How to Master that Elusive Spiccato

December 9, 2009, 10:23 AM ·

I’m sure you’ve had quite a number of those ‘Aha!’ moments over the course of your life. They the times when an activity you were in the throes of mastering suddenly clicked. And what had required enormous physical and mental effort, as if magic, became ‘as easy as pie,’ as the saying goes.

Well, spiccato can sure be like one of those. For some, though, the throes of mastery go on much, much longer than is necessary.

And the questions I’ll answer today are, why this is so; and how does one get back on the right track.

You see some folks are defeated before they even begin; they haven’t learned to walk before trying to run.

The foundation of an excellent, dependable spiccato is an excellent, pure detache. That is number one.

It’s interesting and even instructive to note, by the way, that in the old German school, spiccato was almost anathema. They just didn’t think it a legitimate stroke worthy of study.

After all, tone is produced when the bow is ON the string, not off. And the great German romantic era was indeed all about tone and its ability to transmit FEELING.

Yet today, in this country, it is almost the opposite. Many players seem to wear their spiccato as if it were some kind of medal to be displayed at any and every opportunity, even when it is stylistically inappropriate.

I guess this tells you something of where my own sympathies lie.

Yet the point of my telling you these things is to get you to relax and stop trying to force it to happen, if this is the predicament you’re facing at the moment.

An effective, pliant spiccato is cultivated over time, and finessed into action. It does not arise from ‘man handling’ the bow, as some would believe.

Ok, so now let’s assume you’ve got the makings of a fine detache in place, and you do want to begin making the bow ‘jump.’

The first thing to bear in mind is that the bow jumps, or bounces, as a result of the surface tension formed and broken at bow changes.

It is not something produced by making vertical motions with your hand or arm.

Yes, there is something called a ‘brush’ stroke, in which you do drop and lift the bow purposefully. Yet that kind of CONTROLLED movement is a distant relative to the stick-generated stroke I’m talking about here.

What you want to do to get surface tension working for you, is, without altering your detache form in the least, to narrow the travel of the bow down to the smallest amount possible on each note. In other words, to concentrate the detache much like they do the orange juice sitting in supermarket freezers.

Now remember, this is happening right around the middle of the bow; a little below, in slower tempi; a little above in very fast ones.

And ‘edge’ the bow as I mentioned the other day, this will dampen away the excessive chatter you might otherwise produce in doing this.

One further thing, at the beginning I recommend you even focus on PREVENTING the bow from jumping. Doing so will get your bow RIGHT IN THE STRING and keep you focused on horizontal movements of the stick.

At a certain point in the process, as you narrow the range of motion and increase the amount of weight on the string, the bow will begin to ‘jump’ in spite of your best intentions for it not to.

And THIS is the beginning of a truly excellent spiccato. From here it is a matter of experimentation with pressures, speeds, and bow placement to get the ‘feel’ of a range of conditions. Yet each MUST evolve naturally from the interaction between bow hair and string.

You know, I was asked once whether I thought the spiccato stroke can actually be taught. And indeed it is rather like riding a bicycle. How do you really ‘teach’ that? You can point folks in the right direction, yet it is something to be experienced before it can be truly understood.

All the best,

Clayton Haslop


December 9, 2009 at 06:09 PM ·

I am going to have to try that....I have always struggled with my spiccato and actually any off-the string bowing.  But as you describe that I can lmost feel it happening in my hands already.  Good stuff, thanks!

December 10, 2009 at 08:15 AM ·

 Amen and amen on your sympathies on spiccato, It is much overrated and one can hardly hear a real staccato anywhere.

December 10, 2009 at 03:20 PM ·

Wow, for first time in all the years I have trying to learn to play the violin, I'm starting to understand spiccato. Thank you very much!

December 11, 2009 at 04:56 AM ·

Is the spiccato talking about in this blog is actually the "sautille"? I always regard the brush stroke as spiccato, while the bouncing ones (like Monti Czardas or Tchaikovsky VIolin Concerto 3rd mov) as sautille.

I thought that was pretty natural, basically it's all about wrist movements and not arm. The part where "minimum bow stroke" mentioned give away that wrist movements is plenty to pull off the sautille. In fact, with majority of the bows, cheap or expensive, they will have a point at the middle (balance point?) where this can be pulled off pretty naturally, in fact, I'll have to adjust my wrist movement to keep it steady while doing legato 16th notes or else it will bounce.

Almost all of my students did not able to catch the trick to use the wrist movement, usually their wrists are stiffen up so they was not able to use the wrist movements to do sautille, not even a smooth legato 16th notes.

December 11, 2009 at 04:04 PM ·

I agree with you Casey that what's being described sounds more like a sautille. But even in sautille, a vertical striking motion of the hand will add to the bounce and give that extra virtuosic effect when it's desired.

I would suggest that the foundation for spiccato is the colle stroke and lots of exercises to free the arm vertically. It's true the bow bounces by itself but in most off-the-string playing, in the tempos they're often written, the arm and hand must move vertically in coordination with the bounce of the bow for one to be able to control it - kind of like a drum roll at varying speeds: the slower the roll, the more the hand/arm must be involved to control it, and vice-versa. Spiccato is plucking the string with the bow.

Clayton, do you have a reference for your comment about the old German school? I've often wondered about playing off the string in Bach for echo effects in repeated patterns.


December 12, 2009 at 09:46 AM ·


I also teach the spicatto as a controlled strke base don colle.  I also add a slight element of forearm rotation.I usuallys tart stduents with what I call the drmatic spicatto paled close to the heel which involves some upper arm moveemnt.  I illstarte the varieties of spiccato by asking people to imagine how Beetoven`s fifth symphny gooes.  The notes are the heaviest spicatto and te quality changes after the fermatas. But maybe this is the kind of boy scout badge waving approach that Clayton is trying to dispense with?  Its certianly a very interesting and erudite piec eof writing.



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