Left Hand

Double Stops – An Introduction

A great benefit of keyboard and fretted instruments such as the piano and the guitar is their sublime capacity to play both melody and chords equally well. Arguably however, none of these wonderful instruments has the expressive power of the violin and the other stringed instruments, chiefly because of the particular magic of the bow on strings. The trade-off is the ability to play complex chords easily. Not that violinists really mind, of course. We are happy with our lot. Alone, we cannot match the harmonic colours of the piano, but we can fly.


Photo by Naveen Chandra

Despite these limitations, violinists and composers haven’t sat on their harmonic hands and have come up with wonders like J.S. Bach’s Chaconne, which turns apparent disadvantage into strength and beauty. Sustained bowed notes can produce double stops and chords ranging from sweet shimmering concords to dark and strident discords.

The first piece in the Suzuki violin repertoire that has a double stop is Gavotte in D Major by J.S. Bach. Here it’s a simple C# + E, an amiable minor third with the open E string – meaning there’s only one note to tune. Bourrée, the next piece, has a couple of double stops with open strings and is followed up by Volume IV’s three Seitz concertos. The third one, No. 5, 3rd movement, of course, contains a challenging double stop section, and it’s onwards from here.

The 6 Most Common Double Stop Problems

  1. Pressing too hard with the bow, usually when trying to find both strings.
  2. Uneven weight across the two strings.
  3. Pressing too hard with fingers.
  4. Undetermined foundation or base note.
  5. Poor left hand position.
  6. Inadequate vibrato.

Double Stops with an Open String

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How to Teach Good Intonation – a journey of discovery

If I had to choose the most important skill in playing the violin, it would have to be good intonation. It’s one quality that just has to be right – all of the time. If it’s not, the audience will hear the sour notes immediately and even the most supportive listeners will experience a little disappointment for the player’s sake.


In this post I try to answer three important questions:

  • How do you teach a student to play with good intonation and how is it learned?
  • Can poor intonation be cured?
  • What is good intonation, anyway?

What is Good Intonation?

Intonation is a controversial and contentious issue, guaranteed to generate intense and sometimes heated discussions among string teachers and violinists everywhere. Just try typing ‘good violin intonation’ into Google!

In 2011 I wrote a practical article on this subject – available for download in Resources – with my perspective about the principles of good intonation and the steps to achieving it. Even though the way I teach it has since changed, I still stand by these principles.

In retrospect, it seems rather incredible to me that having spent three decades researching and teaching good intonation on the violin, the best approach became clear only relatively recently. Not that it was a big problem. In fact, the students in our school generally learned to play with good intonation. Yet there were always a few who took a long time to keep in tune with real certainty.

The Universal Teaching Method 

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Concerto in G Minor by Vivaldi, 1st mvt, Part 2

The inclusion of the Concerto in G Minor by Vivaldi in the violin repertoire was an interesting choice on Suzuki’s part. It’s somewhat of a hidden gem, not a piece you often hear in concerts despite its many charms. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way at all, but there’s not much in this concerto that stands out as really memorable. It is like a walk though a lovely forest, where the natural scenery leaves you feeling serene and filled with optimism, even though you can’t recall particular trees or flowers you saw during the walk.


The Main Study Points

In  Part 1 we looked at the first part of the movement up to the end of the first solo.In this post we’ll deal with the major technical issue in this piece, accurate intonation – especially in the next solo part, where there is an excursion into the neighbouring key of C minor.

Intonation, Intonation.

The main cause of intonation problems in the second solo is uncertainty of position when playing A♭ as the melody moves into C minor at measure 63. The left hand should remain in 3rd position while 1st finger reaches back to play A♭, otherwise the following notes (G and F) will be at risk of landing out of tune – too flat. 3rd finger is now the reference point. Check the pitches of G and D (with the open D) before playing the trill. It’s helpful to play the run in reverse, keeping fingers down.


The same principle applies in measures 68 and 73, where D may be played too flat. Read More →

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German Dance by CD von Dittersdorf

German Dance was written by Austrian composer and violinist Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739 – 99). His prodigious output includes more than 120 symphonies, 21 violin concertos, and a wealth of chamber music. Not only did he have an illustrious and delightful name, he played first violin in quartets with contemporaries Haydn and Mozart. Standing in the shadow of these two musical giants, his music is less frequently performed than theirs. He should have chosen to be born in a different era!

CD von Dittersdorf

The inclusion of this rather easy piece in the repertoire by Suzuki serves three main purposes.

First, to provide more playing and shifting experience in the 3 flat key of E♭ major, following on from the C minor passages in the Vivaldi G minor concerto.

Second, as a way of introducing, in an easy setting, the bowing pattern for the next piece, Veracini Gigue.

And third, to give students an encouraging sense of progress after the relative difficulty of the previous pieces: a wise and insightful choice by Suzuki to boost confidence. After all, mountain climbing is easier in some places than others.

From the Top

German Dance begins with a shift into 3rd position, practised in three steps.

  • Shift on 1st finger B♭ to D, checking the pitch of D with the open string. Remember to lift and release, slide up very lightly and audibly to the destination D; and drop 1st finger. Now place 2nd finger on E♭ and play;
  • Slide to D with 1st finger to D and drop on to E♭ with 2nd, omitting 1st’s drop on D;
  • Slide lightly and audibly with 2nd finger to E♭ and drop. Gradually reduce the aural evidence of the slide as the shift becomes fluent.

German Dance Ex A

You’ll notice that many of the upward shifts in German Dance involve a light slide on the upper finger. This is called a romantic shift, used by violinists to make audible connections between notes to express drama or emotional colour. The speed, shape, volume and extent of the shift – and what you make audible – is a matter of interpretation. Does it communicate the phrase or passage more musically, or not? Read More →

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Suzuki’s Etude is different from the other little gems he composed. An affable little piece, it rarely features as a student concert solo! Yes, Etude is a musical exercise, essential for establishing the new finger position for C♮ on A string and G♮ on E string – 2nd placed next to 1st. After all the hard work to establish securely accurate finger positions in the earlier pieces, these new notes are a big step for students. Speed-signEtude introduces the important key of G major in preparation for the Bach minuets and beyond. (Etude is French and German for study or exercise.)


Etude uses the same short detached bow strokes as Perpetual Motion and the repeated string crossings of the theme provide an extra workout for this foundation skill. Keep the right elbow relaxed and stable while crossing from A to D string. A flexible bowhold allows economical string crossing – finger motion without arm flapping. (See Seamless String Crossing.) Read More →

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Country Dance by von Weber

A visiting teacher gave a memorable performance of Carl Maria von Weber’s Country Dance for Suzuki at one of the small daily masterclasses during Summer School in Matsumoto. She did a fine job, playing with great verve and flamboyance. Perhaps because of a few nerves from playing in front of her peers, the rhythm, and hence the beat, were a little irregular in some places – especially in the long staccato runs. True to form, Suzuki congratulated her with, “Very good, except for the weak point.” We all knew, including our dear colleague, what he was hinting at. How would he explain it to her? What he did was surprisingly simple. On his way over to where she stood on stage, he began to dance, humming the music aloud, every now and then stumbling and lurching in mimicry of the irregular rhythms. Soon all of us – including the teacher – were laughing at his good-natured joke.

Suzuki’s wordless lesson illustrates a key point of this piece: it is above all a dance. As we teach, study and play Country Dance, a good sense of the beat is the main element that creates rhythmic momentum and movement in the music.

Upbow Staccato

Country Dance’s main technical study point is the long runs of staccato quavers (1/8th notes). Suzuki taught us repeatedly, “Staccato determines quality of tone,” or words to that effect, referring to the crucial start of the bow stroke: how cleanly and deeply the hair “enters” the string – to produce good tone. This is most evident when we play staccato: does the bow skim and slip across the string or conversely, catch noisily with a little crunch or scrape? Suzuki gave us a simple exercise to practise 10,000 times to develop the ability of making a clean entry. It consisted of a circular movement of the whole bow arm, bouncing the bow in parallel motion off the E string, aiming for a clear resonant tone with every stroke. It was transformative, improving staccato and giving me confidence to produce good tone from the moment the bow touched the string.

Staccato technique builds through the repertoire from the very beginning in Volume 1, starting with Twinkle variations 1, 2 and 3, continuing with Song of the Wind, Allegro, Perpetual Motion, Etude, Minuet No. 2 and Gossec Gavotte. Slurred upbow staccato arrives in Volume 2’s Long, Long Ago variation and features in Beethoven’s Minuet in G and Volume 3’s Gavotte by Becker.

As well as reviewing these pieces, I use exercises to teach good staccato in the studio, including these Perpetual Motion bowing variations that you can download in Resources: Upbow Staccato Exercises


A few key places in the melody have shifts that require careful study: in bar 13 (repeated in bars 21, 62 and 70) and in bars 24 – 32 (repeated in bars 41 – 49).

1. For the ascending shift to 5th position in Bar 13, teach students to slide 1st finger audibly from A up to C# – a major 3rd interval – before placing 4th finger on F#. Leave 1st down for F#, E, D and C#, if you use the fingering I suggest. Students can check the E’s intonation with the harmonic – lifting 1st finger. Descending is simpler: a whole tone for both shifts. Read More →

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Good Vibrations – Teaching Vibrato

Vibrato involves muscles, motion and mechanics when you teach or learn it, but ultimately is only about the sound and its place in the music. It makes longer notes more pleasing to listen to and enables us to express beauty, drama, pathos – emotional colour in the music we play. A good vibrato is the mark of a mature musician, an alluring skill that seems to emanate from the core of their personality and character. Violinists are often recognizable by their vibrato – part of their unique tone, much like the familiar sound of a person’s voice.


I use several recordings in the studio as examples of good vibrato, but because interpretation is an individual expression of musical taste, I teach students and parents to select and study recordings that they personally consider attractive and to keep referring back to them during practice. Read More →

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How to Form a Fabulous Fourth Finger

This post comes to you from the city of Melbourne. Last week I said that we were driving 3,500 kms from the west side of the continent to live in the east. We expected to arrive in 4 or 5 days, but it took almost exactly a week! It was an epic journey across the vast expanse of Australia.

Today, I want to talk about how to teach fourth finger on the left hand. All fingers should be equally strong and adept, but the fourth takes a bit more work than the others, so it needs its own special post.

Often I am asked, When should we start using 4th finger instead of an open string?

The answer depends on the age of the student. Many children can learn to use 4th finger on early pieces, e.g. May Song or before, but very young players can wait until Perpetual Motion. At this stage, the previous pieces should be fluent and fingers 1, 2 and 3 well established. And right from the beginning, 4th has been held comfortably in position above the fingerboard, especially when 3rd is down.

Joshua Bell's 4th Finger

Violinists prefer 4th finger to an open string in 1st position where it simplifies the fingering and bowing of a passage or when the plainer sound of an open string would be overly prominent or unmusical. A stopped (fingered) note can be played with more expression, e.g. with vibrato and  portamento – techniques that are not possible on an open string.

Because 4th finger is shorter than the others, its shape can be flatter – less curved. Here is how I teach it: Read More →

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The Violinist’s Left Hand

Placing fingers precisely for correct note pitches is a foundation skill of playing the violin. It’s much harder for string players than other instrumentalists to play in tune. There are no keys or frets on a violin, although a well-known maker of student violins tried (and failed – with notched fingerboards!) Forming the notes is a wonderful and exacting part of string playing, enabling us to play with more melodic freedom and expression than fixed note instruments, but it comes at a cost. We must work long and hard learning how to pitch notes accurately.

Fingerboard tapes to the rescue!

Tapes on the fingerboard show beginners where to place the fingers. They are a great head start. Eventually they wear off or are removed. We fit our young beginners’ violins with narrow pinstripe tapes. They must be placed by a teacher or expert player. I fit them so that the leading edge is in tune.

Regardless of how accurately the tapes are placed, the ear is the final judge of pitch. More detailed instruction about playing in tune is in the intonation PDF on the resources page.

Teaching Left hand Position in 5 steps:

  1. Start with basic violin posture. Extend the left hand out, placing the pad of the thumb at the first tape. Keep a straight thumb. The tip should be about level with the top of the fingerboard.
  2. First finger touches near the nut, before the second joint – the one closest to the palm.
  3. Keep the wrist straight, with the arm directly underneath the fingerboard.
  4. Place fingers one, two, three and four at the fingerboard tapes on the A string at the edge of the tapes – B (1st finger), C# (2nd), D (3rd) and E (4th) – on the pads, so that the tip joint is angled, not vertical. (Why? It will help with vibrato later on.)
  5. Keep a relaxed space between the thumb and first finger under the fingerboard – be careful not to squeeze!

Now simply hold this position and relax. Listen to the music. Make a habit to carefully place the fingers in position each time before starting to play. This establishes correct left hand posture and keeps the finger in close proximity to the fingerboard. Taking time to get it right in the beginning avoids corrective work later.

Learn from famous violinists.

Look at the posture of these violinists – the relaxed arms and hands, straight wrists and violins on shoulders. Read More →

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