On Ornamentation and Christmas Trees

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Every Christmas, my brother and I always decorate our Christmas tree. Over the years, the way we have decorated it has evolved greatly into the current combinations of European glass treasures and delicate ceramic angels amid multicolored lights and gleaming gold tinsel. However, we often want to put up every lovely ornament we have in this collection, and my mother has often commented that this is not only impossible, but also clutters the tree to the point that it begins to look overcrowded and gaudy. As of a year ago or so, I have begun to see what my mother has meant and have thus come to the conclusion that indeed, putting up every lovely ornament every year is indeed impossible. Yet I never once suspected that this principle would ever apply to the delicate art of Baroque ornamentation …

At a recent recorder lesson, I was going over Anne Danican Philidor’s hauntingly beautiful “Sonata in D Minor” with my teacher. This was my third French Baroque piece after two Hotteterre suites and the second one I had learned under my teacher’s gentle guidance. He had recommended that I learn it the previous year, and now that I had polished the Hotteterre, I was ready for another French Baroque challenge. Yet I was somewhat puzzled when my teacher firmly announced that he did not want to hear me play the first movement until last, when I was fully warmed up. Although I had previously thought it to be an easy movement, my teacher’s somewhat firm voice made me think to myself, “There must be something about that piece …”

Sure enough, as soon as I was done, my teacher commented about how nicely I had gotten the rhythm with the exception of two counting mistakes, but I was neither capturing the affection of the piece, nor executing the ornamentation properly. Scooting to the edge of the piano bench, my teacher enthusiastically stood up and said, “Okay. Classic example of mine: Christmas tree.” My teacher’s bright blue eyes twinkled merrily as he began to explain, gesturing enthusiastically. “When you look at a Christmas tree, what do you look to see?”

Puzzled a bit since I had never quite thought about this, I thought hard and responded tentatively, “Mmmmmmm, the ornaments?”

My teacher’s eyebrows raised a bit, and he continued, “No, I want to see the whole tree! Look, when you look at a Christmas tree, you want to see the outline of the whole tree, not a shape of a tree covered in ornaments. The ornaments are there to accent the outline of the tree, not cover or distract from it.”

At that moment, I began to giggle and mentioned how the general American public has come to decorate their trees in the most annoying and gaudy manners. In particular, I mentioned how commercialism has just practically destroyed Christmas with often ridiculous decoration options (e.g. pink and upside-down Christmas trees) and how many store displays just pack their trees with the most frivolous, Christmas-irrelevant ornaments. My teacher chuckled warmly, and we immediately launched into a brief discussion on how ridiculous this stuff is and how we prefer to decorate our trees, in particular how I like my tree to be traditional.

Then, once we were done laughing, my teacher began, “Well, now do you see what I mean? You don’t want a tree like at American Sales, just packed with ornaments to the point that I only see a pile of ornaments in the shape of a Christmas tree; I want to see a tree with ornaments only accenting. That’s what they’re there for; just to accent the tree. So, look at the tree. Don’t just sit over a little ornament and obsess on the details; then you miss the whole tree. Just glimpse over the ornament and see the whole tree. Got it?”

My teacher then proceeded to demonstrate to me how this applied to the piece. With recorder to his lips, he took the first phrase of the piece and just played three notes. When he had finished, he explained, “See, that’s the tree: Only three notes. Those are the melody notes, and you must be able to see them with the ornaments on.” Then, taking a deep breath, my teacher proceeded to play the phrase with the ornaments in, emphasizing the main notes while playing around them lightly with the ornaments. He continued, “See, I just decorated those main notes, emphasized the ornaments less, just went over them, not worried about every little note. Now you try it.”

As I was trying this new method of picking out main notes, just practicing each phrase with them, then adding the ornaments, the concept began to “click” for me. Now I clearly realized that ornamentation was not solely confined to essential graces and free ornamentation; ornamentation could actually be written into the piece. I just had to learn to identify it and separate it from main notes. Soon I found myself, phrase by phrase, eagerly searching for the main notes, then “decorating” the piece with the written-in ornaments. By the time my lesson had ended, I was extremely satisfied with what I had learned. Beaming, I turned to my teacher and asked one final question, “Should I practice it this way at home?” He enthusiastically responded, “Absolutely. Just remember: Four measures at a time, slowly.”

Every day since that lesson, I have practiced not only the Philidor like this, but also every other piece that I work on, whether review, polishing, or new. Each time, I continue to be amazed: Ornamentation is everywhere in Baroque music, whether free or written-in. And the key to playing the music elegantly is to learn to identify melody notes and such ornamentation, then separate them before finally putting them back together. What a potent method is my teacher’s pedagogy on this, and what a potent analogy is his Christmas tree comparison. Indeed, when I decorate my tree this year and for years afterwards, I shall always think about how this applies to Baroque ornamentation, hearing my teacher’s enthusiastic and gentle voice playfully explaining it to my somewhat neophyte Baroque mind.

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CD Review: Maria Giovanna Fiorentino and I Fiori Musicali play Barsanti

Image Courtesy of Maria Giovanna Fiorentino

Back in 2007 when I first entered college, I suddenly had this burning desire to learn to play the recorder. My main reason: I was passionate about Baroque music and wanted to play sonatas with continuo. Although I began with the usual Handel and Telemann sonatas familiar to most players, I soon discovered a wealth of sonatas by obscure Baroque composers including Paisable, Sieber, and Barsanti. The latter, with its rich, Handelian writing and cheerful melodies especially captured my heart after extensive work on more rigorous, violin-like literature. I often yearned in my heart for a lovely recording of these pieces played by a noted recorder artist with fluent technique, yet I could not seem to find one beyond the Naxos one. Finally, after a little social networking magic and research, I finally located such a CD featuring Italian recorder virtuoso Maria Giovanna Fiorentino and her ensemble, I Fiori Musicali.

Until now, I had really never listened to any players outside of Dan Laurin; hence, my recorder perspective with regards to recordings was somewhat limited. Nonetheless, upon popping Fiorentino’s CD in, I was immediately mesmerized into a world of fluid technique, delicate articulation, and musically sensitive, exquisite phrasing. In all of the movements, Fiorentino demonstrated full control of the instrument and its musically expressive capabilities, delicately articulating a full spectrum of effects from the most fluid legato to a crisp but never overbearing staccato. The doctrine of the affections was heeded at all times, fully drawing me into the music and capturing my utmost attention. Fiorentino’s cantabile lines in slower movements were eloquently rendered with smooth, flowing breath control and carefully-rendered ornaments which successfully decorated the melody without distracting from its essence. The “singing” aspect of these movements was never neglected, nor was the more lively and cheerful aspect of the more brisk movements. In particular, Fiorentino’s dance-like renditions of the Minuet of the F major Sonata and the Gavotte in the G Minor sonata – both perennial playing favorites of mine – literally brought sunshine into my car ride and instilled in me a burning desire to re-visit these favorites during my own practice.

Equally important to this musical pleasure was the bass contribution of organist and

Image Courtesy of Maria Giovanna Fiorentino

harpsichordist Roberto Loreggian, who gracefully and delicately accented Fiorentino’s playing, bringing out Barsanti’s complex, rich harmonies. One aspect I found highly fascinating and unusual on this recording was the choice of continuo section instruments and their usage. In all other period instrument recordings that I have listened to, either the harpsichord or the organ is used for keyboards in the continuo section for the entire duration of a given sonata. However, in Fiorentino’s recording, the organ and harpsichord are not only alternated as keyboard continuo during the entire duration of the sonata, but also during an individual movement. Although I found this a bit odd at first, especially when the organ and the harpsichord were playing simultaneously with the recorder, I soon found myself sold on the idea. In the Minuet movement mentioned above, for example, the organ played the theme during the second variation, giving the initial and brilliant illusion that another recorder player was playing alongside Fiorentino. Upon closer inspection of the CD insert, I soon learned that this harpsichord/organ configuration was not two separate instruments, but rather a combo instrument known as the claviorgano. By far the most interesting and musically colorful continuo option I have ever stumbled upon this far!

In conclusion, I could have not asked for a better CD rendition of Barsanti’s delightful sonatas. Musically sparkling with technical and musical treats, Fiorentino’s recording is an absolute must-listen for any fan of recorder, historically informed performance, or quality classical music in general. Though newcomers to recorder or historically informed performance may initially find such recordings rather different from the mainstream, modern-instrument Baroque that they are accustomed to hearing, I Fiori Musicali’s playing and Barsanti’s catchy, refined melodies will undoubtedly capture the hearts of all listeners. Yet I have discovered that this CD is not solely for domestic listening purposes. In my frequent car trips around town to musical rehearsals, church, and even small store errands, I’ve found this recording most delightful in enhancing both my trip and mood. I often leave the car hearing these lovely Baroque melodies in my head for hours afterwards. So, why just stick to Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi? And why stick solely to mainstream HIPP performers? Broaden your Baroque and HIPP horizons with I Fiori Musicali’s exquisitely rendered Barsanti!

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No Shoulder Rest, Thank You!

Hals_Frans_1582-1666_Boy_Playing_A_The shoulder rest: An essential to the modern violinist’s equipment. Today when entering any studio or concert hall, one will notice that the majority of modern violinists — student, amateur, professional, and so forth — play with one. Indeed, shoulder rests are often projected as indispensable to the modern violinist as antilock brakes are to a car’s safety.

To be honest, I never really liked the shoulder rest as a young violin student. When I initially began playing as a six-year-old, all that was attached to the underside of my violin was a small, rectangle-shaped sponge. This continued for another few years until I was switched to a purple sponge in the shape of a shoulder rest. I had no problems with that. Once, I had played without a shoulder rest and practically hated it: Felt so uncomfortable, so “hard” after working with a sponge that I made up my mind that I would never play without one.

However, in fourth grade, I was formally switched to a junior version of the popular Kun shoulder rest. I vividly recall my mother purchasing it for me at the violin shop where we rented my fiddles from and then placing it upon my fiddle for the first time at Suzuki group class. I did not like it at all. No matter how many minor adjustments Mom kept making, I could not set aside the discomfort. It felt so thin, so clunky — just so uncomfortable. I felt the violin was elevated way too high off my shoulder and stretching my neck, whereas with the sponge, it had been close to the shoulder. Nonetheless, since sponges were considered for novices and this was the “grown-up” option, I had no choice but to stick with it, yet I never quite latched onto it. Moreover, due to my previously mentioned experience with no shoulder rest, I resolved that the shoulder rest was the best option.

This changed when I was transferred from the Suzuki school I was enrolled in to the studio of one of Chicagoland’s most prominent violin teachers. No sooner did I enter the studio, I was introduced full-time to the idea of no shoulder rest. My new teacher played with no shoulder rest, relying solely on his special chinrest and a chammy cloth placed upon his right shoulder. Seeing my teacher playing without a shoulder rest and advocating such practice, I began to wonder if it was such a bad idea. The moment I was switched off of my Kaufmann chinrest to the Gotz Strad chinrest that my teacher himself used (and finding it much more comfortable), I began to wonder if playing without the shoulder rest would also be more comfortable. Hence, one day, I took it off my violin, placed the yellow flannel rag I used for wiping my violin across my shoulder, and began playing like that.

Immediately, I felt a difference: A freedom to move my neck around and adjust the violin’s position while playing. I no longer felt that there was something “heavy” on my shoulder, nor did I have to shift the fiddle around until I had found comfort. Though I was on a Bon Musica shoulder rest and had initially liked it better than the Kun, I began to feel that no shoulder rest was the way to go. Each day, I would secretly take off the shoulder rest during practice and play without it using only the yellow rag. When my mom caught me sometimes, I would just reply, “I don’t want it.” Finally, my teacher placed a little sponge on my violin — the first step to no shoulder rest — and confiscated my Bon Musica, keeping it inside his desk so I would not be tempted to use it when not in his presence. But I needed no such drastic measures; I was happy to be rid of it, and I could not wait to be rid of the sponge either, though it was more bearable. True to my wishes, my teacher announced that I was fully ready to discard the sponge the next week; I knew I never needed it. For the entire duration in which I studied with him, I played totally without a shoulder rest, only with a chamois cloth draped across my left shoulder to prevent the violin from slipping. Even with later teachers who insisted that I revert to the shoulder rest, I refused: It just was too uncomfortable for me, and I had never liked it anyway.

Interestingly, as I am now delving into the world of HIPP (historically informed performance practice), I am learning that this “unusual” manner of playing is essential in the art of Baroque violin-playing. Until its invention by Louis Sphor in the 19th century, chinrests were nonexistent, only invented when the new, extreme demands of playing (e.g. playing in very high positions) necessitated such a device. Violinists held the violin either on the tailpiece or on the opposite side of the violin. Furthermore, today’s Baroque violinists not only play in this fashion, but interestingly use a chamois cloth on the left shoulder to prevent it from slipping. Sounds very familiar …

Hmmmmm, looks like I already am on the historically-informed path! When I eventually pick up Baroque violin as I aspire to, I shall not only be used to the Baroque bow and historical technique/playing conventions, but I shall also be ready in the respect that I do not use a shoulder rest even in modern violin-playing and can thus make a smoother transition to Baroque violin. No chin rest, who cares? With how far I’ve come in my HIPP studies thus far, I am sure I shall be able to adapt to that as well!

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Hey, Did’ll, Did’ll!

Copyright Ron Molk Photography.  All Rights Reserved.  Please do not copy and distribute this picture.

Copyright Ron Molk Photography. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy and distribute this picture.

When I initially began playing around with the recorder as an eighth-grader enthralled with the instrument after hearing Michala Petri playing The Four Seasons, I must admit that how I initially began “teaching myself” the instrument was rather hodge-podge. Wanting to play the instrument as a “real” instrument and not simply a pre-band tool for playing children’s songs, I decided to forego the classroom methods that my mom had bought years ago and teach myself all the notes from a fingering chart that came with my instrument, moving on to untongued arpeggios and scales. Having been around wind players at youth orchestra, I knew there must be some tonguing involved, yet the “ta” or “tee” given in the classroom methods produced an awful, harsh splutter. Hence, like the methods themselves, I chose to forego this type of tonguing.

This all changed a few months later when my mom learned of the Suzuki recorder method via the Shar catalogue. Since Mom was fully aware of my desire to learn the recorder as a “real” instrument and since I had been a Suzuki violin student in the past, Mom immediately ordered Volumes 1 and 2, as well as the companion CD. Upon receiving these materials, I not only was thrilled that the method eventually delved into “real” recorder repertoire, but I also discovered a surprising fact: Recorder tonguing is composed of three distinct syllables — “Tu”, “Du”, and “Ru.” Each syllable varies in gentleness and produces different effects when mixed together and uttered gently into the recorder. Upon listening to the companion recording, I indeed heard a difference between the syllables; hence, I strove with utmost care to make my syllables distinct.

Returning to recorder during my freshman year of college but this time on alto due to my interest in Baroque music, I immediately remembered what I had learned. Furthermore, reading through such pedagogy books as The Recorder Player’s Companion by Hans Martin Linde, I especially recalled my previous recorder experimentation when the authors specifically mentioned “Tu, du, ru” tonguing. In reading Linde and the other pedagogy books I had, I also discovered a wonderful new form of double tonguing: “Did’ll.” According to Quantz, the first to record such an articulation:

“The double tongue is used only for the very quickest passage-work. Although it is easy to explain orally, and simple for the ear to grasp, it is difficult to teach in writing. The word did’ll which is articulated in it should consist of two syllables. In the second, however, no vowel is present; hence it must be pronounced did’ll rather than didel or dili, surpressing the vowel which should appear in the second syllable. But the d’ll must not be articulated with the tip of the tongue like the di.” (Quantz 79)

Knowing that learning such an articulation would be absolutely necessary towards historically-informed performance of high Baroque music (which had initially attracted me to the recorder), I began to teach myself this articulation, following the directions for doing so in my pedagogy books. Over time, saying did’ll, did’ll over and over again brought back to mind that one of my violin teachers had used it whenever singing fast sixteenth notes and had taught me to do the same when singing sixteenth notes. However, he had taught me to say it cleanly and evenly, which was NOT correct, as I would find out at my first recorder lesson.

On that day, working with my teacher in the choir room of a local community college, I played the fourth movement of Handel’s Sonata in A Minor, which was contained in one of my method books. When searching for a teacher, I had figured that anyone would know that piece, since the book had designated the Handel sonatas as highly popular and essential to any player’s repertoire. I had worked on it diligently, and now I was playing it for the purpose I had intended in learning it. To demonstrate to my teacher what articulations I was using, I wrote in some, including a series of “did’ll”‘s below quick sixteenth-note runs. My teacher immediately noticed this when perusing my music after I had finished playing.

(looking at my marked-up music): So, you’re using “did’ll” for those runs?

Me: Yes!

I proceeded to proudly and confidently say a whole chain of very clean, even “did’ll”‘s like my violin teacher used to do. At about the second “did’ll” or so, my teacher’s face immediately cracked up into an amused smile. Chuckling warmly, he quickly changed his demeanor to calm, and he began to speak to me in a low, calm, loose voice.

Teacher: Now, you’re just going to loosen your mouth like this and say, did’ll, did’ll. You’ve had a miserable night — did’ll, did’ll — and you’re muttering in your sleep — did’ll, did’ll … Just say it like this now ….

I began saying did’ll, did’ll with a loose mouth, trying to imitate my teacher’s example and thinking about muttering in my sleep. I realized that this was indeed a “messy” articulation and that being clean and even as I had been trained previously was not an option. Yet I still was not loose enough …..

Teacher: “That’s it. But it’s still too even. (Takes my recorder away.) I want the di to be longer and stronger and the d’ll to be shorter and weaker — did’ll, did’ll. Don’t try; just let it happen. You’ve had a terrible night …. did’ll, did’ll … and you’re drooling. Here, I want you to drool, did’ll, did’ll .. pass the tissues …”

At that moment, I totally loosened up. Previously as a self-taught beginner, I had feared drooling due to other players telling me about “salivation”, but now that my teacher had deliberately told me to drool, I felt good that I could finally not worry about it. I further reasoned since the syllables were supposed to be uneven, messiness again would not matter. So I let my oral muscles totally relax and proceeded to say a chain of “did’ll” as messy as I could get. I could see my teacher’s face begin to beam with approval.

After enough of this, my teacher gave me back my recorder and said, “Now play me that passage from Handel.” I proceeded to do so, keeping my “did’ll” as loose as I had during the time I described above. I was immediately taken aback how clean and smooth it sounded. The notes literally flew by cleanly and evenly without me attempting. When I had finished playing the runs, my teacher enthusiastically waved his hand and promptly rewarded me. Since that little episode, I have had minimal problems with “did’ll”, and every time I feel that I am not executing it correctly, I instantly remember my teacher’s clever trick described above. Every time I do so, my “did’ll”‘s always come out beautifully. Three cheers for my teacher!

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Food For Thought: Corelli’s La Folia

La Folia: One of the most revered musical motifs in music history. Originating as a simple Portuguese folk tune/dance with a designated chord progression, the theme became highly popular during the Renaissance and Baroque periods of music history. The theme gradually evolved from an “older” form to a “newer” form more familiar to today’s early music listeners, and countless composers across Europe — ranging from Corelli to Vivaldi and Marais — used the theme in musical works in which they composed variations on it. According to my voice teacher, a musicologist specializing in Baroque music, all good composers were expected to write variations upon La Folia. Although the tune and its theme-and-variations trend continued on into the classical era, its popularity waned over the course of the 19th century, despite that Liszt and Rachmaninov followed in the trend’s footsteps. However, with the dawn of the HIPP movement in the 20th century, the tune and its theme-and-variation composition trend re-emerged, though not as heavily and glamorously as in the past. For a more comprehensive history of the tune and it usage, please visit this outstanding website:


Recently, in returning to violin with the desire to pursue it in the historically-informed light (eventually transitioning to Baroque violin), I began investigating repertoire selections, but did not know where to start. Hence, I proceeded to ask my voice teacher for ideas; he suggested the Corelli violin sonatas to me because of both their prime importance in the Baroque violin repertoire and significance in Baroque music as well. In the past I had heard from another musicologist that Corelli would be highly appealing to me as a diehard Vivaldi fan, so I proceeded to start some research on the Corelli sonatas. In the process, I learned that the hallowed “La Folia” is part of the Opus 5 sonatas that my voice teacher so heartily recommended, and this immediately appealed to me. I had learned the all-too-familiar Suzuki adaptation as a Suzuki violin student, and I had always wanted to learn the original. Now, with me free of Romanticized teachers and asked to learn the Corelli sonatas, here was my chance. I would get an urtext edition of the Corelli sonatas and learn the original La Folia.

I was in no way prepared for the immense surprises and challenges that lay ahead of me. Upon an Internet search for an urtext edition for the Corelli sonatas, I could only find 1 such edition; all the rest were edited by other people, including renowned modern musicians. Although I was fully aware that the majority of editions of Baroque music contain modern editing and must thus be avoided, I was totally unprepared to discover that only one urtext edition of the complete Corelli sonatas — published by Schott — existed. Moreover, I was in for more surprise when I discovered that all separately-published editions of Corelli’s La Folia were modernized adaptations, such as the famed Kreisler adaptation.

Even more surprising yet, when I proceeded to conduct a YouTube search on “Corelli La Folia”, only one, two-part video of Corelli’s untouched original — a period instrument rendition — came up. The rest were videos of either the Kreisler or Suzuki adaptations. Every major modern violin virtuoso or serious modern violinist played the Kreisler version, or some other modernized version, while students played the Suzuki adaptation, which, after much listening, I deduced to be an offshoot of the Kreisler adaptation. Pondering upon my own extensive experience in the modern violin world, I recalled that I had never seen a modern violinist play the original; all modern violinists I had encountered play the Kreisler adaptation — which I had never liked and still do not like today because of its overt modernization/romanticization of Corelli’s original.

Quite a difference compared to the original … In the end, based upon all that I have mentioned above as well as my personal experience in the modern violin world, I arrived at a conclusion: The original is relatively unknown in the mainstream classical music world, and totally unknown in the modern violin community. So, what’s going on here? Based upon both my observations mentioned above and my perusing of the score while bearing in mind the modern violin mentality, it appears to me that the original is not “flashy” enough for suitable usage in the modern violin world. In my experience in the modern violin world, I have noticed that Baroque music is considered “easy” repertoire suitable for beginners and intermediate players. As to advanced players and professionals, exploring it rarely exceeds Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and the Bach unaccompanied Sonatas and Partitas. Outside of that, the modern violin world heavily revolves around Romantic and modern compositions which truly push the instrument’s limits. But …. that is another topic for another post ….

Musings aside, I am most proud to be playing the original Corelli La Folia complete with historically-informed technique and a Baroque bow. And who knows: Perhaps I shall be one of the first modern violinists — most definitely locally — to play the original, and perhaps that, in doing so, I may indirectly start a new trend ….

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Bow Holds Revisited

In my previous post, I addressed the historical issue of varying bow holds during the Baroque period, most notably the so-called French and Italian holds. Interestingly, the so-called French grip was the manner in which I (and countless other young violin students) was initially instructed to hold the bow when I began Suzuki violin lessons as a six-year-old. I vividlydaniel_van_aken_playing_the_violin-400 remember as my teacher told me to put my thumb on the bottom of the frog while placing the rest of the right-hand fingers in regular bow hold position — very much in the spirit of the French bow hold of the Baroque period. I continued to play like this for the first half of Book 1 or so, when I was transferred to the more “grown-up” method of placing the thumb on the stick. My teacher back then told me specifically not to put my thumb on “the brown” of the stick between the frog and black gripper; however, when I was switched over to a different Suzuki school, placing the thumb on “the brown” was perfectly acceptable.

Then, going between various traditional teachers, I was constantly switched between placing the thumb “on the brown” and placing it on the leather gripper. Each teacher claimed that the opposing way was “incorrect”, proceeding to give lengthy lectures on why their designated bow hold was the “correct” position with advantages over the other. Over time, I became highly confused as to which was the “correct” bow hold. Furthermore, when I began serious classical guitar study and had to grow my right-hand fingernails out such that they extended slightly beyond the fingertips, my violin teachers insisted that such a system was incomperable with standard violin technique, including bow holds. I cannot possibly count how many times I was told to totally trim down my thumb and index nails, even when I had devised a compromise. In the end, I just learned to adapt with my longer fingernails, slightly separating the middle and ring fingers to make room for the thumbnail while tweaking the length (i.e. shorter) and shape differently from a standard classical guitarist to suit my violin needs. Eventually, my teachers stopped objecting when they saw that I could indeed play with these nails as if they were not there. As my mom had always said, the whole issue was about compromising based upon solid knowledge of both instruments’ technique and adapting as if I had grown a new limb.

Recently, in both getting into historically informed violin performance and in talking to Mrs. Wendy Harton Benner, Baroque/modern violinist and Baroque Band member, I was discussing the issue of both modern and historical bow holds with her. I especially mentioned to her the confusion I have often felt as a result of my various teachers’ diverse perspectives on bow holds and asked her how she holds the bow. She responded that she holds the bow on “the brown” between the frog and the stick, yet she mentioned how bow holds still vary today, even with the universal “standard” bow hold. Hand positions, finger positions — all can vary between individuals and schools of thought. Hence, neither system that I had been exposed to in all my years of violin study is “correct.” I further mentioned to Mrs. Benner how my traditional violin teachers refused to accommodate my longer right-hand nails and kept insisting that such a system was incomprable with proper technique. Chuckling, she deemed the incident another incident of teachers trying to impose their own bow holds/opinions on others out of teaching convenience. She conferred that I was not wrong in insisting that I could compromise and adapt to my longer nails; I was just finding my own bow hold.

So, even though many violinists may project “bow hold” as “standard” nowadays, slight variations do exist within the “standard”. Indeed, even though the variation may not be as drastic as it was in the 17th-18th century, it still exists and continues to be a subject of debate in modern violin pedagogy, as I have witnessed in my own personal study of the instrument. Yet reflecting upon my initial material mentioned at the beginning of this post, I still find it highly interesting about the so-called French bow hold being taught to me in my early stages of violin study. Hmmmm, maybe it has not quite vanished from the modern violin scene, as have the varying bow holds …..

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A Tale of Two Bow Holds

Since my last post, I have been heavily immersing myself in research for historically-informed violin-playing. Not only have I ordered an urtext edition of some Corelli sonatas for my voice teacher and me to play together, but I have also purchased some primary and secondary reading sources on the subject as well. One of the most helpful and comprehensive of these sources is Judy Tarling’s excellent Baroque String- Playing for Ingenious Learners. I had initially begun reading Leopold Mozart’s excellent treatise on violin-playing as had been highly recommended by one of my previous violin teachers, but I soon realized that I would need a more general “crash course” on the subject in order to gain full knowledge and command of the “tricks and traps” of Baroque violin technique (e.g. Baroque bowing, shifting). Hence, after some heavy investigation, I discovered Tarling’s book, and having enjoyed reading her book The Weapons of Rhetoric (which I reviewed earlier when I started this blog), I decided to order this highly-recommended volume from Von Huene Workshop:


I have just started delving into this monumental modern manual, and so far, I am finding it as reader-friendly and enjoyable as Tarling’s rhetoric book. Eventually, I shall have to write up a whole review of it, yet due to the amount of condensed material within its pages, I am still digesting the first two chapters. Anyway, in reading Chapter 2.3 on holding the bow, I made a highly surprising discovery: The manner of holding the bow was not universal as in modern violin-playing, but rather diverse and varying based upon individual and national factors. In general, as with anything in musicology, generalization is not an option, since — even though there may be general trends (e.g. A given Baroque piece has one and only one given passion) — exceptions always exist. In the case of holding the bow, variations in hand/finger position were the norm until about the time of Leopold Mozart and his monumental treatise on violin-playing. Tarling explains this historical reality:

“Examination of inconogrpahical evidence reveals a variety of holds, with the hand on the bow at various distances from, and adjacent to to the frog. Thumbs are wrapped around the hair, and are placed on the stick. Little fingers go flying or are tucked under the stick …..” (Page 83)

Tarling continues on with an even more intriguing historical fact: During the Baroque era, not only one, but rather two distinct bow holds existed: The French grip and the Italian grip. As their names imply, both bow holds originated and were used in the nationality contained in their names. To begin with, the Italian grip is highly similar to the bow hold used today, with the hand placed a short distance from the frog and the thumb on the wood of the bow stick. By contrast, in the French grip, the player placed his thumb on the frog of the bow, resting it on the hair that protruded into the frog of the Baroque bow. The index, middle, and ring fingers were placed on top of the stick, with the little finger resting under the stick in opposition.

Although clumsy, this particular bow hold allowed for the execution of heavily-accented dance music — the cornerstone of the French Baroque style. This French bow hold was used throughout Europe in the 17th century, in particular by violinists in dance bands. By contrast, the Italian grip only became slowly adopted as the universal standard beginning when the Italian influence rapidly migrated throughout Europe at the end of the century. Still, both forms of grip were still used side-by-side even into the 18th century, despite the French grip’s evident limitations. As Tarling remarks, the survival of the French grip into 1738 — when it was described by Correte in his violin-playing treatise — is highly surprising considering its awkwardness. A more down-to-earth description of the French grip and French Baroque violin technique can be found in this excellent article from the Strings magazine:


So there. Not only did the French have shorter bows than the Italians and different bowing habits from them as well (another great subject for a post), but they also had distinct bow holds, thus further demonstrating that “Baroque music” is not just “Baroque music”. As I learned at my first recorder lesson and in my subsequent research, Baroque music is composed of distinct national styles, with the French style and the Italian style being the “big two.” These styles are structurally and musically distinct from one another, and now I am seeing in both my violin and recorder studies that instrumental technique for both varies. Inasmuch as I had to alter my tonguing to Hotteterre’s tonguing system (complete with French pronunciation) when playing French Baroque music on recorder, I am now going to have to alter my bow hold when playing French Baroque music on the violin. Hmmm, this French Baroque is sure French to me …..

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