Bowing for Mahlers; decisions on bowing directions


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.

  1. Several months before a concert, the orchestral librarian will give the music to the concertmaster.
  2. Concertmaster decides directions of bows and marks them in the music. (Details below!)
  3. 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.
  4. Principals will then see what is in the first violin part and try to match directions of bows when appropriate.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

bowing for mahlers
There is much to take into consideration, it can become overwhelming!

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 can be helpful.

A few other basic things the concertmaster has to plan when bowing a part include:

  1. How a section is divided: Sometimes parts have multiple lines that need to be shared within the section.
  2. 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.
  3. Style and traditional considerations: Balance between maintaining traditions and composer’s wishes while maximizing sound from any given section is essential.
  4. 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!

About Holly Mulcahy

After hearing Scheherazade at an early age, Holly Mulcahy fell in love with the violin and knew it would be her future. She currently serves as concertmaster of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. She spends her summers at the celebrated Grand Teton Music Festival. Believing in music as a healing and coping source, Holly founded Arts Capacity, a charitable 501(c)3 which focuses on bringing live chamber music, art, artists, and composers to prisons. Arts Capacity addresses many emotional and character-building issues people face as they prepare for release into society. Holly performs on a 1917 Giovanni Cavani violin, previously owned by the late renowned soloist Eugene Fodor, and a bespoke bow made by award winning master bow maker, Douglas Raguse.

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18 thoughts on “Bowing for Mahlers; decisions on bowing directions”

  1. *Great* article, Holly! As an arranger/composer/orchestrator, and a mere former brass player, 🙂 my understanding of bowing has been a work-in-progress for many years, now. For a long time my work was written primarily for recording sessions in which music is sight-read and not marked ahead of time. Knowing the general difference between wind and string phrasing (length of air stream vs. length of bow), I would do my best to bow/phrase the string parts I wrote. Time after time, the great players here in Nashville have made that work very well. As you’ve described, working out bowings for a symphonic string section is a different matter, and as my symphonic work has increased, I’ve tried to learn as much as a non-string-player can about bowing.

    One recent job was particularly helpful, and gratifying. I did four symphonic arrangements for a concert with a regional orchestra near San Francisco, and the conductor/MD (a string player) did all the bowings. He did them all on the score with the intent of having the bowings printed on the parts, instead of entered by the librarian. So, I marked everything the best I could and sent him pdfs, which he marked in red and returned to me. He was pleased with the arrangements and surprisingly, the changes were relatively few–perfectly acceptable, it seems, given your description of the process and variables involved. I still have the pdfs he returned to me and will keep them for reference.

    Thank you for shedding further light on this intriguing subject!

  2. A long time ago at a NY Phil rehearsal, Lenny paused, wondering why Ravel had put certain bowings in the printed score. From the back of the 1st fiddles, joker Jack Fishberg piped up, “because he was a PIANIST.”

    • Very observant on the work in the picture! It is in fact Pines of Rome, and for those keeping score, it’s the second violin part. Chattanooga Symphony is playing Pines for the opening concert Sept. 17th.

      The title of the article is a play on “Bowling for Dollars,” which up until 2013 was a TV game show that had been enjoyed by some people. The point of the article is the technique and final result of the bowing of any orchestral work.

  3. Excellent article! So many people (including musicians and string players) don’t know what goes on behind the scenes in preparation for that first rehearsal. It’s a lot more complicated than it looks, and you explained it clearly and concisely.

  4. Section string players must also follow numerous unwritten and unmarked bowing conventions. Such as, “every unmarked phrase following rests will automatically start with a down bow unless it starts with an up bow.” These rules are ingrained in conservatory trained string players from a young age, and concertmasters save themselves much time by keeping bowings vague, confident that the strings will read their minds in up-to-tempo sight-read renditions for music directors who are intolerant of wrong bowings. Sorry for the sarcasm, but inconsistent, incomplete, and carelessly vague orchestral bowings are a pet peeve of mine, and they daily make my job more difficult than necessary. This is a good article but it doesn’t mention that the process continues through all the rehearsals. Bowings are frequently changed by principal players who then pass the changes back through their sections. Occasionally changes will continue to be made after the opening concert. Lastly, when bowings are printed in ink, changes are very messy with scratched out or superimposed markings. It’s better if the musicians can erase and replace bowing symbols in pencil.

    • Thank you for your note on your rehearsal experience. While I appreciate your frustration that goes on during a rehearsal, and have experienced similarities myself now and then, the article was intended to give a very brief summation of how the bowing process works. You, as an experienced string player, already know the minutiae as do most of the professionals, but I felt that too much information would alienate the layperson and bore them past the point of caring.

  5. Thank you Holly for sharing this important information. No composer should ever assume certain articulations without knowing and seeing how it is actually done and when it’s effective according to the composition. I’m sure that you and the director along with the other principals will help me with my SERENADE that I will soon have for you. With all respects, a composer is suppose to know and respect the articulations and expressions in every group and the differences from every instrument within the group. My Finale has articulations to use, but do not explain the illustrations for usage and sound, so I would appreciate any videos that may have a demonstration.

  6. Very helpful article. I often teach college-level orchestration class (I’m not a string player) and I teach that slurs/phrase markings the responsibility of the orchestrator to include in the arrangement —with the caveat that the players may alter them — but other than in rare cases, up/down bow symbols should never be included.

    I also tell them – if you’re not a string player, but you do play in the student orchestra, you should pay attention to the conductor’s remarks to the strings regarding bowing! I’ve actually learned quite a bit by sitting in on youth orchestra rehearsals, since the conductor needs to teach a lot about bowing to the students (as opposed to pro orchestras, where they know it already).


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