The Bouncing Cello Bow: Spiccato, Sautillé and Ricochet

To go straight to Practice Material for Spiccato, click on the highlighted link.

Typically, when we think of a cello, we imagine a rich, lyrical, legato, melodic (or harmony) 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 all string-players’ 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 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, without any 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 a greater need 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 the chamber and symphonic music of the Baroque and Early-Classical Periods. In much of this repertoire, the role of the cello is roughly 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 give us 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 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 (eight notes) 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 essential meaning of the dot is just “short” and/or “separated”. Whether or not we use “spiccato” (the bounce) or other methods to separate our notes is purely a cellistic question (not a musical one) concerning which bow technique is the most appropriate. This choice, about how to make the separations between notes, 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 can be 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 instructions 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).


The word “spiccato” in Italian means “jumped” or “bounced” but spiccato is not a binary, yes/no, either/or 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:

Analogies are always fun and often helpful. Think of the difference between the extremes of:

So in fact, that little dot over the note that usually indicates spiccato, is quite an ambiguous instruction (see also Music-Reading And Notation Problems).


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 bow’s 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 (slower) tempi at which we are definitely controlling every bow placement individually and the faster tempi at which we are doing the opposite (using the bow’s 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.

spicc basic get faster

Now we can do the opposite experiment on the subject of the transition between “bounce” and “non-bounce”, this time keeping the tempo constant but changing between spiccato and legato.

spicc basic get faster


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, 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 that 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.


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 shy string player play flying spiccato?…… Give them 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. In total contrast to the bounciness of the middle of the bow is the total non-bounciness at the tip and at the frog. As we go from the bouncy middle of the bow towards either end, both the bowstick and the hair become more rigid, hence, to make the bow bounce in these parts of the bow we will have to work a lot harder.

The frog is good for hammered, loud, slower spiccatos whereas as we move out towards the middle of the bow we can do faster and lighter spiccato more easily. The upper half of the bow (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.


As an experiment, we can put our metronome on and start playing regular bouncing bow rhythms. We can start quite slowly but, using the same metronome pulse (speed) we can gradually increase the speed of our spiccato by using progressively smaller note lengths as in the following guide. We used this same pattern earlier to experiment with the transition from manual control to spiccato: now however our minimum speed is already a self-sustaining bouncing speed and we are 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, ultimately doing our spiccato only with the wrist. We will 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 much less 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, like the drummer in a pop/rock band. If we can’t maintain a steady tempo it’s very hard for the other musicians to play with us.


Each string has a different thickness and responds differently to the bow’s 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 the strings where the bounce can often be “lost” at a string change.

Apart from the changes in string tension and responsiveness (bounciness) between the different strings, another element that can destabilise the bounce at string crossings is any change of wrist/hand angle as we cross to the new string. To avoid sudden disturbing changes in the angles of the hand and wrist at string crossings it is a very good idea to prepare the crossings with the arm, bringing the bow as close as possible to the “new” string before the actual string crossing.


As we bring the bow closer to the bridge, the string gets tighter, more resistant and less spongy (mushy). In this sense, the string is like a diving board, responding faster when it is firmer. We must choose the bow’s placement on the string (point of contact) according to the rigidity required 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.


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.


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.


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 heavier 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 us to find and maintain a good spiccato under all musical circumstances (speed, dynamic, string etc). This needs practice and experimentation. Long spiccato passages work the wrist very 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 and The Wrist


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 ingredients required 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 in which the bow alternates between any two adjacent strings.

Let’s start with some examples where the downbow is always on the upper string and the upbow 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 sure that we keep the wrist circles going as if we were still doing the exercise on the two strings. Feel how the bow really wants to bounce.

Next, we will do the absolute opposite, using string crossing 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 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 upbow on the lower string in order to achieve the clockwise hand rotation, they need an upbow on the higher string to achieve this same rotation.


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 initially without the bounce. When we have the passage under control for both hands, then we can start to add the bounce.


To add that bounce, rather than thinking “bounce”, it may be more useful to think quite the opposite.  In fact here is a curious experiment to try in passages where we 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 we 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


While these three additional bouncing bow styles can be considered as specialised variants of spiccato, their particular characteristics allow them to be differentiated and studied separately. Flying spiccato and ricochet bowings are basically the same, with the only difference between them being that the flying spiccato has more notes (bounces) in the bowstroke. They are discussed on their own page (click on the highlighted link). Which leaves us with sautillé……..


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 actually “lift off” from the string, 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 sautillé: 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 converting into a normal spiccato.


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/arm under the influence of excess adrenalin (see Stagefright).

Another reason for bow shakes can be the effect of left-hand 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 thumbposition, 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 shudder that is provoked by each finger articulation.


This subject is dealt with on its own dedicated page:

Ricochet and Flying Spiccato