Violinists as Athletes - Mastering Unison Triple Stops

February 2, 2022, 9:39 PM · Playing three-string chords can be daunting, especially if you try to play all three strings at once.

triple stops Saint Saens

The task requires lightness and spontaneity, as well as lightning speed. Athletes also perform physical feats that involve the same kinds of skills - though for those in sports, the issues of competitiveness, size, and strength may be more apparent. For both musicians and athletes, though, in order to perform something in a split second, it's important to gather as much knowledge as possible about the task at hand, leaving little room for doubt.

In the case of triple stops, the bow must engage three strings at once, without changing the plane of the bow. In other words, you need to avoid a sudden dip at the frog or the tip. But how? We think of each string having its own "plane" - so a triple-stop would involve three different planes! It would take either a magician or someone with a musical/athletic mind-set to pull it off. An athlete would figure out the angles at play and the properties of the hair. A musician would modify it to match a desired sound. While any technique can be put into words, even 1,000 words wouldn’t do it justice. Let’s look at triple stops from an athletic perspective.

Plan Ahead, then Play Spontaneously

When playing music, actions take place in a fraction of a heartbeat. The physicality of playing unison chords, with all three strings at once, should be understood step-by-step, but then experienced all at once. Let’s break it down:

  1. Think about two things when it comes to three note chords - the shape of the bridge and the elasticity of the bow hairs. Firmly hold the stick, so that it does not weaken or collapse. Move the bow horizontally in order to keep the bow’s control. (Floppiness weakens the focus of the hair.) This allows the hair to do its job of wrapping around the strings. By avoiding random vertical dips into and out of the strings, the chord’s dynamics will sound more balanced.

  2. A triple-stop requires that three strings get equal energy at three playing points (the parts of the hair in direct contact with the string at any given moment). To do that, find the exact angle, speed and "sweet-spot" pressure where the hair can touch and engage all three strings, without crunching. The goal of striking at and concentrating on the exact target is an athletic concept. A baseball player who’s focusing on the bat’s point of contact (AKA the sweet spot) and the spinning ball hurtling at him would understand the nature of the musical beat and the impact at the playing point of the bow.
  3. Anticipate the exact moment to play the chord. The speed and arrival of a musical beat varies many times within each phrase. Ask yourself if you tend to be early or late. Aim to be sync with the pulse -- not to beat the conductor and the rest of the orchestra to the downbeat. Similarly, to successfully hit a tennis ball, the athlete always calculates the extra speed required to connect with the ball at an exact moment in time.

    If you have trouble being comfortable on the beat, make sure you’re not distracted by how much bow you’re using. If you feel it’s necessary to use the whole bow, you may forget where the beat is. Just as athletes must do, learn to be in the moment. Your inner ear, the conductor’s beat, and the collective orchestra are wonderful reminders of where the phrase is at any given moment.

Fritz Kreisler sums up the musician/athlete’s point of view. In disciplines defined by knowledge, naturalness and courage, music and sports demand that you must strike while the iron is hot. Kreisler is paraphrased by his biographer Louis Lochner: "I believe that everything is in the brain. You think of a passage and you know exactly how you want it. It is like aiming a pistol. You take aim, you cock the pistol, you put your finger on the trigger. A slight pressure of the finger and the shot is fired."

The Checklist for Quick and Light Chords

  1. Build ample practice time to measure the three pitches on the fingerboard. Play the chord spontaneously and don’t move the fingers after playing it. Listen to the notes individually while keeping the other fingers on the fingerboard. Your ears may be confused by hearing three pitches at once, but it’s harder to ignore a single pitch that’s out of tune.
  2. The hairs will skim the strings, in order to find a general pressure that both engages the strings and sustains the vibrations. Any dipping in and out of the string will distort the uniformity of the sound. You can play with the bow deeply into the string, while still skimming. Balance and weight coexist in the bow’s technique. Gravity is offset by pulling away from the string, but always keeping the hair in full contact with the string. As always, musical and violinistic logic are multi-faceted, never simple, but always elegant.

  3. The one impediment to triple stops is the middle string, sticking up and getting the brunt of the bow’s pressure. As always, though, there’s an efficient way of dealing with it. Instead of using more bow pressure to reach all three strings, try using less. You can even imagine you’re playing the air above the string. It may seem counter-intuitive, but "less is more." With a little gravity, the hair will find the string.

    As for the two neighboring strings, there’s ample flexibility in the hair to reach those two strings. You may not believe at first that the hairs will bend slightly and touch lightly, but they do. You learn to trust the knowledge of how the violin works. The curve of the hair and the curve of the strings fit like a glove.

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Replies

February 3, 2022 at 11:44 PM · good topic Paul, thanks! playing the air above the three strings is a nice one!

February 4, 2022 at 12:15 PM · There's another way! Hire two other violinists and play them divisi.

Seriously, great topic Paul. My go-to has always been to just move away from the fingerboard by, say, one lane, but that's kind of a band-aid.

February 4, 2022 at 04:40 PM · Extremely helpful! I'll admit I don't run up against triple stops often in the pieces I play. When I do, however, I tend to cheat a bit and separate the bottom note from the upper two. I'm going to try your suggestions and see if I can accomplish a true unison. (If you hear a loud crunch emanating from the southeast, that will be me.)

February 4, 2022 at 04:41 PM · Paul, My favorite word in orchestral music is divisi. In fact, as a second fiddler most of my life, I tended to play the lower note even if I sat on the outside. One other thought about triple stops, the bow is supposed to wait until all three notes have been placed. So patience is a necessary ingredient for the bow to be spontaneous. Too often, unfortunately, the bow doesn’t wait and ends up moving too slowly.

Jean, Another thing that helps the bow move freely is not overthinking the straightness of the bow. Once it’s on straight-enough path, I allow it to give in to the gravitational pull toward the fingerboard. This avoids the problem of scraping.

February 4, 2022 at 04:53 PM · I have always thought that those triple-stops were a lot more practical before the 20th century, when the D-A-E strings were plain gut, and a lot more flexible.

February 4, 2022 at 04:58 PM · Diana, My favorite disaster scenario is the loud crunch/squeaky E sandwich. Why I never quit the violin after playing too many of those is a mystery.

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