Ricochet-The Basic Boutique Bowing

April 25, 2018, 9:33 PM · I remember my one and only lesson on the downbow staccato, on a dark and gloomy day in Rochester, N.Y. in 1970. I did not become one of the .1 percent that can actually play that stroke with lightning speed in a performance. The importance of the lesson was that I started the long process of figuring why I didn’t need to learn it, and why the attending guilt that I felt was a waste of time and energy.

In the list of boutique bowings, the downbow staccato is the most pyrotechnical of the group. Upbow staccato is right up there as well. But if you can’t make the audience drop their jaws when you’re playing it, save your concentration for something else, like intonation, rhythm and keeping your confidence up. Don’t get me wrong, I love these machine-gun staccatos. I prefer to be the spectator, however, and leave the magic bowing to someone else.

My superficial research turned up that Nathan Milstein didn’t play any of the major staccato groups of ten notes or more. All the better for my confidence. I watched him play his own Paganiniana on YouTube, and while there was plenty of virtuosity, the lack of every-direction staccato wasn’t even missed. If you can find Milstein playing this bowing, please give us a spoiler alert before I read about it in Violinist.com.

The Lone Ranger Ricochet

A bowing that establishes its perch above the string, is, in my opinion, part of the boutique class. My observations about the ricochet are that it is the easiest of the complex bowings that include spiccato, sautille, and the arpeggiated saltando (found in the Mendelssohn Concerto cadenza and your local deli.)

Part of the appeal of the ricochet, the group of two short notes on the downbow followed by one note on the upbow, at the tip, is that you can’t play the theme of the Lone Ranger without it. This perfect little piece by Rossini practically compels every young violinist to learn the ricochet, a de rigueur bow stroke if there ever was one.

Ricochet Technique-One Size Fits All

If you can learn one ricochet, you can learn them all. 99% of them take place at the tip, starting down bow, and fit in a slightly accelerated manner on the pick-up to the bar line or the beat. They are usually the same speed: fast and with added momentum as they propel forward.

Step 1 - As you lay the foundation for the ricochet, place the bow near the tip, slightly elevated above the string. Before you let the bow drop, feel a connection between the hand and the “’playing point”, the part of the bow that will actually be touching the string. The playing point changes constantly since the bow is always moving. To create such connection, imagine the cables of a suspension bridge. Fortunately, you can create stability while the bow is bouncing by exercising your visualization techniques and predicting when the bow will bounce.

Step 2 – To predict when the bow will bounce, visualize or say out loud the click of two beats before you initiate the ricochet. While our bodies have an uncanny ability to simultaneously activate complex muscle groups unconsciously, such as the ricochet, they unfortunately can appear quite klutzy when there’s no clear rhythmic target. The beats should be decisive and contain enough momentum to eliminate doubt. Hesitation kills the ricochet.

Fritz Kreisler had a violinist’s mind. Fortunately, he took a moment to put what that means into words: “I believe that everything is in the brain. You think of a passage and you know exactly how you want it. It is like aiming a pistol. You take aim, you cock the pistol, you put your finger on the trigger. A slight pressure of the finger and the shot is fired.” The only thing he didn’t cover was how the brain plays tricks on itself. When playing ricochet, remember that the quick, bounced, pick-up notes belong structurally to the following beat. Sure as shooting, the next beat is bound to rush. Don’t let it. Should it surprise anyone that really fast notes make us want to rush?

Step 3 – Of all the bounced bowings, the one most resembling a dribble is the ricochet. To actively engage the bow with its attending characteristics of straightness and firm bow hold is to invite disaster. Instead, notice the perfect dribble rhythm when the bow drops onto the string. This happens when you don’t change the height from which the bow drops. Panic and insecurity will most likely speed up the dribble and make it crash.

ricochet bow basketball

Dropping the bow is one of the trickier techniques for a violinist. It’s similar to dropping a needle on a turntable. (Does anyone have any suggestions for a new image that could replace this, now that turntables are essentially obsolete?) One quality of the bow that shines in its design is the way a dribbling bow can engage the string each time the hair touches it. When playing a ricochet, be careful to let each bounce create an engaged, vibrating string. It creates the same sensation as water falling and forming a droplet. Be careful to allow a bigger droplet to form on the G string than the E string.

Step 4 – Changing the bow’s direction from down to up should be as easy as a saloon door swinging back and forth during the Wild West. Panic and a bow arm that is self-conscious are the biggest villains here. The upbow note at the end of the ricochet should be as carefree as it can be. Nothing needs to happen in the appearance of the hand when you change the bow’s direction. Too much teaching can over-burden a bow arm. Think of fish swimming and changing paths. While their fins move, ours (think joints and wrist instead of fins) may or may not. If your wrist gently moves, it is because you have developed it be neutral and flexible. The most important thing is that the arm moves like a conveyor belt. The more bells and whistles that you attach to your bow arm, the less control you’ll have over your bow.

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April 26, 2018 at 07:53 PM · I have used ricochet bowing for many years now, but it was only fairly recently that I realised how important the left-right hand co-ordination was.

It's one of these bowings where it's difficult to tell if co-ordination is happening. As long as the 1st and last note bounces are in sync with the left hand, all is well. Or so I thought ...

I was learning the "Dance of the Goblins", and I listened to quite a few of the "big boys" playing it. I actually slowed down the audio to hear the notes better, and I discovered that more often than not, the left-right co-ordination was out, sometimes by many orders. At times the pace is too much for the ear to comprehend in fine detail.

I then re-listened to the various versions, and when I heard the one with perfect co-ordination, it was then quite noticeable.

I suppose it's a bit like a virtuoso rattling out the Pag #5 Caprice very quickly - so long as the accented notes are in tune, the ear seems not to notice the poor intonation on all the other notes. Even the ear of the player :)

April 26, 2018 at 08:03 PM · Great article and extremely informative! I hope one of your readers does come up with something to replace "drop the needle." I used the term the other day when telling my son about those horrible "drop the needle" tests in music history class and he looked at me like I had three heads.

April 27, 2018 at 12:14 PM · Paul, turntables are not obsolete, they still being manufactured and are very much available (in the UK, at least), at all prices, in the high street. LPs are making a big come-back. I have a collection of well over a 100 LPs, and I occasionally listen to them via a modern turntable. I still retain the old skill of "dropping the needle" – I must remember that next time I need to do a ricochet!

One of my prized LPs is a 1960’s LP† by Supraphon of the Prague Quartet playing two Beethoven quartets, opp 74 and 95. In order to get these two pieces comfortably on both sides of one LP the production engineers speeded up the recording by 6%, with a consequent increase in pitch (in 1968 digital recording had yet to be invented). The dead give-away though is a slightly unnaturally fast vibrato. Presumably the Prague Quartet were unaware of this at the time.

† Supraphon SUA ST 50916

April 27, 2018 at 02:04 PM · Dear Paul, is it also common or permissible to play the Lone Ranger ricochet as "ddd uuu ddd uu" instead of "ddu ddu ddu du" (d=down, u=up)?

April 27, 2018 at 03:16 PM · Jim, you bring some very interesting points. If a violinist can bring out the main notes of a ricochet with the right sound, a missed note somewhere in the mix will probably not be noticed. This reminds me of musical triage. A good musician picks his battles. Jean, I’m not sure I understand your question. What does the ddd uuu mean? It’s nice to hear from other appreciators of turntables.

April 27, 2018 at 08:55 PM · Paul, I'm answering for jean, as I know what he means.

"ddd uuu" just means 3 ricochet notes on a down-bow, followed by 3 ricochet notes on an up-bow.

I hear many people playing this way, and it is fine, in my book. However, as you'll know, if you play "ddu ddu", then you get the accent on the 3rd note of each group, which is closer to the original intended sound, and listening to a performance will bear this out.

There's a similar thing in "Dance of the Goblins", where there are many groups of 4 ricochet notes. My teacher pointed out the big difference between doing the four notes in a single bow, as opposed to 3-down, 1-up (or 3-up, 1 down). It's the change of bow direction which gives the accent, as you'll know yourself.

I have a very good turntable (I have about 200 albums). I agree with Trevor - it's one of these technologies that won't die out for a long time. The sound quality on good turntables is excellent, and can easily equal the quality rendered by digital equipment.

For me, the point is - everything begins and ends in analogue mode (perhaps stating the obvious!)

April 27, 2018 at 11:43 PM · Thank you, Jim, for the clarification. I like the reliability and quick turnaround of ddu ddu dduuu. I think it better matches the rhythm, energy and anticipation of the William Tell. There is a piece, however, called Tricks and Treats by Markwood Holmes, which is out of print. One of them is called Black Cat. The sound of purring is a ricochet, back and forth at ddd uuu. It works beautifully.

April 30, 2018 at 02:50 PM · To Paul Stein ~

Your comments regarding my longtime friend and violin mentor, Nathan Milstein, were noted with great interest vis a vie staccato, and in particular, the lack thereof in NM's Paganinianna! Knowing Milstein 24 years, studying privately with him at his Chester Square home in London over 3 & 1/2 years, and reviewing nearly all major solo concert violin staple repertoire + all Bach Unaccompanied Sonatas & Partitas, we discussed Paganinianna in depth, to the point of NM gifting me with some alternate sections to his Paganinianna, but none of them nor the published Paganinianna ever contained a need for staccato! As you're aware, Mr. Milstein had a bowing 'arsenal' which, IMO, could not be equalled (just a touch by JH!) ~

If I may, it would be good to clarify the fact that Nathan Milstein could and did astonish with his staccato, but all the time I was studying privately with him, it was done impromptu, yet never employed publicly ~ Milstein's bow arm was uncanny & often when teaching & giving Violin Master Classes, I've described the NM bowing - especially in Solo Bach, as so uncanny it was as a fish in water, such was his fluidity with the bow ~ This is an altogether different slant from your words about ricochet & its physical dispatch. However if you need a "Spoiler Alert" re Milstein having staccato, I'm here as a one-on-one witness to report seeing/hearing Mr. Milstein do staccato in the Lounge of his London Chester Square home many times, magnificently!!! Better put, a master magician need not display Every trick he knows/mastered if his repertoire is all consuming before the public!! (Some 'tricks' are best left to the imagination ...)

An example of Artist Modesty is Milstein, flatly refusing to ever publicly perform/record Sibelius' Violin Concerto! I know this as on a NM 'd minor day', I brought many violin staples in d minor including Sibelius' Violin Concerto, which when enthusiastically mentioned, Mr. Milstein became protective, saying he did not play Sibelius as it "belongs to JH!" Not wishing to 'tell tales out of school', if you will, this NM deference to the Violin Concerto of Sibelius, being on Heifetz 'turf' was an amazing display of humility on the part of Mr. Heifetz's Auer class-mate & friend, Nathan Milstein ~

Not wishing to beat the Milstein Drum, rest assured, Milstein could dazzle with his Down/V bow staccato, and anyone can take this to the bank!!

Hoping your confidence is wholly intact, thank you much for a 'Manet-like' article with sprinkled words in the quaint title of "... Boutique Bowing ...", dear Paul!

Bravo from Chicago ~

Elisabeth Matesky

April 30, 2018 at 09:23 PM · Thank you, Elisabeth, for your well written and inspired clarification. You brought new details about Milstein that I have never heard. I remember a delightful story of Milstein playing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Carlo Maria Giulini conducting, around 1982. I was playing in the orchestra and saw Milstein demonstrating his amazing rhythm and insisting that Giulini follow him. I don’t remember which concerto it was. It was a far greater performance than the more routine interpretations we sometimes heard. You could see that Giulini was run ragged and a little embarrassed as he tried to keep up with Milstein.

Then a couple weeks later, Giulini conducted Itzhak Perlman. This time it was Perlman that was being “led” by Giulini. It’s funny how the tables get turned.

May 1, 2018 at 12:32 AM · The Milstein stories told by Elisabeth and Paul are wonderful! Thank you both!

May 1, 2018 at 02:56 PM · Dear Paul ~

Maestro Carlo Maria Giulini had been the Principle Guest Conductor of our Chicago Symphony Orchestra (during my tenure in Solti's CSO) prior to finally accepting the Music Directorship of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who was a very close personal friend of the Milstein's! Upon the tragedy of later losing his beloved wife - who had suffered a devastating stroke toward the end of the Maestro's tenure with the LA Phil, due to his full commitment to undertake full care of his wife in Italy, Mr. & Mrs. Milstein were a great source of moral support to their adored Maestro Giulini friend throughout the period of hoped for recovery by Signora Giulini. Tragically, this prayed for wish never came to pass, leaving Maestro Giulini to later struggle with and endure the irreparable loss of his treasured wife ~

Not telling tales out of school, decades of close personal and professional friendship between the Milstein's and Carlo Maria Giulini, most probably accounted for an 'impression' of Nathan Milstein insisting Giulini follow him in what I'll guess was either the Brahms or most likely Prokofiev's 1st Violin Concerto, even in 1982, as Mr. Milstein was still "playing like a God" ~ to quote Robert C, Marsh, of the Chicago Sun-Times during the later Chapter's of NM's 'long distance runner' concert performing - recording career!! The reason to hazard a guess on the Sergei Prokofiev 1st is due to (IMO) their uncanny Conductor-Soloist collaboration in Prokofiev's 1st Violin Concerto in London on the EMI LP Label w/the Philharmonia or New Philharmonia Orchestra in Milstein's greatest 'technicoloured' musical and technical wizardry on disc with Giulini providing his 'Milstein Wizard' an indescribable uncanny orchestral accompaniment with never before heard special orchestral effects! The tempo in the Scherzo is 'insane' yet dispatched with the devilish non-stop ease of Nathan Milstein's imagination made reality by the right-with-him Giulini 'leading' the Orchestra to a Triumph never before achieved in the annals of recorded history!! One could presume Milstein was running 'Giulini ragged,' but not quite the case, as Milstein's genius for Above Violin Playing w/ a usually 'hidden' Devil-side takes all to a Prokofiev Violin Concerto No.1 Peak atop Mt. Everest or best said, a Mountain Peak on the Moon which none could've imagined until the lunar Moon Landing in July,1969! As most recall, Neil Armstrong's first steps on the Moon surface were - in his modest words for history. 'One small step for Man, & One Giant Step for Mankind!' If memory serves me right, it was about that time or shortly thereafter when the Milstein/Giulini Prokofiev #1 V.C. was recorded, back to back on the EMI LP 33 1/3 rpm Label with the Milstein/ Fruhbeck de Burgos collaboration of Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto in g minor w/ a Big Five London major orchestra!!

In summation, I would dare to say, Mr. Milstein was assured of Maestro Giulini's unswerving and uncanny musical orchestra in a glove support which is insurmountable by any other's with the exception of Heifetz, w/a later NM/CMG 1982 'memory concert' (?) of Prokofiev #1 maybe being a tad too much for Maestro Giulini with an overwhelming platter of personal breads of sorrow to try coming to terms with ~

Still not sure if the concert you mention was Prokofiev No. 1, but it seems very possible this musical recreation of former days might have been on that 1982 Milstein/Giulini LA Phil Concert Menu ... (If not, some of my rummaging's might still make some sense of your reported story, no matter what they did perform.) One thing is for sure: They did it for Love ~

And so have you, dear Paul Stein ...

Elisabeth Matesky (far East of LA ~ )

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