Adding Color to Your Music

February 19, 2011

The most powerful tool in my growing musical toolbox isn't a new bowing technique, or a better vibrato. No, it's color. And not musical color - real color.

Let me explain.

The newest piece I am learning is the Scherzo by Webster in Suzuki Book 3. Looking at it, especially after having listened to it once or twice, is a bit intimidating. All those sixteenth notes, and played so fast. How will I ever manage? At first glance you don't even really pay attention to the middle section. The notes there are sparse in comparison and hardly look intimidating. That is until you try to sight read your way through it once or twice. 2nd position, 4th position, A-string, D-string. It's harder to sort out than it appears.

After a couple of nights practice I am able to play the rest of the piece, albeit slowly and deliberately, but the contrasting section in the middle wasn't coming together at all. Tonight I decided to practice just that section. At first I set my bow aside and played pizzicato (another powerful tool) but even then I was having trouble with where to move my hand and when. What I needed was a strong visual cue to know where my hand should be for any given note.

With a fresh copy of the page in hand, and a box of colored pencils I made this study guide.

Scherzo in color

Each shift is colored and, more importantly, shifts to the same position on the same string are one color, while shifts to that position on another string are a different color. There are three 2nd position shifts on the D-string, one 2nd position shift on the A-string, and two 4th position shifts: one each for the A-string and D-string. By coloring these shifts different it makes it clear at a glance what is going on. Since I am a visual person ("see you later" rather than "talk to you later" or "I'll be in touch") having visual cues works very well for me. The letter written above each section is the string where the shift in question occurs.

After spending five minutes making up my study guide I tried playing the middle section again, this time with my bow. Amazing - it actually sounded a bit like the recording. My shifts aren't always accurate yet, but the general skeleton is there now.

Colored pencils are mightier than they look.

Author's profile picture

Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.