Ricochet and Flying Spiccato
Often we need to play the cello as though we were singers, but occasionally we need to open up our box of magic tricks, unwrapping our ricochet and flying spiccato bowings to become more like jugglers or circus acrobats. In both of these bowing styles, we throw the bow against the string and let it bounce several times in the same bow direction, rather like skipping pebbles on water, with the only difference between the two being that flying spiccato has more notes (bounces) in the bowstroke. For this reason, we can consider flying spiccato as being simply a longer ricochet bowstroke. These two bowing styles are virtuoso versions of spiccato, in the same way that flying staccato is a virtuoso form of portato. If we change bow direction after every bounce then this is no longer “ricochet”, but rather just a plain old “spiccato”, or “thrown spiccato” as in the following example.
WHEN AND WHY?
We use these bowings instead of our normal spiccato, in situations in which we want exceptionally brilliant, fast, short, highly articulated sounds. They only work in quite limited situations, usually with small groups of notes, and usually without many left-hand-finger changes within each ricochet “throw”. If there are many finger changes, ricochet rapidly becomes impractical because the rapid coordination of the finger changes with the ricochet bounce is not easy. This doesn’t however mean that we can’t have a lot of note changes in one ricochet bowstroke:
In the first two of the above examples, the pitch changes don’t require lefthand coordination. In the last example however, Boccherini combines, in the same single ricochet throw, lefthand finger changes with string crossings. This is why this little figure is quite a tricky, virtuosic coordination exercise!
Ricochet is a type of bowing that is rarely used in the standard solo cello repertoire, which is why we rarely work on it systematically. Surprisingly however (for what could be considered as quite a brilliant, virtuoso type of technique), we need it reasonably frequently in orchestral music and even in chamber music. If we are not familiar and comfortable with doing this type of bowing, we can easily find ourselves losing our rhythmic control in passages that would not pose a significant problem if we were to play them with a normal spiccato bowing. Click on the following link for a compilation of repertoire examples using ricochet bowings.
Ricochet gives a special type of sound- very short, articulated and percussive – that composers may or may not specify. We can use our cellistic and musical judgement to decide whether or not a ricochet bowing is the best alternative in any situation. Certainly, we will need to use our judgement as to which ricochet bow directions are the most suitable for each figure because this is a subject for which most composers are not well placed to decide, and if they do specify the exact bowing they often get it wrong (usually basing their choice of bowing on what suits the violin [see below]).
PERFECTION OR DISASTER (OR SUBSTITUTION BY SPICCATO)
Even though it may be the “extreme sports” version of spiccato, ricochet is actually a very delicate and tricky bow stroke: it either works easily and naturally, or is a chaotic out-of-control mess. Because ricochet bowings are used in fast delicate passages with absolutely crystal-clear rhythms, we normally cannot hide or play them “approximately”. They are either perfect (and easy) or highly embarrassing, so we really need to feel comfortable and secure with this technique. If we are not secure with our ricochet, it is probably best to just play the figures with a normal spiccato: it is better to sacrifice a little bit of character (and the cello section’s visual uniformity) than to mess up the rhythm completely!
WHAT ARE THE UPPER AND LOWER SPEED LIMITS FOR RICOCHET?
If we look at the note speeds in different repertoire passages using ricochet we will see that a fairly common npm (note-per-minute) speed for ricochet is somewhere around 600-700 with an upper limit of 800-900 and a lower limit of around 500. Below a certain speed, we will probably want to articulate each note individually with the bow, and above a certain speed, the bounces are no longer clearly distinguishable/discernible.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE ELBOW
The importance of the elbow in our control of ricochet is surprising. Freeing up the elbow, allowing it to move in both preparation and follow-through, makes ricochet bowings suddenly much easier and more natural. The more bow changes we have in the ricochet passage, the more this flowing relaxed mobile elbow will be necessary/helpful.
DIFFERENT BOWINGS FOR VIOLIN AND CELLO RICOCHETS
The violin bow is lighter and easier to control than the cello bow in ricochet bowings. For this reason, cellists may prefer to change their bows less often than violinists in ricochet figures, especially in that most common of ricochet rhythms: two 16th notes followed by an eighth note, as shown in the following (in)famous example from Rossini’s William Tell overture. Unfortunately, in orchestras, the bowings come initially from the concertmaster (violinist) so we may end up having to play those violin bowings ……..
RICOCHET AND DYNAMICS
Ricochet bowings are most common in the softer dynamics. For louder playing, we usually favour a more vigorous, energetic spiccato, with one note per bow stroke, as for example in the accompaniment to Shostakovitch’s First Cello Concerto. In the first two examples below, played softly, we could use a ricochet bowstroke, whereas in the last “forte” variant we will definitely use separate spiccato bowstrokes:
It is very easy to invent ricochet practice material. Simply playing any sequence of notes (the easier the better) with standard ricochet rhythms and bowings, will get us used to controlling this delicate bowstroke.