Barbara Barber: Good Spiccato Starts in the Bow Hand

December 16, 2010, 1:16 PM ·

A few weeks ago I cleared out an entire day for something very dear to a violinist's heart: spiccato!

Barbara Barber – teacher, violinist, pedagogue, editor of the Solos for Young Violinists series – taught a two-day workshop in Pasadena, hosted by the Pasadena Suzuki Music Program. I attended the day called "Splendid Spiccato," a lecture that she also gave at the Suzuki Association of the Americas convention last year.

You may be asking, what exactly is spiccato? Even those well-versed in violin-playing can quibble over this one. Literally, it means “detached,” but certainly, it is a bouncing bow stroke. Into this category falls a number of more refined strokes: piqué or jeté (pricked), ricochet (thrown or dropped), sautille (fast springing), flying spiccato (all on the up-bow or down-bow), and the list goes on.

So what is the secret to the elusive bouncing bow, how does one teach control over a bow stroke that is governed in part by gravity?

As Barber said, "A good spiccato begins in Book 1." In other words, it all starts in a beginner's bow hand. Why do we teachers insist on the curved thumb, pinkie curved on top of the stick, middle fingers hugging the stick, softness in the knuckles? This is one of the very big reasons. (For more reasons, I've compiled a list at the bottom. Feel welcome to add.)

Barber uses a metaphor that works well with kids – and I tend to think adult students are not above a good metaphor as well: "Octopus fingers." She uses those squishy toys you can buy at Target to help students practice getting the right feel, with soft, flexible fingers. The student holds the squishy toy, the thumb tucked under, and practices rotating at the wrist, both sideways and up and down.

As early as Book 1, Barber is teaching a modified collé stroke, in which the student rests the bow on the A string and the teachers helps him/her go “wiggle wiggle,” moving from just the wrist, cultivating flexible fingers and knuckles. This moves into something she calls "jellyfish detaché," a very small stroke using just fingers and no arm, in the middle of the string. The next step is more of a real collé in the lower half, combined with a brush stroke. If you want to get into the metaphor of bow-hand as paintbrush, Barbara said to think of a big, fat, new paint brush. You can slap your right hand across your leg like a floppy paintbrush, to get the feel of this.

 "I like to stand behind the student with both of our scrolls facing a mirror when we are working on the jellyfish detaché, collé, spiccato, and other strokes," Barber said. "The student is usually shorter than I am and can 'shadow' my bow hand by seeing mine and his or hers in the mirror."

Cultivating the right-hand finger flexibility generally requires much practice and repetition, and it usually takes months, maybe even a year. Adding the bounce is icing on the cake: start with a ricochet, "bounce the bow like a basketball," Barbara said. You can try a pure vertical bounce in middle of the bow, at various speeds. Then add that jellyfish detaché hand motion (the horizontal element), and you've got spiccato.

Of course, all this distilled wisdom is just that. In practice, one must take time and use the repertoire to repeat these strokes until they become as easy as walking. If you use the Suzuki books, a student can play review pieces such as “Perpetual Motion,” using “jellyfish detaché,” etc. Barber also provides many opportunities in her six volumes of Solos for Young Violinists books which I have used for some time to supplement the Suzuki repertoire. The upper Suzuki books contain predominantly Baroque music, so in order to allow a student to practice spiccato techniques, one needs to find supplemental material that has Romantic pieces and other works that use such techniques.

It's best to begin learning spiccato techniques well before the repertoire requires it, Barber said. The student who is just beginning to learn spiccato while learning the Mendelssohn concerto will likely hit a brick wall, pretty hard.

Why do students sometimes get extremely rigid in their playing? “I believe it starts with foot charts,” Barber said. In other words, the same mentality that would have a child glue his or her feet to a chart, produces a stiffness in the entire player. It's important to stay moveable and flexible – as long as the child isn't running all around the room. Confining a small child to work within a taped-off “performance square” would be better than requiring him or her to stand exactly on a chart at every lesson.

I'll add: even terminology such as “bow hold” has its effect. There is no cast-in-stone “bow-hold,” it's really a fluid and flexible “bow hand,” which looks different at the frog than it does at the tip and adjusts to bumps in the road and the requirements of different bow strokes. It's better to think in terms of the roles each finger plays, and we can break down the beginner bow hand in these terms, if it helps. The following are some ideas that aren't directly from Barber, but I was thinking about them as a result of her workshop. I hope they help in thinking about the bow hand.

THUMB: Why should a beginner have the “bent thumb”? Because the thumb needs to be flexible, and most often in a beginner, if it is not bent, it is locked straight. So we ask for a bent thumb. When it is locked straight, it creates a complete lack of flexibility in the hand. Of course, when the bow is down at the tip, the thumb is straighter than it is at the frog. But the thumb should never be locked straight.

PINKIE: The pinkie rests curved, on top of the stick. The pinkie holds up the stick when the bow is horizontal, allowing the other fingers total flexibility. If the pinkie is around the stick, it cannot hold it up, and the other fingers stiffen, as they to take on the weight of the bow. If a player tries to lift the bow and place it at the frog, the bow will come down with a crash, if the pinkie is incapable of holding the weight of the bow. Likewise, the pinkie should be curved because the other alternative tends to be: locked straight. It is possible for the pinkie to lift the bow when locked straight, but then it does so with a complete lack of flexibility and control, and the player may feel at risk for dropping the bow.

INDEX FINGER: It does not hook around the bow, but rests on the stick. The index finger both serves as a guide for bow direction, and it also transmits weight into the bow when needed. Hooking around the stick can lock up other fingers and inhibit various kinds of bow strokes.

MIDDLE FINGERS: These hug the stick, providing stability while staying flexible. Sometimes students like to sit the middle fingers up on top of the stick. This is because the middle fingers are trying to help the weak pinkie finger in lifting the bow. If this is the problem, you need to strengthen the pinkie. Another problem with the middle fingers sitting atop the stick is that the player will have less control over the bow; they are always at risk of slipping off. Train the pinkie!


December 17, 2010 at 10:29 AM ·

I´ve always found spiccato to be a really tricky bowing technique (although I´m getting the hang of it now) so this must have been a wonderful seminar to attend. I love Barbara Barber´s books and I´d have absolutely loved to attend a seminar with her teaching.

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