Instrumental Techniques






The Orchestral Strings



Parts of the instrument. Terminology for string instruments.


Tuning and Range 

Instruments tuned in Fifths.

Violin              notation in treble clef

lowest note (G String) G below the staff (treble clef)

                        highest note G+. 3 octaves and a fifth above middle C

Viola                notation in both the alto clef and the treble clef

lowest note (C String) C, one octave below middle C

                        highest note F+. 2 octaves and a fourth above middle C

Cello               notation in bass, tenor and treble clefs

lowest note (C string) 2 octaves below middle C

highest note C+. 2 octaves above middle C

Instrument tuned in Fourths. (A few players now tune in Fifths)

Bass               notation in bass and tenor clefs.  (sounding one octave lower)

                        lowest note E (or C with an extension) written 2 octaves below middle C

                        highest note G+. 1 octave and a fifth above middle C.


Use of the Bow (arco) 

Down-bow, heavier at the frog, lighter at the tip. Natural decrescendo.

Up-bows, the reverse.

Strong beats on down-bow. Volume controlled by adjusting speed and pressure.

Lots of Speed but no pressure: a.k.a. Flautando Eerie sound popular in contemporary pieces and with French composers (impressionistic sound).

Lots of Pressure but no speed = crunch, rough sounding not exactly a pretty sound. (Also see Scratch Tone).

Bowing terms 

Separate        Implies no slurs. Term: as it comes. Refers to down then up!

Legato            Connecting all the notes, no space at all, no accent!

Slur                 Self-explanatory!

Brush Strokes a.k.a. Louré. Repeated notes slurred.

                        Also refers to a “longish” bounce. (See spiccato)

Staccato         Short, quick bows a.k.a. On the string .

                        Staccatissimo extremely short.

Martelé meaning “Hammering” also called Marcato.

Collé a variation of Martelé. The bow stroke is minimally short.

                        Hooked bowing. Popular in dotted and double dotted French Overture!

Spiccato         Bouncing, quick bows a.k.a. Off the string. Very muddy on the Bass!

                        Up-bow Spiccato bouncing in the same direction (up bow).

                        Down-bow Spiccato a.k.a. Saltando.  Self-explanatory!

                        Ricochet Bowing a.k.a.  Jeté.

                        Repeated Down-bow = pesante (usually at the frog)

                                         Up-bow = Leggiero (usually middle of the bow)

Piqué              Fast and repetitive dotted figure played with separate bows at the tip.

Tremolo         Very fast changes of ups and downs.


Using the fingers to pluck the string (pizzicato) 

Snap pizz.      A.k.a. Bartók pizz

Left hand       Plucked with the left hand (lack of time...)

Tremolo         Alternating between the right hand and left hand plucking the string.

Pizz with nail Self-explanatory. Metallic sound.

String effects 

Sul __             On the __ string to safeguard the same timbre.

Harmonics     Nodes Subdivision of string to produce overtone.

Natural           Using the whole string (Overtone series).

            Artificial          Altering the length of the string.

Mute               Use of a mute to alter the timbre (and volume) of the instrument.

Col legno       With the wood of the Bow (percussive effect).

Sul ponticello            Playing near the bridge. Glassy, unearthly, metallic sound (See Bowing on the Bridge).

Sul tasto         Over the fingerboard. Soft, unfocused sound.

Glissando/Portamento         In practice one and the same. Interchangeable. Sliding the finger from one note to the next note using the same finger or two different fingers.

Fingered Tremolos  Alternating between 2 notes, same or different, same string or different strings, measured or unmeasured. (See Bariolage).

Bariolage       Crossing the string purely for color or to facilitate a fingering.

Vibrato            Added to enrich a held note. In a fast passage little or no vibrato used unless otherwise indicated (Con Vib.). A lot of Vibrato may be requested (Molto Vib.). No Vibrato at all (Senza Vib.).

Scordatura     Changing the range of the Instrument by altering the normal tuning. (To change the timbre Saint-SaensDanse Macabre, to facilitate fingering Kodaly’s Cello Sonata, Violino Piccolo in Brandenburg #2 or Wachet Auf Cantata #140 of J.S. Bach. Use 2 Instruments. Notation: simple instruction tune G to F# or give actual pitches on staff.

Dampening    To stop the ringing and avoid the natural decay of the sound. Opposite to laisser vibrer.

Bowing on the Bridge          Literally playing on the bridge.

Bowing on the Tailpiece     Literally playing on the tailpiece, more common for Double Bass writing (audible overtones) produces a very resonant nondescript sound.

Scratch Tone            Bow hair flat on the string. Play with more downward pressure than necessary.

Playing behind the Bridge  Self-explanatory! Unpredictable, different pitches every time. (ex. Grand Canyon Suite, F. Grofé)


Unconventional Effects! 

“Silent” Fingering                Hitting the string with the fingers on the fingerboard without using the bow.

Tapping the Instrument       Self-explanatory!  With the palm of the hand but  Never with a harsh object (i.e. rings or the likes.)

Striking the String               Self-explanatory! A.k.a. Slapping the String  More common in Double Bass writing.

Tapping with the Bow          Self-explanatory. Not encouraged


Layout of the Strings VS Curve of the Hand


Concept of Fingering           Changing the length of the string with the fingers

Keeping a uniform tone       Difference in timbre of the 4 strings. To obtain the same uniform sound, it is best to keep a melody line on the same string and avoid a String Crossing (when ever possible).

Brightening of the Higher String

The Closer to the Nut, the “Wider” the Semitone

1st Position    Most natural and easiest of positions. Closest to the Nut! From there you can extend the hand/fingers back to Half-Position or use the 4th finger for an Extension.

2nd Position    The first finger replaces what used to be played by the second finger in first position. Varies between a half step and whole step.

3rd Position    The first finger replaces what was normally played by the third finger in first position. And so on....

Shifting          Going from one position to another (either direction). The longer the shift, the harder it is, and the more time is needed to reach that new position.

Simple Multiple Stops 

Bow on the String    History of the Bow (Pedal tone!) Curvature of the Bridge.

Double Stops                        Open strings and Stopped notes

Triple Stops              3 Adjacent strings

Quadruple Stops      4 Strings

Chords (Arco or Pizz)

Rolling the Chord     Self-explanatory

Breaking the chord  Selecting 2 notes at a time (either direction) (example Bach’s Sonatas/Partitas for Solo Violin, Bartók’s Solo Sonata, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade)

(Pizz only)

Fast Break     Gives the impression that all 4 strings are struck at the same time.

Arpeggiated   Going back and forth between 2 or more strings, usually all 4 strings. (See Rolling the Chord, Bariolage) a.k.a. Quasi-guitara

Alla-chitarra   The instrument is held like a guitar (ex. Ravel’s Bolero, Rossini’s Barber of Seville)

Complex Multiple Stops 

4 or More Notes in the Chord         Self-explanatory!

Complex/Unnatural hand layout

Chords involving more than 1 Position    (See Shifting!)

Typical Scoring 

1st Violin         Higher register, Melody line.
2nd Violin        Play in thirds with the 1st Violins. Occasionally gets the melody, but most often provide the harmony and accompaniment.
Viola                Occasionally gets the melody, but most often provide the harmony and accompaniment.

Cello               Bass line – Foundation of chord

Bass               Same as Celli – One octave lower