,. Take a moment in-between each observation. Slow and steady evaluation becomes the groundwork for a quick musical mind.
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