‘Playing Two Notes in a Row…Beautifully!’

Violin performance tips

Volume 111, No. 2February, 2011

Joseph Gallo (1930-2022)

Playing two notes in a row…beautifully. Is it a lost concept? Based upon the quality of too many musical performances of the last few decades, the answer seems to be generally yes. At concerts, I have seen knee-jerk standing ovations for not much more than displays of technique, grimaces and gyrations.

But for too long now, I’ve been asking myself: “Where’s the poetry?” “Where’s the magic?” In our high-tech, over-stimulated world, is poetic performance now rated as too low on the decibel scale? Is it not sufficiently awesome for audiences? The world may be changing and moving fast, but people are still pretty much the same as they always were.

All this technology has opened up new possibilities, but in many ways has left us more isolated and wanting for someone or something to touch us.

This is where music comes in.

Sure, we all like to be wowed by a brilliant Paganini caprice or a Sarasate showpiece. But I believe that what we are really looking for when we go to a concert is for someone to reach our hearts and minds, lift us to a higher place.

That’s our challenge and privilege as performers.

What does all this have to do with playing two notes in a row beautifully?

There is no shortage of technique today. Lots of violinists are able to fly all over the violin, but when asked to play a simple melody, many fall flat – dazzling first and third movements, but second movements filled with missed opportunities.

However, it is precisely in these slow movements and simple, lyrical pieces, where there is no place to hide, that a performer’s basic artistry is disclosed.

When you put that violin under your chin, you must dare to wear your heart on your sleeve! Scary, but exciting, and the reason we are musicians in the first place.

So, how to play beautiful notes one after the other? I suggest you make a project of revisiting your slow movements and (deceptively simple) lyrical pieces.

Dig deeper into the well of beauty of each note. Live there longer. Experiment. Approach and leave each note differently. Discover the after-life of each note and its inherent opportunities! First, you must think the sound before you can produce it.

Take a piece such as “Clare de Lune” or any concerto slow movement. Analyze it. What does it say? How does it start? What happens along the way and how does it end? What is the overall timbre?

Keep the piano copy handy. You’ll want to know what the orchestra is doing so that you can better decide upon phrasings, bowings, fingerings and dynamics.

To start, play a few bars and decide upon the must-have fingerings and bowings that will satisfy your expressive goals. Then go back and fill in with accommodating markings.

Continue to work the whole piece in this manner. Test, make changes, listen to the different results.

Which finger sounds best? Tips or flat? Does the phrase sound better in first or in upper position? What about shifting? From which finger to which finger? Better to do so at the frog or tip? Up bow, down bow? Should you cross strings in high position for convenience, or should you risk a leap to a note from first position for best effect? How long will you live there? Will it be worth the effort?

Let your best sound be your guide, not your earlier teachings! The spaces between notes are beauty opportunities. It is vital that you maintain your vibrato (your purr-machine!) from note to note in a manner that dovetails sounds seamlessly.

Keep vibrating the note after the bow leaves the string! Also, think of your left hand as the note-finder and the note-player! Retrain your left hand to produce the note as if it had no bow as a partner (the audience doesn’t care that – or how – you use a bow!).

Try it, but do not snap your fingers down. Rather, for each note, softly place your “cushion” into the string, lightly roll your finger, scoop out the note and send the sound directly to the listeners’ ears. Simple magic! Eventually, bring on your bow.

What luxury! You will hear more character and sound projection with your new left-hand reconsideration. In lyrical passages, especially, try to keep solid bow contact with strings, even when you change bows or cross strings.

There should be no aural spaces between notes, only the fat sound carried over from the preceding note.

Think of your right hand as capturing the product of your left hand.

Do it in a manner that assures smooth transfer of the beautiful sound that is already available in your hands – to your violin – to your audience.

You just need to think it, do it and give it away, free – and you’ll still own your sound! Welcome to the world of left and right hand legato! It is a real concept and a key to seamless, beautiful sound.

In the beginning stages of your new approach to playing beautifully, you must think and listen as perhaps never before.

Eventually, as with walking, your beautiful notes will come automatically – because you will like it! Have a good time in your explorations.

If you do, your listeners will also enjoy your musical communication.

Know that only you (perhaps with the guidance of a teacher/coach who is sympathetic with this concept) can open new doors to the magic of beautiful sound.

As violin players, we are lucky to have such tactile instruments under our chins.

It allows for a most natural extension and expression of our body and mind.

Enjoy it! In closing, remember: Your audience couldn’t care less about how hard you work, what markings you use or how properly you play. What they want is to be reached emotionally and intellectually.

So when you perform, free your mind to follow only your most naturally beautiful instincts.

Your hands will follow, and your audience will respond – this time with a standing ovation that is well-deserved!

UPDATE: Joseph Gallo, 92, a member of Local 802 since 1949, died on Sept. 11, 2022. Mr. Gallo, who is survived by his wife Barbara, was a Juilliard graduate. He studied violin privately with Mischa Mischakoff, the concert violinist and concertmaster of the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. He also studied with Harry Shub, the world-renowned concert violinist. After an extensive career in New York City, Mr. Gallo moved to Williamstown, Mass., where he taught privately. He also directed the Black Tie Strings and Orchestra and several string quartets. Mr. Gallo wrote the story above in 2011 at the age of 80.