Bouncy House - Spiccato, Sautille and Fouette

April 5, 2016, 11:16 AM · Often in music, the more complicated something is, the greater the tendency to want to simplify it. Playing off the string, the techniques known as spiccato and sautille, can exacerbate this tendency because there is a very thin line between success and a big mess. When the bow lands with a thud, scratch and a number of arrhythmic surprises, the sound is so displeasing to the ear that it’s impossible to ignore.

When panic ensues, the mind and the arm search quickly for a solution, only to make matters worse. Or, the other common reaction is to freeze and stop because the bounce has gone terribly wrong. In the time-honored explanation of what humans do when challenged or fearful, the choices have been: "fight" or "flight." Shouldn’t another option be "freeze"?

Spiccato is a complicated stroke, and the "easy" answers often simply don't work. For instance, there is a technical aid known as The Door Knock, in which the student is advised to wave the hand up and down, from the wrist, so that all the joints are flexible. Nothing could sound simpler. However, since most faulty spiccatos are too flimsy, The Door Knock often makes it worse.

1965-1988; 1965-1994

There is nothing easy about finding "easy" solutions. It took me 23 years to learn spiccato and 29 years to learn sautille -- 52 years collectively. Why I didn’t give up is a mystery to me. But I always had a hunch that there were "easy," logical solutions that I just wasn’t seeing yet. The exquisite solutions eventually revealed themselves to me, and eventually, my theory about the violin being easier than I was making it ended up being true. In the interest on not wasting another moment, I’d like to discuss spiccato in this blog, and then sautille in the next. I’ll list the elements that unblocked my obstacles. In addition, there was a lot of un-learning that needed to happen, and that took up a lot of time as well.

bounce

Spiccato

  1. "Spiccache." I needed a word that was more descriptive than the word "spiccato," something that would define the sound that we look for in spiccato. It needed to combine crispness, bounce, and most importantly, enough detache to make the stroke musical. The biggest problem with faulty spiccatos is that there is not enough bow sound after the bounce. You hear a weak bounce, and then you hear this dry hollowness with no more than a hint of pitch. So if detache is missing from your spiccato, call it "spiccache" instead.
  2. The down bow and the up bow in spiccato need to touch the string in different places. Logic tells you that a moving bow going in one direction will touch down in a different place than when it’s going in the other direction. The rhythm of the desired sound will tell you when to make the contact, not the rhythm of the bow. So it’s frustrating that one of the basic flaws that we are born with is that we naturally think the bow should touch down exactly in the same place each time. This skews the sound, the rhythm and the mechanism. If our basic nature teaches us the wrong thing, then fortunately we have our mind to think our way out towards a solution.
  3. Since the number one error in spiccato is that the hair is too close to the string, it stands to reason that the bow should be held higher than you would expect. That is in contradiction to what conductors usually say, which is to keep the hair close to the string. So which is it?

    There is a logical answer: Have the bow high enough so there is no chance of the hair already being embedded in the string. What happens instead is that you move the bow in the air, and you’ll know that you’ve made contact when the hair has touched the string. You will have the feeling that the string is exactly in the right place it needs to be. If the bow is too low, you’ll be crowding the string and there’s no margin for error. However, if the bow is high enough so that there is no way it will crush the string, the hair will find the string. The sound will tell you when you’ve arrived.

    The hair is closer to the string than it appears. It’s easy to be fooled by the fact that the hand is higher than the stick, which is higher than the hair. Little things like that can have quite a disorienting effect on the performer.

  4. Be sure the string is engaged each time you play a spiccato. Engagement means that the string is fully vibrating the moment the hair touches the string. Nothing dries out the sound faster than a non-engaged string. Spiccato takes an enormous amount of concentration, because the varying thicknesses of the four strings keep the performer on his or her toes. Engagement is easy if the right sort of concentration is applied. You need to have good rhythm so that the mind and the movements are synchronized. The moment that connection takes place, there should be a minute awareness that the string is engaging. It’s not easy to describe, but it’s similar to a gentle kiss.
  5. Next Blog: on Sautille and Fouette

    Replies

    April 6, 2016 at 10:32 AM · Point number 1:

    "...there is not enough bow sound after the bounce."

    "Bow sound"? What does this mean?

    April 6, 2016 at 12:36 PM · "Spiccache" is a stroke of brilliance, no pun intended! Great article and I look forward to trying your suggestions.

    April 6, 2016 at 02:09 PM · This article is written for someone who has seen the writer's spiccato played. Perhaps either a more detailed account, or a video to clarify what is being described would more accurately reflect Mr. Stein's description for those of us wishing to try his approach?

    April 6, 2016 at 02:42 PM · Some of the best advice I've heard about spiccato came from a wonderful teacher at the Cincinnati Conservatory named Connie Kiradjieff. He incorporated the practice of spiccato into the Galamian three-octave scales and he said that every spiccato note needed to have an "icktus" and it needed to ring. That is, it has to have that crunchy bounce sound, but it also has to ring with the pitch. I think this is probably what Paul means by "spiccache" -- that combination of bounce and detache.

    April 6, 2016 at 02:43 PM · I think what Paul is saying is that most amateurs that he hears do not have enough contact time during their spiccato stroke. If your bow only bounces off the string then it's not enough of an actual bow stroke to engage the string and produce a clear pitch. Kreutzer No. 2 is good for exploring the parameters.

    As far as the height of the bow from the string, as long as your bow actually completely releases from the string, I don't see the point in going higher, it just makes the trajectory of the spiccato harder to control. The only reason I can see to bring your bow higher is if you need more acceleration into the bow to play spiccato with more force. The same force applied over a longer quasi-vertical distance will generate more speed, that's a purely Newtonian concept.

    April 6, 2016 at 04:05 PM · What a wonderfully informative and descriptive article. Thank you for graciously sharing this with everyone.

    April 6, 2016 at 05:05 PM · I believe the "bow sound" the author refers to is that one needs enough momentum before and after the hair touches the string. Like Paul Deck said, you need enough contact TIME between the hair and the string.

    Im looking forward to the sautille blog. My sautille is my most inconsistent bow stroke from one day to another...very good at times but mostly just glued to the string.

    April 7, 2016 at 05:18 AM · I like the idea of the bow being high above the string because of the very common mistake of the bow being too low. Several factors cause the bow to be too low:

    1. The D string is higher than the A, so the bow is often unprepared for the higher altitude of a new string such as the D

    2. The strings are vibrating up and down like a trampoline. A bow is easily unprepared for the altitude fluctuations.

    3. Finally, gravity is such a dominant force that any act to mitigate its dangers will be very helpful.

    April 7, 2016 at 01:00 PM · The idea of "bow sound after the bounce" demonstrates the energy that is involved in using the bow. Some string players put their mental energy into only the bounce, and there's nothing left for the actual sound of the note. The bow sound is what the bow produces in that moment after the bounce. It's the sound that the audience hears, the sound that is more important to them than the actual bounce.

    I've noticed that students of the violin who started on the piano sometimes are limited in how much energy and responsibility they put in the bow. There is far less time spent in hitting a key than in making one stroke with the bow. That time spent on the piano before studying the violin conditions the mind to put the same limited energy into the bow. Instead, we have to do whatever it takes to make what comes out of our violins match what our ears want to hear. Since there's a limited amount of time to make a bow stroke, I like to think how much can I fit on the head of a pin.

    April 8, 2016 at 01:48 PM · Paul, your point about the relative heights of the string is an excellent point. I think that's why it's good to practice spiccato with a study that involves a lot of string changing so that you can see "how low you can go."

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