By James Reel
When you start playing in orchestras or chamber ensembles, one of the most important bow strokes you’ll need at your disposal is spiccato. Particularly in the inner voices in music of the Classical era, you’ll be generating a rhythm, often of repeated eighth notes. The articulation has to be short, the individual notes clearly defined, so more often than not you’ll play them with a spiccato stroke—detached notes done with a springy bow. Your mission: Develop a good, rhythmic spiccato stroke. And remember, as Philip Tietze, assistant professor of viola and coordinator of chamber music studies at Ball State University’s school of music, points out, “If it’s not even, it’s kind of pointless.”
Tietze knows his spiccato.
“It’s a stroke that every player needs in his or her arsenal because of the frequency with which it needs to be employed,” he says. “Many orchestra auditions consist of excerpts that are used to test someone’s spiccato. It’s a stroke that has to be mastered, and the earlier you can start, the better. But you have to make sure all the fundamentals are in place first, particularly the bow hold and the mechanics of playing. If that’s not all in line, then there’s no way you can play a decent spiccato.”
Tietze identifies two important elements of good spiccato: knowing where in the bow you’ll get best results, and keeping your elbow loose and your forearm mobile so you can keep the bow close to the string in good horizontal motion.
First, find your bow’s bounce point. “A good spiccato stroke is actually fairly easy, because the bow kind of plays itself; it’s not something you need to work on if the fundamentals are in place,” Tietze says. So find the bounce point, which is usually the balance point, that spot where the bow hangs horizontally when you’re holding the stick from above, between your thumb and a finger. It’s not usually in the middle of the bow, more like a third of the way from the frog.
Remember that spot; it’s where you’ll want to make contact with the string.
But spiccato isn’t only about the bow. According to Tietze, a good stroke means bringing the joints of your shoulder, elbow and wrist all into play. “You can’t use one without the other,” he insists. “It’s especially important that the hand be relaxed. The most frequent problem in spiccato strokes is a bad bow hold, with lots of tension in the hand. The forearm needs to be able to move, so you have to be relaxed at the elbow, too; those two parts of the mechanism have to work in harmony. The stroke is generated at the shoulder—that’s where the energy comes from—but you have to make sure your forearm is loose and in motion and the hand is loose and has some give and take when you execute the stroke.”
Here’s how to get the hang of spiccato: Start with your bow on the string, right at the bounce point. Begin playing short strokes, generated at the shoulder, with a relaxed forearm and hand.
“The stroke is initiated with the big muscles, and then the small muscles react to that,” Tietze explains. “The hand relaxes and is allowed to move back and forth without being forced consciously to move. This makes the stroke easy, because it makes the bow bounce naturally. The modern bow is made to bounce, so if you know what you’re doing, it will bounce by itself.
“So after you’ve played on the string with the right part of the bow so you know what it feels like to play at the bounce point, then suspend the bow a little off the string, let it bounce at the bounce point, and once the bow hits the string draw it slightly across the string and release it again. You’re making a figure U with your hand. Don’t have the bow too high off the string. Gradually do that faster and faster and faster, until you get to the point where the bow is staying a little closer to the string and you’re letting the bow bounce off the string by itself, and you just ease into the string that way. If the setup is correct, especially in the right hand, it should bounce by itself.
“So the hand has to be relaxed, you have to use the proper bow hold, your forearm has to be free to move—then play at the bounce point and make sure the bow doesn’t come too far off the strings.”
The Finer Points
That’s not quite all. Tietze points out that there are different kinds of spiccato. “The technique changes as the demands of the music change, especially the dynamics,” he says.
“For a softer spiccato, raise your right elbow a little and tilt the bow a little, so you’re not playing on all the hair. For a louder spiccato, especially on the lower stings, and especially if you’re playing in upper positions on those lower strings, play closer to the frog and use primarily the shoulder.”
Problems? If the spiccato is uneven, it’s due to tension in the hand and, to a lesser extent, tension in the elbow. Tietze complains, “I see a lot of spiccato generated solely from the shoulder, so the bow can’t bounce consistently at the bounce point because it’s moving around so much.”
If the sound is scratchy, not clear and resonant, you’re playing too far off the string. Explains Tietze, “The horizontal motion has to be greater than the vertical motion to get a resonant sound. The horizontal motion is most important. Staccato isn’t just up and down; it’s really back and forth.”
Finally, Tietze says, spiccato has its limits. “Spiccato can only be played up to a certain speed,” he says. “After that it’s sautillé, a completely different technique. We have to differentiate between them, and it’s a matter of the rapidity of the stroke.”