Heidi Castleman on Trills

The following post is by Heidi Castleman.

What IS a Trill?

A trill is a musical event, a point of emphasis. For example, placement of a trill at a cadence underlines the dissonance inherent in the harmony it ornaments.


General Rules of Engagement:

In music of the Baroque period, except in rapid descending passages, trills start with the upper neighbor ON the beat. In music from the Classical period (until around 1812), the choice to start on the upper neighbor or the main note is made on a case-by-case basis.  If the dissonance enhances the musical gesture, then start on the upper neighbor, but if the dissonance interferes with the flow of the musical idea, begin on the main note.

N.B. – For trills to enhance the music appropriately, they must be CLEAR (i.e. with fingers cleanly dropped and then released), and the shape of the trill should mirror the flow of energy inherent in the musical line.  A word of caution: using the hand vibrato motion to produce a trill will result in a trill that is not clearly articulated! (i.e. No cheating!)


Concepts governing LEFT HAND action:

– The left hand must be flexible.

– Lift and drop the fingers from the base knuckles.

– As you drop fingers, think of releasing them into the hand.

– Play slightly closer to the left side of the finger pads and very slightly on the left side of the string.

– Always feel the palm of the hand as resilient and spongy.

– Be sure your left hand is positioned so that the base knuckles are slightly above the fingerboard.

– Be sure that the base joint of the thumb and webbing between the thumb and first finger are loose and springy.

-If helpful, adjust the thumb toward the fourth finger when it is in use and conversely toward the first finger when it is in use.

– Place fingers in patterns. Decide on a pivot or main note of each group and use this note as a physical pivot for the hand.


LEFT ARM concepts:

– The left forearm and hand ares unified by tendons from the elbow out through the fingers.

– Rotate (pronate or supinate) from a still elbow – The radius bone supports the index finger side of the hand; the ulna bone supports the third and fourth finger side of the hand.  It is important to be able to adjust the balance of support from these two bones as required by different finger patterns.  This rotation is most easily accomplished from a relaxed elbow.


Before beginning the TRILL EXERCISES below, try the following:

  1. Three fingers are involved in the trill: the main note, the trilling note or upper neighbor, and the finger below the main note.  Practice dropping your left hand fingers as a triple stop, feeling the main note as a pivot.  The fingertips should be loose and drop in a slightly rocking motion.
  2. Trills are frequently accompanied by the use of inflected bow strokes, or strokes in which the initial bow speed is followed by decay, i.e. the bow stroke for the trill most often starts with decelerating bow speed. At the end of the majority of trills, the bow connects to the following note. Try the exercises below playing without a trill, nachschlag, or vibrato, listening for the inflected bow stroke shape.
  3. The left hand action is constantly changing throughout the trill. The action in the left hand mirrors the decay of the inflected bow stroke. Playing with the left hand alone and without the bow, try playing the trill dropping the fingers progressively closer to the string.  In summary, the height and speed of the trill finger dropping and lifting should become less as the bow stroke decays. However, in a longer trill, if the note gathers energy in the musical line, both the bow speed and the finger action will increase.
  4. As you play the trill with the bow, compare the sound of the trill as you execute it by dropping the finger from the same height versus dropping the finger progressively closer to the string.
  5. In the fourth finger trill, be sure that the finger is dropping into a “squishy” or relaxed palm.




  1. Play without the metronome.
  2. Play variation #1 eighth = 88, variation #2 eighth = 80, variation #3 eighth = 72, and variation #4 eighth = 60




1) Play without the metronome.

2) Play variation #1 eighth = 108 and 132, variation #2 eighth = 100



Some additional trill examples thanks to Mozart.


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