Stacking Seconds/Tetrachords/Why Scales are Difficult

Everything we do with the left hand can be thought of as a series of stacked seconds. There are the obvious cases, of course. Your basic major scale is a series of seconds, minor and major, stacked one on top of the other. But there is a deeper way to look at our friends, the major and minor second (I’m going to switch to half and whole steps moving forward.), and to use them to our advantage. Only do this with these friends. Don’t use your real friends.

Go ahead and grab your violin or viola for this. Put your first finger down on any string. Put your second finger down a half-step above it. Then your third finger down a whole step above that. You have a minor third. If you put the fourth finger down a whole step above that you have a perfect fourth. Well, duh. If you don’t have any students with “flying fingers” please skip this post and go watch Chef’s Table instead. But the important thing to think about is that the third finger is now built from two reference points, not from a discrete place out of thin air. The fourth finger has three reference points. Now this is where it gets cool*. If you take that second finger and slide it over to the upper string, you have a minor sixth. If you take that third finger and slide it over to the upper string you have a minor seventh. If you slide it to the lower string you have a major third. If you take your fourth finger and slide it over to the upper string you have an octave. Try this with other combinations of half and whole steps. You’ll be whipping up major sixths, tritones, perfect fourths, minor thirds, etc. in no time with tons of security. You’ll also find the double stops inherent in separate notes across strings. This Kreutzer Etude is chock full of them:

I have my learners find every one of these hidden double stops and land on them with both notes when learning this etude (Fifths can be “barred” like on a guitar if you have skinny fingers. More on that in a later post). This helps them play more in tune, faster and with more fluidity. Simply finding these hidden double stops is a great literacy exercise. (I think finding hidden double stops would be a great written exercise, and might even help fulfill curricular requirements.) Thus, stacking seconds helps you play double stops with more security. Finding “hidden” double stops and stacking the seconds to build them helps you play across strings with more security. In short, stacking seconds will help you play everything else with more security.  This is Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer stuff, but when I’ve asked my students if they’ve ever thought of their left hand this way they’ve never answered “yes.” Too obvious to point out, maybe.

Why is playing scales so difficult? The answer is that scales are several skills wrapped up into one. I’m going to try and describe all of the difficulties inherent in playing scales:

  • Stacking seconds perfectly, or even better, preparing your finger patterns (tetrachords)
  • Shifting
  • LH String Crossings
  • RH String Crossings
  • Playing with a consistent sound
  • Changing your contact point as your LH shifts into the upper positions

Not to mention that playing a descending scale requires an almost completely different skill-set than an ascending scale:

  • You have to prepare all fingers in the LH at once when you cross to the lower string. You have to think in finger patterns or you’ll never be able to play a descending scale cleanly.
  • Shifting down is harder than shifting up
  • You have to cross strings in the opposite direction. I personally find crossing to the lower string more difficult than crossing to the upper string in most cases.
  • Changing your contact point as your LH shifts into the lower positions
  • I think we have a harder time maintaining our aural pitch center going down than up. I find it easier to sing anything, scales or intervals, going up than down
  • Doing anything backwards is more difficult, like saying the alphabet that way.

Surely I’ve forgotten many things. My point is that the age-old adage to just “practice your scales” is akin to telling an erstwhile Tour de France cyclist to “get in your miles.” Doing either badly will do you no good, and not understanding the difficulties and goals before you start will only lead to failure. Playing scales well is not simple. It has as many difficulties as playing a concerto. It might be Camp 3 on the way to Everest’s summit, but Camp 3’s still a long way from Base camp.

Let’s get back to Base camp and figure out how we should proceed. After we figure out how to stack seconds (just on one string), I think the next step is to memorize our tetrachords. I love tetrachords. They are totally in the “Goldilocks zone”, both mentally and physically. It’s easy to remember four notes, and we have tactile reinforcement of those four notes in our hands. Stack two tetrachords together and you have a scale. Move one part of the tetrachord somewhere else and you have a double stop. Yes! In tune double stops! The best part is that we can turn four into one by learning finger patterns, taking advantage of “chunking.” That’s where we’ll pick up next time. I hope this was helpful.

*Cool to me. But my idea of fun is hunting for awesome used books at thrift stores.

Next time: Finger Patterns

Copyright Rising Tide String Project 2018 (Erik Bryan and Chung Park)

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