Spiccato in Four Steps, with Violist Hillary Herndon

February 7, 2022, 9:59 PM · Is spiccato different on the viola than it is on the violin? And what can both violinists and violists learn from looking at the mechanics of this bouncing bow stroke, on the viola?

A lot, I'd say, after listening to a lecture by University of Tennessee viola professor Hillary Herndon, who gave a demonstration called "Four-Step Spiccato" at the American Viola Society Mini-Fest at The Colburn School last December. I've written it up for you here and included video so that you can see her demonstrating the various steps.

Hillary Herndon
Violist Hillary Herndon.

In a nutshell, the viola is a larger instrument than the violin, and so spiccato on the viola requires larger and more deliberate motions, as well as more muscle support. While this "extra support" might not be as necessary on the violin, understanding the way it works can reveal ways to make the stroke more reliable, physically supported and rhythmically consistent on either instrument.

I wouldn't call this "Four Easy Steps" - more like four tricky skills to master. But in mastering them, you'll be set for spiccato, while also improving your bow mechanics generally. Herndon's four steps help open up the arm to the proper motion; tune in and create the desired sound; cultivate the hand's strength and flexibility; and find an elbow level that works with the physics of a bouncing bow.

Here is the video, and below is a description of Herndon's "Four Steps." And at the very end of the blog is a treat -- another video with a (surprisingly difficult) exercise called "Bow Hulas"!

STEP 1: Mechanics of the Spiccato Motion (video 0:05)

First, it's important to understand the mechanics of the spiccato motion.

"A lot of people think that it's all in the fingers or wrist," Herndon said. Possibly, violinists can get away with that, but it's important to know how to use the larger muscles to support the motion. Very importantly, one must learn to open and close the elbow for this bow stroke. In order to tap in to that motion, Herndon recommends starting with slow, long bows, really checking that the elbow is opening and closing. Then, gradually get faster and use less bow, moving to the "bounce point" of the bow. And all the while, the elbow should continue to open and close with every stroke. This motion is in the forearm, supported by the arm. It is not in the hand.

STEP 2: Finding the Right Sound (video 1:07)

A bouncing bow stroke should still have a quality sound: a firm and crisp articulation that creates a note that continues to ring in the silence afterwards. The note is created by a singular motion, so it should have no "middle" to it.

To practice creating that sound, start at the frog, with a stroke from the string. Play one note at a time, and listen for that articulation and ring. This exercise starts from the string; you grab the string and let go. At a certain place, as you speed up, you'll stop "placing" the bow, and drop it more. The focus is still on the sound, rather than on the bounce.

"The slower you go, the more you move toward the frog, the faster, the more you move toward the balance point," which is closer to the middle, Herndon said.

STEP 3: Balancing the Bow Hand (video 2:36)

A bow hand that is frozen in any way will stand in the way of learning a spiccato bow stroke. Problems such as a locked thumb, locked pinky or overly-pronated hand will suddenly become deal-breakers and will need to be solved. Herndon describes the thumb and middle two fingers (2 and 3) as being the "fulcrum," while the pinky and index finger are flexible and for much of the time, "along for the ride."

Exercises:

• Drop and dribble: rotate the tip of the bow so it's pointing to the ceiling, while keeping hand in the same place. Then drop the bow to the string and let it "dribble," or bounce on its own. Feel fairly firm in the middle fingers and thumb, but let the pinkie and pointer go for the ride, they are passive.

• Rhythmic dropping. Moving slightly lower in the bow, use the pinky to lift and drop the bow and drop it, but do so with even, repeated notes.

• Engage the elbow. Moving still lower in the bow, continue the rhythmic dropping, but now add the opening of the elbow, so there is some small movement in the forearm. Combine pure taps (all vertical motion) and adding the occasional horizontal movement to sound a note.

STEP 4: Finding Elbow Level for an Even Bounce (video 7:30)

This was perhaps the most revelatory part of Herndon's lecture, and it began with a description of the physics of a good bouncing bow stroke. To have an even spiccato, where the up-bows and down-bows are equally resonant, you need to find the precise angle where the stick can catch the "gravity." On the down bow, gravity will work for you if you are on the left-side of the string. On the up-bow, gravity will work for you if you are on the right sight of the string.

If you are in the right part of the bow, and the elbow is at the right angle, you can find the place where the weight of the tip offsets the weight of the frog, that allows the stick to catch on the rebound. A loose hand is essential.

Herndon has devised an exercise called "Infinity Signs," to help understand this motion and to practice it in an exaggerated way. With bow in hand, but without the viola or violin, track your hand through the image of a large infinity sign.

Then try this on the viola or violin: find the edges of where your elbow needs to be. On the D string, play a tiny down bow at the frog, on the "G-string" side (or left side) of the string. Then travel to the tip and play a tiny up-bow, with the bow on the "A-string" side (or right side) of the string. In both cases, of course, you aim to avoid hitting the adjacent string, even though you are bowing on the "side" of the string. Slowly get faster, and as you consolidate this motion it tends to go into the wrist.

It definitely helps to see Herndon's demonstration of this in the video!

"Bow Hulas"

This is an an exercise for bow-hand flexibility - you can add it to pencil exercises or other exercises for a flexible bow hand. This one is unique, involving a whole-hand "hula" -- check it out!

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