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Starting Strong: Practicing Open Strings to Perfect Don Juan's Opening Statement

Updated: Sep 12, 2023

Don Juan is a daunting excerpt. The first time I saw the music and realized what the tempo was I panicked-where are you even supposed to start? One of the biggest traps is the pressure to get it up to tempo and to get there quick. But don't worry-there is a better way to practice this than to blow through it time and time again struggling to get that infamous high D!


The first step is isolation. In this case, we will be isolating the right hand by practicing open strings. Practicing open strings is a fantastic way to make sure that every single note is as resonant as possible. We start at FF-so we want a strong opening statement, but we absolutely don't want to crush the sound. Start with the first measure and a half. Play through the open strings enough times to memorize the string crossings, and then play through it again but watch your strings as you are playing. Can you see the strings vibrating as you play every single note? Experiment with your bow placement, how much weight you are using, and how much bow you are using on each note until you find the perfect balance of bowing style that achieves visual vibrations on every single note.




This is at quarter note=120


Speaking of bow placement-when you find the balance that works for you, look at how close you are to the bridge vs. the fingerboard. Can you find that same amount of resonance with your bow closer to the bridge? It may not feel normal to play closer to the bridge, but if you push through your comfort zone then you will be able to access more sound than you ever thought possible. Even if it doesn't sound good at first, by actively playing closer to the bridge, you will train your instrument to sound better there just like you are training yourself to sound better there. You and your instrument are a team working together, and it is your job as the musician to make sure your instrument is also reaching its full potential!



The next way we'll use open strings practice is to practice rhythm. At the end of the first line do you see that complicated rhythm with the quintuplet to sextuplet? In tempo it is extremely difficult to show the difference between these rhythms, so we can use the open strings to break it apart without the left hand.



Put the metronome on nice and slow-quarter note=60 and let's just talk through the rhythm before adding the bow. Let's say "one-two-three-four-five" for the 5's and "trip-el-let trip-el-let" for the 6's. We need to cross strings when you say "three" in the 5's and when you say "el" in the first set of "trip-el-lets". Practice emphasizing that with your voice a few times, maybe even air bowing for the string crossings. When you do add your bow, continue saying that count out loud so that you are 100% sure that you are crossing at the right time. When it becomes easy at quarter note=60, work the tempo up gradually until you hit your goal tempo. You can then practice with the original bowings and see how well you are able to show the different between the 5's and the 6's.


The final open string practice we will do here will be for measure 6, but it also works fantastically well for the run in bar 4, and for any run of notes under a slur. This exercise is primarily for bow distribution, because we want to maximize how much sound we are making on every single note. What we will do is stop our bow between every note under the slur. We want to make sure every note under the slur speaks equally and the sound is even and continuous throughout.



Play through bar 6 with a slight separation between every note under the slur. Go through this a few times until you memorize the pattern. Once you've memorized the pattern, do it again but watch your bow and your strings. This is FF, so you will want to use as much bow as possible while making a rich sound. As you get to the tip on the down bow, you will need to add more weight to keep the sound even. As you add more weight, make sure the string is still visually vibrating. If it stops vibrating, that means you are squashing the sound. Make sure you are adding weight by making a scooping motion with your bow-not by pushing the string down. We always want to scoop the sound out, which is a pronating motion with your hand rather than a downward force with your arm.

Like the first exercise, see what happens when you bring your bow closer to the bridge-especially as you get to the tip. Experiment a little with the balance of weight and bow speed until you find a nice balance closer to the bridge. If you are successful, the sound should be crystal clear and extremely resonant.


In case you're curious-here is the result of my open strings practice on the first 8 bars. For best results practice these exercises for several days in a row so you really absorb it!

These practice methods are always great to use with any repertoire. Take these as a tool that you now have in your toolbox for daily practice. Metronomes are a great addition to all of these-but the metronome is most definitely required for the rhythmic practice for obvious reasons. I hope this has been helpful and that you have a fantastic practice sessions!


-KS



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