My spiccato journey and questions thread

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by Scott Lynch, Sep 22, 2022.

  1. Scott Lynch

    Scott Lynch Supporting Member

    Nov 27, 2002
    Delaware, USA
    First, for reference - German bow player here.

    For some time now I have devoted significant practice time to improving my skill with the bow, as a long term goal of mine is to develop a high degree of competence with a wide range of orchestral bow strokes. Recently I have turned my focus to off-the-string bowing and have been slowly working through Book 2 of Gaelan McCormick's Mastering the Bow. It has been a fun, challenging, and at times, frustrating journey. Some observations I have made so far:

    • Practicing spiccato has drastically improved my left-right hand coordination, and my on-the-string strokes such as detache, martele and legato slurs have improved noticeably in their clarity and consistency. Anyone who plays with the bow, whether or not they want to be able to use these sounds in performance, should practice some spiccato strokes! It's about the only piece of advice I feel comfortable giving right now on the topic.
    • Spiccato is difficult! Like, sometimes-I-want-to-hurl-my-bow-across-my-lawn-like-a-javelin difficult (don't worry, I haven't done that... yet)
    • Developing a basic map of solid, simple spiccato at different tempos seems to be a combination of the following factors:
      • A balance between bow "carry" and letting the natural bounce of the stick do the work
      • Figuring out the ideal places (i.e., distance from the frog) where the bow naturally wants to bounce at certain tempos
      • Awareness of how arm tension and hand grip will kill the bounce, especially when pushing my boundaries
      • In certain instances, i.e. on the E string, actually adding arm weight to increase the force of the bounce
    My current goal right now is increasing the speed of my spiccato stroke. Right now the best I am at is ~92 BPM, with a goal of ~100 BPM on the current etude I am doing. What seems to be working to increase my speed with consistency is:
    • Relaxing
    • Focusing on smaller bounces, getting the bow back to the string more quickly
    • Moving the bow from the balance point toward the middle
    The trade off here, of course, is dynamics, as my strokes are getting quieter. I worry that moving toward the middle is moving toward what McCormick describes as sautille, and that I may need to figure out how to increase my speed with bouncing the bow at the balance point. (Although, side note, I have a feeling that I will learn that terms such as spicatto, sautille, hammer stroke, etc. have some overlap and become contextually dependent as my awareness and skill increases.) The plan is to just concentrate on increasing speed, then work on stretching my dynamic range as a next step.

    Those with more experience - any advice? Am I moving in the right direction? Or running myself into a dead end progress wise with any of this? This is all fairly new to me and I am wary of the dreaded trap of "unconscious incompetence", or not knowing what I don't know. All advice is appreciated!
    Last edited: Sep 22, 2022
  2. CaseyVancouver


    Nov 4, 2012
    Are you playing in an orchestra? Why the focus on spiccato?

    Spiccato is not difficult or hard. It is a common bowing that comes up in orchestral rep, but it is not everything.

    Play your current version of spiccato, only five or ten minutes each day, then move on to other important aspects.
    Don’t spend a ton of time on any specific bowing every day.

    Intonation, ability to bow softly and sound beautiful, impeccable shifting, locking in with a violin section playing fast 16th note runs, etc are significant skills that require your practice time.

    Spiccato will come. The magic formula is regular attention. A great spiccato may take a very long time.
    A great spiccato requires great left hand skill, which gets us back to the fingering & shifting basics.

    A pro can show you his spiccato and how he got there.
    It could be a long journey. That’s normal.

    Looking forward to what others say on this.
    Last edited: Sep 23, 2022
  3. I'm with Casey here. Don't put so much time into it unless you really need your Beethoven 5 excerpt or something to be perfect within a month. Some people figure it out quicker than others, as with everything, but don't worry about it. In actual repertoire there's very few parts where you actually need it, you can get away without doing it and just trying to do short strokes. I took a lesson with Tom Derthick recently and when going over Beethoven 5, he actually suggested that I try playing the trio without spiccato. "If it sounds like spiccato, it is spiccato!". Doesn't mean you should stop practicing it, but like Casey said, five to ten minutes is plenty of practice for a day.
    Monabass likes this.
  4. garrett2

    garrett2 Supporting Member

    May 15, 2017
    I totally get where you are coming from. Working on spiccato really helps your bow control and makes you think about it differently.
  5. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    "And when the bow dances...":
    elmer, Keith Rawlings and garrett2 like this.
  6. My first collegiate teacher was Murray Grodner, who dates back to the days of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony. He had the most remarkable spiccato stroke—even Gary Karr mentioned it in his memoir. I'll share an excerpt from his book, A Double Bassist's Guide to Refining Performance Practices (©2013, published by Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0-253-01016-2), which I hope will help.

    I found learning the spiccato stroke with Prof. Grodner to be quite like riding a bicycle. It's tricky at first, but once you get it, you never forget how.

    Incidentally, Murray just celebrated his 100th birthday this past August—a living connection to the great American orchestras and conductors of the postwar years.

    Attached Files:

  7. Thank you, csrund, for the Grodner book excerpt. I met the Professor very early in my career, when he came to Sydney in the late 60's or early 70's and gave a recital and masterclasses at our Conservatorium. What I cannot clearly remember is which bow he used, German or French.

    Scott Lynch, I'm quoting the following to show how I approach spiccato, not to say that this is better than anyone else's. I am a French bow user but I believe the principles are the same for German bow. I believe that looking down at the string movement in relation to the bow/hand/arm movements and the resulting sound is most important. It turns the bass into your best teacher when it comes to studying bow strokes. A good or even better quality bow helps but you still have to trust its flexibility and bounce to do most of the work for spiccato IMO.

    csrund likes this.
  8. @David Potts: Murray Grodner played German bow. I came to him as a French bow player, and whenever he grabbed my bass and bow in the studio to demonstrate technique, he would invariably switch to a German hold after a few bars. :laugh: All of his students were made to learn their “non-native” bow in their third year of study with Prof. Grodner; however, he retired after my second year. I wound up learning German bow from Bruce Bransby, which was a great experience.

    Regarding spiccato differences between French and German, I think (in addition to the motion of the forearm cited by Prof. Grodner) the index finger is key for the French player, whereas the thumb becomes crucial for the German player, as these are the respective digits that keep the bow controlled and directed into the string, where it gets its bouncing energy. Does that make sense? (I suppose for players using the Streicher hold, it would be the index and middle fingers.)
    Last edited: Sep 25, 2022
  9. @Scott Lynch: Check out this and other videos in the series by Andy Anderson. Good stuff—hope it's helpful!