Portato Bowing Technique

March 27, 2021, 9:01 AM · How do teach/practice portato? My teacher insists that the bow continue moving with a constant speed and that a only change bow pressure should employed. I find difficult to create a good dynamic and find myself slowing the bow. What do you do?

Replies (12)

March 27, 2021, 9:15 AM · Do it like upbow staccato but without as much pressure into the string
March 27, 2021, 9:58 AM · You say “portayto and I say “portahto”, you say “staccayto “ and I say “staccahto”! :-D
March 27, 2021, 10:18 AM · The problem is that there's no one thing that's definitive portato. It's a continuum of articulation. And it depends whether it's a fast passage or a slow one. Maybe your teacher can demonstrate this technique to you so that you can watch what (s)he is doing and also hear the kind of articulation that results from it. The movement of the bow back and forth comes from the elbow whereas the pressure can be controlled within your hand by rotating your wrist or, more typically, by changing the attitude of the forefinger and thumb (unless you're an "arm weight, not pressure" person). Can these impulses be entirely uncoupled? I don't know.
Edited: March 27, 2021, 11:48 AM · For me, Portato is an interrupted slur, so start with a normal slur.
The Scottish fiddlers, like J. Scott Skinner, have a notation that I like, and sometimes use, for portato, a slur with a little circle, loop, in the middle. That accurately graphs what the wrist and fingers do; act like shock absorbers to soften the edges of the break in sound. In normal notation it is usually a slur with dashes.
March 29, 2021, 8:33 AM · I like Joël's "loops"; everything in violin playing comes from circular motions, even a long straight stroke..

May I go against the grain and suggest equalising a row of short, scooped strokes along the bow, before linking them?

Edited: March 29, 2021, 3:33 PM · Portato is often written in by composers to rearticulate a repeated note (e.g. Mendelssohn Concerto 2nd page, and 2nd to last page of the 1st movement). It’s executed mostly by slight changes in bow speed and pressure. You make the adjustments with your bow arm by listening. Unfortunately, as Shmuel Ashkenasi has noted, the misuse of portato amongst a lot of people today is like a ‘epidemic’ in string playing. Many people incorrectly add portato to legato phrases and passages, and it breaks the continuity of the musical line.
March 29, 2021, 6:07 PM · Thank you all for the insightful thoughts. I will keep practicing!
March 29, 2021, 8:15 PM · continued--, Singers can be even worse, misusing their version of a "portato",- articulating every note under a marked slur, on the same vowel, of a coloratura passage. To me it sounds like hiccups, motor-boat glottal stops.
Adrian's idea of starting with separate strokes sounds reasonable; start with a good ordinary detache, then get the same sound moving in one direction.
Edited: March 30, 2021, 10:02 AM · I've always learned relatively more complex violin techniques by using the basic foundational skills that build up to them. Examples: upbow flying staccato as off the string upbows from middle-frog, double harmonics as octaves but different, left-hand pizzicato as using relaxed joints and fingertips to pluck, and potato as 3 bows in the same direction but without clear articulation in between. I think it's a common trap that many fall into, where they make techniques more complex by thinking too much about the execution.

Edit: I wrote 3 bows in the same direction because I was thinking about Mendelssohn lol.

I think Nathan's recommendation about listening for it works better though. I think I heard Bernstein once say that "Once a musician hears something, they will know how to make that phrase" (a paraphrase).

Edited: March 30, 2021, 7:33 AM · This thread reminds me of the tower of Babylon: Are we certain we all mean the same thing when we say "portato"? I am certain the answer to this question is "no"!

N.B. We have the same problem for "sautille" and many other terms.

March 30, 2021, 10:21 AM · Let's call the whole thing off, Albrecht!
Edited: March 30, 2021, 11:38 AM · It's an extremely common technique in the later half of the 18th century. Try practicing the Haydn Bird quartet Op.33 no.3 opening second violin part. (Most quartets incorrectly play the opening with separate bows).

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