Excellence vs. Success

I would suggest that you pursue a commitment to personal excellence, rather than success, based on your own God-given potential.  Success and excellence are often competing ideals. Being successful does not necessarily mean you will be excellent, and being excellent does not necessarily mean you will be successful.

Success is attaining or achieving cultural goals, which elevates one’s importance in the society in which he lives.  Excellence is the pursuit of quality in one’s work and effort, whether the culture recognizes it or not.  I once asked Segovia how many hours a day he practiced.  He responded, “Christopher, I practice two and a half hours in the morning and two and a half hours every afternoon.”  I thought to myself, “If Segovia needs to practice five hours every day, how much more do I need to practice?”

Success seeks status, power, prestige, wealth, and privilege.  Excellence is internal – seeking satisfaction in having done your best.  Success is external – how you have done in comparison to others.  Excellence is how you have done in relation to your own potential.  For me, success seeks to please men, but excellence seeks to please God.

Success grants its rewards to a few, but is the dream of the multitudes.  Excellence is available to all, but is accepted only by a few.  Success engenders a fantasy and a compulsive groping for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  Excellence brings us down to reality with a deep gratitude for the promise of joy when we do our best.  Excellence cultivates principles, character, and integrity.  Success may be cheap, and you can take shortcuts to get there.  You will pay the full price for excellence; it is never discounted. Excellence will always cost you everything, but it is the most lasting and rewarding ideal.

— Christopher Parkening

Good Buy? or Good-bye! – Instruments

A Layman’s Guide to Purchasing a Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass 

Purchasing stringed instruments for students or an orchestra program may be comparable to walking through a mine field without a map.  Selecting an instrument outfit can reward us with an instrument that is genuinely a good buy, or punish us with an instrument we wish we had never bought.  Hopefully, these next several columns can serve as a map that will help us make informed string instrument purchases.

Stringed instruments are sold at three price levels.  An entry level instrument is called a student instrument, with a price ranging from several hundred dollars to approximately $1,200.00.  A mid-level instrument is considered a step-up instrument, ranging in price from $1,200.00 to $4,000.00.  A top-level instrument is referred to as a professional instrument, costing $4,000.00 or more, up to several millions of dollars.  Putting this in perspective, many music majors at colleges and conservatories play an instrument with an appraised value of $10,000.00 to $20,000.00.  A major recording artist may play an instrument appraised at several million dollars.

What makes one instrument worth more than another?  There are two general reasons.  The first is sound.  The second is provenance or, more simply, the maker and country of origin.  There are a few Stradivarius instruments that are in poor repair and do not sound good.  Because they are known to be made by Stradivarius in Cremona, Italy, during the golden age of violin making, those instruments still fetch a high price at auction when sold to collectors.  While the instruments may not be in perfect condition, the name “Stradivarius,” and the fact that they were made in Italy, keeps their value high.  In contrast, an unknown contemporary maker may produce instruments with extraordinary tone and fine craftsmanship.  Since the maker is not known he or she cannot charge as much for the instrument.  Such undervalued instruments are often good buys, especially in the step-up and professional price ranges.

When purchasing a student level instrument with limited funds the buyer should budget as much money as possible for the instrument.  Within the overall budget the next most important item is a good case to protect the instrument.  To save money initially the buyer may purchase a fiberglass bow with horse-hair as a temporary bow.  A good, pernambuco wood bow should then be purchased as soon as it is financially possible.  The fiberglass bow may be kept for use as a spare bow.  Fractional sized instruments may be purchased for a school or church program, or for a family with younger siblings who may study strings.  For most families however, it is more economical to rent smaller instruments until a child is ready to purchase a full-sized one.

The first step in purchasing a string instrument is deciding on the budget.  The budget should take into consideration the student’s needs.  Is the student a beginner or moving on to a step-up instrument?  Does the student want the instrument to last through middle school and perhaps the first year of high school?  Is the student needing a step-up instrument for high school and perhaps a music minor in college, or is the student in need of an instrument suitable for a music major in college?  Once the budget is set, the student may begin trying out instruments in the appropriate price range to find one that matches his needs and “feels good in the hands.”

All stringed instruments should meet or exceed the guidelines set forth by the Music Educators National Conference.  Instruments usually state this on the product tag.  MENC guidelines include basic indications of quality workmanship such as an ebony fingerboard, ebony pegs, a good quality maple bridge, inlaid purfling, varnish and specifications for carved or laminated construction (cellos and basses).

Inexpensive, imported instruments often do not meet these guidelines and spend more time in the repair shop than being played.  Such instruments often try to duplicate the look of ebony pegs and fingerboards by coloring cheaper, softer woods with black shoe dye.  Real ebony is black throughout the wood.  Dyed wood reveals light colored wood beneath the top layer of faked color.  Ebony withstands wear extremely well.  Soft wood pegs and fingerboards wear away quickly making an instrument difficult to tune and impossible to play on in tune.  For these reasons orchestra programs strongly discourage using instruments that do not meet these minimum standards.

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This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

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Jay-Martin Pinner teaches over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students at Pinner Studios, a private string studio in Greenville, SC.  He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras. For 25 years he supervised the University’s String Repair Shop maintaining the University and pre-college inventories of string instruments, bows, and cases.  He worked with Pecknel Music Company repairing instruments owned by South Carolina school districts.  He was privileged to study at the University of New Hampshire with Hans Nebel, one of the most respected string instrument restorers and repair techs in the United States.

Read Part 2

Good Buy? or Good-bye! – Bows

A Layman’s Guide to Purchasing a Bow for Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass

The first of this series of articles focused on the basics of purchasing an instrument in the violin family.  The focus of this column is on the selection of a violin, viola, cello, or double bass bow.  Generally, the instrument is purchased first, followed by the purchase of at least one bow.  An exception is the bassist who purchases a good bow first, transporting it in a hard-shell bow case for use with a school-owned instrument until a bass can be purchased.  Bassists also may choose between a French bow and a Butler or German bow.  Since the bassist must use a different bow hold for each type bow he should seek the advice of his teacher or orchestra director before making the final decision about which bow to purchase.

Bows have been made from many different materials, most commonly fiberglass and wood. In the 1930’s bow makers even experimented with aluminum.  The demands for aluminum in World War II curtailed further experimentation.  (There is at least one example of an aluminum violin and bow in the collection at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.  Having played on that instrument with that bow I can say with some authority that the sound is metallic at best.)    In the last decade graphite and carbon fiber have been used successfully to create bows of surprising strength and agility, capable of producing the subtleties of the great wood bows at substantially less cost.

A typical student fiberglass bow, strung with horsehair rather than synthetic hair, costs between $45.00 for violin and $85.00 for double bass.  A good quality entry-level student pernambuco wood bow may be purchased for between $275.00 for violin and $350.00 for double bass.  Viola and cello bows cost within these ranges.  Pernambuco (pronounced per-num-boó-co) is the wood of choice for both student and professional bows due to its density and flexibility.  While applewood and cherrywood bows may be purchased for significantly less money, such bows are not recommended.  Bows made from these inferior woods are usually of poor quality, tend to warp or break easily, and do not respond well in the hand.   Brazilwood is also used for less expensive, student bows.  Though it is better than the cheaper woods it is not as durable as pernambuco.

Many students begin with fractional size string instruments and matching fractional size fiberglass bows strung with horsehair.  This is quite satisfactory despite some teachers’ insistence upon using a wooden bow.  As a student progresses to a bigger and better quality instrument the need for a pernambuco wood bow increases.  A fiberglass bow can only mimic to a certain extent the weight, balance, and performance capabilities of a wood bow.

Choosing a bow takes time, patience, and the assistance of a reputable and knowledgeable instrument dealer or teacher.  Old bows by the great master bow makers can cost thousands of dollars.  New bows by recognized makers also have high price tags.  The most expensive bow might not work well on a particular instrument, so it is important to set a budget and stay within your financial comfort zone.  Avoid the assumption that the higher the price the better the bow will work with your instrument.

When choosing a bow:

•     Decide whether you prefer the French style (round) stick or the German style (octagonal) stick.  This is largely a personal preference though some performers prefer one style over the other.  The octagonal bow is only slightly more expensive.  That expense is so minimal that it should not factor into the final decision.

•     Sight down the stick from frog to tip and be sure the stick is straight.

•     Check for a good cambre or downward curve from the stick to the hair when the hair is tightened.  A stick with little or no cambre is useless.

•     Find the balance point of the bow by balancing it on two fingers.  A well-built bow will balance within a few inches of the bow grip.

•     Better bows will have their weights indicated in grams.  A heavier bow will generally do more of the work without forcing the player to add unnecessary weight from the arm and hand.

•     Check the bow’s fittings:  the winding, the frog, the tip, and the turn screw.  Pernambuco wood is graded according to quality.  A bow-maker usually reserves better frogs and mounts for higher quality wood.  Mounts start at the low end with nickel (German) silver, and range to the high end with sterling silver and a quality ebony, tortoise shell, or ivory frog.  A Parisian eye frog indicates that the pearl dot on the frog is encircled with a single or double ring of silver.

•     Draw the bow slowly across the strings with the contact point near the bridge playing a forte dynamic.  Check for spots in the bow that “grab” or “squawk.”  If such spots occur consistently they may indicate weaknesses in the bow that can hinder tone production.

•     Play spiccato, slurred, martelé bowings and check the bow’s response.

•     Whether buying an old bow or a new one check for hidden repairs, especially at the tip and on the lower end of the stick beneath the frog.  Check the frog to see if it is original or if it has been replaced.  A reputable dealer should inform a buyer of any defects or repairs that would affect the playability and value of a bow.

Take your time and try out as many bows as you can.  Get good advice.  The right bow in your budget is out there, and with patience you will find it.  Happy bow hunting!

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.



Jay-Martin Pinner 
teaches over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students at Pinner Studios, a private string studio in Greenville, SC.  He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras. For 25 years he supervised the University’s String Repair Shop maintaining the University and pre-college inventories of string instruments, bows, and cases.  He worked with Pecknel Music Company repairing instruments owned by South Carolina school districts.  He was privileged to study at the University of New Hampshire with Hans Nebel, one of the most respected string instrument restorers and repair techs in the United States.

Read Part 3

Good Buy? or Good-bye! – Cases

A Layman’s Guide to Purchasing a Case for Violin, Viola, Cello or Double Bass

The first two articles in this series focused on the basics of purchasing string instruments and bows.  This column will deal with the important issue of purchasing string instrument cases.  Having purchased hundreds of cases, flown thousands of miles with string instruments, and even seen one case with tire tread marks on it after being run over by a car (the violin was fine), perhaps I can help you as you look for the right case for your stringed instrument.

A Case for Cases

Choosing the right case is important for protecting a string instrument from bumps and scrapes, and for keeping that instrument safe from weather extremes.  String instruments are designed to come apart when exposed to heat and humidity.  Varnish will melt within minutes of exposure to the 120+ degree heat generated in a car parked in the sun with the windows up.  Conversely, extreme cold can crackle varnish and cause wood to shrink causing structural damage.  A good case will keep out heat, humidity, or cold for extended periods of time.

Case by Case Consideration

Violin and viola cases are identical except for size.  Viola cases often have to be specially fitted unless the case is adjustable and information states that it will fit all violas between 15 and 17 inches long.  Violin and viola cases range in quality from molded fiberglass with injected foam ($50-$75.00) to special order cases with luxury fittings such as leather, silk, velvet, and brass ($1500.00-$2500.00).  For special order cases it is wise to provide a tracing of the instrument’s outline so that the dealer can be sure of an accurate fit.  Many violin and viola cases are made with laminated wood covered with a screw-attached ballistic nylon cover.  This type of cover usually has a built-in music pocket.  If a cover is damaged and a case does not need to be replaced it is relatively inexpensive to order a new cover.  Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity.  For better quality instruments it is important to select a case with “full suspension.”  This suspension consists of covered foam inserts built into the case that prevent the back of the violin or viola from coming in contact with the back of the case.  If the case is subjected to a sudden jolt the foam protects the instrument from direct impact within the case.  Violin and viola cases come with two or four bow holders.  Some cases include hygrometers or humidification systems.

Cello cases come in three varieties:  soft covers, hard shell cases, and shipping cases.  Soft covers come in ballistic nylon with varying densities of padding, several storage pockets, a music pocket, and a strap or backpack harness for easy transportation.  They range in price from under $100.00 to $400.00.  Hard shell cases are made of plywood, fiberglass, or aluminum, and may have options such as wheels and special handles.  Costs range from $350.00 to $1800.00.  Shipping cases are also made of fiberglass, and have features such as internal inflatable air cushions, heavy-duty padding, and wheels.  Shipping cases cost from $2000.00 to $2500.00.  Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity.  Cello cases come with one or two bow holders.  Check the closure devices on hard shell and shipping cases.  Some cases are extremely awkward and difficult to latch.

Bass cases come in two varieties:  soft covers and shipping cases.  Soft covers come in ballistic nylon with varying densities of padding, several storage pockets, a music pocket, handles, and a strap.  Costs range from $100.00 to $500.00.  Shipping cases come in fiberboard and fiberglass, costing from $500.00 to $3000.00.  Fiberboard cases hold the bass and a soft cover.  Fiberglass cases hold the bass only.  Some models of shipping cases even come with a built in wardrobe for holding a tuxedo or other concert dress.  Interiors can be velour, velvet, or silk, in order of expense and longevity.

Case Closed

When choosing a case consider the primary usage.  Will it be used for extensive travel by air or will it be used to get back and forth from school, church, and other rehearsals by car?  If you need to travel by air you will need to get the best case you can afford.  Cellists and bassists have no choice but to purchase two cases:  one case for local rehearsals, and a shipping case so that the instrument can be placed in the baggage compartment on a plane.  (The only other option is to purchase two plane tickets for you and your instrument each time you fly.  Even then bassists have special difficulties to work out in advance with the airlines.)

Another critical factor in choosing a case is its weight.  While one violin case may weigh only two pounds more than another, over years of use your arms and neck will resent the additional pounds.  Lighter cases do not always offer sufficient protection, so the extra weight may be worth hauling around to insure peace of mind.  The “weight versus strength” factor becomes even more important for viola, cello, and bass cases.

With the dozens of case choices available in every shape, color, and style, it is possible to find exactly the right case for your needs.  That case can protect your instrument for ten or twenty years saving you hundreds of dollars in repairs, so take your time to choose and invest wisely.

This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.


Jay-Martin Pinner teaches over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students at Pinner Studios, a private string studio in Greenville, SC.  He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras. For 25 years he supervised the University’s String Repair Shop maintaining the University and pre-college inventories of string instruments, bows, and cases.  He worked with Pecknel Music Company repairing instruments owned by South Carolina school districts.  He was privileged to study at the University of New Hampshire with Hans Nebel, one of the most respected string instrument restorers and repair techs in the United States.

Improving String Intonation

In our experience as music educators, guest conductors and performers, there are few musical problems more recurrent than faulty string intonation.  Pure intonation is the sine qua non of good string tone, and it is the foundation upon which to build all other musical elements.  One of the challenges for those of us who work regularly with string instrumentalists in churches and schools is to present a consistent expectation of good intonation in every lesson, rehearsal and performance.

Expectations of good intonation begin with the first lesson or rehearsal.  From a practical standpoint all first year and many second year string students should have tapes or dots marking the correct finger placement on the fingerboard.  This helps each student to develop a visual as well as an aural and kinesthetic response to good intonation.  (This also prevents teacher/conductor burn-out from listening to out-of-tune students with no tapes for years on end!)  These temporary “frets” can be cut from automobile pin striping tape readily available in a wide variety of colors to suit a player’s personality.

The next important step towards good intonation is tune the open strings — objectively and with care.  Students should begin tuning their own strings no later than the third year of instruction.  Until then the instruments should be tuned prior to the rehearsal by an adult musician or a qualified older student helper.  No amount of instruction on finger placement can overcome faulty tuning of open strings.  When working with young groups, teach students how to hear the “beats” between pitches that are not in tune.  Have students sing open string pitches on a neutral syllable (“la”) to help them hear the correct open string pitches.  Have the entire group sing lightly on pitch and signal half of the group to slide flat or sharp to illustrate beats.  Have the students play the same exercise on their instruments and then explain that they are hearing increased resonance when everyone plays exactly in tune.  For intermediate and advanced groups the director should establish a system of tuning for every rehearsal.  After tuning symphony winds, brass and percussion instruments following the standard procedures of a professional orchestra, an A-440 should be played for the cellos and basses.  This allows bassists to clearly hear the pitch and check harmonics before the upper string sections begin tuning.  Bassists need take special care to be sure that their section, the foundation of the string choir, is in tune. Players should allow the tuning pitch to sound for several seconds before beginning to match it bowing softly, at a pianissimo level.  Another A-440 should be sounded for the violins and violas, again with silence preceding the matching of pitch and tuning taking place at pianissimo.  For improving a string group’s intonation, tuning open strings is the most important event of the rehearsal.  Until groups can do this quickly and accurately, the director should take time to hear the entire group play each open string in unison.

String players should think pitches, and “mentalize” the location on the fingerboard and the sound to be produced before a finger touches a string.  Let it be known that in your group string players are allowed, even encouraged, to adjust pitches by sliding the finger forward or backward on the fingerboard to compensate for pitches that sound flat or sharp.  To help individuals without embarrassing them, have them play as a quartet or as stand partners to monitor their own “in-tuneness.”

One of the most subtle steps for improving the level of intonation in a group is teaching students to listen and adjust for specific scale degrees and intervalic relationships.  This expressive intonation” is one of the marks of the group that is moving beyond merely “playing the right notes.”  It is quite possible to hear expressive intonation at the middle school level, but it is imperative that high school, college and church groups understand this concept.   Begin with teaching the scale degrees, emphasizing the tonic, the dominant, the leading tone and the mediant.  Explain the basics of chord structure.  Then, for example, the director may say, “Violas, you have the third of that D Major chord.  Remember that sharped thirds need to sound high.  Bring out the F# and push the second finger higher on the D string.  It is the most important pitch in the orchestra right there…”  “Violins, that G# is the seventh step in our key of A Minor, the seventh step of an A Minor scale.  It will sound more in tune to all of us if you stretch your third finger on the D string and play it higher…” If possible demonstrate or have students demonstrate on string instruments rather than the piano.  The fixed pitches of the piano do not allow for the expressive intonation that should be expected of string students.

Pinner’s Practical Pointers for Preventing Prickly Problems with Penurious Pinkies:

•     Have string players “test” pitches with the open string above or below the offending pitch.  Let them slide gently until the pitch resonates in tune.  This reinforces interval studies and helps teach double stops.

•     Physically check intonation of individual pitches with a tuner that shows how many cents sharp or flat a pitch actually sounds.  Many players become convinced of sloppy intonation only after they see it on a meter!

•     Record a student or a group.  Listen critically to the playback together, discussing and marking the music where intonation problems occur and what can be done to solve them.

•     Have a student listen to recordings of great artists or play along with a recording.

•     Have a student play chamber music with you or other students.

•     When working with groups build chords slowly from bottom to top, helping students adjust pitches as a section.  Have the section leaders play out (in tune!) at a dynamic of mezzo forte and allow the section to tune to that sound at piano.

The quest for a high standard of string intonation is not mysterious nor nebulous.  It requires that music educators set the standard and maintain a consistent expectation that students will play in tune.  Assume that “If my group plays out of tune it is my fault as the director.”  If sloppy intonation is allowed in our groups, players become satisfied with mediocrity.  Like an unfeeling conscience that becomes seared to truth, players cannot hear the beauty of pure intonation that should always be there.

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This article used by permission.  It first appeared in Lines and Spaces, the newsletter of David E. Smith Publications, 1999.  It appeared also in the August, 2000, issue of The Instrumentalist Magazine.

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Jay-Martin Pinner 
runs Pinner Studios, an in-home private string studio with over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.

Clarifying String Bowing Terms & Technique: Part 1

Part 1 – On the String Bowings

String bowing terms often create confusion for directors of church and school orchestras, even veteran directors who are string specialists. There are two general types of bowings: those prescribing that the bow bounce off the string, “off the string bowings”, and those prescribing that the bow remain in contact with the string, or “on the string” bowings. In this column we will take a look at “on the string bowings” in an effort to help clarify terminology and technique.

Grand detaché or detaché is the smoothest possible “on the string” bowing. Despite the term’s immediate image of deliberately separating one bow stroke from another, the term refers simply to the natural change of down-bow to up-bow and up-bow to down-bow. Detaché is the smooth change of bow that occurs as the player connects one bow change to the next. It is most often performed with the full length of the bow but can also be performed in the upper half, middle third and lower half of the bow, depending upon the passage of music. String players will often practice scales with a long detaché bow stroke. This bowing would be used to perform the melody for John Dyke’s Holy, Holy, Holy, or the melody for Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his Ninth Symphony.

Martelé is a “chopped” bowing. It is produced by the player deliberately “pinching” the bow to a stop, then releasing the pinch and starting the bow quickly across the string only to stop again. The pinch occurs as the right thumb, forefinger and second finger rotate and lean into each other and the bow stick suddenly. Each stop of the bow allows a break in the sound, and each change of bow direction begins with a bow “click.” Think of the bow click for strings as you would think of a strong initial consonant for singers. The martelé bow stroke can only be used at moderate tempos that allow time to stop the bow. This bowing would be used to perform the melody in the first movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite.

Slurred bowing is a smooth bowing that includes two or more pitches in one bow stroke. Slurring should mimic vocal phrasing in hymn orchestrations, arrangements and accompaniments. The number of pitches included in one slur is limited only by the tempo and the player’s ability level. Young string students in a church or youth orchestra will find it difficult to slur more than a few pitches without having to change bows. Advanced students and professionals can slur many pitches on one bow.

Slurred staccato bowing is a combination of slurred and martelé bowings. The player slurs several pitches under one bow but stops the bow movement after each pitch. This bowing may be used only at moderate tempos to allow the player time to stop after each pitch while keeping the bow moving in one direction at a time.

Louré bowing is a smooth version of the slurred staccato. With louré bowing the player slurs several notes under one bow with an almost imperceptible push of the bow on each change note change. Using a canoeing analogy, the bow moves along the string similarly to a canoe moving through the water. With each dip of the paddle the canoe surges ahead but continues to glide when the paddle is removed from the water. Pinching the bow slightly without stopping the bow will produce a slight pulse for each note change. This is much more subtle than using single detaché bows for each note change.

Helpful Hints:
Down-bow moves the bow from frog to tip. Up-bow moves the bow from tip to frog.
• The principle of the down-bow implies that a down-bow should be used for the first beat of a measure or any heavy agogic accent within a phrase. Conversely an odd number of bow changes before a measure or an accent should begin with an up-bow.
• The bow produces tone by combining three factors: bow weight, bow speed, and bow contact or sounding point. Bow weight refers to the amount of heaviness from the bow arm that is transferred to the bow. The more weight added to the bow the bigger the tone. Bow speed refers to the rate at which the bow travels across the string. Faster bow speed gives more energy to the tone. The contact or sounding point refers to the placement of the bow between the fingerboard and the bridge. The closer the bow is to the bridge the more intense the tone that results. Changing any one of these three factors will necessitate changing both of the remaining factors. For instance, if a player adds weight to the bow with a slow bow speed the tone will break up and sound crushed. Adding bow weight will necessitate increasing the bow speed and moving the contact point towards the bridge so that the bow can support the weight and the faster speed.

For a more in-depth look at string bowings consult the bowing chart in The Modern Conductor, by Elizabeth A.H. Green. American String Teachers Association with the National School Orchestra Association publishes The ASTA Dictionary of String Bowings, a comprehensive reference book.

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This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.
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Jay-Martin Pinner runs Pinner Studios, an in-home private string studio with over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.

Clarifying String Bowing Terms & Technique: Part 2

Part 2 – Off-the-String Bowings & Specialized Bowings

In this column on string bowings we will take a look at off-the-string bowings and specialized bowings in an effort to help clarify terminology and technique.

Off-the-String Bowings

Spiccato or bouncing bow are general terms that describe bow movement as the bow hair and stick strike the string producing a sound that is interrupted by the bow leaving and then returning to the string with a rebound. These two terms are used interchangeably. Bouncing bows may be performed at various speeds. The speed of the passage will usually determine the type of spiccato bowing a player or conductor will choose.

Brushed bowing is neither completely off the string nor completely on the string. The player provides a lift for each bow change, each bow change clears the string, but the bow movement is more lateral than vertical. Brushed bowing gives refined clarity to passage work and can be performed at a variety of tempi making the bowing one of the most used in the performance of string repertoire. Mozart and Haydn particularly benefit when appropriate passages are played with the brushed stroke. This bowing achieves an elegant balance when a high vertical bounce or an on-the-string bowing is out of place.

Sautillé bowing is the fastest bouncing bow performed with alternating down bows and up bows. Frequently used in virtuosic bravura solos, this bowing also shows up in orchestral literature. Sautillé is performed in the middle of the bow with the striking of the string controlled by the bow wrist and fingers.

Ricochet bowing is performed by dropping the bow on the string for a prescribed number of bounces, all in a down-bow direction. The up-bow is then used for a quick retrieval. The bow may be dropped for two bouncing bows followed by a retrieval as in the William Tell Overture, or the bow may be dropped for three, four or more bounces before a retrieval. This bowing is performed when the tempo is too fast to allow for individual bouncing bows and where sautillé bowing is not possible.

Staccato volante or flying staccato is performed dropping the bow and letting it rebound continuously in an up-bow direction. It is most often called for in virtuosic bravura solo pieces and only occasionally in orchestra repertoire.

Chopped bowing is a heavy bouncing bow indicated by accents and/or dots in a passage marked forte or louder. It is performed at the frog of the bow often with repeated down bows in quick succession.

Specialized Bowings

Sul ponticello describes bowing next to the bridge for a wiry mysterioso quality. It can be played at any dynamic and can be combined with free tremelo for added effect. It is abbreviated sul pont.

Sul tasto refers to bowing over the fingerboard for a light airy quality, usually in soft passages.

Col legno literally means to play with the wood stick part of the bow rather than the hair. It produces a percussive effect. Players prefer to use less expensive bows for repertoire that calls for this effect as playing on the wood scratches and damages bows. This bowing can be combined with a ricochet bowing as in Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

Modo ordinario literally means in the ordinary way. The term indicates a return to normal bowing after playing with a specialized bowing. It is abbreviated modo ord.

Staggered bowing is a technique in which string players change bows at different times on held pitches for a continuous sustained sound. Staggered bowing is indicated with down-bow and up-bow symbols put in parentheses. Stand partners throughout each section agree to change bows at different times.

Punta d’arco literally means at the point of the bow. Passages so marked should be performed at the tip of the bow.

Free bowing is bowing that is not uniform within a section or sections of string players.

Unified bowing is bowing within a string section or sections that is worked out in advance by the principal players in consultation with each other and the conductor.

For a more in-depth look at string bowings consult the bowing chart in The Modern Conductor, by Elizabeth A.H. Green. American String Teachers Association with the National School Orchestra Association publishes The ASTA Dictionary of Bowing Terms, a comprehensive reference book.

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This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.

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Jay-Martin Pinner 
runs Pinner Studios, an in-home private string studio with over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.