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Runs are very common in music; a typical run is a sequence of quick, short, slurred (not always) notes that either ascend or descend and often involve multiple shifts.

The approaches

I've learned a few ways to tackle runs, but I want to know if there are more than the ones I will describe below.

Add-A-Note

Add-A-Note is when one takes out slurs from the run (if any) and starts with the first note. After practicing one note, add a second note, and practice the group of 2 notes with separate bows. Continue this sequence until every note in the run can be played in separate bows. I also recommend starting with a slower speed than increasing the speed until the desirable tempo is reached.

Backwards Add-A-Note

This method is essentially the same as Add-A-Note, but backward, starting from the last note of the run. This is especially helpful in runs that ascend to an especially high note or involve many shifts.

Isolating shifts

This is something I frequently do, where I isolate the shift by practicing the note before the shift to the note after the shift.

Groupings

This is similar to Add-A-Note, but with groupings instead of individual notes. I found this especially helpful if the run is written in rhythmic notes, such as a sequence of sixteenth notes (groupings of 4) or triplets (groupings of 3).

The problem

These approaches work very well for me, but I am wondering whether there are any better methods. These methods are all very tedious and involve a lot of repetition, sometimes when it seems unnecessary to do so. I have tried simply slowing down the run, in separate bows, and then speeding it back up. However, the result is never as clean as if I did the same thing with Add-A-Note. Any suggestions or practice tips would be appreciated.

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  • Please define run and shift.
    – Soleil
    Aug 19 at 22:54
  • A run is a rapid sequence of ascending or descending notes, and a shift is when you move your finger up the fingerboard to play a higher note on the same string.
    – Alex K
    Aug 19 at 23:02
  • Thanks, but how can you concile "higher note" and "same string" ? Same string implies same note doesn't it ?
    – Soleil
    Aug 19 at 23:12
  • No... you can play multiple tones on one string with the same finger by moving up the fingerboard.
    – Alex K
    Aug 19 at 23:33
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These methods are all very tedious and involve a lot of repetition, sometimes when it seems unnecessary to do so

Indeed. A large part of the repetitions is going to be repeating something which is no problem for you and only a small part practicing the bit that is actually difficult.

Therefore what I do is try and isolate the difficult part and practice that. Identifying the difficult part is normally easy. Try the run and see where your fingers stumble and fall over, so to speak.

For me that usually happens with string crossings involving the 4th finger and another finger. For instance 1-2-3-4 on the D slurred with 3 on the A. The difficult part is the 3-4-3 string crossing from D to A. So, I extract that and repeat that. In order to solve similar future problems on other strings I construct my own mini etude 3-4-3-4-3-4-3-4 starting on the G string and working up to the E string and practice that until it is smooth and up to speed.

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Sure, I can think of a few other formulaic approaches to practicing passagework. But the very best approach is not a formula at all, but to engage your mind analytically as you practice. You're probably doing this already and are just looking for some extra tools to have in your bag, but it's worth emphasizing. The most efficient practicing is not when we simply put ourselves through some process or ritual, expecting it to have an expected effect on our playing, but when we let our brain talk to our muscles and ears. "I do this. It sounds like that. Why? Oh, because I went like that. So I'll try going like this instead. It changed the sound in this way." This happens all the time unconsciously, but when we make it conscious we learn faster (and can apply our learning to other passages and pieces!).

With that disclaimer: I find that your "add-a-note" and "backwards-add-a-note" are very effective when in the early stages of "getting to know" a passage, helping to actually parse it and become familiar with the notes. Yes, practicing shifts in isolation is very important (though so is re-contextualizing them. Sometimes what makes a shift challenging might be what happened two or three notes earlier.)

One favorite, for passages that are all notes of equal duration (like, say, several measures of 16th notes) is to project a rhythm pattern onto them. To convert those 16ths into pairs of dotted 16ths and 32nds (long-short-long-short), and then to do the opposite (short-long-short-long). Those two combined do something great: If I were to apply it to, say, Paganini's 5th caprice: Paganini violin caprice 5 ... then with the first pattern (long-short), I'd have a "long time" between the A and the C (in which I shift), and a "short time" between the C and the E. As I move from the third beat into the fourth, I'd have a shortened time for the shift back to first position. When I switch to the short-long pattern, I'd have a "short time" between the initial A and C and a "long time" between C and E. By practicing both patterns, I will at some point have played every pair of notes, every shift and string crossing, at double my metronome speed (as if they were 32nds), but I give my mind time to process what I'm doing. You can then apply other rhythm patterns as well; Galamian's scale system has a whole section devoted to rhythm patterns (one 8th followed by three 16ths? A 16th, two 8ths, a 16th?).

Another simple trick is to change the bowing style. For a spiccato passage, the shortness of each tone gives your left hand fingers extra milliseconds to move into position, and a broad, connected legato forces them to switch places more quickly. For a fortissimo passage, there's much to be gained by calming the heck down and practicing it mezzo forte until it's comfortable. Sometimes for passages that have challenging left-hand work and bowing, it can be helpful to separate them. Put the bow down and just move your fingers on the strings. Then pick up the bow, keep your left hand still, and play open strings in the exact pattern of rhythm and bow directions that you would. For instance, in these measures of the Paganini... enter image description here ... I find that the second measure is much more challenging than the previous ones, and is one of the measures that really impedes my ability to crank the tempo up. In that measure (starting with the F) I would play: D D A A | D A A A | D A A A | D A A A etc. I think it's those isolated D string notes, the string crossing from A down to D and back again, that's harder than a string crossing to an isolated higher string. That's partly because the Ds fall on down-bows. Try reversing the bow directions of the passage! If it started down-bow, start up-bow.

Many of these gimmicks do little more than shake up my routine and make me more aware of what I'm doing, but at their best, they cause me to stare at my bow arm as I slowly pivot from A to D and back, and contemplate the mechanics of how my elbow opens and closes as my forearm pivots, and consider whether it might be made easier if I bend my wrist like that, or if I bend my fingers like this on the up-bow to help curve the bow towards the lower string. And then I can internalize those physical findings and know why that measure is hard, and as I approach it think "Ok, bend the wrist and squeeze the fingers," and even apply the same lesson to a similar string crossing in another piece.

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