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Typically, when we think of a cello, we imagine a rich, lyrical, legato, melodic (or harmonic) line. For most people who pick up a cello and start improvising, this is the playing style that comes automatically and unconsciously. In fact, for most people who want to play the cello, it is music of this character that has most inspired our attraction to the instrument. In this singing legato style, we make a permanent effort to avoid the bounce, by keeping our bow deeply, smoothly and firmly into the string.
Introducing the bounce is literally a whole new ball-game (actually a whole new bow-game). And here, the word “game” is very appropriate, because the bounce really does add an element of “play” to string playing. Now we are not only singing, but also playing tennis, basketball, ping-pong, jumping on a trampoline, doing gymnastics ……… The bouncing bow adds an enormous amount of variety, character and energy to the musical style and is a hugely important part of cello right-hand technique. We have to learn to love (rather than fear) the bow’s natural tendency to bounce. Our job is not only to control the bounce it but also to use it to our advantage, as an essential component of our bowing toolbox.
The desire/need for the spiccato bounce is probably one of the main reasons why the cello bowhold changed from the “underhand” viola-da-gamba hold to the “overhand” violin bowhold over the course of the 18th century. The importance of the overhand bowhold in allowing spiccato can be seen in the difference in stylistic character between Germanic Baroque music on the one hand and French/Italian Baroque music on the other. Let’s compare for example the cello-writing style of Vivaldi with that of Bach. It is almost impossible to imagine much of Vivaldi’s cello writing being played with an underhand bowhold (and thus without spiccato). Bach’s cello writing on the other hand is perfectly compatible with the underhand bowhold and no real bouncing. So, without any historical or musicological research we could hypothesise that in Germany, the bowhold stayed underhand for longer than in France and Italy. It is not surprising that the more sparkling (and bouncy) character of the French and Italians found greater need and use for spiccato than their more solid Germanic neighbours.
The predominance of the lyrical, legato, singing style is very characteristic of the Romantic period. But in pre-Romantic music by contrast, short, separate notes were more predominant than long legato singing lines, especially for the cello whose principal role was originally as an accompanying instrument, rather than as a singing, legato, melodic instrument. In fact, our most frequent (and simple) use of spiccato is in the accompaniment figures and harmonies of chamber and symphonic music of the Baroque and Early-Classical Periods. In much of this repertoire, the role of the cello is roughly the equivalent to that of the rhythm section (bass guitar and drums) in a pop/rock group. In the fast movements, the cello not only provides the harmonic bass line but also keeps the rhythm driving along by playing that bass line with repeated spiccato notes in the same way that the drums in a band maintain the rhythmic drive and energy. The Mozart Divertimenti K136-138 are very good examples of this: in the fast movements the cello spends most of its time occupying this double role.
The cello plays uninterrupted quavers (eighth notes) for 70 of the of the 100 bars that make up this movement. That corresponds to 70 x 8 = 480 equal spiccato bounces. This is good spiccato practice, but what makes this type of music especially good for learning spiccato is that we are often just repeating the bounce on the same note: there are relatively few changes of pitch within these 480 bounces. In fact, the average frequency of note changes in those 70 bars is less than one change per bar. In other words, we play on average a little more than one full bar on each pitch. This allows us to dedicate almost all our concentration and effort towards stabilising and controlling the bounce, without being distracted by coordination difficulties that would be caused by the more frequent left hand (or string crossing) changes that occur increasingly in later music (Late Classical, Romantic etc.)
THE MEANING OF THE STACCATO DOT
- TO BOUNCE OR NOT TO BOUNCE
The essential meaning of the dot is just “short” and/or “separated”: whether or not it we use “spiccato” is purely a cellistic question (not a musical one) of which bow technique is the most appropriate. This choice about how to make these separations normally depends principally on the tempo. At slower speeds, even though the notes may have dots over them, we will often separate them without using the bounce. At medium and fast speeds, the bounce is very useful to separate the notes, but at very fast speeds, the bow may not have time to actually leave the string, in which case that dot can become a trap for overly-obedient cellists. If we interpret the dots too literally (by trying to make the bow actually leave the string on each bounce) then we can quickly lose rhythmic control. This occurs especially in very light fast soft passages such as the following examples:
Many composers use the terms spiccato and staccato interchangeably. Mendelssohn, for example, gives the following instruction at the start of the Scherzo movement of his String Octet “this movement should be played always staccato.” What he means is that everything should be played “short”, and in fact almost all the notes in this movement are played spiccato. Staccato is quite a different thing for a string player than for a pianist-composer (see below).
2. DIFFERENT DEGREES OF BOUNCINESS
The word “spiccato” in Italian means “jumped” or “bounced” but spiccato is not a binary, yes-no, on-off affair. When we see dots over the notes we don’t just “switch on the bounce” but rather we need to choose the appropriate degree of bounciness (verticality) from within the huge range of separation that exists between the two extremes of:
- a very short, very separated, totally vertical, percussive bouncing spiccato and
- a longer, only slightly separated, almost entirely horizontal spiccato that barely bounces at all
Analogies are always fun and often helpful. Think of the difference between the extremes of:
- jumping up and down in the same place (a completely vertical bounce) and
- running fast with big long horizontal steps on the tips of your toes so that your feet barely touch the ground ( a very horizontal bounce)
So in fact, that little dot over the note, that usually indicates spiccato, is quite an ambiguous instruction.
TRANSITION TO SELF-SUSTAINING BOUNCING MODE FROM MANUAL INDIVIDUAL CONTROL
At slower speeds, we place the bow on the string from the air in such a way as to avoid any bounce. This is a basic element of bow control. However, as these movements (putting the bow on the string) get more and more rapid, we eventually reach a speed at which it is no longer easy or useful to continue to try to control each placement individually. At this point we start to use the bows natural tendency to bounce to do the work of lifting the bow off the string and putting it back down onto the string again. This is spiccato.
There is not, however, a single, well-defined point (speed) at which this transition takes place. There is instead, a zone of transition, a grey area, between the tempi at which we are definitely controlling every bow placement individually and the tempi at which we are doing the opposite (using the bows bounce to perform these movements).
This is a little bit like “the break” for singers: a transitional zone in which the voice is changing register, and which it is difficult to cross smoothly. Try the following exercise to experiment with the transition between “manual individual control of each bow placement from the air” and “letting the bow bounce” (spiccato). Put the metronome on a very slow quaver (8th note) beat. This metronome speed does not change during the exercise, but the speed of our bow changes progressively increases as we use shorter and shorter note lengths, as in the following guide. Start “manually” and finish spiccato. Be aware of what happens in between.
Now we can do the opposite experiment on the subject of the transition between “bounce” and “non-bounce”, keeping this time the tempo constant but changing between spiccato and legato.
The variability in the meaning of “the dot” over the note is largely an interpretative problem, but there are many other variables that make spiccato a difficult bow stroke to control from a technical-mechanical point of view. The bouncing speed (tempo), the dynamic, the different thicknesses of the four strings, the part of bow we are in, and the distance of our bow from the bridge (point of contact) and the angle of the bowhair to the string all have a large influence on the bow’s bouncing behaviour and complicate the attainment of the “perfect bounce” for each situation. This makes spiccato quite a sophisticated, difficult, virtuoso bowing skill which requires either a lot of natural sporting talent, lots of hard work, or an appropriate mix of the two. It is after all a little like micro-surgery: a nanogram of extra weight, a tiny change of bow angle etc. can make a large difference to the outcome. And, to complicate matters, everything is happening at (relatively) high-speed. So ……this is not just micro-surgery but rather high-speed micro-surgery!
Let’s look in more detail at some of these variables.
1.WHICH PART OF THE BOW ARE WE USING
The bounciness of the bow changes radically as we move between the frog and the tip. Did you hear the joke about how to make a violist play spiccato?…… Give him a long soft note and write “solo” on it….. As we all know, from times when we have been nervous, the bounciest part of the bow is around the middle. In this part of the bow, the bow actually wants to bounce, and we need to make a deliberate effort to keep it firmly on (into) the string. At the tip and at the frog, both the stick and the hair are more rigid. Hence, to make the bow bounce here we actually have to work a lot harder.
The frog is good for hammered, loud, and slower spiccato whereas as we move out towards the middle we can do faster and lighter spiccato more easily. The tip is the most beautiful part of the bow for making smooth legato bow changes but is not great for most spiccato except for certain ricochet bowings.
2. TEMPO (SPEED)
Try an experiment. Put your metronome on and start playing regular bouncing bow rhythms. Gradually increase the speed of your spiccato by using progressively shorter note lengths as in the following guide. We used this same pattern earlier to experiment with the transition from manual control to spiccato: here however we have the metronome on faster and are only experimenting with different speeds of spiccato. Start with the slowest speed at which it is possible to maintain a spiccato bounce.
You will notice here that, as the bounce gets faster, we progressively move the arm less and less and ultimately do it just with the wrist. We also need to move away from the frog as the spiccato gets faster. It’s funny how the name for spiccato changes from one language to another as it gets really fast: from “spiccato” (italian) to “sautillé” (french). No doubt this is because the shimmering impressionistic effect of sautillé is very French and was used little by Italian composers, unlike the crisp, clear, lively, intensely rhythmic and energetic, quintessentially Italian spiccato (the word sounds like its musical effect).
It is especially important to practice spiccato with a metronome for two reasons:
– because the speed is so important to how we control the bounce (a slight variation of tempo requires significant rebalancing)
– because it is so easy to get out of time! Controlling the bounce is not easy – this is a very sporty technique requiring a lot of body awareness, coordination etc. When we are playing spiccato we often have a strong rhythmic function, almost like a metronome. If we can’t maintain a steady tempo it’s very hard for the other musicians to play with us.
3. STRING DIFFERENCES
Each string has a different thickness and responds differently to the bows effort to bounce. It is as though we are playing basketball (or tennis or ping-pong) with four different balls, each one bouncing quite differently, and we have to change constantly between them! This is especially noticeable in faster scales across many strings where the bounce can often be “lost” at a string change.
Also, if there is a change of wrist/hand angle at the string crossing, this is often enough to make us lose control of the bounce. To avoid this sudden disturbing change it is a very good idea to prepare the string crossings with the arm, bringing the bow as close as possible to the “new” string before the actual string crossing.
4. BOW DISTANCE FROM BRIDGE
As we bring the bow closer to the bridge, the string gets tighter, more resistant and less spongy. In this sense, the string is like a diving board, responding faster when it is firmer, and the bow has to choose its placement on the board according to the rigidity it requires for its jumps. For this reason, rapid spiccato passages are usually helped when we bring the bow closer to the bridge than we would normally do if we were playing that same passage without the bounce.
5. BOW PRESSURE
In the same way that it can be helpful to bow closer to the bridge in order to get the bow bouncing, it is often also helpful to use more bow pressure than we would if the passage was “on the string”. This extra pressure, especially if combined with faster and shorter bow strokes helps to produce a hard, clear, vertical bounce.
6. THE VERTICAL ANGLE OF THE BOW TO THE STRING
We tend to play with the bow stick rolled slightly towards our body. This cushions the impulses of our hand (bow) into the string rather like a shock absorber. But this is a perfect anti-bounce mechanism ! If we want the bow to bounce more, we need to roll the stick away from our body so that it is more vertically over the string. This has several effects, all of which increase the bounciness of the bow:
– it makes the hair flatter (more horizontal) on the string, and also puts more hair in contact with the string
– it places the stick more vertically over the string
These changes make the bow less spongy and more resistant. This produces the same “diving board effect” that we saw above with the greater string rigidity closer to the bridge. Placing the bow stick more vertically to the strings will make the bow want to bounce more.
7. THE CHARACTERISTICS OF EACH INDIVIDUAL BOW
Every bow is different and, like people, some (usually the lighter ones) jump around hyperactively and are difficult to keep sedately on the string, while others (usually the heavy ones) are lethargic and not at all interested in vertical physical exercise. Baroque bows have the centre of gravity nearer the frog so their bouncing characteristics are quite different to “normal” cello bows.
As we observed in the “tempo” exercise above, wrist mobility and flexibility are absolutely fundamental in spiccato. Above a certain speed, it is impossible to keep the bow bouncing with a stiff arm (this actually means with a stiff wrist). In fact, to get the bow bouncing in a faster passage, rather than thinking “bounce” it can be more useful to think “wrist”. Once we use only the wrist, eliminating the arms’ well intentioned (but unhelpful) efforts to get the bow bouncing, the bow will usually start to bounce spontaneously and effortlessly.
Finding just the right degree of flexibility and rigidity in the wrist is what really allows you to find and maintain a good spiccato under all musical circumstances (speed, dynamic, which string etc). This needs practice and experimentation. Long spiccato passages really work the wrist hard, especially when the spiccato is combined with a lot of string crossings. This means that string crossing passages and exercises, when played spiccato, give us a very good “wrist workout”, making our wrist both stronger and more mobile. See String Crossings.
CLOCKWISE OR ANTICLOCKWISE WRIST ROTATION ? BOUNCING BETWEEN STRINGS
This is a very significant factor in achieving and maintaining the bounce in faster spiccatos. The clockwise wrist movement not only helps the bounce, it is in fact one of the essential ingredient required in order to get the bow bouncing. The anticlockwise movement by contrast, is a very efficient bounce-eliminator. The best way to see this is by doing some exercises where the bow alternates between any two adjacent strings.
Lets start with some examples where the down bow is always on the upper string and the up bow on the lower string. Here the string crossings actually help the bow to bounce because they require the clockwise circular movement of the hand/wrist. We can gradually change from doing the exercise on two strings to only doing it on one (it doesn’t matter if it is the lower or the higher string of the pair) but we need to make surethat we keep the wrist circles going as if we were actually doing the exercise on the two strings. Feel how the bow actually wants to bounce.
Next, we will do the absolute opposite, using string crossings bowings which automatically impose the exact reverse wrist movement (an anticlockwise circular movement of the hand). Suddenly it becomes very difficult to make the bow bounce.
To take a musical example, in the following accompaniment passage from the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony Nº 6 (bars 29-53) we have 24 bars of uninterrupted semiquaver oscillations between the bottom two strings. Even though Beethoven didn’t write any dots over the notes we will probably want the bow to bounce because that will give clarity and articulation to the passage.
If we start with an “upbow” then we are are going with both the natural bouncing and crossing tendencies of the bow, in which case the bow will bounce and the passage will both sound clearly and be perfectly easy to play. If on the contrary we start with a “downbow” for whatever reason (perhaps because the Neolithic bowing bible says “downbeat = downbow”) then we are bowing against both the natural bouncing and crossing tendencies of the bow, in which case the bow will not bounce and the passage will not only sound muddy but will also be very tense and uncomfortable to play for the right arm and shoulder.
These hand (wrist) circles are not however uniquely associated with oscillating string crossings. The oscillating string crossing just helps to make this phenomenon more unavoidably obvious. When playing short fast repeated bowstrokes on one string we can experiment with doing hand circles in these two opposite directions and observe (feel) the completely different consequences on the bow’s desire (or not) to bounce.
If we want our bow to bounce, then we need to do the clockwise hand rotation. If we want it to bounce even more, then we can exaggerate the verticality of this rotation. If we want it to bounce less, we should exaggerate the horizontality of this same rotation. Likewise, the best way to ensure that our bow doesn’t bounce at all (to achieve a smooth legato), is by deliberately using the anticlockwise wrist movement. This phenomenon gives rise to some curious bowing situations in spiccato string-crossing passages where, in order to get the bounce, we need to put the up-bow on the beat where that would otherwise seem unnatural. This sometimes involves putting a little slur in somewhere to turn the bowings around:
The bowing complications get worse when we try to coordinate bowings with violins and violas. Because they hold their instruments upside-down (with respect to cellists and bassists) the bowing situation for bouncing string-crossings is the absolute reverse. While we need an up bow on the lower string in order to achieve the clockwise hand rotation, they need an up bow on the higher string to achieve this same rotation.
ORDER OF PRIORITY: FIRST STABILISE THE RHYTHM AND NOTES, THEN ADD THE BOUNCE
It is more important to play in time than with a bounce. Our first priority must always be the rhythm (and of course the correct notes). A great bounce, but completely out of time, is not going to make you many friends, so it can be a good idea to practice our spiccato passages firstly without the bounce. When we have the passage under control for both hands, then we can start to add the bounce.
HOW TO GET THE BOW BOUNCING
To add that bounce, rather than thinking “bounce”, it may be more useful to think quite the opposite. In fact here is a funny experiment to try in passages where you want a rapid bounce but are having trouble getting the bow jumping: try keeping the bow really stuck into the string, with lots of weight but with very short, wrist-only bow strokes. The harder you try to keep it into the string the more it will bounce ….. beautiful !! “Short” is what appears to be the magic word in this trick.
For exercises, studies and repertoire excerpts for working on spiccato, click on the following link: Practice Material for Spiccato
RICOCHET AND SAUTILLÉ
While these two additional bouncing bow techniques can be considered as specialised variants of spiccato, their particular characteristics allow them to be differentiated and studied separately. Ricochet has its own page (click on the highlighted links) while sautillé is discussed here.
Sautillé is simply a spiccato that is sufficiently fast that the hair of the bow doesn’t actually ever lose contact with the string (as there simply isn’t time). But even though the bowhair doesn’t “lift off” this doesn’t mean that the bow is not bouncing. The bowstick IS jumping (just try watching it and you will soon feel dizzy), and the notes are sounding short and articulated, as can be demonstrated by morphing deliberately between sautillé and a simple legato tremolo without changing the speed. This is a very instructive exercise as it gives us an instantaneous (and almost magical) feel for just exactly what the fingers, wrist and hand need to do in order to encourage the bow to bounce and vice versa.
There is an upper limit to the speed at which we can maintain this bounce. Above a certain speed the sautillé automatically morphs into a tremolo. The thicker the string, the slower its reactions, which is why this upper limit is reached earlier on the lower strings. Experiment with finding the upper limit for your sautille: perhaps 600 beats per minute (bpm.) on the A string and less for the C string?
We can do another very instructive morphing exercise, this time on the slower side of the speed spectrum, in which we explore the transition between spiccato and sautillé that occurs almost automatically as we gradually change the speed of our note alternations. If we gradually increase the speed of a spiccato, we eventually arrive at a point where the hair no longer has time to lose contact entirely with the string and it is here that our spiccato converts into a sautillé. Then as we get slower, the reverse transformation occurs: our sautillé converts into a normal spiccato.
AVOIDING UNWANTED BOUNCING
This entire article up until now has been dedicated to how to use the bow’s bounce. But we need also to look at how to avoid the bow’s bounce in those situations in which it bounces when we don’t want it to. There can be several causes for this, of which the most unsettling (and most common) is simply the nervous tremor of the bowhand under the influence of excess adrenalin (see Stagefright).
Another reason for bow shakes can be the effect of the finger articulation (both on placement and on release). This is usually only a problem when the distance between the two notes is large: the larger the distance, the greater the vertical string movement as we change from one note to the other. This problem most commonly occurs when we are alternating between a stopped finger and the same open string. This disturbing effect gets worse as we go up the fingerboard because the vertical distance that the string moves (when the finger stops it) increases as we get further away from the fingerboard nut.
This same phenomenon can however also occur in thumb position, when the distance between the stopping finger and the thumb is especially large.
We can try and limit the damage by staying in those parts of the bow where it is least “bouncy”. This means staying, where possible, in the upper or lower halves of the bow and avoiding the middle. We may therefore want to change the bowings. In the following excerpt, instead of playing one bar to a bow as in Schumann’s original suggestion (top bowing), we can play two beats per bow (dotted bowing underneath) and thus stay in the upper half always, to avoid the bow shuddder that is provoked by each finger articulation.