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Hello everyone-

I would deeply appreciate getting help from some of you knowledgeable string players or composers for strings.  One of my students is writing a string quartet.  Her second movement relies heavily on multiple stops for all four instruments.  I don't play a string instrument, so I usually work with my expert string players on any questions of technique and playability.  Right now, all my regular string experts are unavailable! 

Can you tell me which of her multiple stops cannot be played?  I know about some of them, but I'd like to get expert input on all of them.  She could of course change the orchestration to include more instruments, but her goal is a completed string quartet, so she wants to stick with just the four players. We've already talked about a reduction of notes, but she still wants to know which stops won't work.

I'm attaching an mp3 of the movement, and also a pdf of the score.  We don't do mockups, since in my studio we are always writing for live performers. I don't need any comments on the sound itself, just which of the many multiple stops are impossible to play.  The mp3 is a Finale playback.

When you refer to a particular multiple stop, could you name the measure and the beat?

Thanks in advance!!

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Do you care for varying degrees of annoying and possible-but-awful, or is it only the absolutely impossible ones that matter?

Here is a list of (hopefully) all those that definitely cannot happen:

Vla, m. 54

Vc, m. 67 when it becomes a triple (Vla triple is soooorta doable, but it's just torture)

Vc, m. 81 (Vla is doable and not extremely hard, but it will sounds very weird :P)

Vla, m. 82

Vc, m. 82

Additional magic trick for m. 82: move the top C from cello part to viola part. Move the bottom G from viola part to cello part. This way you preserve all the notes and it becomes playable, and easy.

Actually I went ahead and fixed the entirety of the last 4 measures for you, keeping all the notes intact (heck I even doubled some, for more fwoosh):

(note: Viola is in violin clef as per the score you provided, it may look weird but it's all in range; personally I think it's silly but I stuck to violin clef to make reading / comparisons easier. I assume you will be transposing it all into viola clef when it's done?)

Greg, this is great!   Yes, she will definitely change viola to viola clef when done.  We left it in soprano clef for easier chord reading. 

I notice you didn't mark any impossible stops in the violins?  Can this be true?

Now, can you tell us which stops are doable, but awkward, annoying, horrible, or any other adjective that means string players wouldn't want to play the piece?

Thank you SO much!!  Bethany will be thrilled with this feedback. And my expert string players can continue to prepare for their final exams.  ;-)

Triple stops cannot really be sustained (even if the notes themselves are playable)--certainly not quadruples.  So these sustained whole note triples/quadruples at the end (and at b54) are simply not playable as written.  Either she should simplify the harmonies or come up with some rhythmic element instead of the sustain (i.e., alternating between notes of the chord, as single notes and/or stops).

I'm not a string player, but the alternating viola double stops at the beginning (and later) look awkward to me (though hard to tell when viola is not in the right clef).  Perfect fifth double stops are also very hard to play/tune and if they have to be played by open strings, they will stick out if the texture is intricate (like this appears to be).


I have only had a look at the vla part so far and although John is correct in saying that the 5ths are hard to tune, because they are fingered with one finger across 2 strings at an angle, they really are common enough and useable and the literature has many examples.

The vla part does actually fall under the fingers for the most part (Greg and John have pointed out the main problem areas), but one has to question the practicality, given the speed and the concept of the part - a good player will certainly be needed and even then, the success of that particular part in its role as accompaniment is not guaranteed because of its complicated nature due to the stops.

I would absolutely recommend re-writing to eliminate the constant stops in all parts (but not completely), but if your young one is adamant, then articulate the vla part (and all other accompaniment roles) in staccato ( or non legato!)  to eliminate shifts of position sounding and ensure at least a little clarity in the accompaniment. This will also give the music added spring in its step. Relaxing the tempo a bit will help too. 

Impressive as this is for a young composer (I am guessing she already has some knowledge of string technique or can play a bit), in a practical sense, the writing for the instruments needs to be considered from the performers point of view in terms of ease of playability and part interest and variation, which in turn will yield better musical results. Perhaps Bethany can experiment with thinning the texture as not every note of every chord needs to be sounded at once and this will eliminate some stop work, thin the texture and help avoid monotony of sound in the middle register. For example the vla at b31 does not need the low b as the cello has it and the d+f stop at beat 3 could just be a d as the f is in vln1. Other places could be rationalised similarly. Also perhaps in vln2, instead of having minim double stops, one could use arpeggiated notes in crotchets in places, again to relieve the stop work. Just simple alterations like this will have enormous benefits to the piece and its performance and is very instructive in the essential art of economy of means.

I notice also that more often than not, the 2nd vln sits on top of the vla in the minim chords. Best practice uses interlocking which will open each players stop out to larger intervals and easier to play than thirds. If I may, I'd like to refer you to my Partita Concordia which utilises a lot of stop work for a string trio and covers all aspects of practicality and part writing mentioned here. It is the second scrolling score movie down the page. It may help illuminate what works best.

Gregs' notation above is not correct because the bow can only sustain 2 notes and Bethany will need to think carefully about which notes she wants sounding in sustain at that point and in other places where there are triple stops.

I hope this helps a bit and if you like, I will double check the other parts later to possibly add to the list of issues the fine gentlemen above have already pointed out.

BTW the vla in b26 has a bflat and g stop on the 6th quaver - should that be a perfect 5th instead?

In my example, all the arpeggiated notes except the low D in Vln 2 second chord are open strings, they will resonate nicely for a bit while the performers sustain the upper ones. I suppose you could ditch the tie and the note in the second bar of each chord, for better clarity.

I didn't point out that triples / quadruples absolutely need to be arpeggiated because I assumed it obvious enough :)

True enough Greg about open strings. The best way would be to have the open low strings written as a crotchet with an open tie. For a solid sounding final chord though I would not add the top g to the cello and give the vla that g with the e above it as a double stop, the low vla open c can then complete the triple stop. This ensures a deep solid sustained bass. Middle c in the vla is not necessary in this arrangement and the vc and vla stops are simple.

I agree. It would be consistent with the chord before, too. Powerful sustained low end in both.

If Bethany wants one of the d's to sustain in the upper parts on the end chord, then re-arranging the upper vln parts will be necessary too as the open strings will lose resonance. The 2nd vln could play either the g and d 4th double stop  or the d and c 7th to ensure this.

Many thanks to Greg and Mike and John for your excellent input and suggestions.  Right now we're on Thanksgiving break, but when Bethany comes back next week, we'll review all your comments and she will start making some changes.  I deeply appreciate your help!   We'll share the finished version when it's ready.  Bethany is preparing for a masterclass in string quartet writing and the resulting concert this coming spring.

If she's not already familiar with these, this is a great video explaining different string techniques...

John, what a great video! I will definitely add this to my studio resources, not just for Bethany but for all my students who are writing for strings. Bethany is a piano virtuoso, a superb performer and the best sight reader I think I've ever met, but she doesn't play any string instrument. I took a few months of violin lessons just a few years ago, to become more familiar with the string family, but I still rely heavily on experts! I look forward to sharing this video with a host of eager composers. Thank you so much.

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