One of the books I am working through right now is 40 leichte Etüden für Violoncello (40 Easy Etudes for Violoncello), which is a collection of Sebastian Lee etudes edited by Martin Rummel. My teacher is augmenting the Suzuki books with these etudes, and in an effort to improve my note reading we aren’t writing in any (or very few) finger numbers. This forces me to go a bit slower at first with a new piece, but in doing so I think more about what I am doing and why, which is improving my playing in many dimensions.
The eighth etude, the A minor (a-moll auf Deutsch) is nothing but slurred sixteenth notes.
The hardest measure is the third, with the jumps from E to D and back, and then E to B and back. The other night when I started this piece these jumps seemed terribly difficult, but after a few minutes focused practice I was playing the measure smoothly.
Here’s what I did.
First I ignored the slurs entirely. Playing separate bows eliminates one layer of difficulty right from the start. Next I decided that I would extend to reach the G# that starts the measure, it’s the only note not in first position so shifting seemed like too much work. Also, I am blessed with large, flexible hands (I can easily reach a 12th on the piano from piano 1st finger to 5th finger. I can reach a 9th from piano 2nd finger to 5th) so extensions aren’t a problem.
With an extension to allow 4th finger to play the G#, the next three notes E-F-E will be fingers 1-2-1. The D to start the second set of sixteenth notes will be 4th finger again, followed by 1-2-1 for the E-F-E. The third set of sixteenth notes start with a B, which will be 2nd finger, followed by 1-2-1 for the E-F-E to round out the measure.
Once I had my fingering blocked out it was time to work on the jumps. Actually by now, having figured out my fingering, the jump to D and then later B on the A-string wasn’t hard anymore. My hand was in position and all I needed to do was stop the A-string with 4th finger for the D and 2nd finger for the B.
Now that I could play the entire measure with accurate fingering and intonation it was time to sort out the slur. Twelve notes in one bow is a new record for me. From Lee #5, the C-Major, I already knew that a faster bow would make the notes sound crisper and better. But #5 only had eight-notes per slur, #8 adds four notes. The first couple of attempts resulted in choked and strained notes as I ran out of bow toward the end of each measure.
Rather than playing full-on slurs I decided to play martelé strokes for each note, however I’d move the bow on same direction for each note. Starting at the frog (or tip) I’d try to use just a 12th of the bow hair for each successive note. At first I still ran out of bow before the end of the measure but after a couple of iterations I had the feel for how much bow I could allocate each note. Since I was moving the bow in a continuation of the same movement for each note I was in effect playing a slur with little pauses - hooked bowing if you will.
After several hooked runs through the piece I was able to play reasonably good sounding slurs. All-in-all I spent about 20 minutes working out the intricacies of this piece, and the improvement was noticeable. Now that I have the mechanics of the piece down I can focus on the sound and polish.
Best of all, I feel like I have a new tool (or two) for learning new passages. Taking the time to sort out my fingering and being able to explain to myself why it was a good fingering helped eliminate the perceived difficulty of the G#-E-F-E-D passage to start measure 3. And breaking the long slur down into hooked fragments eliminated the difficulty of playing 12-note slurs.
As a study piece, this etude succeeded.