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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Howe


One of the first pieces I ever wrote was a piece called ‘Little Birds Flit About’. In our kitchen, we have what we like to call our 'Picture window' - it's a big window from where we have a great view of our back garden. I was standing looking out of it window one morning in the summer of 2020 and I became aware of great numbers of small birds flying around our patio, darting from fence to tree, from shrub to flower, from one pot to another and back and forth from the bird feeders. I was mesmerised by the sight and it inspired me to compose my first piece, 'Little Birds Flit About'. I came up with that quirky title immediately because it summed up the scene perfectly.

'Little Birds...' is written for 2 Violins, Viola (or Violin 3) and piano. There are two piano parts, one easy, and another alternative one that is more complicated and difficult. One of the technical features of 'Little Birds...' is staccato playing. The violins and viola (or violin) have to play staccato at the beginning. It helps to paint the picture of the little birds darting from here to there. In general I wanted to create a piece that felt fast. But that's quite tricky when you also want to compose something that is easy, for anyone to play. So I put the short, staccato crotchet notes in the strings. Those three parts play simple notes, open strings and first position notes in D major, all together. That creates the harmonic basis. The fast notes are in the piano – short as well, at the beginning. It soon becomes more legato after the first initial bars.

When I teach staccato to my string pupils I tell them to place their bow on the string, in the middle, then to pull the bow down quickly a short way and then stop, creating a quick down bow on the string. Then to push it up, to play a short up bow note, and then to stop again. I tell them that if they practice this on open strings, on each strings slowly, then they will begin to understand what the articulation entails. Only then should they try and speed it up. When performing staccato you have to have a relaxed right hand, but not so relaxed that you have no control over it. It's very important not to lock your thumb, but have it bent softly, and to have your little finger also bent on the end of the bow. This allows for flexibility in your hand.

Staccato is different to ‘spiccato’ – which is a bowing technique that relies on playing short notes off the string, using the bounce of the bow to help. Staccato is 'on' the string.

I have a YouTube channel that is dedicated to the music of The Little Music Bazaar called 'Bazaar Music'. (There is other stuff on there at the moment too but I will probably create a new channel soon for the 'ambient' music I like to compose and record.) I have just uploaded a video in which I talk about staccato in relation to 'Little Birds...' The title of the video is "How to play great staccato on violin, viola, cello and bass" and this is the link:

As well as talking about staccato and demonstrating it, the video also contains, at the end, a performance of 'Little Birds Flit About' which I recorded myself. It is accompanied by a lovely little film which I managed to capture on my phone one day when I was working in my other job, as a gardener. My colleague and I were enjoying a coffee in the sun as we watched birds shooting around us. It was brilliant. The photo of the robin on this blog post was also taken in that garden. It's a wonderful place, out in the country, surrounded by fields.

Above is the link to 'Little Birds...' on the website.

I intend to write and film some more information about string technique. So I hope you will find it all interesting. Thank you for reading it and I'll be posting again soon. Bye for now...


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