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.
You might also like:
Thanks, Diana. My fear of the floppy spiccato has gotten me in trouble. It’s nice to give it the security and structure that detache has had. Good luck with the exercise!
I think there is a danger in doing too little analysis but an equal danger in overthinking things. I don't remember much difficulty in learning spiccato; it seemed to come naturally.
Albrecht, I agree that overthinking can be a bad thing, especially at the moment of performing or just playing through a passage. However, thinking through a problem is invaluable, but only if it changes something for the better. Of course, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sounds like you were very fortunate to develop a good spiccato.
If I think through a problem, I like to deposit what I learned into my subconscious. Then I don’t have to think about it anymore.
I could not imagine, when I was very young, that I would ever succeed in doing a virtuoso spiccato. Admiring always each player, who did it easily for me, they were droving me to despair. My teacher said: it is too early for you!- I only could stand his order for another two weeks. Then I asked him very seriously, that I want, I have to... I urged him to teach me the spiccato NOW!!! And he said all of a sudden: its very easy. Play detaché in ff as long as you can keep it and a little longer yet. And then try spiccato.
It worked! I felt the basic touching of the bow and the move of it automatically. It wasn't perfect at all, but the develloping to a perfect spiccato, saltarella etc. came from the taste of myself, how I wanted to do it. Thanks to Heinz in Northern Germany, 1952.
Go outside and do some some basketball dribble: Start with the high slow bounce, with whole arm motion, then gradually get lower and faster until the fingers take over. the Harlem Golobetroters always had one player who could do a very shallow, very fast dribble. Gravity and the natural spring of the bow do the work for you.
My introduction to the spiccato was when my teacher had me do a very fast and loud tremelo at the middle of the bow, then gradually take the weight off the bow until it starts bouncing on its own.
I also understand overthinking. But spiccato was very hard for me and I tried all sorts of different things from different professionals. All helped a bit, but not in creating a spiccato I could do on demand in the midst of a passage at any speed. (Sort of like rolling r's in French, Russian, etc. as I learned these). Eventually it came, but not easily, and it did require a lot of thought.
Eckhart, your success story confirms my theory that all new bowings are born from the thorough knowledge of a basic bowing, such as detache. Likewise, a good staccato will inspire our longer, sostenuto notes to remain full and strong.
Joel, I appreciate your image of the Harlem Globetrotters. Who knows, maybe music lessons helped them learn to dribble.
Michael, Whatever thinking you did to learn vibrato was invaluable. I’m sure it was unique to you. Thank you for sharing your experience. Everyone has a story. A different one, no doubt, than everyone else’s, but no less instructive. The comparison to rolling r’s is quite appropriate. Spiccato also is about sound that is unmistakeable and requires fluidity and precision.
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.
Violinist.com is made possible by...
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins
Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine
July 28, 2020 at 02:14 PM · Great article! The phrase that will really help me is: "If you keep a firm, securely-held bow in the air, it won’t weaken when it bounces off the string." I realized that my focus is always on the point when the hair is on the string. I don't concentrate on holding the bow firmly and securely. But I will now!