FOR CELLISTS: AMATEUR, ASPIRING ............... AND CURIOUS

Portato, Staccato and Hooked Bowings

Usually, the start of a new musical impulse coincides with a change of bow direction ………. but not always. It is very easy to think that, automatically after a down bow, the next bow stroke must be an up bow (and vice versa). But this is actually “thinking without thinking” (the worst type): an automated response that may not give the best possible solution to a musical or technical problem (or to any problem at all for that matter). For many different reasons and in many different circumstances it might actually be better to continue our initial bowstroke (up or downbow) with another (or others) in the same direction rather than a simple mechanical succession of opposing movements.

There are two main choices as to how we might want to do these successive bowstrokes in the same direction:

  • with a “retake”: here we bring the bow silently back to its starting position in the space between two notes
  • with portato, staccato, and hooked bowings: here we make successive impulses (rearticulations) within the bowstroke, in the same bow direction, but without retaking

The following example illustrates these:

You may already have worked out the differences between the three colours, all of which enclose figures in which we make successive bowstrokes in the same direction:

  • blue indicates a “retake”: here the bow is brought silently back to its starting position in the space between the two notes. Retakes are discussed on their own dedicated page (click on link)
  • red indicates a portato: here the two successive bowstrokes are not only in the same direction but are strongly pulsated, strongly connected musically
  • green indicates a “hooked” bowing, similar in many ways to the portato but somewhat different in musical intention (see below)

Let’s look now in more detail at these portato and hooked bowings.

PORTATO

There are some important types of bowed articulations that can really only be done in one bow. One of these is the “portato”: a bowing that facilitates all the gradations of separation that exist between a slur (100% legato) and legato separate bowchanges. Portato (meaning “carried” in Italian) takes us into the very special sound world of the smooth pulsation – a sort of “pulsated slur” – in which the notes are more connected than even the most flexible, legato bow changes could ever be, but less connected (less legato) than in a slur. We can dosify the degree of separation between the pulsations with great effect. This is a beautiful and powerful expressive tool. Very often, composers will specify the use of portato for its unique expressive effect:

PORTATO FOR A BEAUTIFUL GENTLE CARPET OF HARMONY

One of the most common uses of the portato bowing for the cello is on repeated harmony notes, to give a beautiful smooth pulsating accompaniment carpet under a melody. This is probably the best way to learn/practice it initially because of the lack of lefthand distractions. We can also amuse ourselves by singing the melodies as we play our portato accompaniments.

PORTATO IN MELODIES

Other times portato is used in melodies:

PROBLEMATIC PORTATO NOTATION AND AN IDEAL SUBSTITUTE BOWING

Unfortunately, composers and music publishers very often indicate portato with dots on the notes under the slur, but we mustn’t be misled into thinking that those dots mean the same as in a flying spiccato (or flying staccato). In a flying spiccato or staccato the dots mean “shorter than even the shortest separate bows” whereas in a portato they mean just the opposite (“longer than even the longest separate bows). This is why our best substitute for a portato bowing (for whatever reason) will be long separate bows at the tip, whereas our substitute for a flying spiccato or flying staccato will be the shortest separate bows in the middle or lower half of the bow. A much more appropriate indication for portato would be lines on the notes under the slur (rather than dots). In the “cellofun” editions this is the way that we always indicate portato in order to distinguish it clearly from both flying spiccato and flying staccato.

USE OF UN-NOTATED PORTATO TO HIDE A SLIDE

Sometimes, especially in music of the Classical and Baroque periods, we don’t want our glissandi shifts to be very audible. Rather than refingering the interval across two strings we can simply release the pressure on the bow during the shift so as to hide the glissando. By carefully dosifying the pressure release we can choose exactly how much our slide is heard.

FAST PORTATO: THE SPECIAL VIRTUOSO EFFECTS OF FLYING SPICCATO AND STACCATO

At speed, repeated articulations in the same bow direction become considerably more difficult to control. As the speed increases, the portato is transformed gradually from an expressive pulsation into a more virtuoso effect of either flying spiccato (bounced) or flying staccato (on the string).  These two special effects are very different from each other.

Rapid (flying) staccato is the natural evolution of the portato stroke as it reaches very high speed. Each articulation (note) is produced by an individual impulse, but now, because of the high speed, each impulse is part of a series of muscular spasms, made by the rigid arm, that resembles a machine-gun firing. Its spectacular effect is largely visual, and this bowing can normally be replaced by simple separate bows without any noticeable change in how it sounds (but with a huge reduction in the level of difficulty). Even to just play a flying staccato bowstroke on one note is difficult: to coordinate the bow impulses with finger articulations, shifts and string crossings is an act of pure unadulterated virtuosity. Now that is talent.

flying staccato rococo

In flying spiccato by contrast, the arm only really does one articulation (impulse), with the rest of the articulations in the same bow stroke coming effortlessly from the natural bounce of the bow (ricochet). Look in the “Bouncing Bow” section for more material and examples of this bow stroke.

Probably the most difficult portato passages are those that occur at speeds that are such that they fall into that grey area where we are somewhere between a flying spiccato and a fast on-string portato (staccato). If our right arm, hand and fingers are stiff and tight, we will have great trouble finding the delicate control that we need in order to get the perfect mix of verticality (off the string) and horizontality (on the string) in these passages. In fact, these moderately fast portato passages are an excellent diagnostic test for the skills of fine control and delicacy in our right arm. In the following examples, the red enclosure indicaters es an easy, slow portato, while the blue ones enclose the faster, more difficult portatos.

We may need to work on these passages initially without the left hand, in order to eliminate the coordination problems that the left hand adds to the passage. If we still have difficulties with this bowstroke (for those of us with less sporting talent), these faster “half-on/half-off” portatos can usually be substituted quite well by separate bow strokes, “brushed” rather than legato, in the upper half of the bow, as in this alternative bowing for the above example:

Or else an even easier solution is to simply change the bowings, so that the fast portato notes can be played semi-spiccato with separate bows in the middle of the bow as in the following alternative:

Now, let’s take a look at hooked bowings.

WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PORTATO AND HOOKED BOWINGS ?

To explore the differences between these two bowings it helps to look at the extreme versions of each:

There seem to be two main factors which differentiate between portato and hooked bowings: the amount of separation between the notes, and the degree of symmetry in the accentuation of the notes. As a general rule it appears that portato bowings seem to be both more symmetrically accented (pulsated) and more connected (legato) than hooked ones.

The amount of separation between the notes in the same bowdirection is determined by only a small physical difference for our right hand and arm, but it can be responsable for an enormous musical difference between “hooked” and “portato” bowings. Whereas portato is a strong and deliberate musical effect, hooked bowings, by contrast, have no special musical effect and are nothing more than a mathematical means to better bowdivision, although we can (if we want) make the connection between the notes as legato as we wish. So whereas composers usually indicate portato very clearly, they seldom indicate hooked bowings.

But between the opposite extremes of, on the one hand, a large musical “gap” between the asymmetrically accented notes (“extreme” hooked bowings) and on the other hand only an almost imperceptible reduction in volume between the evenly pulsated notes (“extreme” portato) there is a large grey area in the middle where they can (and do) overlap. This is why both portato and hooked bowings are looked at together on this same page. The following musical example, in which all of the “successive bows in the same direction” are indicated by the red enclosures might help to illustrate this:

 

Which are “portato” and which are “hooked” ? The last three groups are definitely “hooked” because the second note of each belongs to the new phrase and is thus accented quite differently to the first note of each group. The first group also seems to be more hooked than portato because the accent on the first impulse (downbow) is much more than on the second impulse. But the second group could be either portato or hooked, depending on whether we phrase the two notes with equal accents (portato) or very unequal (hooked). In every case however our decision to group non-slurred notes within the same bowstroke is made with the objective of having greater control and sensitivity over the articulations of the notes than could be obtained with separate bows. Who cares whether we call them portatos or hooked bowings or any of the shades of grey in between.

WHY USE HOOKED BOWINGS ?

Whereas portato bowings give a definite musical, expressive effect that is usually specified by the composer, we use hooked bowings entirely at our own discretion, normally to solve potential bowdivision problems. Let’s look now at some different cases:

TO GET TO THE RIGHT PART OF THE BOW

In order to play as expressively and as easily as possible, we need to plan our bowing directions (bow choreography) so that they take us effortlessly to where we want to be in the bow. Certain musical effects are much easier (more natural) in a specific part of the bow or in a specific bow direction (diminuendo towards the tip, crescendo towards the frog, pianissimo at the tip, spiccato in the middle of the bow, sf at the frog etc).

TO AVOID “SPEED BUMPS”

In very asymmetrical passages – for example when a single short bow comes between two very long bows – the sudden increase in bow speed necessary to get back to the beginning of the bow for the start of the next long note can cause unwanted lumps, surges and accents. We can avoid these by playing the short note in the same bow as the preceding long note. The most obvious example for this is the “hooked” bowings we use for dotted rhythms:

This use of hooked bowings for navigating rythmically asymmetrical figures is looked at in more detail here.

3. TO ACHIEVE A SMOOTHER LEGATO THAN WOULD BE POSSIBLE WITH SEPARATE BOW STROKES

We can choose this type of bowing, even when not specified by the composer, in order to obtain a greater legato than would otherwise be possible if we simply changed the bow. But more often than not, we will use this technique for combinations of these reasons as in the following examples:

CONCLUSION

Finding the “best” bowings to satisfy all the musical and technical demands of a passage is not a simple task. It can resemble a complex mathematical puzzle. In many situations, doing multiple impulses (articulations) in the same bow direction can be a very useful musical and technical tool. We can get comfortable with portato bowings quite quickly by simply using them in our left-hand exercises and drills instead of doing those drills with our more habitual slurred or separate bows. In this way we are accustoming our hands to the complex coordination that these bowings require, almost without realising it. One of the reasons that fast portato bowings feel so difficult is simply that we use (and practice) them so little!

PRACTICE MATERIAL

Here is a compilation of repertoire excerpts using portato, hooked and staccato bowings:

Portato and Hooked Bowings: Repertoire Excerpts