Off-the-String Bowings on the Violin
These bowings may be off-the-string, with the bow lifting off (or even bouncing off) the violin string between strokes, but they’re not off-the-wall! The following introduces you to some off-the-string bowings that just drop in or make flying visits to your strings.
You smile when you play the violin because playing music is fun! The brush stroke makes your bow smile too. Brush stroke is the name given to strokes where the bow is lifted slightly off the string at each end of the note, so your hand moves in a curved, “smile” shape for this stroke. Here, you see the symbols that can indicate brush strokes.
Practicing “Homage to Kreutzer” using the light brush strokes prepares you for meeting them in music you want to play. This stroke works best in the lower half of the bow, around the balance point (literally the place about from the frog, where the bow can balance like an acrobat on the high wire, if you set the bow on its side and horizontally across your extended left index finger) of the bow.
To develop a brush stroke, start with smooth bowing in the lower half of the bow, just back and forth on the string, with no stops, very fluid. Gradually start to lift off at each end of the stroke, allowing very generous movements, rather like a conductor swishing away with a baton. When these bigger strokes feel free, start to make the strokes a little smaller and faster, but always keep the smile shape happening and always let each stroke come up a little off the string.
Allow your fingers to be quite flexible on the bow for this stroke, don’t grip tightly, and let the tip of the bow and the point of your right elbow describe “smile” shaped movements in sync with the hand movements.
Spiccato bowing refers to bouncy little strokes that happen around the middle of the bow. You choose the exact spot to use depending on the speed and volume of the spiccato notes: A little higher up the bow is lighter, and the spiccatos rebound more quickly but are somewhat less powerful in tone than are spiccato strokes dropped on the string a tad below the middle of the bow.
Also called a dropped stroke, spiccato calls for a flexible approach from the wrist and fingers to work successfully, because they act as a spring system to cushion the landings on the strings. Here’s an instance where those qualities are particularly useful: The bow rebounds of its own accord, and you don’t need to do much. In fact, the less you do, the better.
Knowing the difference between brush stroke and spiccato — and when to use which — can be tricky. In the brush stroke, you control every aspect of the lifting and landing of each stroke (by actually doing it yourself!), but in the spiccato stroke, the bow rebounds due to its natural elasticity, and then your hand just drops and “catches” it.
Generally, the brush stroke takes place in the lower third to half of the bow in slower-moving music. Spiccato works best around the lower to upper-middle area of the bow, and you use it for faster passages.
Here’s how you get started with spiccato:
Suspend your bow with its middle area about 3 inches above the A string, and let your hand hang ever so slightly below your wrist level.
Let the horsehair drop straight down onto the string and then rebound back up silently — just like bouncing a ball — but don’t try to actually make a bow stroke.
The pinky finger makes this action happen by releasing its weight from the bow and then getting its power back as the bow rebounds. Letting your forearm level down a little as the bow drops, and then letting it go up again as you catch the bouncing bow, is okay.
Try the same drop-and-catch idea in other parts of the bow to see where spiccato works best.
Observe that while the bow rebounds very briskly near the tip, the stroke is hard to control and feels a little brittle.
To make a real spiccato, add a little down-bow and up-bow action, mostly from your elbow hinge, to the preceding steps. If the stroke has more horizontal movement, the articulation is gentler and the duration of the note is slightly longer. If the horizontal movement is shorter (and this is usually needed in spiccato), the bounce element is greater.
The bow doesn’t need to jump too high off the string, especially when crossing to a new string. If you want the bow to rebound very actively, keep the stick directly above the ribbon of horsehair while you play. The flatter the bow hair, the greater the bounce. However, if you feel that the strokes are too bouncy, tilt the bow stick a bit away from you.
In violin playing, your playing technique is most successful when you keep your movements as simple and natural as possible.
Using dear old Kreutzer gives you a chance to try out spiccato for a few measures. Take a very easy tempo, and keep your bow hold quite flexible, no tight gripping. Here is “Homage to Kreutzer” with spiccato dots. You can watch and listen to the song on the video track, too.