Published February 3, 2023
A murmuration of starlings is a spectacular thing to behold. So many birds flying so close together with so much speed, coordination, synchronization, and agility is exhilarating. Friend, colleague, and distinguished conductor Donato Cabrera has said that an orchestra at its best is like a murmuration. I agree. One piece of this orchestral choreography is the coordinated direction of the string players’ bows. For this Art Views installment, we’ll take a look at the joys and sorrows of orchestral bowings.
Tying a horsetail to a stick, applying rosin to said horsetail, and dragging it over strings attached to a wooden box might seem a bizarre an unnatural way to make sound. That’s because it is. But, it’s also pretty darned effective and has become the primary way for classical string players to create their sound. (Pizzicato, or plucking the strings, is the other means of sound production, but that for another column.)
Orchestra audiences can see the uniformity of bow direction in concerts. It’s impressive to experience a whole section of players perfectly coordinated. When a player gets out of sync, it looks a bit like one soldier marching on the wrong foot in a military parade. Organized bowings aren’t just for looks. Bow direction has a lot to do with how the music ends up sounding. Much of the reason is simple physics.
The two bow directions are “downbow” and “upbow.” For downbow, the player starts at the base or “frog” of the bow (where the hand holds it) and pulls the bow to the tip or “point.” Upbow is the opposite. The player starts at the tip, and pushes the bow toward the frog. On a violin or viola upbow and downbow are literal and easy to observe. Bass and cello go side to side, so upbow doesn’t actually go skyward, but you get what I mean.
So, Scott, how does the simple direction of the bow affect sound?
I’m glad you asked.
Since the weight of one’s arm most efficiently transfers power to the string when it is near the frog, downbow is almost always the choice to get a loud or accented sound. Conversely, if your goal is to sound like a fluttering butterfly tiptoeing on a cloud, playing upbow at the tip where there is little to no weight is likely what you want to do. And of course, there are infinitesimal variations on this, as the bow can be placed anywhere on the stick’s spectrum from frog to tip. The next time you watch a truly great orchestral string section, notice that they are not only bowing in the same direction, but they are all playing in the same part of the bow.
If the music calls for getting gradually louder or softer, bow direction is your friend. A crescendo (gradually getting louder) happens very naturally by heading from the lighter tip to the heavier frog with an upbow. Not surprisingly, a diminuendo (gradually getting softer) happens best with a downbow.
If bowings were always simply “up, down, up, down” life, and musicmaking, would be a whole lot easier one might think. In some ways this is true, but it would get pretty boring pretty quickly, and because certain notes have more gravitational pull and emphasis than others, odd numbered meters would have the player landing sporadically on up or down bows, rather than controlling which direction the bow is going on which notes. That’s why, for instance, in a meter of three (three beats to a measure) it might make sense to play: down-up-up, down-up-up. Think: Boom-chuck-chuck, Boom-chuck-chuck.
To complicate matters more, we often play multiple pitches with the left hand in one bow stroke with the right hand. (I should tell you that whether a person is right or left-handed, the left hand pushes down the strings and the right hand holds the bow or plucks the string. Yeah, I know Paul McCartney plays “backward,” but 99.9% of the world, especially in orchestras, play with the bow in their right hand). This is known as a slur, and it is used to smoothly connect notes. Often, slurred passages are indicated by the composer to get a specific sound they envision. Slurs can be played up or down bow.
All of these bowings are indicated on the sheet music with symbols placed over the notes. These symbols are not placed over every note, and when that is the case, it’s understood that you are to play “as it comes” (up-down-up-down) after the last marking.
From my bass part to Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (which the Reno Phil will perform February 25-26, 2023) the messy scribbles and cross-outs are because I was marking a scanned part, and we played different bowings last time we performed the work:
So, Scott who decides what the bowings will be?
I’m glad you asked.
In an orchestra, the principal string players are tasked with bowing the parts for their section. Occasionally, the conductor will provide their preferred bowings for a piece, but usually it’s the section leaders. Interestingly, this role is unspoken precedent in most orchestras. If you look in the collective bargaining agreement, there is no mention of this important and time-consuming duty. It’s just understood.
In life, “stuff” rolls downhill. In orchestras, bowings do too. So, the concertmaster (1st chair, 1st violin) takes the first crack at it. This makes sense, since the first violin part usually is most prominent melodic voice in the strings. Then, the principal 2nd violinist compares their part to concertmaster’s and puts in identical or complimentary bowings as appropriate. Then to the principal viola. Then to the principal cello. Then to the principal bass. I’m far too professional to grumble and complain that by the time the bowings get to me, I am shackled by everybody else’s whims and desires and have very little creative autonomy, since several layers of bowing decisions have already been made. Mostly, this is fine, since the role of the bass is very often to support and accompany other sections. In most repertoire up until the mid-1800’s (think Bach, Mozart, early Beethoven) the cellos and basses play exactly the same notes an octave apart. In these pieces, we bassists usually adopt the cello bowings wholesale. Because our bows are actually shorter than cello or violin bows, and because it’s more difficult to get a bass string to vibrate than the strings on the punier instruments, we do sometimes need to deviate or break a long slur into shorter segments to make things sound better and work more comfortably.
Once the principals have bowed their parts, the thankless work of the music librarian begins. They have to meticulously copy the bowings into every part. They also have to manage the calendar, and cat-herd the principal strings to get their work done in time for the upcoming concert. When a librarian makes a mistake, boy do they hear about it. When they do everything perfectly, crickets. So, to all the music librarians out there, I see you and appreciate what you do. Thanks!
Once the bowings are in the parts, the music goes out to the orchestra, musicians practice and get comfortable with the notes and bowings, and by the first rehearsal of a professional orchestra things are pretty well in place. Throughout the rehearsal week, we tweak a few bowings here and there based on tempos or considerations we discover as we go. Once all this work is done, our bows are marching in lockstep, and with luck we murmurate a wonderful musical experience for the audience.
Now, notice and enjoy the bowings employed by this terrific string orchestra playing Grieg’s Holberg Suite:
Scott Faulkner is principal bassist of the Reno Phil and Reno Chamber Orchestra, and in that role gets to bow the bass parts for both orchestras. When he’s not practicing or marking bowings, he is also director of the League of American Orchestras’ Leadership Alumni Network, as well as its Essentials of Orchestra Management seminar.
Holberg Suite | Grieg | Netherlands Chamber Orchestra | Concertgebouw
Recorded live at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, November 27 2016.
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra / Nederlands Kamerorkest
Gordan Nikolic (violin / concertmaster)
Holberg Suite by Edvard Grieg.
More from Scott Faulkner
Nevada Chamber Music Festival's Holiday Gift by Scott Faulkner — December 23, 2022
Thankful for Christmas Music by Scott Faulkner — November 25, 2022
Incredible Alumni from Essentials of Orchestra Management Seminar by Scott Faulkner — October 21, 2022
Falling for Orchestra: A Season of Events by Scott Faulkner — September 23, 2022
Thoughts on Leadership by Scott Faulkner — August 26, 2022
Greetings from New York City! by Scott Faulkner — July 29, 2022
H. Elizabeth Lenz by Scott Faulkner — July 1, 2022
A Thousand Blended Notes by Scott Faulkner — June 3, 2022
Music Not to be Missed in May by Scott Faulkner — May 6, 2022
Classical Music Galore by Scott Faulkner — April 8, 2022
Chord Changes by Scott Faulkner — April 1, 2022
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