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Michael Hovnanian formerly played bass with an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Bottesini Method, part 2

What is a position?

The Simandl and Nanny methods were the books I learned from as a beginner. Later, when I felt the need to start over from scratch, I consulted the four volumes by Ludwig Streicher. Common to all three of those methods (and probably many others) is the fixed system of positions that inch up the fingerboard by half steps. Beginning from what Simandl calls the 'half position' the fingers 1, 2 and 4 are used exclusively, although there are some minor disagreements as to when the 3rd finger replaces the fourth near the octave point. Each method begins with the lowest position ('half position', Simandl) and incrementally works up the fingerboard. Simandl takes about thirty pages to climb up to the 6th position. Streicher devotes an entire volume to open strings and half position before setting out from base camp to reach the snowy, rosin-capped summit three volumes later.

For me, the numbered positions are something like the training wheels I once had on my bicycle -- in the beginning they were necessary until it was safe to abandon them in a corner of the garage. For a while thereafter they were something of an embarrassment before achieving their apotheosis as an object of nostalgia. As a young student, each step higher on the chromatic ladder brought me to a new numbered position, and with it a sense of achievement. “What position are you up to?” was something we students often asked each other to determine who was a good player. The poor fellow still struggling with the second position was an object of scorn, or of pity, to those of us who had safely gone on to the third or beyond. Recently, I'm embarrassed to say, I had to look up the positions, having forgotten them long ago.

The numbering system for positions in the Simandl method seems to be based on the natural minor scale. I believe the reasoning behind this was once explained to me, but I've since forgotten that as well. The arbitrary numbering of positions, and 'half' positions are what made it difficult for me to remember them. Nanny's method uses a slightly different numbering system, as illustrated by the wonderful diagram above. Ascending mostly by whole steps, it also includes the more logical scheme of numbering the positions by degree of the chromatic scale.

click any image to embiggen

The first six positions of Simandl

As any student discovers rather quickly, using the 1-2-4 fingering system, where the distance between the 1st and 4th finger always spans a whole step, it is impossible to play a diatonic scale in any one position above the first without shifting. The Bottesini method differs radically from those cited by quickly introducing the student to the entire range of the instrument to be covered by the method. Within about five pages, Bottesini takes us from open strings to the G-harmonic, an octave above the open string, which is a far as he is going by the end of the volume. With the emphasis on scales and melodic material, Bottesini incorporates shifting throughout the range of the instrument from the outset.

The modern player might be immediately startled by Bottesini's fingering system. After a perfunctory page covering the open strings the first exercises for the left hand begin. Only the 1st and 4th fingers are employed at first.

1st and second positions

It is interesting to note that after these first examples, he never refers to numbered positions again.

Eventually, a fingering scheme of 1-3-4 is introduced, but this differs radically from the systems of Simandl, Nanny, et al. In the first position, whole steps and half steps are both fingered 1-4. From the second position and higher the 3rd finger is gradually introduced for some half steps, although 1-4 is used more often, particularly on the lower strings. If there is some rule about when a half step is taken with the third or fourth finger, I have yet to discover it.

As always, delving into the work of Bottesini makes the us come face to face with the most pressing questions of our era. In this case the question is, what is a position? For Simandl, Nanny, & co. the answer is obvious, due to the consistent 1-2-4 fingering system. In any position where those three fingers are used exclusively, each finger has exactly one correct placement in each position. The same can be said of the thumb, resting behind the neck, which moves from one position to another in a fixed relationship to the other fingers. By contrast, Bottesini invites us to be flexible. In (his) second position, on the A-string, the first finger takes B-natural, while C-natural can be taken with either the third or fourth finger. Looked at another way, in the second position, the fourth finger can have two proper placements, on C-natural, or C-sharp. In Simandl, a 4th finger C-natural (A-string) can only be in half position. In Bottesini's method, it could either be in first or second position.

In the process of acquainting myself with Bottesini's fingering system, I spent a quite bit of time on the first few pages, wrapping my brain and my fingers around the half steps taken with the first and fourth fingers. To feel comfortable in the crimped position, I found myself holding the thumb a bit higher, opposite the first finger (or even higher) rather than my normal position, wherein the thumb resides more or less opposite the second finger. The new hand position felt uncomfortable only in that it was something different. In fact, alternately stretching and contracting the hand felt strangely liberating. With the fingers all out of their usual positions, relying more heavily on the ear than on the hand position was revelatory, as much as it was also sobering.
Anxious as I was to begin climbing the ladder, tackling the more interesting and difficult material to come. A couple lines of text made me stop dead in my tracks. In the middle of a section of brief exercises 'in all keys', where he moves to the flat keys, Bottesini writes: “The pupil will understand that the object of these exercises is to accustom him to keep his thumb perfectly still.” Somewhat confusingly, this instruction appears after exercises in F major, D minor, and B flat major, and it is unclear whether it applies to what is above or below the text. Here is the exercise in D minor, notable for the first use of the third finger in the method.

This appears to be all in the second position, so leaving the thumb in place conforms to the Simandl/Nanny idea of position. However, directly below the text is this exercise in G minor.

First or second position?

Right away there is a conundrum. Is this first or second position? First finger on A-natural implies second position, while using it on the E-flat says first. Was Bottesini asking us to shift position without moving the thumb (Apostasy!), or is this all to be considered as one position?

At the bottom of the page (clearly referring to the exercise above since the next page went on to something else) Bottesini again felt the need to add: The pupil will take care not to move his thumb in getting to the A flat on the G string.

Don't move the thumb

After some head scratching, it dawned on me that I had yet to fully free myself from the shackles of the old position system I studied as a beginner. Initially, tackling Bottesini's unfamiliar fingerings, I held onto the idea that to be in a 'position', one of the fingers needed to be fixed in place. Since the early examples had both whole steps and half steps fingered 1-4, I erroneously made the assumption that the placement of the first finger defined the 'position' while the fourth finger could stretch to a whole step or contract to a semi tone. The text and examples cited above finally made me realize that the first finger could move within a position as well.

To be fair, these conclusions are my own extrapolations of what I found in the text. Bottesini doesn't appear to be concerned with the idea of positions in the same way as Simandl or Nanny. He barely mentions them near the beginning of the method before dropping them altogether after about the first ten pages. However, from the numbered fingerings, as well as the admonishments not to move the thumb, it seems clear to me that there is some underlying idea of being in a 'position', however vague that might be.

Based on what I had encountered to that point, I came up with the following first and second 'positions'.    

Since the pitches A-B-C, fingered 0-1-4, could be in either first or second position, the defining characteristic had to be the position of the thumb. The first position would be with the thumb closest to the nut, and the in the second, the thumb would be somewhat farther away.
Upon turning the page and preceding to the next section of the book, it turned out that, while neither refuting my thesis outright, nor confirming it, Bottesini simply went on to something else. He didnt seem overly concerned about 'positions, so, I asked myself, why was I?

The following post(s) will deal with more of the Method.  

1 comment:

Jacque said...

I eagerly await your assessment of Rabbath; I only hope it will not take 110 years to arrive.