The subject of bowings for string instrument players in orchestras is much more complex than most people, musicians, and even string players, might think.

Most orchestras opt for a simple solution - the parts are bowed in advance of the first rehearsal by the respective leaders of the string sections, Concertmaster (Violin 1), Principal 2nd Violin, Principal Viola, Cello, and Double Bass. The hierarchy of authority begins with the Concertmaster, and the concertmaster's bowings are often given to the other section leaders so that they may coordinate unison, or similar passages.

Though this formula seems simple, clear, and expeditious, it does not always achieve the desired result, which is to use the bowings that sound the best.

Leopold Stokowski, who conducted many orchestras (notably the Philadelphia Orchestra) in performances starting around the turn of the last century and into the 70s, did not agree with this practice at all. In fact, he advocated, possibly even invented the idea of "free bowing." Stokey was so adamant about this idea that if he spotted any two stand partners changing bows in unison he would admonish them. When conductor Eugene Ormandy took over the Philadelphians, he re-instated coordinated, synchronized bowings.

Stokowski certainly achieved wonderful results. The Philadelphia Orchestra was admired for its particularly gorgeous string sound and, as such, his free bowing concept still warrants serious consideration for modern orchestras. There are a number of conductors who have designated that, for certain types of passages, and/or sections of music - they ask for free bowings.

In order to begin to ponder what might be best to produce the desired sound, there are a number of issues that must be considered. First of all, there are no two string players who play exactly alike. In the medium of recorded sound, for example, many commercial recordings have attempted to augment the string sound by "doubling" - a procedure where an additional track, where the string players play the same music again ("sound on sound") is added. This will usually result in some audible increase of sound volume, but it doesn't "double" it at all. In fact, if one continues the process, ad infinitum, to create something that sounds like dozens of players, it doesn't work well at all. I've stated that no two players play exactly alike. Each of us uses the bow slightly differently, through techniques that we attempt to quantify such as bow speed, bow pressure, bow placement, etc. Then there is the vibrato factor. None of us vibrates at exactly the same speed, width, etc. And there are no two human beings who are alike, physically or otherwise. What seems most interesting is that these differences can create a much richer and interesting sound, rather than one that sounds like a section of "automatons."

In fact, many orchestras and maestros do not insist on precisely-coordinated bowings in certain instances. Some compositions have sustained, legato phrases that continue for such a long time that playing them on one down- or up-bow isn't possible. If all the players change in the same place, an accent is often heard with the unified bow change. In these passages or phrases, if string players are asked to try not to change at the same place as their stand partner (Stokey,) it often achieves a distinctly improved sostenuto.

With the conductor's instructions, or his/her acceptance of suggestions from the Principals, lyrical sections of pieces, especially sections where a seamless legato is most desirable, can only be achieved by using free bowing. It is rare for orchestral string players to be instructed to use free bowing when the notes are short, and staccato is indicated or assumed.

Still, I find that there are such places where free bowing can work well, or better, even in staccato passages. Realistically, if the passage work is rapid enough, it is often impossible to see exactly what bowing the player is using anyway.

There is at least one other option, which is sort of a compromise. It's known as staggered or cross-bowing. In this case, the inside player will do one bowing and the outside player does another, wherein the bow changes are "staggered." Though it works to some extent, I view it as somewhat of a cop out from good 'ole Stokey's idea.

Getting back to the main point, I ask again, "how does it sound?" Or is the visual supposed to mimic a marching band or the Radio City Rockettes? Choose wisely!

Hey Arnold
Bowing Bowings
All content © 2020 Frederick Zlotkin