It had been two years after discovering Ruggiero Ricci’s treatise on left-hand technique that I decided I would give him a ring. Something had burgeoned in me after spending such a focused chunk of time with it. I needed to talk to someone about it: why not the author? — I thought.
The phone rang and Juila Ricci, the wife of Ruggiero, picked up. My name is Nato, I told her. I had been delving pretty deep with the Glissando book. Could I speak with the author?
Ruggiero came on the phone and he inquired about me and my playing. We chatted about this and that; he sounded quite chipper for a man in his nineties. He went on to say that the Glissando book was his proudest achievement. I was floored — after all, this man’s accomplishments were innumerable.
The book, at its core, hypothesizes about Niccolò Paganini’s approach to the violin and how us players can use Paganini’s style to short-cut left-hand technique.
Niccolò played on an old set-up (no shoulder-pad, no chin-rest) and the instrument likely sat in the hand, rather than under the chin. Ruggiero’s forensic probing concluded that the no-position style is what enabled Niccolò’s heavy-weight technique.
Ricci’s words were inspiring that day, and I would go on studying the Glissando book quite seriously for years to come.
After nearly six years of holding the violin in the old style, I am at a crossroads. Indeed, there are some serious drawbacks to it all. It took a long time to reconcile what those things were. And it’s hard to find the audacity to criticize such an important treatise.
Vibrato as a musical devise has waxed & waned in popularity over time. Although it’s here now, it wasn’t vogue in Paganini’s day at all. Put simply, the old hold and modern vibrato contradict violently. While a collapsed wrist that rests on the instrument body is great for stability, it makes for one tired-sounding vibrato. Of course, if you didn’t use vibrato, this would be a moot point.
Secondly, Ricci advises we disregard our left-hand thumb: keep the thumb back, relaxed & tow it along when heading to other positions. Regretfully, I find this to be at fault. Crawling around from position to position is awkward if the thumb isn’t positioned correctly to purchase the underside of the neck. We need this in order to easily pull the hand downward, or jettison it quickly up. Much like how a tongue darts around when chewing, so should the thumb when crawling along the fingerboard. (Also, a lame thumb is problematic in producing a bright modern vibrato.)
Finally, in-the-hand cradling (again, the violin body resting in the hand) makes for some terrible times for anyone with regular-sized fingers trying to articulate prickly passages. Try to run up a few scales of thirds on the G & D strings with a collapsed wrist to see what I mean; if your pinky isn’t quite long, it’s seriously awkward.
What to do?
For me, these shortcomings are too considerable to be ignored. With the old style, my sound (due to a compromised vibrato) and technique (due to poor mobility) fall victim — and what more fundamental than technique and sonority?
So, is the Glissando approach flawed? For anyone with normal-sized fingers who desires to play nimble passages whilst employing a haût vibrato, I would say yes. However, I would submit that there are many aspects of left-hand technique one cannot unlock unless the Glissando technique is learned to a high level. Here are two gems Ricci presents which I consider to be gold-standard:
Throw your shoulder-rest in the trash and never look back. Those things are a handicap, truly — what type-A violinist wants that?
- Spend time every day in the archaic Paganini-style position, playing whole scales, pieces, etc., all on one finger. By doing so, one can zoom-in on intonation, and zone-out finger mechanics. The thumb, you will notice, does get pretty lazy, so careful not to go on too long with this exercise; some bad habits tend to creep in if you do. (Lots of regular four-octave scales is the perfect compliment to this ear-training exercise, as it gets the fingers back on their tips, and the thumb acting assertive once again.)
It will be interesting to see where I am in a couple of years post Ricci’s Glissando. I am forever grateful to have found his book as the lessons learned were many. Alas, not all of Glissando worked for me; a hybrid of the old and new sounds like a prudent way going forward. We shall see how that plays out.