The Illusion of Progress: A Violinist's Experience of Baroque Techniques

I am not a baroque specialist, and in all honesty, I don't think I ever will be. So, it goes without saying that this article will not be in favour of dogmatic ideologies about whether Bach should be played with baroque or modern bows, or while eating spinach or pineapple, for all I care. Despite my lack of specialisation, my experiences (in particular having a baroque specialist teacher) with baroque techniques have nevertheless brought me to becoming a fierce advocate for the educational potential of the period's techniques. Below I have listed the most poignant experiences in my life that have led me to this opinion. This is in an attempt to promote holistic, rather than specific, understandings of our instruments and music, but also to issue a warning against what we associate with 'progress'.

Progress in musical techniques and understandings have created the readily propagated yet false assumption that if something has developed, it now gives us more freedom. But from my experience, I would argue the opposite. I do not deny that progress enables us to do things that we could not have done before - such as playing sustained notes more easily on a modern bow - but it is only possible to take full advantage of what is available to us if we intimately understand the journey that made it possible in the first place. In discussing certain baroque techniques and interpretations, from my personal experience, I hope to promote the potential of looking to the past in order to understand the present and forge a more informed future.

Playing with a baroque bow

I was supplied (thankfully, freely) a baroque bow on many occasions during my time at conservatoire. And indeed, for a whole year I had it permanently (I don't know if I was supposed to, but I never really said anything…). Let's talk purely physics for now. The baroque bow is lighter, smaller and has a different shape to the modern bow. It tapers dramatically at the end, resulting in a swell in the notes - more pressure is naturally given in the middle of the bow. It also arcs, being higher in the middle, while the modern bow arcs down in the middle. This development aimed to counteract our natural (and physical) tendency to put more pressure at the middle of the bow, resulting in a sustained sound from bottom to top. No doubt, this helped to play the pieces being composed at the time of its development, but it also made us forget why they weren't like that in the first place. By superficially creating 'equality' in the sound, we are given the false assumption that we can manipulate everything more easily - even when it goes completely against what our bodies naturally do. And the last time I checked, the way in which our arms and shoulders worked hasn't changed in a while.

Photo: Modern bow (above), baroque bow (below)

Although needing some time at first to get used to the different shape, it became easy and natural to use. It allows flexibility and a much lighter way of playing. The trick was to go with its physics. If you fight it - you won't get anything out of it. It allowed me to make sense of pieces of the era too: why phrases taper off more dramatically, why embellishments are so common (they are much easier to do with a lighter bow), and why the accentuation of harmonically important notes is so vital to the structure of the piece (a natural swell will accentuate them naturally). The interesting questions, however, begin to arise when we start to assess how relevant these techniques can be to modern playing - if at all. This is discussed further down in the context of my own technical development as a cause of baroque training.

Playing in baroque pitch (widely accepted as A=415 Hertz)

This was true of only one project I was involved in and it was tough. I don’t have perfect pitch, but I do have relative pitch with my violin. This made it almost agonising to see me putting down my finger where I knew an A should sound but all of a sudden, hearing a G#. In all honesty, I did not expect to be so spooked by it - mainly because I had always prided myself in being impervious to what is written on a page, making it easy to transpose easily (which I would do purely through intervallic relationships, not with perfect pitch). This is mainly due to my training in the Kodaly method, in which notes' names are dependent on the place and function in their key, with 'Do' indicating the major tonic and 'La' the minor tonic. I had therefore been used to interpreting melodies and musical material in a flexible realm where their actual value (eg. A B C) was separated by their functional one (eg. Do Re Mi). And in the case of the baroque pitch, I simply presumed that it would be no different to singing the tune using Do Re Mi instead of A B C - whether what I was singing actually was an A or not. But therein lies the problem – I was not singing; I was playing the violin. What was confusing was not that the resulting notes were not those written on the staves, but that they were not what I expected from my finger's position on the string. This opens a larger discussion about physics and the instruments themselves. An A open string that sounds like (what we now interpret as a) G#, will not have the same timbre. In sounding different, the only way we have, until now, made sense of this is by accepting they are different notes (G# and A). Accepting both are A's would be completely absurd since we are hearing different notes. But they are the same note, it's just that one is in 440 and one in 415. And this is important to note not just because it is correct, but because: an A does not mean the same as a G# and an open string does not mean the same thing as a non-open string.

It was the cognitive dissonance between hearing a G# where I knew an A to be, but having to interpret it as an A musically, harmonically and melodically, which confused me. And what I learnt from this was substantial - much of which were things I thought I knew, but had not viscerally experienced yet. I learnt that an instrument's timbre is central to understanding a composition - from melody to harmony, or structure to intention. I also learnt that singing is a fundamentally different action to playing an instrument (trust me, it's painful to have to write such an obvious statement after playing an instrument for nearly 20 years!). And of course, I learnt that A=415 Hz cannot be understood as G#, but instead, another variation of the note (or maybe, concept) of 'A'. Understanding a 'baroque A' as G# has become essential for many reasons: the common employment of equal temperament, the celebration of perfect pitch and the resulting notion that notes are discrete entities. Firstly, if we really want to be technical, a true G# is currently accepted as 415.305 Hz - not 415 Hz. Which goes to show that our urge to understand things quickly results in a simplification and approximation of musical understanding with far reaching consequences. It is at this point that I must point out that even the A=440 Hz and G=415.305 Hz I refer to are inevitably fluid - with some orchestras tuning at A=444. It is simply for the sake of discussion that I have had to (ironically) approximate them. But more importantly, understanding it as an A makes all the other things learnt bundle up into a nice, holistically sensible and beautifully simple ball of musical understanding. If understood as an A, we then interpret it as an open string (with all the connotations that come with it, such as openness, resonance and purity). In then realising that this is what an open string sounded like back then, we are encouraged to see how different music of the time must have sounded - and fundamentally make us understand how flexible and magnificently complex the history of music is.

Different style/approaches: Bach's Chaconne in D minor - with modern bow and A=440 Hz

Interpretation can be just as strong a tool as changing pitch or materials. The Chaconne, as one of the most well-loved and celebrated pieces of Baroque music in the violin repertoire, is a fitting example - especially in my experience. The teacher I initially learnt it with encouraged a romantic and fairly heavy interpretation. I was to aim playing four note chords in one stroke, use constant vibrato, and sustained bows. There were also many changes of bow directions in order to consistently arrive on a down (and therefore more powerful) bow direction on important notes. This resulted in, albeit a more superficially powerful sound, a rather vulgar effect. I can't deny there were certain parts in which these indulgences felt good, but there was also a constant feeling of guilt when playing, that I couldn't quite place at first. It felt 'wrong' to play it this way.

I then changed to a baroque specialist teacher, and as expected, the interpretation I was suggested was radically different. The main fundamental difference was the idea of letting the music itself guide the technical aspects needed, instead of enforcing an external, rigid interpretation with heavily rehearsed techniques. More often than not, those techniques were physically harder, and would be more impressive to an audience (unfortunately that's what it sometimes comes down to). In the case of the more 'baroque' interpretation, it resulted in chords being often split. This gave more flexibility to express a hierarchy of importance in the chord's notes, rather than attempting to play them all equally and at once simply because it’s impressive. Bow directions were more likely unaltered and phrases were built around overarching harmonies. To put it crudely, the mentality behind it was more or less 'take this piece and deal with it'. In the best possible way, it was almost like there was no choice in which way to interpret the piece. This is not to say that everyone's interpretation would be the same, quite the opposite in fact. By it I mean that your innate understanding of the music itself would naturally seep into your interpretation of the piece, and therefore your techniques, making it effortless to play. Much can be learnt from this process, even in contemporary music.

Consequences of baroque training more generally

I have often been asked 'did you have a baroque teacher?' after having been heard playing. I've always liked the question, not just because I like thinking that people were intrigued by my playing, but just the way it is posed. Instead of saying, 'you use baroque techniques', it is much subtler - maybe they just don't want to be too imposing or harsh (as if saying baroque tendencies are a bad thing to have in non-baroque context), who knows. That's not important, though. More significantly, it reflects the reality that yes, I heavily base my general technique on baroque ones I have learnt over the years, oftentimes completely subconsciously. And I don't think it's just by habit - I think it's because I have found some of them objectively better than techniques taught today. By 'objectively better' I mean that it has a higher potential for being useful in all areas of playing. It comes down very simply to flexibility. For me, being flexible is innately a good thing in creative thought and interpretation. And although baroque techniques do not have a monopoly on flexibility, they celebrate it much more than modern technique, which tends to concentrate more on what is superficially impressive and not musically interesting. Baroque techniques are possibly the closest concrete example of technical flexibility available to us. So, for me, it feels right to use it as a 'default'. Of course, this may not be appropriate everywhere. I don't think Bartok should always be played with swells and minimal vibrato, and I definitely don't think that Shostakovich should be 'light'. But in prioritising flexibility in your general technique, manipulation becomes significantly easier - consequently making your playing much more interesting and liberating. It's as if you had a white canvas instead of a black one. On the white, you have the opportunity to paint anything over it with ease - colours will be discernible and simple to paint on. But with a black background, it would take bleach to make that possible!

I love efficiency and I love the maximisation of potential. And in offering flexibility, baroque techniques make these things possible. These very well might not be the goals of other musicians, but at least for me, I cannot see otherwise. I also accept that in not having trained as a soloist (who would need to almost scratch their strings to play over an orchestra) and in playing less regularly than before, it has become vital for me to adapt to a flexible way of playing - because it is the best way to 'make up' for temporary loss of technique. Nevertheless, I still believe flexibility should have a vital role in one's training and understanding of their instrument. This is consequently true of baroque techniques. Even if we do not become specialists, simply being aware of the differences and its advantages opens us up to a whole new, holistic understanding of the instrument. And this doesn’t just stop at the instrument, but also reaches more intangible understandings of music theory. Baroque techniques symbolise the developments we have impressively acquired today - and should not be ignored. Otherwise, we blindly take advantage of modern techniques which, albeit more 'optimised', have been developed in a way we may not actually agree with. By going back to the roots (or as close to them as possible), we make our own mind up about what it means to manipulate the piece of wood in our hands - ultimately achieving the liberation usually monopolised by uninhibited 'progress'.

Rita Fernandes, January 2021

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Jacob Kirkegaard / 4 Rooms (2006)

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Music History's Indebtedness to Narcissism

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