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.


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

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.