A number of different exercises and images can help with spiccato, that elusive stroke that involves bouncing the bow. For instance, if my bow is not bouncing high enough to have the string vibrate fully, I can imagine someone (not me, of course) on a trampoline, clearing the canvas while it’s going up and down. The biggest obstacle to spiccato is the fact that the target of the bounce is already a fully vibrating string. The visual of surfers riding a wave comes to mind.
I was given an introductory spiccato exercise when I was twelve that was short, quick and fun. It involved flipping the wrist up and down, wiggling my fingers a little, and throwing the bow on the string in hope of a clean bounce. You can guess how that turned out. I spent years with a floppy, sloppy wrist, fingers that needed firmness and structure, and all the bounciness of a deflated basketball. What I needed were more boutique exercises, tailor-made for me.
I’d like to boil down my ideal spiccato exercise to 500 words, reflecting what I now know are the pitfalls inherent in the stroke. To get my bow arm ready for spiccato required more shoring up of my arm rather than relaxing and loosening my wrist. Also, a more controlled rhythm needed to be part of the exercise because, if my mind and arm weren’t synchronized, lots of annoying mistakes would occur. Finally, I needed to provide an infrastructure for my moving arm, and I had to be cautious not to let all the moving parts (joints, wrist, elbow) interfere or get in the way. Without it, my bow would land and splat haphazardly. The violin, my beloved friend and mistake machine, humbled me. Spiccato required me to solidify my detaché and raise it up on stilts.
Exercise for Strengthening Spiccato
The image I find helpful is that the bow plays the air without thinking about the string. Then the string meets the hair, avoiding the danger of the hair crashing into the string. By keeping the bow in the air, it will touch the string just for a moment, skim the surface, engage the string so that it fully vibrates, and bounce at the same time.. That’s four activities in the space of a fraction of a second. Fortunately for many people, only one or two of those things are missing.
Keep the rhythm of the spiccato notes in your head. The ear guides the bow, and the bow will find its way to the string at the right time. If the ear isn’t providing the rhythmic framework, some other inconsequential thought will fill the void. Accuracy hates a vacuum.
This dual action is a skill that can be taught and learned. I’ve gained more from images than exercises. Picture a pianist hitting the key but pulling away ever so slightly to avoid banging. He is mindful of the mechanism attached to the hammer that has its own built-in, modulated impact. The equivalent for me, as I apply it to the spiccato motion, is “force and retreat”. A bounce is a very overt action, and the ensuing detaché is more passive.
To learn this technique, I practice both the bounce and the landing independently. Adding just a tad of detaché takes the same amount of preparedness that a regular detaché takes.
Bow stability is of the upmost concern. On either side of the bounce should be a firm, balanced stick.
Then observe the up bows. The most common mistake is not supporting the bow with the arm. Often the “playing point”, which is the part of the bow that touches the string, is too weak. Play with a wrist that is firm but flexible, so that it won’t weaken the arm’s strength.
Spiccato challenged me to develop both an assertive and pliant bow. While the bounce followed by the sweet sound of the detaché happen in the wink of an eye, I appreciate the skill involved in having these split-second actions co-exist independently in my mind.
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