By Laurie Niles | From the July-August 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Martelé is a sophisticated bow stroke that requires a real mastery of the physics behind bow mechanics. Practicing this stroke can help develop those mechanics while providing you with an expressive tool that works in a variety of musical contexts. Martelé—“hammered” in French—creates detached, strongly accented notes using generous and rapid bow strokes. The Italian word for the same stroke is martellato. It sometimes is indicated in written music with a line or an accent over the note, but not always. The string player chooses this stroke from the context of the music, and it has a range of uses in music as well as pedagogy.
Bowing Technique Development
Martelé is a remarkably useful stroke as a teaching tool, specifically for bow-hand strength and balance, and for the development of accurate direction in the bow arm. It begins with a consonant sound, for example a “K” rather than something like “Wah,” which sounds more like a vowel. This crisp beginning is created by “catching” or “gripping” the string with the bow hair, and doing so is very different in the lower half of the bow than in the upper half.
In the lower half, especially when close to the frog, the weight of the bow provides enough downward pressure that it’s not necessary to push the bow into the string. In fact, the pinkie will have to hold up the stick, so as only allowing enough weight to catch the string at the beginning of each note. (If you can grip the string with the bow hair and silently move it a fraction of a millimeter side-to-side, then you’ve “caught” it). At the tip, one has to actively exert pressure, pressing hair into string by pronating the hand counterclockwise and leaning with the index finger, in order to catch the string. When working with young students, I call this “stick power” and challenge them to hold the tip onto the string while I attempt to lift the tip with my hand.
While the mechanism for catching the string is different at the frog and tip, the resulting accent at the beginning of the note should sound the same. Practicing this can help refine one’s sense of balance and weight at both ends of the bow.
This “catch” is only the beginning—then comes a rapid bow stroke, with pressure released by the end of the note. The rapid stroke must happen in one very well-directed movement. For that reason, launching what will be a “straight bow” is essential. Imagine a car, driving on a mountain road next to a cliff. If you are driving 15 miles per hour and your steering is a little off, you have some time to correct course before the car gets too close to the edge. But driving 90 miles per hour, if the steering is off, the car may hurtle straight off the cliff before you know it.
Martelé is a remarkably useful stroke as a teaching tool, specifically for bow-hand strength and balance, and for the development of accurate direction in the bow arm.
The bow, let’s say, is going 90 miles per hour. If it’s not well-directed, it will go straight into the bridge, or over the fingerboard. Also, it may unintentionally touch neighboring strings. Only one very specific motion will keep it at the same contact point and on the right plane to avoid other strings throughout the stroke. So this is a little like practicing physics in motion.
Try this exercise: Standing with your strings parallel to a mirror, place the bow about five inches from the frog, on the A string. Allow the weight of the bow to catch the string, then launch a rapid down-bow. Did the bow touch other strings? Did the bow slide toward the bridge or fingerboard? Adjust, and try again. Going down-bow, it may help to think of bowing “forward.” Keep adjusting until you hear only one pure note—no extraneous noises, scratches, or other strings.
Then try it up-bow: Place the bow several inches from the tip, and use “stick power” to catch the string. Then launch the bow upward in one fast motion. Was the bow straight? Did it touch other strings? Adjust, try again. You can also do this exercise in half-bows—in the upper half, in the lower half, and in the middle section of the bow. You can also play scales this way but be sure to do it slowly and analytically. This is an exercise in which you acquaint yourself with the specifics of your own bowing mechanism: your hand, your arm, your sense of motion, your bow, your violin. Your own concentration level will determine how much you benefit from it.
It’s important to note that the martelé stroke ends in a complete release of pressure. If you hear a little scratch at the end of the note—like the bow slamming on its brakes—it means the pressure has not been fully released. It should be released at the end of the note, then re-applied for the next note.
In the end, a good martelé stroke will sound very clean, with a consonant beginning, followed by a clear and ringing tone and a non-accented ending.
Martelé in Music
Once you have mastered the elements of the martelé stroke, you can refine it for use in music. The martelé stroke is generally used to create an almost percussive separation of notes—when those notes have some length. A lighter martelé in the upper half of the bow can, for example, mark each note in an elegant Baroque passage. Or a broad, full-bow martelé can create a sense of bold character.
One well-known and often-played piece that employs the martelé bow stroke is Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto in A minor, which appears in Suzuki Book 4. The opening of the third movement provides an excellent example of a rapid and light martelé bow stroke.
In Example 1, the bow stroke is done in the upper half of the bow, with a light accent on each eighth note that is marked with a dot. The tempo marking Presto will mean that the notes occur fairly rapidly, and so a deep catch of the string is not necessary or possible. That said, each note should be “caught” enough to have a crisp beginning and release, to create that separation of the notes.
It’s worth noting that this example is a work from the Baroque era, and it would have been played with a Baroque bow at the time that Vivaldi wrote it. The Baroque bow, by its very nature, would easily create that separation of notes, without much extra effort. As is the case of many Baroque pieces, this kind of light martelé stroke is used with a modern bow to produce the kind of articulation that the Baroque bow would naturally generate.
A different kind of example would be the bold opening strokes of Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium and Allegro, (Example 2), which uses a very broad martelé bow stroke. In this case, the tempo is a bit more plodding, with a series of quarter notes that are marked with an accent over every single note. The accent at the beginning of each note is heavy, and the duration of each note is longer and more sustained. For that reason, the technique is slightly more sophisticated, requiring control over a larger expanse of the bow and close attention to the sound of the accents at each end, to make them match. These bold, heavy strokes run a greater chance of “going off the road” and of producing squeaks and crunches, so controlling speed, direction, and pressure of accents becomes very important.