How to play Staccato on the violin
Staccato ([stakˈkaːto]; Italian for “detached”) ‘short’ is a form of musical articulation in modern notation, it signifies a note of shortened duration, separated from the note that may follow by silence. It has been described by theorists and has appeared in music since at least 1676. (Wikipedia).
Staccato ‘short’ notes, may be indicated in the music by a dot over the note. Notes sometimes have a little wedge above the note, which indicates a very short staccato.
The word staccato indicates the name of the short sound. We can play staccato on the violin by using different bow-strokes, namely Spiccato or Martelé, then there is up-bow staccato and down-bow staccato.
With all of these bow strokes, we make use of the natural springiness of the bow. When we push the bow into the string, the bow wants to spring back. It is made to do this, by the arch of the bow and its tapering towards the point. Exploring the springiness of your bow will make you appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into making a bow. Each bow is individual and has its own particular springiness.
It is the combination of the stick, the bow hair, the strings, your bow hand and bow arm that makes for each different staccato bow stroke.
When you are first starting out to learn to play staccato, it makes sense to practise becoming aware of the springiness of the bow, by placing the bow in the middle on the string, pronate the hand, so that the index finger leads the pressing gently into the string. What is important, is the moment that this pressure is released. This is the moment the staccato note starts. Practise this without moving the bow initially, just gently pressing the bow into the string and releasing the pressure.
Next do the same exercise, but now release the pressure a bit more suddenly and move the bow. You will hear a little kick to your note. This ‘biting’ the string and releasing the pressure is what we are trying to achieve.
Once you are comfortable with the exercise above, move the bow to about ¼ from the tip. Bite the string, then release down-bow, which gives you your first Martelé bowing. Now bite the string at the point, and release, playing an up-bow and there is your Martelé again. Over time, you may fine tune this bowing by syncing the left and right hands, by playing a Martelé scale for instance, or by experimenting with the ferocity or gentleness of releasing the pressure of your index-finger to create different expressions.
Up-bow and down-bow staccato:
If you now start at the point of the bow and string together a number of Martelé-bow strokes in the up-bow, you will get an up-bow staccato. Think about squeezing your right-hand thumb and middle finger lightly together, interrupting an otherwise smooth bow-stroke.
Down-bow staccato is in essence the same but requires a little more abrupt squeezing of the thumb and middle finger.
You may have noticed that during the Martelé bow-stroke the bow does not leave the string. A Spiccato bow-stroke comes from the air into the string and jumps up again off the string afterwards. Spiccato is played at the balance point of the bow. It requires very flexible bow hand fingers that make sure the bow does crash into the string with a crushing sound. Your right-hand fingers are the shock-absorbers of the Spiccato bow-stroke. Spiccato bowing starts in the right elbow. I always tell my pupils to imagine your elbow draws little smiley faces in the air. In reality, it depends on how high you want the Spiccato to bounce off the strings, how much elbow to use.
Which type of staccato bowing is played depends on the style of the music. In Baroque music and in slow movements in Mozart for instance, it might be suitable to play Martelé, as in those days, the bows used to be much less springy than the modern bows. In fast section in Mozart, a sort of light spiccato is used nowadays, as it produces an airy and springy sound.
Much is left to the interpretation of the player, as many composers will just write “leggiero” ‘light’ or détaché ‘separated’.