COMMON VIOLIN TERMS

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NOTE: Musicians can argue endlessly about these meanings, and indeed, many of these definitions are at least partly dependant on the stylistic practices of any given era, or even a specific composer. I will attempt to be as non-controversial as possible. This is, of course, by no means a complete list.

Arco: Italian for bow. Written in after passages of pizzicato (plucked) notes. Means to return to playing with the bow.

Articulation: Shape of a note or phrase. Basically three marks (and combinations thereof). The dot ( . ) which is staccato (short); the line ( - ) which is legato (smooth); and the accent ( > ) which is like a little punch at the beginning of a note. (Accent marks are the chevron pointing to the right.) Sometimes in an otherwise more or less staccato passage, the articulation line ( - ) is meant to give the note full length, where it's equivalent to tenuto. Sometimes, in combination with a slur, it means the notes are detached although played without a change in bow direction. Sometimes the line implies that some sort of weight should be given to the note. Sometimes it's composer-defined.

Bariolage: A passage, often in Bach but in Brahms and elsewhere, where the fingers are held down over several strings and the bow oscillates between the several strings. The Bach E Major Partita is a notorious example. Very impressive sounding; not so hard once you get the trick of it.

Bartók pizz: Also called snap pizz. Right hand pulls the string away from the fingerboard and releases, causing a snapping sound.

Bouncing bow: This is not just spiccato, which is an off-the-string, at-the-sounding-point technique of very small up and down bows, originating from the wrist, but a host of other definitions with very fine distinctions as to their meanings. {Worthy of further study are: saltando, saltante, saltato, saltellato, saltellando, sautellé.}

Col Legno: Passage where the sound is produced by striking the wood of the bow against the string(s). One should not use one’s best bow in this type of passage, particularly if the bow is expensive.

Con sordino: With mute. Passages with mute end with the phrase "senza sordino" which means to remove the mute. There are several varieties of violin mute. One is a "Sihon" or slide-on mute, often used by students, which slides up upon the bridge, from between the end of the tailpiece and the bridge. Costs about $2-$3US. There is the Tourte mute, which also can hang behind the bridge in that area. There is a Heifetz mute, which clips on rather snugly and has to be put on by hand. There is also the heavy practice mute of silver or gold, which is not used in orchestral studies, but to practice without disturbing neighbors or roommates.

Sihon mute
Sihon mute
Tourte mute
Tourte mute
Heavy practice mute
Heavy practice mute

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Contact point: Also called sounding point, the explicit part of the bow hair which touches the string. In Suzuki parlance, related to the "Kreisler Highway," or the effort to play perfectly parallel between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge at the optimal spot which will produce the best sound.

Détaché: Impossible to define this, as there are so many varieties. Basically, up and down; a change of bowing direction with some articulation. Does not necessarily mean staccato (though sometimes defined as such); can be heavily accented or not.

Down bow: If the bow is on the sounding point in the middle of the bow, if you pull down toward the right, that is a down bow. Up bow is the opposite.

Flautando: Flute-like sound produced by deliberately playing over the fingerboard.

Jeté: Individually produced or "thrown" series of notes, produced at the same part of the bow.

Left hand pizzicato: pizzicato created by a sharp plucking of the string with the violin (left) hand. Common in Paganini.

Legato: Smooth, tied together. May be indicated by a slur mark.

Marcato: Unclear term. Accentuated in some fashion, as détaché or martelé.

Martelé: Staccato (short) with heavy accent.

Messa di voce: A swelling on a long note, starting softly with crescendo to a high point, and then a decrescendo. Somewhat similar to the fortspinning (Ger.) or son filé (Fr.), which is an exercise for bow control. Ex: Starting at the tip, keeping the bow parallel between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge, move the bow as slowly as possible to the frog (and back) making a nice sound and counting. See how long you can make this last. Very good for developing the small muscle control needed to play with sensitivity.

Pizzicato: Usually written as "pizz" in the parts, and "arco" when the pizz section is meant to end. Plucking the string with the left hand. Technique may be done in several ways with respect to the holding of the bow in the left hand: (a) for very quick notes in pizz, the left index finger may be extended, and the pizz done without much changing the shape of the bow hold; (b) the bow may be grasped by the fist and the thumb used to balance the hand, with the index finger pizzing; and (c) the bow may be set down in the lap or on the stand for extended passages in pizz.

Ponticello: Orchestral technique of playing on the bridge (sul ponticello). "Dietro il ponticello" is playing behind the bridge. These and much more unorthodox techniques may be found in Penderecki’s "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima." End of ponticello passage may be indicated by "ordinario," often written as "ord."

Portamento: An audible slide from one position to the next. As modern stringed instrument technique developed in the later part of the 20th century, players tended to be less and less "smaltzy," and portamento used more carefully. But in the performances of Yo-Yo Ma (for example) you will be surprised to discover a lot of portamenti, but they do not sound syrupy at all. This is a matter of "taste," that longed for but often hard to define characteristic of great string playing.

Richochet: Fast bounces, similar to spiccato but in the U.H. (upper half of the bow).

Rule of Down-Bow: Notion that the first beat of every measure should start down bow. Usually this feels right, but there are many exceptions, when up is more appropriate. Sometimes you have to work back from materials in upcoming measures to make sure the movements of the bow serve the phrase. Geminiani called this "the wretched Rule."

Slur: A curved line, below which or above which, all the notes are smoothly articulated together. Phrase breaks occur outside the slur. The primary distinction between a slur and a tie, is that a tie unites one or more notes of the same pitch, requiring that the pitch not be replayed, but held the time required. Slurs slur notes of different pitches, as a rule.

Staccato: Generally, short. Spaces between the notes. An important articulation developed by the control of the bow from the second joint of the bow hand on the stick. {For further study: martelé, jeté, slurred staccato, flying staccato.}

Sul tasto: Playing over the fingerboard (which produces a softer sound). Okay as an orchestral technique, not okay as a bad habit, due to lack of bow control or the affect of gravity if the violin is not held parallel (or above) to the floor. End of sul tasto passage may be indicated by "ordinario," often written as "ord."

Tremolo: Orchestral technique of many small and unmeasured up and down bows, accented or unaccented, at various dynamics, as indicated by the composer. Often used to fill the sound more full, or to create excitement or tension.

Vibrato: An oscillating of the sound, used to provide warmth to a note. Basically three kinds of vibrato: finger vibrato, hand vibato, arm vibrato, with string players tending to use one or more of these according to their own propensities. In the Baroque period vibrato was considered an ornament. In contemporary technique, continuous vibrato can be a problem and has to be controlled. Vibrato should not be used during the practice of scales, unless one is specifically using the scale to practice vibrato. Vibrato can also be a sign of nervousness and should be calmed, in that case. Judiciously used vibrato and portamento contribute to the emotional appeal of a performance.



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