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

Portato and Staccato

Usually, the start of a new musical impulse coincides with a change of bow direction ………. but not always. On this page we will talk about (re)articulations of the bow within the same stroke, or in other words, starting a new bow stroke (impulse) without changing the bow’s direction.

It is so easy to think that, automatically after a down bow, the next bow stroke must be an up bow (and vice versa). This is actually however “thinking without thinking” – an automated response – that often doesn’t give the best possible solution to a musical or technical problem. Especially at slower and moderate speeds, multiple impulses within one bow stroke can replicate almost perfectly most of the variety of separate bow strokes. Even while continuing in the same direction, the different notes can still be articulated with every possible degree of separation between the extremes of a complete silence to a barely perceptible pulsation.

There are many reasons for which we might decide to use the same bow direction to play more than one (non-slurred) note. Some of these reasons are purely technical, others are purely musical, and some are both. Let’s have a look at some of these different reasons:

1: 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 etc.).

2. TO AVOID “SPEED LUMPS”

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 (ex)

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

There are some important types of articulation that can really only be done in one bow. One of these is the “portato”: an articulation (separation) that covers all the gradations of separation that exists between a slur (100% legato) and legato bow changes. Portato (meaning “carried” in Italian) is a sort of “pulsated slur” where the notes are more connected than even the most flexible, legato bow changes could ever achieve but less connected (less legato) than in a slur. We can dose the degree of separation between the pulsations with great effect. This is a beautiful, unique and powerful expressive tool.

Often composers ask for it on single repeated harmony notes to give a beautiful pulsating accompaniment carpet under a melody (ex)

Other times it is used in melodies (ex)

And other times 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 (ex).

More often than not, we will use this technique for combinations of these reasons as in the following examples:

portato rococo and arpegg red

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 faster speeds, in 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, 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 circle encloses an easy, slow portato, while the rectangles enclose the faster, more difficult portatos.

fast portato haydn schub new

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:

portato alternative tip

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

fast portato sep middle

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 comfortable 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!