For string players, double-stop passages, where two notes are played simultaneously, are challenging and require serious attention to achieve a perfect result – particularly when playing at speed.
Here, Professor Lihay Bendayan, Head of the Violin Class Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, offers guidance and a series of exercises to help students master the technique.
When practising double stops, we need to deal with several technical elements that create challenges for intonation when combined: the distances between the fingers are sometimes less comfortable; shifting – often requiring fingers to travel different distances simultaneously; tensions are created when lifting some fingers while others stay on the strings (eg, thirds); and, finally, the perpendicular extensions between the fingers which occur due to the distances between the strings are added to the horizontal extensions, creating diagonal extensions.
In general, combining the elements mentioned above might increase tension in our left hand during a double-stop passage. This tension is the main reason for the difficulties in executing double-stop passages. Therefore, it is crucial to relax your wrist and fingers as much as possible and avoid pressing the fingers too hard into the strings when you play, especially before shifting (you can release the tension by using the strings as springs). In fact, I always suggest to my students to divide the pressure usually used for one finger in half when playing double stops, instead of adding another 100% for the second finger.
Play with comfortable lightness
This means that you should play the passage with a comfortable lightness, with just a bit more weight on the strings than when playing harmonics, knowing that the challenging context will add the rest. Before you start practising your double stops as demonstrated and explained below, I warmly recommend that you read and internalise Technical Texts with Video #2 in this Course about Shifting, as it is very relevant and complementary to the exercises shown here. Please note that while the following exercises, which are demonstrated on the videos playing thirds, are relevant to all the other double-stop variants, such as octaves (1-4, 1-3, 2-4, and combined), sixths, and tenths, and are effective whether we need to switch fingers or keep the same ones on the strings (like in octave passages maintaining the 1-4 fingering).
Note that, in general, flatter fingers yield better control of the intonation.
1. Flexible intervals
Naturally, in the early stages of your work, it is useful to play a passage slowly, with a free and comfortable feeling in general and in your left hand in particular. Some intervals are more challenging than others; therefore, it is important to hold these positions – always maintaining a relaxed hand – longer than necessary for the passage itself to gain comfort with the challenging distances.
For example, you can stay on a difficult double stop for two minutes or so, playing it using several slow bows, first without vibrato but afterward starting to add different speeds and widths of vibrato until you feel you have managed to improve your extension capacity and achieve a more comfortable and free feeling in your hand while playing the double stop.
2. Practice Melodically
a. Play each melody (top line, bottom line) separately with the relevant fingers (without and with vibrato), paying close attention to the quality of intonation, sound, and shifting.
b. Play each melody separately with the bow while playing both melodies together (double stops) with your left hand. Make sure you do not make concessions on the quality of each melody in this less comfortable context.
3. Left hand anticipates on the right hand
Play the passage with a staccato bow stroke and with a short break between the strokes. Use the time between bow strokes quickly to prepare for the next double stop, pressing the strings in the next double stop position while relaxing your shoulders. In this way, you train yourself to think fast and think ahead, prepare your intonation in advance and without the help of the bow during to hear the slide between positions (see Article #1 about Virtuosity, point #9). This technique can also be practiced melodically, as described in point 1 above.
Practice each shift separately and repeatedly and concentrate on the quality of intonation and physical memory (see article on Shifting), and don’t work only mechanically. Remember – we use the fingers to train the brain and not the other way around!
Practise using a variety of rhythms, always relaxing on the short notes.
6. Different pressures on the strings
To shift and slide freely, use the strings as springs – release the pressure of the fingers controlling the amount of weight you use before shifting. The video below shows exercises for developing this capacity.
About the author, Professor Lihay Bendayan
Prof. Lihay Bendayan is Head of the Violin Class at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and former Professor of Violin at the HEMU in Sion (CH). He studied with Isaac Stern, Ilona Feher, and Tibor Varga. Holds an intense pedagogical activity. More: https://iclassical-academy.com/teachers-general/lihay-bendayan/
Master your Violin
This article and the videos are part of the ‘Master your Violin’ video course with Professor Lihay Bendayan.