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Introduction to the Variations

Otakar Ševčík

Otakar Ševčík (1852-1934) was a Czech 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.

Ševčík’s 40 Variations are a series of small studies (we could even call them small caprices) which are exceptional 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. Ševčík is clear in his markings for articulation (notice his comma which indicates to lift the bow) and he pushes the player to be as much at home with the bow in the air as with the bow on the string. The 40 variations also develop our understanding of ‘on-string’ bowings such as détaché, sautillé and brush stroke.

The 40 Bowing Variations are notable for their musicality as much as Ševčík’s pedagogy and inventive genius, musicality that Ševčík uses to address a pervasive concern of all string teachers and students, a problem Carl Flesch described as “the senseless and excessive employ of dry technical exercises which injures the artistic individuality”. Ševčík solves the problem with nuanced and elegant musical lines, satisfying phrase structures and enormous flair. I encourage you to discover the music in the 40 Variations – enjoy them, play them by heart and they will reward you.

Practicing technical work leads to an understanding of the technical challenges in our repertoire and allows us to play these passages with greater ease and control. Developing our technique and constantly learning new skills also helps us to focus and concentrate in practice. Research by neuropsychologist Anders Ericsson suggests that only “deliberate practice”, practice that is “focused and directed towards improvement”, is actually useful. Repeating old material in practice can be useful, but only if you have a clear aim, since technical problems are best solved through clear thinking and guidance.  Our responsibility as teachers is to ensure our students are measured and sensible in their approach. We need to extend our technical work when we reach competency in any one task, and the 40 Variations assist our extension in a well-planned and 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, take advantage of Ševčík’s famous 40 Variations to develop your mastery of the lifted bow stroke and use them to develop your musical expression in all styles of repertoire.

– Fintan Murphy, September 2020

Anders Ericsson, K. et al. ‘Expertise and expert performance’ New York: Cambridge University Press 2006