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Staccato and Spiccato: Two Essential Bow Strokes

Lesley Schultz • May 2023String Section • May 11, 2023

There are many bow strokes you will want in your ensemble’s arsenal, but two of the most common that literature includes are staccato and spiccato. Although the words sound and look very similar, they are two very different strokes. Here are some tips and tricks to help your students determine which stroke is needed, and how to teach the differences between the two.

Staccato is an “on the string” stroke, meaning it is a stroke that is shortened and remains completely on the string. Students should engage the index finger on their bow hold to facilitate this stroke. I often call the index finger on the bow the “power finger”. With students pressing down, they can stop the bow on the string, thus creating the staccato stroke. 

Spiccato is an “off the string” stroke, meaning the bow leaves the string to create the shortened stroke. Students should engage in some wrist movement and think about drawing a “smiley face” as they play on the string. This is more easily done toward the frog of the bow. A key word to use is “bouncy”.

There are several ways to determine which stroke is required in the music. First is what time period the music comes from. If it comes from the classical period, or is in a classical style, it is most likely going to be a spiccato style bow stroke. Works by Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven regularly feature spiccato. If it is outside of the classical period, then words that composers and editors will use to indicate spiccato are “off the string”, or “brushy” or a shortened version of spiccato as “spicc”.  

For staccato, editors or composers will often make a distinction of “on the string” or “stacc” the shortened form of staccato. Staccato is more frequent in lower-level music as usually staccato is taught first. If you are working with Level 2 and under music, it is most likely the staccato stroke that is indicated instead of spiccato. 

If after working through a piece, you still are having trouble determining which stroke should be used, experiment with your students, that will help solidify the differences and help them with the techniques in your ensemble. Hopefully, this article helped to demystify the differences between staccato and spiccato, two essential bow strokes that your students should have in their technique box. 

Lesley Schultz currently teaches secondary general music and orchestra at Princeton City Schools (Cincinnati, OH). She earned her Bachelor of Music Education degree from West Virginia University and her Master of Music Education degree from Ohio University. Lesley is a Level 2 Google Certified Educator. Lesley keeps an active performing schedule around the state of Ohio, performing with several regional symphonies on viola. She is a member of TI:ME (Technology In Music Education) and serves on the National Conference Committee. Lesley is a columnist for SBO Magazine. In her copious amounts of spare time, she enjoys knitting, watching West Virginia Mountaineer sports and spending time with her family.

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