- Published Dec 17, 2013 in Music 101
- Read time: about 2 minutes
If you think bowing is arbitrary, watch the cello section of the New York Philharmonic. It's like a ballet of horsehair. Here's how to make your bowing musical.
When it comes to stringed instruments, it's not just the music, 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.
It makes all the difference in a player’s interpretation of the piece.
In many cases the bowings are entirely arbitrary, decided upon primarily (or entirely) by the section principal according to his or her sense of style. 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. It makes all the difference in a player’s interpretation of the piece.
Here then, are some bowing tips for string players:
Look at the pulse.
You really need to see where the meter is. If it’s constant and doesn’t vary, establish a consistent bowing pattern. 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 look for 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.
“It's all in the rhythm of the bow.”
Work from the inside out.
Single notes, pairs of notes, groups of notes, bars, phrases, lines and sections combine with intros and tags to form an entire piece of music from bottom to top. If you're trying to devise a bowing pattern that makes sense—and one that you can execute consistently—start with the single units and then combine them.
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. It's always time well spent.
Think about dynamics.
If the dynamic marking of the piece is loud (forte), you will usually want to be somewhere between the frog and the middle. For soft passages (piano), the middle to the tip.
Musical dynamics markings from soft to loud.
Of course, this is never cut and dry: 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!
As a section leader or a soloist, you have to decide to start on a 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 ahead. Which direction does it need to be? Where does it lead?
Anatomy of a bow.
Spiccato or legato?
There is a balance point for spiccato (where the bow bounces lightly upon the string) 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 (where notes are played smoothly and connected) 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?
You've got to work at your bowing routine in order to efficiently assimilate the mechanics 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 will be the master of the music you want to express.