Question about bowings

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by AGCurry, Mar 13, 2023.

  1. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Playing in my little orchestra, I try to honor marked bowings as well as bowing conventions, e.g. downbow on strong beats, upbow on "pickup" notes, etc.. The other bassist, who has even less experience than I do, generally ignores them (or has enough to do just reading and sounding the notes without worrying about up- and downbows).

    I want to discuss this discrepancy with him and suggest that one of us mark bowings and both of us try to adhere to them. I would probably be the one doing the marking.

    I know that visual appearance is one reason for bowing together, but I suspect that music is at least as important. Listening to recordings of concerts, I'm not impressed with the sound of our two-person bass section. In particular, we sound mushy and lacking attack, not helping with crisp rhythms as basses should.

    Would you arco wizards tell me what the musical effects of synchronized and unsynchronized bowing might be, to help me justify my talk with the other bassist? I think he'll be receptive to what I say, so I don't want to make spurious arguments.
    Garagiste and HungryTradie like this.
  2. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA

    IMO there is nothing trickier than a two person bass section even when the two are pros or experienced amateurs (as in my case, I hope). I play in one orchestra as "second bass" in a two person section, and it's probably the most stressful gig I do - the result will be mushy etc if the two of us aren't in sink/tune/together -- and discrepancies really, glaringly stand out. The real nightmare was a couple of concerts ago when it was the 2 of us on the Beethoven 9th. It came out well, but, man, were we glued at the hip!

    I'm principal in a six member section (where the other 5 are very good players). In that situation,
    I give bowings only in specific situations and am generally willing to live with whatever makes the player sound best.

    In your case, I might use a bit of psychology and tell your partner how far you both have come and that you think that as a section you could really take it to the next level with a little coordination. I would pose bowing/fingering solutions as "what do you think about downbow (etc) here..."

    Maybe I'm being naive or optimistic, but I think any one who shows up to rehearsal ultimately wants to be better.They just have to get over their own fears. Good luck.

    PS: Have you tried out the small Pollman at St Louis Strings?
  3. I really love how LouisF put it. I see no reason why they shouldn't be receptive if you use that approach, kind of making it more of a conversation between two peers rather than a borderline confrontation (is that the right way to put it?) between Principal and section member.
    AGCurry likes this.
  4. oren

    oren Supporting Member

    Aug 7, 2007
    Salem, OR
    I recently joined a community orchestra at my teacher’s suggestion. It’s my first experience playing classical music of any sort, and it is kicking my posterior! We have a three person section in the orchestra, and none of us is particularly strong (I’m the weakest), so they’ve been bringing in a local pro to round out the section for he last couple of rehearsals and the concerts. This round the pro has sent us PDFs of the parts with her bowings, and that is going to be very helpful (assuming I can ever get the parts under my fingers and up to tempo). I would think your partner would be receptive to anything that will help the section sound better.
  5. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    Louis, thanks. I'm not sure that the other guy (also named Andy) has given much or any thought to bowings; he's kinda like me two years ago, just trying to play the notes. Moreover, there is very little time during rehearsals to discuss such things in detail. With my original post, I'm looking for good (authoritative) arguments to get him to buy into planning our bowings. Example: "We would sound better if our bows traveled in the same direction because [fill in the blank]."

    Unless there's a second one I haven't seen ... There's been a Pollman there for at least a couple of years, and I played it over a year ago. It's a beautiful instrument to look at ... but I played some other basses there that sounded just as good or better and didn't cost quite so much. It's rather heavily built IMO.
  6. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    I'm not so concerned that he would be defensive. He has been receptive to suggestions before. When I bring the subject up, I just want to make sure I'm not blowing smoke.
  7. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    I think he will be receptive. Although I have "seniority," for what that's worth, neither of us has the "principal" designation, so I don't feel I can tell him what to do. He's a good sightreader and gets a decent sound, but I don't think he puts the thought into bowings and fingerings that I do - and as I've said, I think the "each to his own" bowings are hampering us.

    I'm glad to hear that you're getting your posterior kicked, as mine is during every rehearsal and concert. It's my surest path to competence.
    oren and John Chambliss like this.
  8. PaulCannon


    Jan 24, 2002
    Frankfurt, Germany
    NS Design / AER Endorsing Artist
    It's a reasonable expectation. Most professionals match bowings most of the time.

    I generally don't love talking about bowings and over-analyzing, but sometimes it's necessary. If anything, it's probably more necessary in an amateur group where any sense of cohesion is helpful.
    AGCurry likes this.
  9. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    Thanks on the Pollman. As to the other issue, I guess you could just mark the bowings on a photocopied part and say "here... this is how it should go."

    There's an old quote about Lyndon Johnson on getting legislation done. He said he used the carrot and stick method. Only everybody else used them in the wrong order. Maybe it's the only option in this case.
  10. AGCurry

    AGCurry Supporting Member

    Jun 29, 2005
    St. Louis
    LBJ. I disliked him in his day, but if it weren't for that little Vietnam thing, he could be considered one of our greatest presidents. In my opinion, of course.
    Keith Rawlings likes this.
  11. SteveCS


    Nov 19, 2014
    Hampshire, UK
    IME the point of any string section (VLN1, VLN2, VLA, VC and CB) is to present as a single cohesive 'instrument'. This is best achieved by every individual in the section striving to make the same (or compatible) sound at the same time, under the direction of the section leader - in this case you! So if you are 'principal' then the authority is already vested in you. Call a 'sectional' and lay it out. I know it may not be a profeessional outfit and that there are only two of you, but the principle still applies. If all that fails and you are sharing a stand, syncronised bowing helps prevent collisions.
    AGCurry likes this.
  12. Lee Moses

    Lee Moses

    Apr 2, 2013
    I see what you did there!
    SteveCS and AGCurry like this.
  13. Monabass


    Dec 29, 2015
    Yes, we have a similar situation in our orchestra.
    The previous first bass didn't give a poopie about bowings, and if someone suggested a bowing, he would agree and continue to do his own thing; randomly different every time. I just did my best to follow.
    Now that I am first bass, I do the same and the other bassists try to follow. Sort of a tradition.
    I am all into sound, and like to go into big crescendo's on an up-bow etc.
    However, I think the best argument is the visual appearance.
    A non-musical friend of mine came to one of our concerts and wanted to know if the basses played the same music!
    Yes, it looks very amateurish when out of step with the bowings and I intend trying to tighten things.
    However, it's hard to change a tradition!
    Wasnex and AGCurry like this.
  14. Anne Millington

    Anne Millington

    Dec 16, 2017
    I would imagine you have done some coordination with what the cellos and upper strings are doing, and made whatever modifications you felt necessary to fit the bass. This is already a big deal, and well on the way to what the lower strings should be doing. So you could just photocopy your part (I almost said parts, but realized that might be misconstrued) and give it to him. Respectfully ask him to look the bowings over for his input, and equally respectfully suggest you use them once he's had a chance to look them over. It is already pretty SOP to bow in synchrony, so somehow you have to convey that without accusing him of being amateurish.
    Lee Moses, Wasnex, SteveCS and 3 others like this.
  15. Well, playing the same articulations, dynamics, and note lengths are pretty crucial to excellent classical performances. Just as an example, try playing a big crescendo from pp-ff on the E-string over four slow beats by starting with a down bow. Situations like that. Hint, probably better that you both agree to start up bow.
    AndersLasson likes this.
  16. Anne Millington

    Anne Millington

    Dec 16, 2017
    Exactly an exercise that my teacher gave me on all four strings to develop strength at the tip of the bow. Painful.
  17. It’s kind of cool that in paid orchestras people can gripe about the principal’s (or the cellists, conductor et al) but when it comes down to it we all conform to the same bowings for better or worse. If we didn’t it would be dealt with quickly. I have more trouble when I’m one on a part and the cellist thinks they know better bowings. Lucky for me THEY CAN’T SEE ME so I pretty much do whatever works best for me.
    AGCurry likes this.
  18. Wasnex


    Dec 25, 2011

    Could be wrong, but I don't believe there is a significant musical gain from bowing together. It's 100% visual. However, it is an I am not by any means saying it's not important.

    My argument for this opinion: Consider that the natural strong stroke with French is down-bow and the natural strong stroke with German in up-bow. So maybe there is a small factor if you are both playing the same type of bow. However, IMHO a skilled player does not stress one or the other stroke without doing so intentionally. Also, there are many times where you will need to emphasize a note using your natural weak stroke.

    With a two person section, you do the best you can. I have always found it extremely frustrating to play with a single other upright, and I would rather play by myself. IMHO, you need at least four uprights to really start sounding like a section, and optimally you would have more. This is not actually something I have experienced frequently as most of my bowed upright career was in concert bands.

    Today, I think four or less basses is fairly common in orchestra. Back when I was a kid, I remember seeing many more in my home town's regional orchestra. Their webpage currently names 5 bassists, which is more than the last time I checked.

    From what I remember, there were often more basses on stage than named in the program. I remember discussing this with section members after a concert. Untenured players may or may not be named in the program. The number of untenured players hired for a given series was driven by the needs of the music, availability of players with sufficient skill and talent, financial well-being of the orchestra, and to some degree politics within the orchestra.

    One of the regular bassists I liked to talk to was a young, up-and-coming player who was considered a superior musician and a strong candidate for tenure. Apparently he had a falling out with someone, and they stopped hiring him.
    Last edited: Mar 13, 2023
    Monabass likes this.
  19. Bruce Calin

    Bruce Calin

    Oct 15, 2002
    Played a concert yesterday as a sub with one other player. We worked together well enough,, but the two-person thing is definitely a challenge. He tunes in fifths and plays German bow, so some bowing differences were as a result of that- mostly string crossings. My local orchestra where I'm principal is also down to two, so I should be somewhat used to it.
  20. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    I'm guessing you've never had your hand jabbed hard by your stand partner when they were playing an up-bow while you were playing a down-bow. :)