4 ways to add contrast and clarity with a common stopped bow stroke
By Laurel Thomsen
Your music needs to build intensity, make a statement, or wake up an audience, but your bowing technique is lacking.
You need the characteristic sounds of bow strokes where the bow stays on the string, but stops between notes. These types of strokes provide the consonant sounds that make music interesting, provide contrast to smoother, vowel-sound strokes, and add clarity to passages in general.
The primary bowing in this category is the martelé.
Martelé (French for “hammered”) is the stroke of choice for percussive accents. It is distinguished from a simply emphasized or stressed note by its intense, pressured start. In her book, Orchestral Bowings and Routines, violinist and educator Elizabeth A. H. Green heralds it as “the underlying foundation on which ultimate clarity of style is built.”
Martelé can be played on any part of the bow and used for any length of stroke, including full bows, in everything but very fast passages. Martelé is typically notated with hairpin accents or wedges above notes, although, depending on the accuracy of the composer’s notation, it can also be implied with sforzando (sƒz) or rinforzando (rƒz) markings, or a combination of dot-and-accent type markings.
Martelé requires distinct initial pressure followed by a total release of this extra pressure once the bow is moving. To begin, rest your bow on a string in the balance point area and lean your index finger heavily into the stick. You want to see it physically moving down toward the string and feel the hair gripping so much that you could bend the string from side to side by slightly pulling the bow back and forth. Once you have this grip on the string, release the pressure and do a simple détaché stroke.
Now you must learn to combine those two actions.
1. Make It Crack!
Place your bow near the balance point in preparation for a down bow. Lean into the stick and at the precise moment you begin to open your elbow, release your finger pressure.
Imagine your hand rotating out and away from you as the bow releases out of the string. Bring the bow to a complete stop on the string and similarly prepare for the up bow. Again, lean in, then release as you close your elbow. Focus on listening for a distinctive “crack” at the beginning of each bow.
2. Separate the Pressure & Stroke Motions
If you find that you are releasing too late, first realize that learning martelé requires some of the crunchy sound so many detest in poor string playing. Because you want just a tiny piece of this sound as your beginning accent, when learning, it’s better that you have a bit too much than none at all. Don’t worry. With careful listening, it’s easy to harness that sound into just the right amount. Be wary of releasing too late. If you’re getting an overly crunchy start, begin your practice sequence as described above, separating the pressure and stroke motions completely.
Press, release, bow. Press, release, bow.
Gradually lessen the time between each action until you have one smooth motion and, most importantly, one smooth accented sound.
3. Concentrate on the Quality of the Articulation
Ik-Hwan Bae, the late violin professor at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University–Bloomington, emphasized that “it is very important for students to understand that whatever the bow technique you’re learning, if you don’t hear the phrasing, that bow technique isn’t working, no matter how well you are doing the stroke.”
If you’re having trouble creating evenness between the sound of your down-bow and up-bow martelé, it might be that you’re too focused on creating the individual strokes and isolated motions. While this is understandable in the beginning, you need to learn to listen as a whole to the quality of your articulation across entire phrases, no matter the type or combination of stroke(s).
Learn to “concentrate on the ongoing sound of your martelé,” Bae said. “I don’t want to be able to identify your down-bow and up-bow.”
4. Listen to the Silence
Stephen Clapp, violin professor and dean emeritus at the Juilliard School until his death in 2014, reminded students that “the most important element of the martelé stroke is the silence, while the most notable characteristic is the pinch.” Between these two, you have a wide palette of percussive expression.
“You can have a pianissimo bite or a fortissimo bite,” said Clapp, who recommended practicing all the dynamic variations. Similarly, your stroke could last for half the note value, for three quarters, or for nearly the entire duration, so practice varying the silence, too.
No matter what the tempo of the piece you’re playing and the value of the notes, it is very important to leave enough time to prepare each note. This is why martelé doesn’t work for very fast passages.