People often ask me how to play off the string well. I hear questions like:
- What should the hand be doing?
- Do I need a special bow hold?
- Should my fingers or wrist be doing some special motions?
- What part of the arm does the motion for spiccato come from?
Even with the added variable of height, playing off the string is less complicated than many of us make it out to be. I used to ask myself these same questions when learning this technique. Eventually this over-complicated things and I just ended up getting stuck.
(By the way, you can skip to the video below, if that’s more helpful – it’s essentially the same information.)
My Struggle With Spiccato
When I started high school, I was thrown into the world of standard repertoire for the first time. At the time, I had what’s known as a “Russian” bowhold, in which the fingers are overly pronated and the index finger rests between its middle joint and knuckle on the stick. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this – I was actually proud of it, especially since I looked up to my idol at the time, Jascha Heifetz, who played with this bowhold too. Unfortunately, being introduced to so much difficult repertoire all at once resulted in a lot of tightness, especially in the right hand. I skipped a lot of fundamental training to play this music; my fingers weren’t flexible at all and my thumb was very stiff. When I came across my first piece of music with an off-the-string bowstroke in orchestra, I had a lot of trouble understanding what to do. I was learning a lot by observing others and trying things by instinct. Even after putting in hours of practice and getting somewhat better, I still ended up going through high school with a stiff and uneven spiccato.
When I went to college to study music I was slowly growing out of my Russian bowhold as my amazing and very patient teacher, Daniel Phillips, had me work on lots of exercises from The Dounis Collection. These were very powerful exercises that taught me about flexibility in the fingers, a softer bowgrip, good control and weight distribution at different parts of the bow, and how to develop a strong technique with relaxation. It took a couple years before things really started to click for me, but I graduated with a much stronger foundation than what I came in with. This ultimately helped my spiccato (among other things) become more consistent.
Fundamentals, fundamentals, fundamentals.
The number one thing to work on to achieve a good spiccato are your fundamentals. When we are first learning the violin, there is a reason we are taught to curve the pinky and the thumb. Special emphasis on the thumb here – if you have a nice bowhold but a stiff thumb, spiccato will be very difficult. All 5 fingers have to feel loose and the thumb should be very supportive of the bow.
You might watch someone play spiccato and notice that the fingers or wrist move a little. However, be aware that this movement you see is not done on purpose. The hand is simply reacting to the natural bounce of the bow, the same way one can bounce on a trampoline. You can think of the bow as a small trampoline for the hand, except in this case, the hand is “glued” to the bow.
The spiccato motion is very similar to detache, especially when determining what part of the arm should initiate motion and what is an ideal elbow level. Because of this similarity, I usually introduce playing off the string by playing detache in the air, about an inch above the string. If you practice a good detache – in which the downbows and upbows match in sound quality – with a hand that’s both stable and flexible (neither too stiff nor too “floppy”), with all 5 fingers curved to allow them to react naturally to the motion of the bow stick, then you’ll have a good spiccato. Once you have this strong base foundation, then you can start experimenting with elements like bow height, width, contact point, speed, the amount of hair, and part of the bow.
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