Hi. I was wondering if anyone has thoughts on the use of open strings; I suppose this discussion applies mostly to live performance, since digital orchestrations can be manipulated easier after the fact. I get the sense that playing higher open strings, particularly for longer notes on the violin, can be bad because they resonate more so than stopped strings and can stick out. Is that also true for lower strings and instruments (viola, cello, bass)? Do the same guidelines still apply when we're talking about effects such as pizz., col legno, or sul tasto?

Also, I've been told that violin players usually avoid playing in second position? Can someone elaborate on this? Is it also true for other string players?

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  • Thanks, Bob. That's helpful. I ask not because I'm worried about marking things in parts, but mostly because I use the Spectrotone chart and other orchestration resources to try and analyze/design blend and contrast among various string parts, etc. Lines have different "colors," or timbres based on which string is played so I'm just trying to better understand and anticipate how a typical player would approach the notes. I know and work with a good violin player, but she doesn't get much exposure outside of the section.

    Bob Porter said:


    I'm not a violin player, but I worked many years in a violin shop. The main reason players avoid open strings is that there is no good way to get any vibrato on an open string. Oh, it can be sort of faked. Yes an open string vibrates differently than a finger stopped string. That's because an open string vibrates between the nut ant the bridge. There is a solid vibrating length. When you put your finger on the string, the soft edge of your finger makes a less definite index point for the vibrating length of the string. The density and thickness  of your fingers (plus how you bow, but that's another topic) make a difference, also. That's why 5 different players can play the same thing on the same instrument, and sound different.

    The fact is that unless you specify an open string for some reason, the players decide how to finger a passage. Most orchestras have someone go through the string parts to mark bowing so that everyone in the section bows the same way. Sometimes in spite of how the composer marks things.

    Not sure on avoiding second position. It probably depends on the passage and the key.

    Open strings and hand positions- How much of a bad thing?
    Hi. I was wondering if anyone has thoughts on the use of open strings; I suppose this discussion applies mostly to live performance, since digital or…
  • It's very true that ultimately a person's expertise and experience, and certainly good ears, will largely determine these types of decisions. I've played piano and low brass (mostly trombone and baritone/euphonium) for a long time so I definitely have an easier time with winds. That being said, I'm still interested in how string players would answer my initial questions. Some of what's driving this is just curiosity, but I think the better I understand, the better I can write for the section.

  • The emptiness and bigger resonance of an open string's sound can be mitigated to some extent (lower bow pressure, adjusting the angle so that only a part of the hair makes contact with the string etc.) You can't really get around the lack of vibrato, though, especially if it's the highest string on a particular instrument. I suppose sul tasto works similarly, although the resonance may be desirable here. Col legno tratto - shouldn't matter much. Col legno battuto - similar to pizzicato, which is to say, open strings resonate more strongly (and, more importantly, much longer), but you can cheat a bit here - just "play" a "harmonic" after hitting the open string, and the sound dies similarly to a stopped one. You can touch the string wherever to just kill the sound, or aim for a strong partial (2nd, 3rd) for an interesting effect. It won't be particularly spectacular with a violin, but a cello or bass should be able to make it work even without amplification.

    Violin players avoiding 2nd position? Probably 4th, too, then. There is something going on here, although I'm not sure what. It probably stems from emphasis during training. It's difficult to judge on a piece-by-piece (study, scale, whatever) basis, but I do think that 1st, 3rd and 5th are generally used more often than 2nd or 4th. That would make the latter feel generally less comfortable later on. Not that it should matter, in the end - if a passage is extremely easy in 2nd position and very annoying otherwise, a wise violinist will use 2nd as a matter of course.

  • Greg, I really appreciate your insight and taking the time to explain everything in detail for me. That's exactly what I was looking for. It sounds like across the strings, open resonance and lack of vibrato is nominally avoided, but can be mitigated otherwise, including across special techniques. Also, 1st and 3rd are usually more comfortable but 2nd (and 4th, etc.) would be used if it makes the most sense for the particular passage. Thanks again.

  • Hi Bryan

    It's not that we avoid 2nd and 4th positions it is more in the teaching of 1st as "home" and 3rd or 5th next.

    Open strings are good for accents to let it ring, sometimes accented triple stops with an open top string held give brilliance.

    Sul G (or D) used to give richness to a low melody on violins. Don't recall seeing it on other instruments though. Elgar uses it a bit in his marches.



    To me open strings on any stringed instrument (plucked or bowed) are very natural and their sonic qualities are amongst the most beautiful and desirable characteristics of the particular instrument involved.

    Also the tonalities based on the available open strings are considered the easiest to play and more natural on any stringed instrument, thus for example, the keys of A or E are considered natural and easy on a guitar and those of G or D the same easy on a violin.

    If you take even a quick statistical look on guitar or bowed string  repertoire in its historical totality you will not fail to see that Sharp keys predominate those repertoires and that is because open strings on those instruments refer you directly to sharp keys. (example: Classical guitar playing gets very tough in keys with more than two flats due to the constant need for the use of bare and its repertoire in G minor is non existent compared to that in E minor).

    Let us not forget that as far as various world folk traditions are concerned, open strings remain very much in use and are still very desirable for the sonic effects that they produce. By using open strings in certain passages both in folk and classical traditions you can also facilitate the changes of position that are necessary for some pieces without much effort.

    Also, that before the aesthetic need for vibrato (and its consequent technique) arose-and that is quite late and near to our times- the said technique was undesirable, and most music for bowed strings was played without using this technique. All Renaissance and Baroque music (and some of the early classical) sound much more original by avoiding vibrato, and the historically informed performance movement is making strides nowadays to rid us of bad listening habits that the 19th and 20th century corrupted our ears with. Vivaldi, Corelli, Geminiani and plenty of other baroque composers sound fresh and original if we use a lot of open strings in preference to stopped notes, perhaps more like they meant their pieces to be played themselves. (Bach's suburb solo suites and partitas for violin and for cello are very much based in the utilization of open strings and go without saying in this later category).


    Regarding positions and changes between them as well as tuition of them, say on a violin, consider for a moment the key of D major for instance and you see that you have Tonic, Dominant and Sub-Dominant degrees available as open strings in any position. Also consider what stopped notes are available for this tonality in first and third position as compared to the second position and you may see that the third position is a more natural continuation of the first, for example the upper leading note (C#6) is possible only by extending the 4th finger in the 2nd position but falls naturally under the 3rd finger in 3rd position. (some knowledge of orthodox fingering is required here).


    A violinist has to spend much time and do a lot of serious work in the first years of his study only in the first position (which is the richest of the instrument) in order to understand all left hand possibilities of forming the required steps of semitone, tone and augmented second with fingers 1 & 2 and then let the other two fingers learn the routines for playing the various diatonic and chromatic tetrachords and pentachords which form the basis of all scalic material. Then the same principles can be applied in all positions, but after first, the third and fifth come as more natural continuations than the second and fourth positions.


    I hope this was not very confusing :-)

  • I agree with all points you make, Bob, cause they all stand to reason.

    To me it depends always on the piece, on the musical context of the particular passage, and as far as folk or baroque music is concerned, if i had two choices sounding equally well then I would probably use the open string. (my vibrato is not very good anyway).

    A minimum of vibrato I like in most music but not too much. I don't want Bach to sound like Schumann on a cello and sometimes I get that impression from "holy" players like Casals (!), or (on guitar) Segovia playing Luis Milan's Pavanas (c.1536) with the same mannerisms as he plays Capricho Arabe by Tarrega (c.1900)

    I hope you see what I mean. :-)

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