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.
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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