Bowing: ‘How Do I Play the Dot?’

Mike Lawson • String Section • May 8, 2019

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I’m writing this article about what the “dot” means in music (and the many ways to play it).

As professionals who have dedicated our entire lives to the interpretation and execution of composed music, we have a fairly good concept of context (and the many variables creating it) for informed stylistic use of the bow when presented with the “dot.” Students and often young conductors not trained on a stringed instrument use terms not fitting or specific to the desired sound. Can we blame them?

Rhythmic Dots vs. The Articulation Dot

For those of you who either teach the Suzuki method or use the Suzuki book 1 independently: What do you think about the new editions that include this:

…in which the dot occurs above the long note (and not the short ones?).

Imagine a single musical note as an entity. Now imagine an articulation added to it. The note, in a way, will wear that (and any musical symbol of intent) as its own environment. The dot given to a note surrounds it with identity, character, and definition. Continuing in this vein, the skill of an editor’s interpretation is one of the jobs which requires unbelievable study and knowledge of instrumental technique and the language used in the community for communicating effectively.

A crucial part of the process of communication between a composer’s unmarked score and a musician’s performance is accuracy and awareness.

Accuracy of not only the articulations’ definition, but also the awareness of how musicians execute them with specifications unique to which instrument is intrinsically coloring the core of the tone. Articulating a note or making a symbol indicating intent for note is usually going to affect the front part of the sound, the initiation of the note, as well as defining the nature of the end of the note for the space between the notes’ articulations within the parameters.

This is a step that is unbelievably important: it decides how the music will sound. As teachers, that responsibility largely falls into our classrooms and studios, we surely can agree on something so common and unrelentingly present in our music as “the dot!” Yet…

When a musician is in a position to make their own judgments and aesthetic choices (such as bowings, articulations, dynamics, the “push and pull” of well-phrased and timing/placement, etc) are either feel a need for guidance and directions, or we indulge our musical sensibilities and enjoy having control of the musical elements.

Such is the nature of awareness through choices.

In most instances the “.” is addressing one of a handful of articulations concerning the on the string off the string bow stroke.

Starting basic with on or off, it’s a good way to mirror another approach to the two basic bow strokes on the stringed instrument. Often, I use legato versus detache as the groundwork for every other post-stroke that comes after it, falling into one category of the other. Another way to do this is by considering the on the string off the string vertical versus horizontal aspect suppose stroke.

The bowing terms I’m going include have to do with the consideration of “on” or “off” the string, which is often a question asked when string players see a dot above a note.

Bowing Terms and How to Execute Them:

All these terms either include a dot in their articulative profile or use a defining quality that overlaps with those used by students and professionals alike when describing the dot. Some are obvious, some obscure, and some seem to be identical to each other using a different name.

Such is to be expected in a language crossing every dialect, culture, race, nationality, age group, ethnicity, gender, etc. It is often said that music is the “universal language,” which has never really been a phrase I could get behind. Certainly, we all possess potential to use music as a way to communicate and to celebrate.

Musical impulses are both physical and emotional. So personal that the language of sound is …just that, personal. Not so universal in message – but in the “having.”

Bowing Techniques

• COL LEGNO = the bow stick is used to hit the strings

• SPICCATO = a controlled bouncing or spring bow off the string, flexible fingers and wrist are a must

• SAUTILLE= my personal favorite, is fast spiccato acquired through a completely relaxed hand that permits sufficient elasticity to allow the bow to bounce itself. A rapid bounce, half on and half off the string, relies on natural rebound.

• DeTACHe = a broad legato stroke with a slight space between each note

• LEGATO = a smooth stroke without any spacing between the change of bow

• MARCATO = a sharp stroke, literally, well-marked

• MARTELe – Martellato = a hammered, accented effect

• STACCATO = a light, short stroke with a period of silence between notes, this will very according to tempo

FLYING SPICATTO = like regular spiccatto in that the bow bounces, but instead of remaining stationary-the bow is drawn along the strings as it is bounced producing a virtuoso effect

• UPBOW STACCATO = there are many types of upbow staccatos:

1. The normal “loose” kind.

2. The stiff kind

3. The off-the-bow “flying” kind. Basically, we’re dealing with the normal “loose” kind.

Practice Tip:

Set the weight with your arm. This weight is constant and never varies. The bow stick should remain down – it shouldn’t be jumping up and down. From there, the magic is in the wrist. Do clockwise motions with your hand, so that the third finger is doing the work. Use the first finger as the pivot point with the third doing the motion. Combine that with smooth arm movement and you’re set. Also, one way of practicing (besides going from slow to fast) is to repeat a note four times with the upbow stacatto. Then move to three times…then two… then one…

Springing Stroke and Thrown Stroke

RICOCHET – Saltato – Saltando = rebounding bow, bow rebounds on several notes in the same bow, springing

I think my peers and I are familiar with the term “richocet.” A familiar term and technique used within symphonic literature: there is often no printed directive to indicate the richochet. Traditional passages in the standard rep (and experience performing them) is most naturally a richochet at super-fast tempi. Most common when an 8th note is beamed to various numbers of 16th or 32nd note groupings. The group count is how many bounces are timed on the rebounds.

In many of the “springing bow,” the bow jumps but the hairs don’t leave the string, the bow jumps by itself; you do not have the control of each individual stroke. Let the bow bounce by itself.

Keep your joints loose, pull the elbow in, so the bow is not totally parallel to the bridge and then give a slightly slanted impulse to the fingers and bow. You must dig in the string, do not try to lift the bow. The more you dig In, the more the bow will rebound, similar to the behavior of a basketball.

The difference in sound and execution in many of these “bounced” strokes comes down to the amount of vertical versus horizontal travel. For example: one of the most necessary and vague stroke to master is often called a “brush stroke” where although the actual hairs will not all leave the string, there is still enough defined pulse to separate the notes and have that light bounced effect. This is a stroke where the use of increased horizontal travel mutes the harsh qualities of articulation-resulting in a “brushing” motion and sound. The timing must still be precise-as for a section to play together and not sound muddy-the control must be absolute to achieve adequate unity of note definition.

As for thrown stroke: the stick and the hairs will come off the string. Try to play strokes non-parallel to the bridge. This time the elbow is not “in,” so the axis of the curve that you describe with the bow is parallel to the bridge but the actual path that the bow follows is not. Imagine that instead of drawing a parallel stroke to the bridge you draw a line with the shape of a “C” (of course the opening of the C is by the bridge’s side). The shape of a C is not vertical (not only) but horizontal. In the extremes of the C your bow lands and takes off gently from the string. Of course, you can do sautille or spiccato forte, piano, fast and slow. The closer to the nut you play the louder and slower it will be (and conversely). You have to experiment this by yourself. Try first to understand the difference between spiccato=thrown stroke= control of every stroke up and down and sautille= springing stroke= letting the bow to jump by itself and just giving a general impulse when needed. Then use it in musical context.

• SALTATO = This is a thrown staccato in the upper half of bow. It is a down bow thrown

• COLLE = This bowing is in the MARTELE family of bowing strokes. Played in the lower half of the bow, it is approached from the air with an attack, then a lift primarily using the flexibility of the fingers with stability in one’s arm

• PORTATO = The slight separation of a series of notes taken in a slur

• COLLE = Pinched stroke at frog, often a series of down bow strokes

As we grow into more mature instrumentalists, I think we see articulations differently when we encounter them in our parts. Most string players I know have a decidedly low tolerance for being told how to use their bow by conductors and/or other musicians, myself included. Hopefully, if you are paying attention and matching you notes with those around you, such situations will be rare.

As orchestral situations call for: it is a clue to both watch the principle of your section and the body language the conductor is providing. Assemble the information and make your best interpretation of the expected/ desired sound and use your experience to manipulate your bow to match accordingly.


Some of the variables more experienced players use to determine a dot’s purpose in their part(s):

• The era of composition

• The region and musical “fads” or artistic movements influencing the composer

• The very different capabilities of both bow and instrument throughout history and how they were being used (ex. baroque bows versus modern bow)

• Limitations of available ensembles a composer had/has to play their work

• The size of the string section/orchestra that is now going to participate

• Tempo has a huge role in determining these bowings specifically. Many will only work at certain speeds

• Musical mood for context

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