Chi-chi Nwanoku on Playing With Gut Strings

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Cite this article as:

Flint Angeroth Franks. (April 29, 2022). Chi-chi Nwanoku on Playing With Gut Strings. International Journal of Music. Accessed July 13, 2024.

Do you find that there are a lot of differences in your technique when playing with the gut strings on baroque instruments?

Gut strings are like personalities in themselves. They are prima donnas; they are divas. They can be all of those things, and you cannot take a gut string for granted! They are so affected by the conditions around them, like the humidity and temperature. All of those things affect how they respond to you, whether they stay in tune and how quickly they respond to your instructions. It helps to ensure they are properly stretched, so you don’t have to tune them every five minutes.

What makes playing on the gut string so satisfying is that you are that much closer to the essence of the raw sound and intention that the composer wanted. A baroque bow is much thinner than a modern bow, with the band of hair being narrower than the modern bow. You hold the bow further up the stick nearer the point of balance rather than at the end of the bow. I also always keep one of my middle fingers in contact with the hair. You’re that much closer to the articulation; it’s like plucking or touching the string with your hand, and that way, you can articulate the note so much more precisely. You have to start the preparation of when you want to hear the note, almost like if it’s a pizzicato. First, you take hold of the string, gripping the string with the hair, and it is when you release the string that you hear the sound. If you don’t have that fine connection between the hair of the bow and the gut string, you will not be able to guarantee the precision you need for when you want the note to speak.

The fact that the hair is a narrow band makes me think of it as a stiletto heel. If I’m walking across a beautiful lain lawn of grass, like a cricket field, they’re not going to be happy with me walking in stiletti, as I would be puncturing holes across the whole pitch, but if I walk across with my square heeled shoes, it wouldn’t puncture the ground at all because it’s spreading my weight. With the stiletto, you will know where I put my foot down. That’s like putting a baroque bow on a gut string. Every articulation on a gut string requires you to work that much harder in preparation to get the precision of when the sound is released.

Plus, the strings are thicker! You can’t have them close to your fingerboard like with a metal string. You need that distance between the string and the fingerboard. They move more when you play them, which is why you have to have your set up much higher with gut strings further away from the fingerboard. Otherwise, they’ll just be slapping against the fingerboard all the time because they move so much. Mind you, on the contrary; if you had that same height for metal strings, you’d be cutting your left fingers off! Gut strings are like an animal!


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