On My Way to Sautille

April 13, 2016, 9:07 PM · It’s common to want something so badly that you try too hard to get it. The fast, off-the-string stroke known as sautille looks so simple, yet when you first try it, it seems a lot harder than detache. Those thousands of detache strokes that you’ve played until then have used gravity, and nothing could feel more safe and secure. But now the bow is neither quite on, nor quite off the string. Do you need to be a magician to pull it off? Does it make sense that one technique can be that much harder than another?

Fortunately, the answer is no. However, the tricky part is that the sautille builds out of a strong foundation. It evolves out of a straightforward detache, and the laws of nature (gravity and momentum) create a successful sautille without any supernatural talents. Just remember, each component needs to work correctly. Not perfectly, but with a fair amount of coordination.

Rain Bows

Brief Overview of Sautille

For instance, let’s say you’re playing five notes in a quick detache, that is, four 16ths and one more for the next downbeat. You’re using a very short amount of bow playing just below the middle of the bow, so the hand is in fairly close contact with the playing point (the part of the bow that’s touching the string at any given moment.) A good foundation in such a detache consists of uniform depth into the string, the length of the bow stroke staying the same, starting with a good rhythmic count, moving the bow horizontally (no dipping or wavering), and finally, playing decisively and confidently.

How does the sautille evolve out of a basic detache? If you can levitate the bow slightly above the string, and at the same time pretend that you are still playing a basic, strong detache, while keeping the momentum as if nothing has changed, the bow will bounce. If the cycle of the bow moves back and forth evenly with no faltering, and if each bounce returns the bow to the same height, the bow will bounce. If each time the hair touches the string you make sure that the hair engages the string into a full vibration, the sound will ring and the bow will bounce.

The foundation of a sautille is more important than the sautille itself. Let’s explore the individual obstacles that build up over the years, and eliminate them one by one. A sautille will emerge from a strong, unblemished detache.

Unraveling the Knots

If your bowing stiffens and gets jerky when it’s attempting a sautille, it may because the bow is trying to be too straight. In this type of situation, unwanted muscles are fighting with rigid paths. This problem stems from the early setting-up period that you experienced when you were learning to bow straight. Back then, your teacher might have show you how the bow hand should aim “out” on the down bow and “in” on the up bow. There may have even been a metal bow guide attached to your violin to help you bow straight. Any approach is valid if it works, but if there are negative side-effects, they need to be dealt with as well.

Whatever it took, the teacher had a big responsibility to make your bow straight and not fan over the fingerboard or veer towards the bridge. The student, in turn, has a lifetime to figure out when something doesn’t feel right. As the student learns to bow straight, he needs to make subtle mental adjustments to make the new shape of the hand feel natural, rather than manipulated.

If the young student has learned to bow straight by moving the arm from the elbow, as opposed to moving the whole arm from the shoulder, then he needs to make it feel as if he were born doing it the correct way, not his original, natural, wrong way. Our straight bow technique is built, albeit painstakingly, on a well-designed structure. Once it is perfected, the scaffolding needs to be removed.

The Bow’s Path is Basically Horizontal

A sautille cannot falter in its path. If the bow dips chaotically and unpredictably, it will throw off the momentum and the regularity. The conditions necessary for a sautille are similar to those needed for an airplane. A moment’s hesitation will cause the bowing to falter in its rhythm and string engagement. It will also block the bow’s return to the chosen height above the string.

These types of decisive and knowing details are the same ones that we tried to establish in our foundation, those years when our teachers were trying to “set us up.” When you bring your established detache to play the sautille, it should know how to play horizontally with just the right amount of vertical, and the depth into the string should be consistent. This knowledge and confidence are essential, because when the bow levitates, it will need to have the same structure, without touching the string or barely touching the string.

What Goes Up Must Come Down

The first time you levitate with the bow, it will probably feel like there is enormous weight pulling it down. Gravity can feel that way. However, if you remember that a detache spins the string and “floats” through the string, you can make gravity feel easy and controllable.

As you levitate the bow slightly above the string, it will “touch down” during each stroke. If you concentrate on the levitated height, it will return to the same height after each bounce. Even if the gravity is overwhelming you and pulling the bow permanently down to the string, resist this force and keep the bow in the plane above the string. Eventually, it will feel comfortable in the upper plane, and the gravity will reveal itself for what it is: a light force that works with you to make the bow bounce.

With momentum and good rhythm, the sautille will play itself. In my next blog, I’ll write about fouette, a word with several applications, the most important of which teaches us how to get a crystal clear “bounce” articulation without leaving the string. Imagine those long Mozart passages with lots of string crossings. Sometimes, staying on the string just makes sense.


April 16, 2016 at 10:56 PM · Another helpful article. Thank you, Mr Stein! Looking forward to learning about fouetté.

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