One of the neatest things to watch while at an orchestra concert is the synchronized bows of the string section. It’s almost like a well-choreographed ballet in some cases. While this is something I take for granted anymore, most people don’t know how or why the bows end up going in the same direction.
I get asked occasionally about this and I’m always surprised how many people are interested in learning about it, so I’ve decided to share what goes on behind the scenes to make the whole section bow in the same direction and how those decisions get made.
Every concertmaster’s job involves a good amount of bowing, or deciding the direction of the bows for string sections. Here are the basic steps for making each concert sound and look amazing.
- Several months before a concert, the orchestral librarian will give the music to the concertmaster.
- Concertmaster decides directions of bows and marks them in the music. (Details below!)
- Music is sent back to librarian who distributes the first violin part to the principal second violin, principal viola, principal cello, and principal bass. Basically that means the leader of each section.
- Principals will then see what is in the first violin part and try to match directions of bows when appropriate.
- Principals send their parts back to the librarian who then copies each bow mark into each section part. This can be anywhere from five to ten parts per section, about 25-40 individual parts total. Photo copies are not used during concerts, so each part has handwritten bowings in them.
- Librarian distributes the music to the entire orchestra about two weeks prior to performance.
Deciding a bowing direction is not as simple as starting in the down direction and alternating each note thereafter. There is much to take into consideration.
For every concertmaster, there are various methods of deciding how to bow a part. For me, I take into account who I’m working with on the podium, how the space will resonate (or not), and what size violin section I have to work with.
The more I can anticipate while bowing parts, the less adjusting and stopping during rehearsals needs to happen. When anticipating what a conductor might want, I usually find out what are some of the particulars that are important to the conductor. For example, some conductors are very focused on phrase lengths, while others gravitate towards articulations or textures.
How a hall or performance space resonates goes hand in hand with how big the section is. Either way, the name of the game is getting the highest quality of sound and volume while trying to keep everyone’s arms injury free. If the section is small or the hall doesn’t speak well, bowing adjustments to compensate for inadequacies have to be made. And even when every effort is made, sometimes nothing can be done.
After those considerations are taken in, I usually look at some of the old parts I’ve saved. For example, Chattanooga Symphony performed Schumann’s Second Symphony last season. In preparing bowings for that part, I had five copies from five different performances in my personal library for reference. In addition to referring to older parts, sometimes taking in a few various orchestra performances on YouTube.com can be helpful.
A few other basic things the concertmaster has to plan when bowing a part include:
- How a section is divided: Sometimes parts have multiple lines that need to be shared within the section.
- Dynamic considerations: Everything from how a piece begins or ends to whether it’s loud or soft, placement and amount of bow used will be crucial.
- Style and traditional considerations: Balance between maintaining traditions and composer’s wishes while maximizing sound from any given section is essential.
- How many notes get played per bow stroke: Grouping two or more notes in the same bow direction is called a slur. Sometimes parts have slurs marked, sometimes they can be adjusted depending on the factors listed above.
Some people have asked why a symphonic work that’s been around for over one hundred years needs to be bowed any more at all. It is a great question and it does seem like a ridiculous amount of man hours involved with getting all the information into the parts.
But the short story is that every orchestra is different. The personnel, the conductors, the styles and tastes, and the varying acoustics are all factored into creating a custom and a very individual live performance. And hopefully this brief and basic explanation of one of the components that goes into a concert enhances your experience!