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Using Less Bow

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by bassist1962, Jun 28, 2014.

  1. mattgray


    Nov 16, 2007
    Cincinnati, OH
    The idea he's referring to is that most conductors 'see' forte as having fast strokes in the bass section. Where I imagine this comes from is a reaction to watching violinists playing off-string strokes - the action appears fast, but the actual contact with the string is balanced relative to the frequency of the tone and vibration of the string. As the string gets longer and thicker, the contact with the string must become slower to the eye than that of a violinist's, but still remaining balanced relative to the tension and frequency of the desired tone. In practice, the balance point of the bow on the string is moved closer to the bridge than where many would find the string to move 'easily'; the bow should require more tension to 'activate' the string. In turn, the note should sound with more core and better clarity, though it will contain less subharmonics than if one were to play close to the fingerboard (I think? Please correct me if I'm wrong) which gives the illusion of sounding 'louder' when behind the bass.
  2. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    It is a great article, and addresses something that is rather common in conductors: we are often viewed as big violins. While there are some similarities, they are very different instruments. In orchestras, you see violin sections using very long and dramatic bow strokes to get a big sound. If you have a whole section doing this, it is visually very loud. There are times when doubled brass sections are roaring and it wouldn't matter how many strings you have out front, but as long as they look loud, the audience gets the effect. On double bass to get a big loud sound, a much slower bow is needed. Using "more bow" which in this case means a faster bow stroke that forces you to move more from frog to tip instead of using a shorter stroke, is actually counter productive. As Gary Karr points out, if a conductor wants more sound from the bass section and sees them playing with less/slower bow than the rest of the string section, they often ask for more bow because it looks loud. There is a reason that the bows get shorter as you move from violin to bass. If the instrument worked with dramatic long bow strokes the French bass bow would be 7-10cm longer, not shorter that violin bows.

    Some conductors want more air in the sound which you get with longer and faster bow strokes, but usually this means compromising fundamental. It sounds ok to them on the podium, but gets completely lost farther back in the hall. Often the palm that Gary Karr is referring to is wrongly issued to bass sections when the cello section is playing much too loudly especially when the parts are doubled, because they hear bass that is too loud and assume it must be the double basses. I have been the only double bass with a section of 10 cellos and told I am too loud, when faking it as described in the article.

    The thing that sticks out most to me from the article is that conductors often hear with their eyes. More bow=loud. Big instrument=loud. Dramatic movement=loud. Small controlled bow strokes=... why does this sound louder but look quieter? Live music is a very visual experience, and we often forget that as performers. In two separate masterclasses during my undergraduate, one with a cellist and one with a percussionist, the question "What do you do when you are playing the loudest you can when the conductor wants more?" was addressed. The answer given from both of them boiled down to "Look louder".
  3. I agree wholeheartedly with you, Mike. I always visually stuck out in my section because (a) I used 1-2-3-4 fingering and (b) because I used less bow. Ok, I'm 5' 7" tall and my Principal was 6' 3" with the habit of using full bows close to the fingerboard.His arms were so bloody long it was easy for him! Our Dutch conductor at the time would angrily mime long bow movements to us in loud passages and not accept less. Very frustrating. I always tried for "the sound under the sound"and listened for my sound under the other players around me who were trying to cut through.

    Cheers, DP
  4. MikeCanada


    Aug 30, 2011
    Toronto, ON
    I am very used to sticking out in a section. Being under 6', sitting on a low stool, playing German bow in predominantly French Bow Ontario, 5ths, Permanents over Spirocores, and my bass could be described as orange, if you really wanted to get under my skin. The plus side is that most conductors tend to leave me alone, because they can usually wrap their head around my setup being different than the rest of the section. The principal on the other hand now has someone who doesn't "fit" their section that the glare can be directed at when anything goes wrong, regardless to who it actually was. It also forces me to know my parts inside out and bring my A game, because any fumble I make regardless to how difficult the music is gets looked at as "that's why you shouldn't play in 5ths" by some bassists, and I really do not like giving out free ammunition in that war.

    As the bar continues to be raised for bass playing and students audition for bachelors degrees with the Bottesini concerto instead of auditioning for major symphonies with the elephant, I think conductors and the rest of the orchestra will catch on. While technically proficiency has increased throughout the orchestra, few instruments have developed as much and as recently as the double bass. Give it some time, and we might get a few less viola jokes thrown our way.
    Steve Boisen likes this.
  5. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choiceâ„¢ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    Great quote!
  6. phill321


    Oct 27, 2005
    I hope I say this right...
    I agree whole heartily with the article. But that being said I don't think the goal is to use a lesser amount of bow. I do think bass player don't use enough bow generally. It takes a lot of left hand strength to use more bow. I don't condone a whoosy flabby sound. If it's not short percussion like strokes, I don't see a problem with using more bow, but this has nothing to do with what conductors are asking for, which I don't agree with.

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