Spiccato - how do you do it

March 17, 2005 at 06:02 AM · A few months ago I started to focus on re developing a good spiccato. Instead of what many players do, letting their fingers and wrists drive the motion, my teacher taught me to focus the bow and really let the stick do the work. At first I thought simply playing as if it were a fast detache would be uncomfortable, but as I got better at it, and the motion came from my forearm, it is a very consistent motion.

Now when I look at some other players, though their spiccato might be consistent, I see how they "help" the bow a little too much, and don't just let the damn thing bounce itself. I think that the less moving parts, the better.

How do you guys approach spiccato?

Replies (32)

March 17, 2005 at 06:12 AM · The closer to the frog, the less it's the bow by itself and the more the arm comes into play.

March 17, 2005 at 06:51 AM · I also have trouble keeping a consistent spiccato and near the end of a long spiccato section i get a little choppy and lose it a bit. I think you should look at what part of the bow you feel most comfortable with. i try and stay around the balance point as i find it bounces nicely. There is a nice little study that's simple and helps really develop a nice consistent spiccato, ummmm dancla study in A minor. i dont now it's in one of my students grade books but hehe i secretly have been using it to improve myself.

March 17, 2005 at 12:20 PM · Hi,

Pieter: What you are describing is not a spiccato but a sautillé. That is different. In a sautillé, you essentially play a détaché at the unstable point of the bow and let it do the work. It is sort of an "uncontrolled" bounce. A spiccato is a controlled bounce a different speeds where you use the part of the bow to determine the speed.

I personally find it very important to use wrist and fingers to smooth out the gesture, whther in spiccato or sautillé (or even a détaché), although the forarm needs to be involved too. Using wrist and fingers, you get more lenght and a softer bounce. To use the wrist and fingers well the hand needs to be quite pronated, so that the wrist will be moving at angle where it moves best (i.e. the equivalent of up and down). For me, and my students, be aware of the position of your thumb in your bow hold. The most common fault is to use the "angled" thumb (where it is at a 45o angle against the frog) where it locks the wrists. One common trait of all master violinists with great flexibility no matter what the bow hold is that the use a flat thumb (i.e. against the ceiling). Great artists of the bow like Milstein, Oistrakh and Szeryng all do this. This adds natural pronation, but it is counterbalanced by the thumb. You don't get more pressure but less as you are using the weight of the hand naturally balanced into the bow. Because the wrist can now move more freely (it moves far better up and down than sideways), you get much more flexibility as well. This helps in off the string bowings, the biggest advantage being that you get an equal up and down, instead of the louder down and soft up that most people do. Also, I think that it is important that the elbow not be below the level of the wrist in spiccato or sautillé which leads to stiffness of the wrist (locked in an up position) and a loss of quality because of the imbalance it weight.

Long post, but that's my personal thoughts on the subject... Hope it helps!


March 17, 2005 at 01:09 PM · By flat thumb do you mean straight thumb? What do you mean by against the ceiling?

March 17, 2005 at 03:00 PM · Hi!

Jim: I will try to clarify that. The thumb should be bent. That is not what I meant by flat thumb. What I mean is this, and let me know if this is clearer. Many people have the thumb contact the frog so that it is at an angle that is somewhat like 45 degrees so that in bow grip position, the upper right corner of the thumb contacts the stick and the rest the frog.

What I am talking about is that the thumb should be flat so that it is in essence running parallel to the stick. The left corner contacts the frog for control in direction. In this position the hand is both more pronated and freer. I have noticed that this seems to be a consistent things among all greats violinists with free bowing, and I noticed that in violinists like Oistrakh, Szeryng and Milstein and others as well. I realized this before seing these artists on film but that did indeed confirm my thoughts that it is a little discussed but crucial aspect of bowing.

Hope that this clarifies things.


March 17, 2005 at 03:31 PM · Thanks christian I have been struggling with spiccato

March 17, 2005 at 04:04 PM · Bear in mind that the further towards the tip you play, the faster your bow will bounce.

Regarding wrist and finger action, I recommend all the colle exercises on the Violinmasterclass site.

March 17, 2005 at 06:21 PM · Christian I disagree. It is very much a controlled bounce. It is spicatto, its just not having overactive fingers and wrist. Of course you need to be loose, but I find people really let their fingers flop around.

I know the difference between spicatto and sautille, and assure you that what I am doing, and what Galamian taught are consistent with what I try to do now.

Perhaps I'm not describing it well, but in either case, I think it's bad to "help" the bow too much. If you watch some really great players, you'll see that their spicatto doesn't involve all this flailing that I see a lot of people doing.

March 17, 2005 at 06:30 PM · Hi,

Pieter, you wanted to know how other approach it. I told you my approach, and no, you are right, it has nothing to do with Galamian. I also thought that I made the distinction that the spiccato is a controlled bounce, where as the sautillé is kind of "uncontrolled." Anyhow, I could be out to lunch... Speaking of which, mine is waiting for me!


P.S. Come to think of it, David Oistrahk seems to use a lot of wrist and fingers and he has a fine spiccato... hmmm... oh well...

March 17, 2005 at 11:01 PM · Hi, Christian: I'm not sure I understood. Do you mean the thumb is parallel or perpendicular in relation to the stick?

Christian wrote: "What I am talking about is that the thumb should be flat so that it is in essence running parallel to the stick. The left corner contacts the frog for control in direction. In this position the hand is both more pronated and freer. "

March 17, 2005 at 11:44 PM · Since he says left corner of the thumb touching the frog, and says thumb parallel to the stick, and only the part with the nail could be, I think he's saying he puts his thumb sort of sideways pointing toward the notch in the frog front with the left corner of the thumb touching the frog in the area where the hair joins it. Would still like to know what he means by ceiling.

PS. June, how is it possible to have the lowest segment of your thumb parallel to the stick. This Thread Is Useless Without Pics.

March 18, 2005 at 01:36 AM · Sautillé, yes. At the balance point, the bow does take up the work. My pinky and thumb do have something to do with it though. :-P

March 18, 2005 at 02:01 AM · Some teachers prefer to call sautille spicatto...one of my teachers at university (a german) always did this, and would correct me if I said sautille. This teacher is at the top of his field as an orchestral player, and studied with Flesch, so he must have had some legitimate reason for doing this. Perhaps Germans prefer Italian terminology to French! By the way, he said that Flesch was a "very hard man."

March 18, 2005 at 02:22 AM · Hi everyone!

Sorry for the lack of clarity. Let me try again. The thumb is bent in the normal way. I don't have pictures but I will use computer symbols and see if that works... Many people put their thumb so that the angle is kind of like \ against the frog. You end up with half the thumb on the frog and sort of half on the stick. What I have noticed with many great players is that the thumb is like this - against the stick (or if you prefer =) the right edge of the thumb contacts the frog.

Jim, by against the ceiling, if your bow is parallel to the ground then the thumb's tip (at the nail part) would be pointing against the ceiling.

The result of this is a greater pronation of the hand, with more wrist flexibility because of the angle.

Again, I wouldn't worry to much. I don't want to confuse everyone. It is an observation and something personal, maybe. Just an idea. If this is still unclear, please let me know and I will try to clarify again.

Hope this helped and Cheers!

P.S. Reminder though that the thumb should be curved. This is more the angle at which the tip of the thumb contacts that bow.

March 18, 2005 at 02:33 AM · Christian, this is why I asked you whether the thumb nail is perpendicular to the stick, and not parallel. So it would look like a "T".

"Jim, by against the ceiling, if your bow is parallel to the ground then the thumb's tip (at the nail part) would be pointing against the ceiling."

March 18, 2005 at 02:54 AM · Hi,

Tristan. Sorry for the misunderstanding and for not adressing you specifically. I didn't quite get your post and your original question, but I hope that the quote you pasted means that it is clear now. If no, then please let me know.

Apologies to everyone for all the confusion...


March 18, 2005 at 03:32 AM · Hi, Christian,

I cannot understand how the thumb would be pointing towards the ceiling when the stick is parallel to the floor (in this case the nail segment of the thumb would be perpendicular to the stick making a T) if the thumb is = or parallel to the stick.

Both are anatomically possible. Suzuki had a proposal of using "thumb power" in which the thumb would be parallel to the stick and press the frog making a lever action w/ the middle finger instead of pressing w/ the index finger. (I see this now as a misguided idea about weighing into the string, but it is just an example).

March 18, 2005 at 03:35 AM · Christian,

I just think a good approach to violin playing is to control your movements, and have as few moving parts as possible. James Ehnes plays with like half his thumb over the fingerboard, does that mean that I have to do it?

All I disagreed with is that spicatto doesn't have to be this heavily calculated, assisted bowing. Perhaps it's getting too rhetorical, but maybe could you refer me to what sautille is vs spicatto, because as someone inferred above, perhaps our definitions conflict.

March 18, 2005 at 03:50 AM · Since you asked, spicatto is a thrown stroke and sautille is the bow bouncing. That's why he's saying your description of spicatto is really sautille. I'd say your spicatto move just has an element of something like sautille. I think they do the same thing at different tempos, so at some tempo you're probably going to be doing something in between anyway. Somebody else said in his lexicon there's no such thing as sautille, only different kinds of spicatto. I wouldn't worry about it as long as you gots some moves.

March 18, 2005 at 03:39 AM · I dont know why people are getting spiccato confused with sautille. To me it's an amazingly different motion and feel. I'm not even going to attempt to explain it, i've noticed that gets you no where on this thread. Anyway all i can say is people on here seem to have far more in depth approaches to these things so listen to them.

March 18, 2005 at 12:14 PM · Hi,

Tristan: I think that I am confusing things. Without pictures, it's not possible and there is no way for me to get them on anything, so, maybe we should just forget that I tried to say anything. Otherwise it will make no sense. (One last try. Take your arm and extend it with palm facing down and the thumb curved like it would be at the frog. Turn it counterclock wise to a 45 degree angle. You will notice that the very tip of the thumb is now pointing upwards... - I don't know this is the best I can do. If this doesn't work, let's just perish it for sanity's sake, shall we?! Thanks!)

Pieter: As I understand it, a sautillé is basically a fast détaché where the bow begins to naturally bounce at the unstable point because of the speed. A spiccato is slower and a controlled off-the-string stroke. Hope that clarifies things.

On a side note: I do find this thread kind of difficult with no pics or videos. I guess that no book, even with pics could ever replace lessons, eh?!


March 18, 2005 at 12:49 PM · Thanks, Christian, let me ask you to please not give up now! Just tell me what is the angle of the nail/tip segment of the thumb in relation to the stick. (A small observation: if the thumb is curved, then the tip will point elsewhere).

"Take your arm and extend it with palm facing down and the thumb curved like it would be at the frog. Turn it counterclock wise to a 45 degree angle. You will notice that the very tip of the thumb is now pointing upwards"

March 18, 2005 at 12:59 PM · Hi,

OK Tristan, I will keep trying... The arm should be rotated in the counterclockwise direction, not the thumb. That was not clear. The tip of the thumb is not point up. If the tip of the thumb were to contact the bow, the nail would be sort of perpendicular to the stick I guess.

Back to my original example above though. If you curve the thumb and place your arm out with palm down, you will notice that the angle of the tip of the thumb is kind of at 45 degrees. If you turn the hand and arm counterclockwise to about 45 degrees (like you were pronating), you would notice that the thumb is now pointing up. Does that help?!?!?! If not, let me know and I will keep on trying. I hope that I am not confusing you. I was really trying to point out something that I observed...


March 18, 2005 at 01:49 PM · Thank you for your patience. It is really appreciated.

"If the tip of the thumb were to contact the bow, the nail would be sort of perpendicular to the stick I guess."

Ok, I was just trying this and it seems quite interesting w/ a "Franco-Belgian" or "Galamian" bowhold. The thumb seems to work better as a fulcrum and there is a feeling of greater stability because of the direct (not oblique or small angled) opposition of the other fingers over the stick.

"If you curve the thumb and place your arm out with palm down, you will notice that the angle of the tip of the thumb is kind of at 45 degrees. "

Ok, you mean 45' in relation to the floor.

"If you turn the hand and arm counterclockwise to about 45 degrees (like you were pronating), you would notice that the thumb is now pointing up. Does that help?"

Yes, thank you very much.

May I ask you a further question. What about touching the bowhair w/ the thumb. Doesn't that provide an extra tactile contact point and doesn't it allow the fingers to be really loose? I would really appreciate opinions on this. Thanks again.

March 18, 2005 at 06:55 PM · I used to have a 1914 book by Frank Thistleton on "Violin Technique" that talked about spicato and other bowing techniques - there are many, and vocabulary may be important for composers who want to make their intentions clear. If you can find this book it might show there is more than one way to skin a cat. This book will expand your vocabulary if nothing else.

March 18, 2005 at 08:02 PM · Hi,

June: Yes, that sounds about right. The parallel thing was a wrong choice of words. What I explained to Tristan as we hashed it out is the best that I can do without being there to show it in person. I hope that makes sense. The parallel thumb thing sounds wrong in wording. So forget that. I hope that the description that I posted for Tristan helped, if not, let me know and I will try to clarify things as best I can.

Tristan: I am not sure what you mean about touching the bow hair with the thumb... Can you explain? Are you talking about accidental contact or intentional contact?

Thanks and CHEERS?!

March 18, 2005 at 09:20 PM · I mean intentional contact, but much depends on how one is holding the bow (in particular, where the stick contacts the index finger). In the way you are suggesting, continual, intentional contact w/ the bowhair does not seem a good idea.

March 18, 2005 at 10:30 PM · I'm still trying to decipher all this, but I'm happy to be giving it a go. It's fun to try some new ideas and see how they affect your playing. Christian, I notice when I bring my thumb farther underneath the stick (closer to the fingers), and flatten it out a bit (so more of the thumb is flatter towards the stick instead of towards the frog), I get this big "meaty" sound that's a little more unruly at this point (maybe just because I haven't worked with it enough yet). When I back it up a bit so that the thumb is a little farther away from the fingers and closer to the other side of the bow, I feel like I have more control of the little stuff (subtleties). I'm still playing around with it. My hand is pronated towards the tip. I play with a Russian style bow. I'm still perfecting the details though, and I like to play around to see what different positions will do to the sound. Does any of this match your findings?

On the spiccato issue, I'm glad Pieter brought it up because my teacher's been working with me on this as well. His approach is to let the bow do the bouncing. The exercise I work on to get the bow bouncing is to just play sixteenth note sections of music around the balance point area with detache strokes until I see the stick moving up and down. Then I lighten the weight until I've got spiccato. I'm just starting to get it. My teacher wants me to keep it more compact (less bow). As for my part, I want it to sound easy--like drifting in and out of sleep on a lazy Sunday morning. I want that light, easy, quick, clean sound. It seems like I normally end up pretty flat-hair when the spiccato is going well. I also notice that when I'm working too hard at it, the bow will bounce in the wrong direction (more side to side rather than up and down). It's been a great lesson to me in learning about WEIGHT and what factors in my right arm and hand affect that key element in my playing. Love to hear everyone else's thoughts about that.

March 20, 2005 at 04:29 AM · Kimberlee:

You have just described a perfect sautille - what Christian was saying. The difference between sautille and spiccato is speed (besides the different technique involved). Sautille is faster than spiccato.

Spiccato is a dropped stroke. The bow is dropped on the string and controlled with fingers and wrist (also as Christian said). Usually it is taught by holding the bow above the string and moving the forearm back and forth, dropping the bow in an arc like the bottom half of a circle with the bow contacting the string at the bottom-most part of the arc. The half circles are made smaller and smaller and closer and closer to the string, but because this is a stroke that is above the string, dropped down to the string, it is a slower stroke and requires more finger/hand/arm work to control.

Sautille is a fakey detache. Very small bows (teensy), just above the halfway point (unstable part as Christian said). As the bow begins to bounce if the elbow is raised slightly, then you get a beautiful, clean sautille. The bow is not actually leaving the string so it is a stroke that is from the string going up (the opposite of spiccato).

Maybe that'll help.

(Christian, I still don't know what you mean! LOL But you don't have to try harder.)

Lisa ;-)

March 20, 2005 at 07:31 AM · If I substitute "perpendicular" for "parallel" and "pointing toward the ceiling" for "against the ceiling" it's all clear to me. I think.

March 20, 2005 at 07:09 PM · Hi,

Lisa: Thank you so much for answering Kimberlee's question (Kimberlee, sorry for not answering... busy weekend). As for explaining it better, hmmm, I could try. I am not sure how well I would succeed. Maybe what clarified it for Jim helped?! If you want me to try, I will.

I have to run. Cheers to all!

March 22, 2005 at 12:04 AM · Thanks for all your efforts Christian, Jim, and Lisa. I think that I will continue to play around with this until I find that comfortable spot that is speaking to me "Play spiccato here . . . " It will find me eventually, I'm sure. Until then, I will be having fun with parallel and perpendicular thumb positions, pronated, curved fingers and whatever else I can imagine to try. However it ends up, it's gotta be somewhat "natural" because it has to fit my hand. I'm always a little wary of messing with bowholds for that reason--everyone has a different hand. Of course, there are certain areas one can't ignore--i.e. too much rigidity, banana thumb, etc.. So there are "rules" and then there's "breaking the rules." Oh the fun of it all!

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