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I'm trying to play Der Erlkonig by Ernst, and in the first lines it seems possible, but you get to the 3rd, 4th, and 5th lines, I lose all hope in being able to play the piece.

To start, a violin has 4 strings. G, D, A, and E. these strings are placed on a curved bridge, because otherwise, you wouldn't be able to play the D and A strings without playing all the other strings at the same time.

To explain why playing 3 strings at the same time seems impossible to me, imagine the 4 strings of the violin, touching the bridge. imagine 4 points, where the strings touch the bridge. Then, connect these points with lines. (you should end up with 3 lines). These lines are the possible positions that the bow can go to play more than one string at a time.

Can you make one straight line that connects 3 of the points? I cannot see how to do this. I'd have to make a curved line. But the violin bow does not bend enough to follow that line.

I'll tell you how it is normally done on the violin. You simply rotate the bow while you play, so you hit 3 or 4 strings, for a very short duration. This method only works for short, singular notes, as you're not actually playing more than 2 strings at the same time.

I cant do this in Der Erlkonig, because in order to do this repeatedly for eighth notes at presto, I'd need to rotate my bow back and forth so fast that the bow would look like blurry buzzing bug wings. Why? because I calculated that the main melody (1/8 notes) of Der Erlkonig requires you to play 24 notes per second.

But I'm not asking a pointless question that I know is unanswerable, because somehow, Hilary Hahn could supposedly play the piece at full speed. (without the buzzy bug wings, of course).

Any suggestions that are better than the buzzy bug wings would be much appreciated.

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    Losing all hope in ever being able to play that stuff is quite understandable ...
    – Lazy
    Jan 14, 2022 at 22:07
  • This is a ridiculous transcription, written with the intention that it would never be playable by anyone who isn't literally the most technically proficient violinist in the world at the time. If I remember correctly, some well-known violinist might have released some video of them learning the piece. Their early attempts are quite funny. Jan 15, 2022 at 1:28
  • @AlexanderWoo and your assumption that it was written only for that reason is based on? Jan 16, 2022 at 14:43

3 Answers 3

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I'm sure you already know the one word answer "Practice".

Hilary Hahn's predecessor as world #1, Maxim Vengerov, released this short YouTube video describing how you should practice to play these triple stops

He goes through the standard practice techniques:

  1. First break the process down into its simplest components. In this case a triple stop is basically two double stops played one after the other.
  2. Having isolated the components, practice them slowly. There is an old adage in violin pedagogy, "If you can play it slowly, you can play it fast". Of course the "playing it fast" is generally going to require a lot of practice "playing it slowly" and then gradually speeding up.
  3. In anticipation of this, he spends the bulk of the video emphasizing the importance of quality in your practice and in particular good intonation and the habits which lead to good intonation.
  4. Finally, in a throwaway comment at the end he gives the clue as to how to do it without what you describe as "buzzing". The use of the pinky on the bow hand. Normally when we change string we are taught to use the "elevator". Our bow arm pivots at the shoulder and our elbow moves up or down (the elevator) to change the angle of the bow to change string. The difference for moving between double stops is that the angle you need to move is much smaller than for a normal string change and so this can be achieved with skill and practice via the use of the pinky to change bow elevation instead of the whole arm. This much smaller movement can be achieved much quicker.

There is also one final visual clue about which he makes no comment. The strings will bend with pressure. The closer to the bridge the more difficult, even impossible, this is. The closer to the fingerboard, the easier they bend. He plays his triple stops (very impressively) close to the fingerboard and, given the volume, with a lot of bow pressure. This flattens the middle string of the triple stop bringing it very close to a straight line for the contact points on the three strings.

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  • I guess, referencing your last paragraph, that left hand fingering will compensate for some quite sharpened notes.
    – Tim
    Jan 15, 2022 at 15:31
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Okay, I watched a video to refresh my memory, and I chose a Hahn performance:

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Here's the way I think about triple stops: it's going to be kind of like two double stops smushed together, or you could think about the lower double stop as sort of an appogiatura preceding the upper double stop.

The goal is for all three pitches to resonate. The ear will smush the three notes together, because the lowest note will still be resonating when you're producing the upper double stop.

When practicing a triple stop, you can practice super slow, and this can help you avoid raising the right shoulder (which is very tempting). In slow motion, you really do want to play two distinct double stops.

The most important things, to achieve good resonance of all three notes:

  • check you're not raising your shoulder
  • check you're making a beautiful arm circle (counter-clockwise for cello, and I think also
  • for upper strings) use an extremely conservative amount of bow for the lower double-stop, and don't squander bow for the upper one for that matter
  • start the lower double-stop with plenty of arm weight and a pretty good bite

A mirror can help. Tip: set it up so you don't see your face in the mirror -- it can be a big distraction.

(If your piece ends with a dramatic triple stop, this arm circle will be really big and dramatic. But in something fast such as your Erlkönig, the arm circle will necessarily be smaller to keep your tempo going.)

In a slow piece you might want to sort of cheat a bit, by placing your bow a little farther from the bridge, and loosening the hair on your bow slightly. But there is no need for this in your fast piece.

As a last note: making calculations such as "24 notes per second" can be rather unhelpful and hang a person up. It's more helpful to do things that connect you well to the music itself. There are multiple ways to do this, e.g., you can think about melody, phrasing, harmony, dynamics, etc. You can listen to the piece and see what body or arm movements it suggests. You can think about the story when there is one, or make one up. You can imagine what sort of water movement in a stream, and imagine a floating object such as lightweight cloth, or precipitation on the stream. Thinking and feeling in this way can free you up.

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Believe it or not, it is possible to play 3 different strings all at once on the violin. First, make sure that your bow isn’t too tight or too loose, because if it is too tense, the hairs will be much straighter and it will be even harder to play all 3 strings at once, and if it is too loose, you won’t be able to apply the pressure you need. Second, play farther away from the bridge, as the strings are more… pliable, almost?(I’m not really sure how to describe this, but if you’re a string player, you’ll understand!). Third, you have to apply pressure so that whatever string that is in the middle of the chord, i.e., the A string, is pushed down so that your bow can catch the other strings, which in this case would be E and D. Another thing that I sometimes find to be helpful is to play close to the frog and keep your elbow down. This just adds weight to the bow and makes it easier to play all 3 strings at once. Hope that helped!

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