I have recently been working on one of my favorite pieces of solo rep- Schubert's sprawling Arpeggione Sonata. I first attempted the piece about 4-5 years ago, not long after I started playing bass and as you can probably guess, I was pretty unsuccessful in learning it.
After 4-5 years of becoming slightly less incompetent, I decided that I am finally ready to tackle this piece again. With the exception of one encumbering passage, my progress has been pretty smooth and the overall journey has been very rewarding.
The passage in question begins at measure 44 and ends at measure 47, with measures 45 and 47 being the most challenging. Playing the notes of the arpeggio on the beat while navigating the pedal-point figure off the beat is very tricky and requires using the thumb where it is not usually used. Doing all that with good tone and good intonation was also difficult, but I found several ways to piece everything together.
The Left Hand
Normally when I play things in thumb position I play with an arched hand-shape. I take a lot of my thumb position technique from the Petracchi book, so this is what he would call a semi-chromatic position. Everything is curved and I am experiencing no discomfort. I can comfortably grab a whole-step between thumb and 1 and a half step between 1 and 2 and 2 and 3. As pictured, thumb is on Eb; 1 is on F; 2 is on F#; 3 is on G. This gives me access to all the notes in measure 45 with thumb handling the low F and Bb, 1 and 3 handling the high F and G, and 3 handling the D harmonic. This shape provided a good starting point for learning the part, but I found that adaptations were needed to play the passage successfully.
The first adaptation involves the first finger. After some experimenting, I found that the best way to use it is as a fulcrum that allows for rotation or rocking in all directions. The low F and Bb can be accessed by rotating my hand about the first finger, the G can be played with a subtle rocking, and the harmonic D can be played with a combination of the two movements.
The only issue was that when I played the thumb notes on the A or D strings, my first finger made contact with the G string in such a way that my nail was pressing the string instead of my fingertip. It was incredibly uncomfortable as the string and nail made perpendicular contact and I couldn't find a way around it without collapsing my first finger. I tried adjusting my hand shape, elbow height, and a number of other parameters but collapsing the first finger was the only solution that worked.
So that's what I did. Problem solved.
In most circumstances, I would advise against collapsing fingers, but sometimes the only way to execute a passage successfully is by breaking rules. Collapsing the first finger here allows me to maintain the same rocking/rotating movements but without the discomfort of my nail pressing the string. The downside to this method is that I can't practice it for very long as the collapsed shape becomes painful quickly. My solution is to just practice it in short bursts. I don't anticipate pain being an issue during performance as the shape is never held for more than a measure at a time.
Why Not Just Use A Different Fingering?
I have tried some different fingerings for measure 45, but the only viable alternative requires several small shifts between the high F and G harmonic. If you are using the Stuart Sankey edition he actually provides this fingering as an option, along with the one I settled on above. The advantage of this fingering is that it removes thumb from the equation- the low F and Bb can both be played with first finger, as can the high D that would otherwise be a harmonic. The disadvantage is that playing the slurred F-G-F requires very quick, small shifts/pivots that are difficult to execute accurately at tempo. The other fingering requires less movement and keeps everything in one hand position.
Third finger on bass!?!?
Before I finish, I want to talk a little bit about measures 44 and 46. Beats 3 and 4 are the most challenging due to the string crossings and the shifts. I worked on the string crossings using bowing reductions (see below) and reduced the number of shifts by using third finger to play the D on the e of beat 3. I know some people might lose their minds at the idea of using third finger outside thumb position, but I have no problem doing so if it facilitates musical expression and makes things easier to play. I find that open hand positions that use all four fingers can solve a lot of problems if used wisely.
The Right Hand
The right hand was less of an issue than the left hand was with this passage. That's usually not the case but I still spent some time working on the bow anyways. I did some simple bowing reductions on open strings to make sure that my string crossings were accurate and then I slowly added in the left hand. The main problem spots were again measures 45 and 47, so that's where I put most of my focus. This was the bowing reduction I used:
It seems painfully obvious but working on this pattern without the left-hand distractions really took my performance up a level. Fundamentals skills and motions are often overlooked and exercises like this are a great way to remember their importance. I did similar bowing reductions on the other measures, too.
I know this was kind of a long-winded way to share some fingers, but reading about other people's approaches to learning new music has always been something I find valuable. I could write for ages on this piece and others but I'll spare you and save for those for later. If you have any tips for learning this piece I would love to hear them!
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