I played in my first orchestra in 1971 (yeah, I’m old…stifle it) as a less-than-expert holder of a tuba in my lap. Since I read the bass clef reasonably well, I transitioned to the String bass in 1974. Being pretty short and not very talented, I was worse at that instrument than I was with the tuba. (Bass guitar saved me a few years later. At least I knew which end of that thing did what.) I’ve sung with orchestras, I’ve listened to orchestras, I’ve had many talented friends who played in orchestras…I thought I’d heard it all.
That’s what I get for thinkin’.
The violin part for “A Breath of Ecstasy” had a total surprise in it, something completely new to me. Playing what’s referred to as a “harmonic” involves deadening a string on an instrument without touching it hard enough to stop the sound altogether while not pressing it hard enough to create a “normal” note. It’s kinda hard on an instrument with frets like a guitar or ukulele but you’re assisted by those frets to give you a target to place your lightly-touching finger. The easiest one to perform is an octave up from the open string on the 12th fret.
Last time I looked, there were no frets on the violin so playing a harmonic means knowing EXACTLY where to put that lightly-touching finger within a fraction of an inch while moving a bow and holding the whole shootin’ match with your chin because there’s no leverage being generated by your hand.
Here’s how it works (note how it gets harder and harder as you explore the outer reaches):
Boom goes my head.
There’s another piece of the puzzle where you use one finger to hold the string down and stretch your hand to put ANOTHER finger (of the same hand) exactly on the right place gently to create a harmonic based on something other than an open string but that’s just too much to consider. I’ve done it on a uke. A little. When it works. Which isn’t often.
The idea of having the confidence to do that in a performance makes my spine stiffen and little beads of sweat form on my upper lip. To do it with the skill of the orchestra members accompanying the Windward Choral Society this Christmas was jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. If you can, be sure to take a moment to thank them for bringing their unique talents into the concert hall. Epic stuff there…and I learned something new!
A bonus: here’s the master of all things impossible using artificial harmonics in a way that I’ve not ever seen before. I’ve got the tablature for this piece. I could work on this for a hundred years and not get past the “how the #@&! does he DO that?” stage.