Alan David Gould

Bowing Considerations for String Players

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Bowing Considerations for String Players
 Alan David Gould

It's not just the music where a bowed string instrument is concerned; it's how you bow it. Just consider that the principal players in each respective string section of the orchestra are required to write the bowings into their parts, to be copied, in turn, by the Copyist or Orchestra Librarian, into the string parts of all the other players in the section. In many cases the bowings are entirely arbitrary, decided upon primarily (or entirely) by the section principal and according to his or her sense of stylistics.  Though section players sometimes disagree with having to bow a particular passage in a certain way, everyone is required to follow the principal's lead; and that’s the rule. Notice that you will never see anyone’s bow in a string section moving in a contrary direction. These same choices are available to the string soloist as well. Even though there is certainly no issue with other players having to observe identical bow markings, there are still a multitude of options for bowing any particular piece of music; and it makes all the difference in a player’s interpretation of the piece; here then, are some tips for string players working on bowings, pertaining to any exercise or piece of music.
Look at the Pulse: You really need to see where the meter is. If it’s constant and doesn’t vary, establish a bowing pattern which is consistent. If not, you’ve got to work with each section of the piece and then put it together. Look for the downbeat in each bar, and if there isn’t a downbeat, then the foundation of the phrase from which the other notes spring. If you work from that place, you’re always moving from the cornerstone to the arms and legs of the bar.  

Work from the inside out: Single notes, pairs of notes, groups of notes, bars, phrases, lines and sections combined with intros and tags to form an entire piece of music from bottom to top.  If you’re trying to devise a bowing that makes sense and one that you can execute consistently, start with the single units and then combine those units together. This is the building block theory that gets you through the formative stages of developing your bowings for any piece of music, by deconstructing and putting it back together. When in doubt, go back a step. Rethink it.  Its usually time well spent. 

Dynamics: If the dynamic marking of the piece is loud (Forte), you will tend to want to be somewhere between the frog and the middle; soft (Piano), the middle to the tip. Of course this is never cut and dried; it’s always a matter of degree.  You’ve got to think of the message in the music and use the correct physical mechanics to make it apparent. Remember to always bow it like you mean it!  

Which direction? As a section leader, or a soloist, you have to decide to start down-bow or up-bow. Which direction lends the better flow to the bar or passage? Will you want to slur notes within a bar in order to end up with the bow direction that more readily lends itself to what comes next? You need to take into consideration whether the music to come is going to involve a full bow. If this is the case, you’re going to want to be at the frog (or the tip) beforehand in order to leave yourself with enough bow for the long note to come.  Which direction does it need to be? Where does it lead? 

Spiccato (bouncing bow) and Legato (long notes on the string) or both? There is a balance point for spiccato bowing that’s going to determine where you place the bow on the string to start. Depending on the power with which you need to project the phrase, that balance point moves. There is also a decision to be made as to whether you start on the string and come off, or vice versa.  The style of bowing you choose is crucial to the rhythmic and esoteric quality of the music, especially in combination with legato bow strokes.

Does it feel right?  You must be the judge of whether your bowing strategy is working; does it feel comfortable to execute?  Is the piece negotiable the same way repeatedly?  Has it been tested in performance? Does it promote the feeling of the music as you had intended? 

Practice Practicing: You’ve got to work at your bowing routine in order to efficiently assimilate the mechanics that you are going to need to negotiate the music. It’s not just playing it; it’s learning how to bow it and then bowing it the same way every time. From that foundation comes the stable promontory from which inspiration can, and will, show itself. Move forward deliberately and with the confidence that you can, and will, be the master of the music you want to express. 

© 2011 Alan David Gould