Anchor Notes

February 12, 2015

I'm currently working on several pieces; Bourrée I & II and the Gigue from Bach's Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major, and both the Goltermann Rondo and Bach Arioso from Suzuki book 5. Last night I spent some time on the middle section of the Arioso using what I call "anchor notes."

In my mind an anchor note is one that repeatedly occurs in a passage; the music keeps returning to it. Identifying such notes is particularly useful when shifts are involved. Scales with open strings have built-in anchor notes as you know those will be in tune (i.e., have the correct intonation), whereas a scale like E Major which has no open strings has no guaranteed intonationally correct notes.

Here are measures 10, 11, and 12 from the Arioso in Suzuki Cello Volume 5.

Arioso Exerpt

There are several factors at play here. First, the piece is in Tenor clef, only the third or fourth Suzuki piece to employ this clef. Second, we are fairly high up on the fingerboard: 4th position and beyond. Third, there are some rhythmic niceties with the pair of 32nd notes in the first excerpted measure and again with the triplet in the second measure shown. Finally, there are some subtle (and not so subtle) shifts to navigate.

Finding some thread to lead the way through this passage is essential. Fortunately the A4 (A above middle C) appears 7 times in these three measures. As a bonus, A4 is located at the mid-point of the string meaning you can play a harmonic A there as an intonation test. By locating A4 and then working up to C5 I was able to work out the finger spacing required for correct intonation in measure 10. A photocopy of the piece and some colored pencils helped me to sort out the rhythm of that measure. (Thanks Sibylle!)

With A4 firmly in my ear it was easier to find the proper intonation of measure 11. Initially I ignored the grace notes and worried only about the triplet on the third beat. Once I had the rhythm sans grace notes down, I added those in to complete the measure.

Having A4 as an anchor note, and being able to spot check its intonation quickly using the harmonic A greatly increased my confidence that I was sounding the right pitches. The challenge for me has always been to eliminate as many uncertainties as possible. I practice rhythms on open strings, getting the pattern down before adding intonation to the mix. Separate bows before ties or slurs, and always grace notes last.

Adding anchor notes helps to increase my confidence, which makes my playing better, which makes it easier.

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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.