Playing Perfect Fifths on the Violin

By vaughan • 10th July 2010 • Posted in: Violin and Piano Teaching

Yesterday, I was asked to play the ‘Lark Ascending’ for violin and piano during a wedding ceremony, which appropriately enough, took place in Charterhouse School Chapel, where Ralph Vaughan Williams had been a pupil. It was a beautiful occasion and whilst we played it, the wedding guests sat spellbound. This is such an evocative piece and quite an unusual request but it was an exquisite choice for this occasion. (You can see a video below of violinist Vaughan Jones playing with an orchestra assembled from ex-pupils of Charterhouse School, performing in the main Hall of that school):

The piece contains many ‘fifths’ which I know some of my violin students can find challenging, especially when it comes to tuning. As a perfect fifth is such a ‘pure’ interval on all instruments, any little imperfections show up very easily and therefore it is a real skill to play them consistently in tune – yet there are many players who manage this easily. On the other hand, I have come across lots of players who struggle to play fifths in tune and unbelievably a teacher from one of the main London music colleges advocated contorting the hand into any position in order to force the notes in tune. This is totally wrong and a recipe for ‘gripping’ the violin and producing a poor tone. The old adage of ‘whatever feels and looks natural ends up sounding good’ would apply here and it all has to do with the suppleness of the whole of the left hand including the base joints. Instead of the fingers pressing the strings in a vertical manner with a “dead” touch, they swing into the notes lightly, in a horizontal direction, developing a sense of brushing the strings (rather as many guitarists approach chords) the fifths will become perfectly in tune. It’s all about constant motion and being dynamically flexible, rather than static and tense. As soon as the left hand stops this constant motion, the tuning can be lost and the flow of the music also stops.

Many violinists in particular can sound sharp when playing on the E string – this is all to do with pressing the string down vertically rather than sweeping towards the notes and allowing the sound to ring out. There is a myth that the string should touch the finger board of the instrument but by approaching the E string slightly on the left hand side, it’s possible to create the most beautiful and well projected sound without the string significantly lowering in any way.

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