Flashy bow strokes, such as spiccato, sautillé, staccato, and ricochet, get a lot of attention, as they allow the player to bounce the bow, fire off a barrage of fast notes all in the same direction, and more. But the basic “legato” bow stroke is crucially important—and deceptively difficult—to master. Legato is an Italian word that means “tied together.” In stringed-instrument lingo, it signifies smooth and connected bow strokes, which can be connected by slurs or by smooth bow changes. Artistically speaking, legato holds the key to bringing out the best tone and most melodious tendencies of the instrument.
Basic Ingredients: Speed, Pressure, Sounding Point
Speed, pressure, and sounding point are the main ingredients of any good bow stroke, and legato has its own ideal recipe. Generally, a legato stroke involves a relatively slow bow, drawn at a consistent speed. The slower the speed of the bow, the less pressure it needs on the string. Apply too much pressure to a slow bow and a scratchy sound will result, as it literally skids, rather than glides, across the string. The pressure must be in balance with the sounding point, or the place where the bow touches the string. If the bow is close to the bridge, it can handle more pressure and speed. Closer to the fingerboard, it requires less pressure and a slower speed. Legato generally resides somewhere in the middle.
A smooth change between up-bow and down-bow strokes helps connect the notes in a good legato. Opinions differ on how to achieve this. Legendary violinist Isaac Stern famously said: “You go up, you do down!” He didn’t believe in fancy right-hand machinations to make it happen. He had a point: too much wrist motion and finger flexing can actually cause the “bump” in sound that you aim to avoid at the change of bow. But some finger flexibility and wrist motion are generally recommended: a passive cushioning of the fingers at the start of the down bow, as well as a slight rising of the wrist at start of the up bow, can help smooth over the change. The image of a paintbrush works well: the bristles follow the motion of the stick, but they don’t actually cause the motion.
It’s easy to run out of bow during a long passage of slurred legato notes. Here are some strategies for bow distribution.
1. Divide the bow physically. Simply look at the hair (not the stick) and visually divide it equally. For beginners, tape or stickers on the stick can show those divisions. Example 1 is an example of “dividing” the bow into four parts, for four notes.
Once those divisions are clear, practice using just that amount of bow for each note. Try playing the passage portato—that is, stopping the bow in between notes, right at the division points. This may start as a visual exercise, but in the end, aim to feel the length of each portion, without looking. Then, smooth out the bowing, keeping the portions the same. Example 2 illustrates how to practice a legato passage with portato for bow division.
2. Divide the bow metronomically. Consider how many beats are required to play all the notes. Use a metronome, and practice moving your bow evenly for that number of beats. For each group of four eighth notes in Ex. 2, one would need two beats per bow. Play two-beat bows on open strings until the bow speed feels automatic. Then add the notes.
Long Passages of Slurred Notes
When playing all separate strokes, the bow moves in perfect correspondence with the fingers, thus the bow arm can actually help keep rhythm. When playing a legato slurred passage, the bow simply glides slowly while the left fingers move. Suddenly the rhythmic responsibility falls completely on the left fingers. Unfortunately, sometimes the left-hand fingers drop in a very uneven way, failing to produce even-sounding notes or correct rhythm.
Here are several strategies for fixing the problem. In Example 3, from the first movement of J.B. Viotti’s Violin Concerto No. 22, the left fingers are drumming out several measures of straight 16th notes, while the bow hand essentially plays long, smooth whole notes, with some string crossings. Play the passage with all separate bow strokes. Having both right and left doing the same rhythm together can be a good first step to help figure out which notes are getting uneven. Try this with a metronome, as well.
Practice the passage in Example 4 in rhythms, also with separate bow strokes. Now, start separating the hands. Practice the passage in Example 5 with just left-hand fingers, without the bow at all. The right hand can simply rest at your side. Listen for the fingers to drop accurately on the strings—you’ll be able to hear at least a small sound. Practice the passage in Example 6 with the bow, but completely without left-hand fingers, playing the bow’s “rhythm” on the open strings.
Finally, practice the passage with both hands, using the slurs as written. For evenness and control in the left hand, again practice it in rhythms (Ex. 5), but this time with the slurs. Then practice with the metronome, again with the slurs.
The Portato Pitfall
When playing legato notes that are slurred, string players often inadvertently “beat” the notes—or play portato. That is, they place small, unintentional accents on each note as the fingers go down. To avoid doing this, try playing the passage on open strings. Another trick is to finger the notes on another string, while bowing an open string. Do you hear any accents? Try to eliminate the accents, and once they are gone, go back to placing the fingers on the proper string.
A smooth legato with fluid motion and seamless bow changes is one of the best skills you can develop for your technical toolbox. Happy practicing!