Spiccato Bowing on the Violin
What is spiccato on the violin?
Spiccato strokes are short and fast, and the bow leaves the string after each stroke, creating a “bouncy” sound. In Italian spiccato literally means “to separate”. Spiccato usually works best about one centimeter above the balance point of your bow (which is below the middle) but this depends on the speed of the spiccato. Generally speaking, faster spiccato is done a little higher in the bow.
Spiccato bow stroke in sheet music
In sheet music, spiccato is notated by little dots over or under the notes. How do you know if this is spiccato or staccato, since it is the same marking? It depends on the speed of the piece and the length of the notes. Spiccato is a faster technique than spiccato because the bow bounces best when it is moving quickly. Some composers will also use words to clarify that a passage is to be played off the string.
How to play spiccato on the violin?
When playing spiccato, always start the first note from on the string. Do not drop the bow onto the string for the first note, especially when playing in orchestra because all the violinists dropping their bows will not sound together! Pressing the bow lightly into the string first and using the string’s resistance creates the friction necessary to propel the bounces. As mentioned above spiccato is done at or near the balance point of the bow.
Types of spiccato bowing
There are two main types: brush spiccato and bounce spiccato. Brush spiccato is a broad spiccato in the lower half, and is slightly slower than other types of spiccato. Brush spiccato is an active bow stroke (meaning the right hand/arm actively controls the bounce).
Bounced spiccato strokes are less broad than brushed ones, and the bounce in this case is partly or entirely passive. Bounce spiccato works at a variety of tempos, so just keep in mind that the faster you go, the more the bounce of the bow takes care of itself. You will reach a point at which the right hand stays completely relaxed while the bow rebounds on its own. This comes from the right combination of bow placement, speed, angle, and height of the bounce.
How to practice spiccato?
It is helpful to do simple exercises that break down the spiccato motions before trying spiccato passages in pieces. This begins with developing flexibility in the right hand fingers and wrist. One excellent preparation for spiccato is practicing collé on open strings. To briefly explain, collé is a very unique stroke because it begins on and ends off the string. It is also a wonderful exercise to improve finger flexibility. The bow is placed at the frog, and through the action of the fingers scrubs the string and lifts off. Collé can be done in other parts of the bow, but it is most common and easiest at the frog. The right hand fingers are rounded when initiating a downbow stroke and straight when initiating an upbow. Another way to think of collé is “pizzicato with the bow.” After you have done collé on open strings, try going through a whole scale.
The super-precise collé motion makes the hand more flexible and improves spiccato. To make a good sound, think about whether your spiccato bounces are making the shape of a “V’ or a “U”. V spiccato bounces are very short, and U-shaped bounces have a richer sound, staying a little closer to the string.
There are also several etudes for practicing spiccato. Many of the etudes from Rodolphe Kreutzer’s very famous 42 Studies for Violin can be adapted to this purpose. Let’s use Kreutzer’s Etude No. 5 as an example:
Start by playing each note four times (four G’s, four B♭’s, etc.). Do it at a comfortable speed where the bow will bounce naturally. When you can do this evenly with a straight bow, repeat the etude playing each note three times, then two times, and finally as written in spiccato. Do not worry about increasing the tempo right now, just notice how relaxed you are and how consistent your bowing is.
Learning this technique is very important because it appears everywhere in famous violin repertoire. There is this famous spot from Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto, in the beginning of the third movement:
Perhaps you’re thinking “There’s no way I could play that right now!” Not to worry, if you’re looking for more intermediate spiccato example there are several. Accolay’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, a popular piece for advancing students, has a wonderful brush spiccato section:
Another famous spiccato place is in the first movement of Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 5:
Finally, it is important to clearly understand the differences between spiccato and some very similar violin bowing techniques. Sautillé is very similar to spiccato, as both are bouncing techniques. However, in spiccato the bow actually leaves the string, whereas in sautillé the stick bounces but the bow hair itself remains on the string. Sautillé therefore works for much faster passages where the bow does not have time to leave the string.
Compare this excerpt from Paganini’s Caprice No. 5 with the videos above to see if you can hear and see the difference:
Flying spiccato is the other very similar technique. It is several spiccato notes played on the same bow stroke (usually upbow) and staying in the same spot on the bow. This happens in the third movement of the Mendelssohn concerto:
In summary, spiccato is definitely one of the more challenging violin bowing techniques, and requires patience and perseverance. However, learning it opens the doors to some of the best violin repertoire in existence.
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