Staccato is a good example of a basic bow stroke that needs to be pure and focused. The beginning and the ending of each staccato stroke have the same requirements as a piano keystroke, only there’s no mechanism to help the violinist.
The piano functions with ease and simplicity of action: A hammer strikes a key at 90 degrees, followed by a damper stopping the vibration with perfect roundness. Are there comparable solutions, using a violin and bow?
What We Learn from the Piano’s Mechanics
The staccato bow stroke relies on the same quick impulse that happens on the piano, and just as importantly, it depends on a consistent angle. A bow that’s angled halfway between two strings puts your bowing technique at a disadvantage. For example, a 45-degree angle is vague and random – it can easily become some other weak angle. It’s best to establish a constant awareness of where the bow is connecting with the string. A 180-degree angle, with the bow lying completely on the string’s plane, is ideal.
Starting the Staccato
One strike from a piano key is not the same as one strike from a bow. A violinist’s staccato starts with a spontaneous horizontal motion, while making certain that the string is engaged at the beginning of the stroke. The immediate sound of the string fully vibrating is truly gratifying. The violinist’s technique of engagement is subtle but clear-cut. There’s a slight penetration of the string, with a minimum amount of gravity being applied. This may be the tiniest technique of your bow arm, but may be the most important.
It takes about an inch of bow to establish the same solid sound that you would expect from a piano. It doesn’t seem like much, but the bow arm can be easily distracted in the space of one inch. Be sure that your bow is applying uniform weight and direction; mixed messages result in mixed results.
Since an inch is not very long, be sure not to cut off the vibrations when changing the bow’s direction. The technique of going from downbow to upbow is designed to have a bare minimum of “silence”. This refers to the moment when the string stops and starts again. Concentrate on finishing one stroke without any interference or interruption, as if the stroke doesn’t know it’s about to be reversed.
Since there is no hammer to start the vibrations, violinists use a similar engineering feat. It’s a bit counter-intuitive. The bow’s horizontal movement activates the hair’s ability to pluck the string, as if many guitar picks are striking in perfect rhythm. The physics of the violin and the piano have something in common, but it takes an imaginative little twist to see their relationship.
Finishing the Staccato
Violinists have to find a way to stop a staccato note elegantly and efficiently. The model they follow is the damper on the piano, which is the felt on wood that stops a vibrating string. The ease for the pianist stands in sharp contrast to the complexity for the violinist. However, if you follow a few rules in the proper sequence, you’ll get the same well-crafted staccatos that you can take to the bank.
The key element for repeated staccatos is the sweeping motion. There is no stopping motion, per se, at the beginning and ending of each stroke. As in sweeping, there is a spontaneous, quick motion at the beginning, leading to the beginning of the next stroke.
If you feel the urge to press down and stop the note intentionally, you’ll get a scratch. The sweeping motion does the work for you. When you change direction, there is a moment when no sound takes place. That’s the ending of your note, and you didn’t have to do anything but start the next staccato.
It’s not easy to suppress the urge to do something extra, but anyone who’s ever swept a broom knows how it’s done. While there’s nothing mechanical about playing the violin, the mechanics of playing the piano should be an inspiration to violinists.
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