Otakar Ševčík (1852-1934) was a Czechoslovakian violinist and pedagogue who had a great influence on the development of the technique of violin playing. His development of the semitone system marked a new approach to the development of left-hand technique and had a significant and lasting influence on violin playing.
Ševčík’s ’40 Variations’ are notable in that they challenge our use of lifted bowings: ricochet, retakes, various forms of spiccato and many other ways of approaching the string from the air. The 40 Variations have interesting exercises for détaché, sautillé, and brush stroke. Ševčík is clear in his markings for articulation (notice his comma which indicates to lift the bow) and pushes the player to be as much at home with the bow in the air as with the bow on the string.
Carl Flesch cautioned against “the senseless and excessive employ of dry technical exercises [which] injures the artistic individuality” (1) so I encourage you to look for the music in these 40 Bowing Variations, which have engaging musical lines, satisfying phrase structures and are often nuanced and elegant! Playing some of the variations by heart will help you find musical expression.
The real value of technical work comes by making our playing of technical passages in repertoire easier and extending our concentration in practice. Research by neuropsychologists Anders Ericsson and Norman Doidge suggest that only ‘deliberate practice’ that is ‘focused and directed towards improvement’ is actually useful. Our responsibility as teachers is to ensure that our students are measured and sensible in their approach. Rather than only using endless repetition, technical problems are better solved through clear thinking and guidance. We need to extend our technical work when we reach competency in any one task, and the Variations assist our extension in a well-planned, gradual way.
For performance we can vary Ševčík’s markings. For instance, a student’s bow may not respond well at the heel
and may make a more resonant sound at the balance point of the bow. While honouring the technical and musical intent of each exercise we can also modify tempo markings and add more fingerings.
Good luck in your journey, may you take advantage of Ševčík’s famous ’40 Variations’ to develop your mastery of the lifted bow stroke and therefore greater expression in all styles of repertoire.
– Fintan Murphy, September 2020
(1)‘The Art of Violin Playing’, Book 2, p 75