Friday, December 4, 2009

How You Can Play Ponticello

By Clayton Haslop

A couple days ago I fielded a question asking how to play ponticello easily and with a great sound. Now, in case you didn't know this, ponticello is a 'special effect' in a violinists bag of tricks. It is produced when the bow tracks so close to the bridge that the string produces many higher frequencies not part of the normal overtone series. The result is a kind of eerie, windy color to the sound.

Now, there are two issues that make performing this technique a little more challenging than drawing a normal tone.

First, it is critical that the bow track right next to the bridge without deviation. You'll notice that when you draw a normal tone, the bow can wander back and forth between bridge and fingerboard to some extent without negatively impacting the sound - one likes to avoid this, but it can happen. As soon as the bow wanders from the bridge in ponticello, however, the effect disappears immediately.

The second issue is control. Because the bow is not fully 'in the string,' as we say in string parlance, there is, in fact, a greater tendency for hidden tensions in the bow arm to manifest in just the wandering mentioned above.

Sometimes, in the case of the bow suddenly passing OVER the bridge (and this happens to everyone at one time or another), this 'wandering' becomes more akin to an alarming betrayal.

So, how to practice this technique so it is secure and well behaved.

First thing I would do is some slow, quiet, long bows ponticello to get in touch with the purity of my bow stroke, from tip to frog. Once you've gotten a sense of the bow placement, you can begin playing some scales and arpeggios using the entire length of the bow; very smooth, no spaces between the notes. At first you may want to play single notes per bow. As the constancy of the bow stroke increases, however, I suggest you slur notes together until reaching eight or twelve to a stroke.

Gradually increase the weight on the string; relaxed arm weight until reaching forte or even fortissimo. Remember, the downward weight and pressure should in no way affect the freedom of the arm to move the bow horizontally.

Now ponticello is also often called for in combination with tremolo, a fast, repeated, and unmeasured stroking of one note. To practice this variant I recommend arriving at tremolo by starting at a slow rate of speed using just the forearm, in the upper half of the bow. From there gradually increase the speed and narrow the travel of the bow. As you stroke more rapidly, again add arm weight to reach a dynamic of forte.

The secret to adding tremolo successfully goes back to the purity of your detach, really. Understand that I do not use my wrist - unless I'm feeling quite lazy - to produce my tremolo; simply the forearm. And for this the elbow joint must be absolutely free of restriction.

The bottom line is, Ponticello really forces you to separate the vertical weight of the arm from the relaxed horizontal movements of the arm. It requires absolute freedom in the joints of the right arm. And these together make it an excellent tool for sharpening the efficiency and purity of your bow arm.

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