Dont Op 37 No 5

The fifth etude in Jakob Dont’s Op 37 deals with a particular type of left hand stability and finger preparation.  It is very useful for developing secure and accurate intonation, especially in passages with awkward fingerings and unusual keys or accidentals which, without training, may destabilize a player’s concept of pitch.  Because of this, it is essential to prepare both the left hand technique and the ear while studying this etude.

Finger Preparation, a Special Example

In the very first measure, we encounter an example of finger preparation which will return many times in this etude.  With the hand securely in second position, a player should adjust the third finger for the B-sharp and B-natural while playing the c-sharp with the forth finger.  To clarify this further: the third finger should slide up to touch the pinky during the first C-sharp.  This way, a player only needs to lift the pinky, and the B-sharp is already prepared, in-tune, and stable.  Likewise, the third finger should slide down to make a whole-step from the pinky during the next C-sharp, preparing the following B-natural in the same way.  The first finger should remain in place throughout; the second finger may gently lift in order to facilitate the extended third finger.

Maintaining a Concept of Second Position

At the end of the first measure, we encounter the second important example of left hand technique in this etude.  Here, it is a matter of setting the forth-finger on the F-sharp, a note which many students find difficult to play in-tune.  Not only is this a string crossing and moving directly from 1st to 4th finger, but also the hand has just finished the awkward maneuver described in the previous paragraph.  To overcome these challenges, we must find a way to maintain a clear concept of second position.

First of all, while practicing the third-finger preparation already described, a player absolutely must stay aware of the first and second fingers.  Whether they should stay on the string or gently lift is a matter of some disagreement among violinists; however, it is important to keep their position in mind in order to maintain a good grounding in second position.

Additionally, the forth finger must also stay grounded above the C-sharp – this requires a lot of concentration because the forth finger cannot stay down on the string!  When the forth finger lifts, it should stay hovering above its note, and the player should keep this location in awareness throughout the measure.  Then, it will be quite easy to find the F-sharp at the end of the measure, since it is directly across from the C-sharp!

Many players will be tempted to let the forth finger move away from its position as soon as it is lifted.  Likewise, a player may forget about the first and second fingers while executing the B-sharp/B-natural passage.  Either way, the concept of second position will be lost, and a player will be left struggling to find individual notes.  By practicing in the ways described above, a player can transform this awkward measure into a simple one, grounded firmly and clearly in second position, with every finger stable and in-tune.

Fine-Tuning the Ear

The challenges of the first measure are repeated many times in this etude.  Some of the subsequent examples, however, involve many accidentals and even double sharps!  Luckily, this does not make the left hand technique any more difficult – and practicing each example in the ways already discussed will yield the same happy results.  Unusual accidentals can, however, make it more difficult to hear clear intonation.  Not only is a player dealing with notes that may be less familiar, but also the notes themselves tend to ring less, since they do not match any of the open strings.  There are several practice strategies to overcome this challenge.

The first and most important way to secure the intonation of unusual notes is to treat them as though they were not unusual notes at all!  If played with accurate intonation and an excellent bow technique, a sharped note will ring very fully – perhaps not quite as much as a note that matches an open string; however, it should never sound dull or vague.  Too often, a passage with many accidentals is allowed to sound flat – but it is almost impossible to hear accurate intonation if the bow is not fully engaging the violin’s sound.  Simply by pursuing a clear, ringing sound, a player can immediately improve the level of intonation.

Personally, I am not a fan of using a digital tuner to excess.  If a player is not careful, a tuner will train active attention to the tuner, rather than active listening!  Even if a player is meticulously focused and listening well, anyone’s concentration will begin to wane after five or ten minutes of practicing with a tuner, rendering further work useless.  Still, if done in the right way (only five to ten minutes per day, and with very purposeful listening), a digital tuner can be very helpful in raising one’s standards of intonation and clarifying passages that are unfamiliar to the ear.  It is certainly unnecessary to play through this entire etude with a tuner; however, working on a few particularly awkward measures with a tuner each day will be very helpful for most violinists.

Finally, it is worth noting that even the most awkward passages in this etude have some notes that match open strings.  They may only “passing notes,” but they can still be checked to match the perfect intonation of the open strings.

Unification of Left Hand Technique and Clear Listening

By approaching this etude from the perspectives of both left hand stability and clear, focused listening, a player can achieve truly excellent and confident intonation.  Both approaches are necessary, and each one supports the other.  The fruits of one’s labor in this etude will be realized in many places in the repertoire – harmonically dense passages in late romantic music, countless orchestral parts, and anything written in an unusually rich key.  Here is a perfect example – Beethoven’s String Quartet Op 131 in C-sharp minor, brilliantly played by the Alban Berg Quartet – of the lush, thick, and unique sounds possible when “unusual” notes are made to sing with their full beauty and clarity.

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Happy practicing!