The articulation of sounds on the violin is much like the production of different consonants and vowels in speech, and the nuance in expression of tone. The many ways of articulating notes with the bow makes them speak in different ways.
Articulation in violin music is created using range of bowing gestures. These can give the violin an array of different sounds on any one pitch. These differences are mainly in the transient sounds at the beginning and end of the note, and in the length of the note and the attack of the bow. Various techniques of bow pressure, position of the bow (point of contact), angle of the bow and position and movement of the wrist, fingers and elbow are used to create different shapes in with the sound.
These techniques can be described as bowing patterns, or thought of in terms of tone qualities, speed, pressure and position of the bow.
The first articulations the violinist will encounter are the simple ideas of separate bows and legato. In separate bows, the direction of the bow is changed for each note, so each note occurs up bow, down bow, up bow, down bow and so on. In legato bowing, two or more notes are played in one bow stroke. Sometimes separately articulated notes are played within one bow stroke.
Legato bowing creates two main challenges. Firstly, the sound of the bow must not be disturbed by what the left hand is doing. An exercise such as the first study in the Schradieck School of Violin Technique is helpful for coordination of the left hand within a slur. This can be more complicated when a fingering during a slur involves a substantial change of position. A change of position not only requires a change in sounding point, the violinist will have to use the bow to help the left hand make the shift. By slowing down the bow stroke slightly and lifting the pressure whilst the left hand is shifting, a shift can be camouflaged without disrupting the legato flow.
The second challenge of legato bowing is where the slur involves any string crossing. A slight pressure of the bow as the string crossing is made will help bind the tone of the first and second note. Generally, the best technique for smooth string crossings within legato is to approach the second string gradually, so as the first note is slurred to the second, a double stop will sound momentarily. This double stop happens so subtly it is not possible to distinguish it, and only the desired note, aided by the slight bow pressure, is heard.
Where the bow changes back and forth between two strings several times in one bow stroke, it is easiest to keep the bow as close as possible to both strings at once whilst still making sure each note sounds clearly. String crossings like this are hardest at the heel of the bow because they require a subtle and active use of the right hand fingers. Practice studies for legato string crossings can be found in Exercise IV of the Schradieck tutor.
Détaché bowing can, in its simplest form, be described as playing with separate bows. However, the more advanced détaché stroke has a slight swelling at the beginning of the note, followed by a gradual lightening. This is created by adding a slight pressure at the beginning of the note without accenting it. When the stroke is played continuously the infection gives the impression of separation between the notes.
Portato bowing is very similar to détaché bowing and performed using almost the same technique. However, portato is a series of détaché strokes played with one bow stroke. This articulation is used to bring more expression to slurred legato notes.
There are many more advanced and subtle bow techniques, all of which create different articulation in the sound of the violin. Some of the more unusual and distinctive include:
- Col legno – playing or hitting the string with the wood of the bow. Gustav Holst uses this technique in the opening of his suite The Planets. Mars, the Bringer of War, a movement which is described as a prescient of mechanical warfare, begins with an uncomfortable 5/4 march rhythm played with the wood of the bows in the strings.
- Pizzicato – making the sound by plucking the string instead of using the bow. This creates a much shorter articulation with no sustain and is used to great effect in Johann Strauss’s Pizzicato Polka.
- Sul ponticello – playing right near the bridge to bring out the higher harmonics, producing a harsh, nasal tone
- Sul tasto - playing over the fingerboard to produce a soft ‘flautando’ or flute-like tone
- Tremolo – a trembling effect produced by a rapid repetition of one note
Other more advanced bowing techniques can be learned to produce a huge variety of articulation, character and sound.
The Forty Variations opus 3 by Otakar Ševčík is a compact introduction to many bow strokes including collé and spiccato. Collé is a very important practice bowing, invaluable for developing control of the bow in all its parts. It is also musically useful, being incisive and short.
Spiccato is a bow stroke in which the bow is dropped from the air above the string and leaves the string again after each note. It is played mainly in the lower two thirds of the bow and can range from very short to fairly broad.
Articulation markings in music are indicated by various dots, lines and shapes attached to the note. Generally, a note with a dot above or below is played short, and one with a line is played long. These markings inform which gesture the violinist will make with the bow. A passage of quavers, for example, all articulated with dots, might be played with a spiccato bow stroke. The symbol > above or below a note indicates that the note is played with an accent.
A list of common articulation markings can be found here.
The extent of articulation and nuance possible with advanced study of bowing techniques is as broad as the range of language and expression of a skilled singer. This exploration of some of the basic concepts is only an introduction to the possibilities of violin articulation. Ask your teacher to show you some of the more detailed bowing skills, and use studies and repertoire to develop your vocabulary of sounds.
For more ideas on right hand technique and how the bow arm produces sound, read the ViolinSchool article on Tone Production.