Sometimes staccato is neither “short” nor “separated”

It seems that many of us are taught first to treat notes with staccato markings as “short,” and then later refine that definition to mean something like “separated” or “detached.” The difference in these definitions is that a “detached” note might really be quite long, but has at least a sliver of silence separating it from the note afterwards.

But for wind players, even this definition may be too simplistic, and in some cases produces a sound that is too aggressively clipped or pecky.

To achieve an appropriate staccato effect, the notes might not actually be detached at all. Check out this demonstration of staccato technique on the violin:

It’s clear that the violinist is detaching the notes from each other. But listen carefully—does the instrument go completely silent in between notes? At a faster tempo, it doesn’t. Even though the violinist temporarily stops driving the strings’ vibrations with the bow, the instrument continues to resonate on its own, and this (softer) sound may bleed into the next note.

A wind instrument doesn’t resonate in the same way: when the wind player stops blowing, the sound stops immediately. But since our modern wind technique borrows so heavily from the bowed string tradition, in many cases it is necessary to imitate this resonance to achieve the desired effect. To oversimplify a bit, the wind player must end “staccato” notes with very brief decrescendos.

When this technique is applied to staccato passages, it may mean that rather than literally detaching the notes from each other, the wind player must give the impression of detachment while also giving the impression of a brief violin-style resonance following each note. In other words, the “space” between the notes is actually filled, at least partially but maybe completely, with a very quick decrescendo.

A reverberant performance space also helps to mask wind instruments’ lack of damped oscillation, but ultimately it is up to the wind player to create the faux resonance when the situation demands. Pay close attention to the ends of your staccato notes!

Comments

  1. Tim Owen

    Bret,

    As always, an excellent explanation of the key to amazing style for woodwinds. It is especially helpful in contrast with the Dot articulation used in swing and related styles.

    Keep up the great work! And nice tie-in with the violin pedagogy video—love it :-)

    Tim

    Reply

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