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.
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.
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.
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