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 downbow, the next bow stroke must be an upbow (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 follow our bowstroke (up or downbow) with another impulse in the same direction, rather than with a simple mechanical alternation 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
- with a ricochet
On this page, we will look uniquely at bowings that use successive impulses in the same direction. This is not the case with ricochet bowings because in a ricochet sequence the initial impulse is followed by the passive bouncing (rebounding) of the bow in the same bowdirection. Therefore ricochet bowings are not looked at on this page (see the Bouncing Bow and Ricochet pages).
Let’s look now at some examples of these different types of bowings (portato, hooked and retake), in which at least two successive impulses are made in the same direction:
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.
- red indicates a “portato”: here, rather than two independent bowstrokes in the same direction we can consider these to be intimately connected pulsations within the same bowstroke. The notes under the portato really do “belong” together
- green indicates a “hooked” bowing, similar in many ways to the portato but totally different in musical intention and often more separated. Here they really are two independent bowstrokes in the same direction
“Retakes” are discussed on their own dedicated page (click on link) so here below we will look in more detail at “portato” (and its “flying staccato” offspring ) and “hooked” bowings.
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 separate bows. Slow to medium-speed portatos (meaning “carried” in Italian) take 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 deliberately specify the use of portato for its unique expressive effect. Let’s look now at some of these uses of portato:
- 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.
Surprisingly often, even the best composers don’t indicate “portato” bowings in “velvet-carpet-accompaniment” passages for which their use really would be much more expressive than simple back-and-forth separate bowstrokes. “Portato” is after all somewhere between a bowing and an articulation, and most composers don’t dare to suggest bowings, considering them (usually correctly!) as beyond their field of competence. So, in the same way that we are free to choose our bow directions in order to optimise our interpretation, we can also sometimes convert mechanical sawing motions into throbbing, living pulsations by adding portato bowings/articulations where none are specified.
2. PORTATO IN MELODIES
While portato’s most frequent use is in accompaniment passages, it also makes its appearances in melodies, very often in prolonged upbeat figures as in the following examples:
The portato gives the notes are more “spoken” (or sung) character, as though each note was a word (or at least a syllable). A totally legato slur would be like a singer singing the same continuous vowel on each of the notes.
In the above cases, we looked principally at portatos that were deliberately notated as such by the composer. But often – as with many the “velvet-carpet-accompaniments” – we will be well advised to take matters into our own hands (literally) by using portato even when not specifically notated.
3. HIDE-A-SLIDE: THE USE OF SINGLE UN-NOTATED PORTATO RELAXATIONS TO CAMOUFLAGE GLISSANDI
One of the most common cases of this occurs very often when, especially in music of the Classical and Baroque periods, we don’t want the glissandi of our slurred 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 calibrating this pressure release we can choose exactly how much our slide is heard.
Normally we think of the defining factor of portato as being the impulses (pulsations). In our hide-a-slide cases however the single, isolated portato effect is achieved by the brief relaxation of the bow pressure during what would otherwise be an uninterrupted legato slur.
3B. PORTATO TO AVOID SPEED-BUMPS
During a slurred bow, the placement of a finger after an open string or a harmonic can provoke such a sudden and large vertical movement of the string that it can cause the bow to jump/shudder. This problem is especially noticeable in softer dynamics for two reasons:
- because here our bow pressure is less than in loud playing and
- because in soft playing our bow tends to be more over the fingerboard, which is where the vertical movement of the string is the greatest.
The problem is also greatest:
- when we are in the middle of the bow, because that is where it bounces the most, and
- when the new finger is a long way from the preceding openstring or harmonic because that is when the change in vibrating string-length is the greatest.
Slowing down our bow speed for the moment of the finger placement is one way to minimise this problem. Fortunately, the strong resonance of the open string or mid-string harmonic is such that this little portato effect (a momentary diminuendo) is usually unnoticeable and our legato sounds perfectly uninterrupted. This little slowing-down of the bow also has the beneficial effect of giving us that millisecond more time to place the new finger, reducing both the risk of a “squeak” and the need for the rapid, hard articulation that we tend to do in order to minimise that “squeak-risk”.
4. UN-NOTATED PORTATOS AS SOLUTIONS TO DIVERSE CHOICE-OF-BOWING PROBLEMS
Very often, doing a new bowstroke in the same direction as the previous one can allow us to avoid awkward or unnatural bowing situations immediately afterwards. The first of the following examples illustrates the use of portato bowings to keep our bow going in the most favourable direction for the dynamics, while the second example shows how portatos can solve the bowdivision problems of asymmetrical figures:
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 almost always be long separate bows at the tip. 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 portato is always indicated in order to distinguish it clearly from both flying spiccato and flying staccato (see below). For more discussion about the ambiguity of the staccato dot in music notation click on the highlighted link.
PEDAGOGICAL EXERCISE FOR PROGRESSIVELY INCREASING PORTATO SPEEDS
Because playing one note per impulse is the most advanced version of this type of exercise, we definitely don’t need to start with this level of difficulty. In fact, at the beginning, we might want to start with no changes of note at all, to allow us to concentrate totally on the bow and on the rhythmic control of the impulses/pulsations. Creating a smooth progression of increasing difficulty can be achieved by gradually adding more impulses per bow (= faster), and more lefthand changes. We can also add more stringcrossings, and can in fact very usefully practice our stringcrossing material with these portato/staccato bowings.
Because we are working here on precise rhythmic control it will be very useful to practice this type of material with a metronome. Let’s do some experiments with these bowings. First we’ll put the metronome on a relatively slow beat, for example 5o bpm (bpm = beats per minute). Next we can decide how long we want each bowstroke to last – for example 2, 3 or 4 beats. And then we will simply add more and more impulses into each beat: 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 16 etc and see how it all feels. This will give us the following exercise, in which each bar can be repeated so as to play each rhythm on both down and upbows.
If we use the entire bow length on each bowstroke (bar) then we will really get a feel for the enormous differences between the two ends. At the frog it is much easier to play short percussive machinegun staccato with very little (slow) bowspeed whereas at the tip the situation is totally the opposite.
PORTATO: HOW FAST IS TOO FAST?
With each bow pulsation of a slow portato being in every way like a caress, portato can be considered the “queen of gentleness” of bowings. However even the most gentle creatures can get excited, and that is where our problems begin. At slow speeds, portato is quite an “easy” bowing to master, but as the speed of the portato pulsations increases they become progressively more difficult to control. Above a certain speed, our portato impulses will become too fast to be controlled. By using a metronome, we can find out at which speed this transformation happens. For example, let’s set the metronome to 60 and gradually put more notes into each beat:
Perhaps you also will find that after the quintuplet 16th notes the speed is basically too fast for the portato bowing? Our measurement of speed here is notes-per-minute (rather than beats-per-minute) because this number lets us know exactly how fast we are playing (see Fast Playing). After playing this little exercise we now know that it is at a speed of somewhere above 360 npm that our “waah-waah” throbbing pulsations become no longer viable. So what then do we do at these (or faster) speeds? This will depend on certain factors such as how many notes we need to play, and in which direction the bow is going. Let’s look now at some of these situations, starting with one of the most common: the “skipping portato”.
THE SKIPPING PORTATO
At slower speeds our downbow and upbow portatos are identical, but as we get faster we can add a vertical, bouncing component to our upbow portatos that is impossible to add to our downbow ones. Doing this changes the character of the portato but also enables us to play upbow portatos at speeds which would otherwise have been unmanageable. These short, fast, little figures are perhaps some of the most tricky portato passages we will ever have to play. because they occur at speeds that are too fast for a simple portato, but not yet fast enough for a flying spiccato.
By playing these examples we will hopefully see that, in order to achieve the desired separation between the notes we need to introduce a measure of bounciness, verticality, spiccato to our portato bow impulses, while all the time controlling each impulse/bounce individually (unlike in flying spiccato). This type of bowing only works on upbows (just try doing it on a downbow if you have any doubts). We could consider these as “bouncy shorter portatos” or as “bouncy longer staccatos” or even as “one-bow-non-flying-spiccatos” !!! because they really lie right there at the overlapping boundaries between all three of these bowing styles (portato, spiccato and staccato). Perhaps that is what makes these figures both so beautiful, delicate …… and difficult!
Perhaps we could best call these figures “skipping portatos” – skipping in the sense that they jump very lightly, with a small vertical component but a large horizontal component to each jump. They are usually notated with dots under a slur but this can be misleading because it makes them look like flying spiccatos or ricochets. A better notation would be the dot + line articulation because the note lengths need to be shorter than in a warm woolly portatos but not as short as a hard spiccato or staccato. This bowing/articulation is almost always used by composers in upbow leadins (prolonged upbeats) to a new phrase, with the increasing heaviness as we go towards the frog being one of the reasons for a composer to deliberately specify this bowing. In the following examples, the red enclosure indicates es an easy, slow portato, while the blue ones enclose the faster, more difficult “skipping portatos”.
If our right 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, semi-off-the-string portato passages are possibly the most precise and demanding diagnostic test of the skills of mobility, fine control and delicacy in our right hand.
We may need to work on these figures initially without the lefthand, in order to eliminate the coordination problems that the lefthand adds to the passage. We can also eliminate their stringcrossings, playing each figure first on only one string and one note to start at the most basic level of simplicity. For those of us with less sporting talent, we might still have difficulties with this bowstroke even after building up from one string and one note to the entire figure as written (with lefthand and string crossings). In that case, 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 these alternative bowings 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 with brushed, semi-spiccato, separate bows in the middle of the bow as in the following alternative:
WHAT HAPPENS AS THE SKIPPING PORTATOS GET TOO FAST?
As we increase the speed of these “skipping portato” figures we will eventually (and gradually) be obliged to transform them into flying spiccatos or flying staccatos (or just simply separate bows) because we will reach a point where controlling each individual impulse is both impossible (and unnecessary). But this does not happen at any one fixed speed but rather is a gradual process of change from “individual impulse control” to “ricochet + rebounds”.
Set the metronome and try the following little experimental figures, observing how an upbow portato evolves with ever-increasing speed. At ♩ = 60 the speed of the portato 8th notes is 240 npm and we can play a normal, on-the-string pulsating portato. For the triplet 8th notes the speed is 360 npm and we will use a “skipping portato” while for the 16th notes their speed is 480 npm and we will use flying spiccato, ricochet or separate bows. This is an experiment, a laboratory exercise, so please don’t be upset when the second, third and fifth bars of the bottom line seem unplayable with flying spiccato/ricochet. They are (unplayable). Flying spiccatos only work on figures with a limited number of notes after which the spontaneous rebound doesn’t function anymore. Eight notes in a controlled ricochet figure is normally a few too many. We would probably need to play the fast notes of these bars with separate bows to be able to control them cleanly.
STACCATO AND FLYING STACCATO
Even though both staccato and portato use repeated bow impulses in the same direction they sound nothing like each other and are in fact diametrical opposites. Instead of the “waah waah” smooth rounded pulsations of portato, in staccato we give each impulse a much shorter, more articulated rhythmic character, with all of the energy going into the beginnings of the notes rather like a series of fp attacks. While portato notes are longer than even the smoothest separate bows, staccato notes are shorter than even the driest spiccato because the bow clamps back down on the string immediately after each note-start, thus suppressing any possible resonance between the notes. In portato the bow never stops moving whereas in staccato it stops immediately after every note. In fact it seems that each note in staccato is sounded by the release of the bow pressure whereas in portato each pulsation corresponds to the application of increased pressure. Because each impulse is so short and vertical, staccato uses much less bow per note than portato. In fact, a full staccato bowstroke can last much much longer than even the longest (slowest) legato bowstroke.
Normally, in a musical situation, staccatos are faster than portatos, but for practice purposes it can be very useful to work on our slower staccatos. To convert a portato into a staccato we will need to slow down the bow, press harder, and use a more vertical impulse into the string (rather than the brushing, horizontal stroke of portato).
Working on our staccato with a metronome allows us to experiment with different note speeds and different bowstroke durations. We can start off always playing the same note, so as to be able to concentrate on the bow, but when get bored we can add the left hand, string crossings etc and can in fact incorporate staccato bowings into many of our lefthand drills (scales, arpeggios etc).
As with its “motherstroke” portato, each articulation (note) is produced by an individual impulse, but now, because of the higher speed, each impulse needs to be shorter and heavier, becoming, in top-speed flying staccato, part of a series of controlled muscular spasms that resemble a machine-gun firing. For many years I thought that these spasms had to come from the arm, but having failed to acheive a functional staccato I was forced to reconsider and now believe that they, just like the impulses of the slower portatos, “skipping portatos” and slower staccatos, come from the hand and fingers. But the truth is that I still don’t have a functional fast flying staccato so ……
In the above staccato exercises our maximum note speed was 360 npm. These speeds are manageable for even the most human cellists. But some repertoire passages are so fast that they defy comprehension for us “human cellists”. The following excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Rococo Variations” has a note speed of around 500 npm, which is why most cellists just play it with ultra-short, heavy separate bows (the difference in sound is minimal but the visual difference is enormous). Piatti’s “Locatelli Sonata” starts with a flying spiccato theme at a very similair speed but in fact Locatelli’s original violin sonata did not use the staccato bowing. Hora Staccato goes even faster, at around 560 npm at least.
Flying staccato bowings are very rare in the repertoire, probably because not only are they very difficult but also because they sound almost the same as short separate spiccato bowstrokes. It is for these two reasons that the cellofun version of “Hora Staccato” is called “Hora Spiccato“. Flying staccato is much easier on the violin, but some cellists do manage it: the following link opens a brilliant video performance of Hora Staccato on the cello.
We can function perfectly well as cellists without being able to do flying staccato bowings, but as a practice tool, the usefulness of slow-to-moderate speed staccatos is astonishing. This facet of staccato will be discussed below.
A POSSIBLE HARMLESS SUBSTITUTE FOR FLYING STACCATO
The spectacular effect of flying spiccato is largely visual, and this bowing can normally be replaced by separate bows without any noticeable change in how it sounds (but with a huge reduction in the level of difficulty). In order to make this sleight of hand as indetectable as possible (in an aural sense because it will always be very obvious visually) our notes will need to be played absolutely as short and incisively as possible. This means with more pressure (weight), shorter strokes and with the bow’s point of contact closer to both the frog and the bridge than we might normally use.
PORTATO AND STACCATO AS A DIAGNOSTIC TOOL
Portato bowings, especially the faster ones (skipping portato and flying staccato), are a diagnostic tool as useful for our bowing health as x-rays, ultra-sounds and scans are for physical medicine. If we have trouble with portato and staccato bowings then we are being told “your bowhand is stiff, your fingers are stiff”. It is also a diagnostic tool for coordination problems between the hands. Even to just play a flying staccato bowstroke on one note is difficult: to coordinate the bow impulses with simultaneous lefthand finger articulations, shifts and string crossings, and all of it at top speed is one of the most complex skills for any string player. The wonderful thing here is that for both problems (stiffness, and coordination) the diagnostic tool is also the remedy: it not only tells you that there is a problem and exactly what it is, but at the same time also fixes it!
PORTATO AND STACCATO AS POTENT BOWTHERAPY
Because slow portato is easy, and faster portato/staccato very rare, we tend to neglect them in our bow-work, which tends to be focused principally on legato, spiccato and stringcrossings. This is a big shame because by doing this we are missing out on an extraordinarily useful tool for some very fundamental aspects of our playing technique. Incorporating these bowing techniques into our daily practice routines is of enormous – and surprising – utility for our general bowing mastery.
With each new impulse during the bowstroke requiring an active movement of fingers and wrist as well as a recalibration of balance and pressure, portato and staccato bowings accustom the bow-hand to a whole new level of responsiveness and fine motor control. The emphasis here is on the word bow-hand: whereas in long legato strokes it is mainly the bow-arm that is working, in portato and staccato strokes we are adding an intensive workout of the arm’s extremities (fingers, wrist and hand) in a way that very few other bowings do. If we make an effort to practice our basic mechanical lefthand drills and exercises (scales, arpeggios etc) with portato, skipping portato and flying staccato bowings we will see not only an improvement in our left-right hand coordination but possibly also a huge transformation in our relationship with the bow. Watching this video of Santiago Cañon practising his scales with these staccato bowings as a child gives us a secret glimpse into one of the pedagogical foundations of his stunning adult virtuosity.
With a little bit of imagination, we can use just about any musical (repertoire) passage to practice our portato and staccato bowings. All we need to do is find the rhythmic subdivision which corresponds to our desired portato/staccato speed, and then just play the piece with that constant underlying ostinato rhythm (best done with a metronome). This is easiest to explain with some musical examples:
In this way we are simultaneously practising both our repertoire and our bowing speciality – getting as it were, double the value from our practise time. We can also use this same idea (principle) for our spiccato bowings.
THE OTHER HIGHSPEED ONE-BOW MULTINOTE VARIANT: FLYING SPICCATO
When we come across a group of small slurred fast notes with dots on them we may not know initially whether they are to be played portato, staccato or flying spiccato. This will depend on the speed, the style, and the consequent desired musical effect. Flying spiccato is, like flying staccato, a special effect, and even though they may be notated in the same way they are very different to each other. In flying spiccato the arm only really does one articulation (impulse), which is a throwing of the bow from the air onto the first note, with the rest of the articulations in the same bowstroke coming effortlessly from the natural bounce of the bow (ricochet). Look in the “Bouncing Bow” section for more material concerning this bowstroke.
Here are links to some material for working on our portato, skipping portato, staccato and flying staccato:
Portato and Flying Staccato: REPERTOIRE EXCERPTS Portato and Flying Staccato: EXERCISES
Now, let’s take a look at another bowing, used all the time, in which we continue with another impulse in the same direction as the previous bowstroke: 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 that little physical difference is responsable for the 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 rhythmically asymmetrical figures ( most notably dotted rhythms) is looked at in more detail on the following page
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:
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!
Here is a compilation of repertoire excerpts using hooked and staccato bowings:
Hooked Bowings: Repertoire Excerpts