5.4 Preparing the Material and Bowings

Bowings in string parts are a thorny issue, and it is a very complex area! The starting point is that these should be in the parts before the rehearsals start. If not, you will lose a LOT of rehearsal time, and there are few things more guaranteed to annoy wind, brass and percussion players than a rehearsal where half the time is spent talking about bowings. 

In a professional situation, the responsibility for bowings rests with the librarian. If the material is in the orchestra’s own library the parts will be bowed. If it’s new, the concertmaster will probably be involved in creating bowings. As a guest conductor, you may, or may not, be asked if you have any specific requests about bowings. If you are the Music Director, you might have a bit more of an input. Some conductors like to use their own bowings: orchestras will have different opinions about this. It depends on them and it depends on what they think of the conductor! These issues are discussed in more detail in the interview below.

With student or youth orchestras, there will quite possibly be experts involved in taking sectionals. Their advice with regard to bowings will be valuable, and they will know if a particular bowing that might be great for a professional orchestra is a good choice for younger, less experienced players. 

In the amateur world, the quality of the material can be varied. Often parts will come from a library, and although the string parts might be bowed there are several possible issues arising from the fact that you may have no idea who used them last. They might be inconsistent between the sections; the orchestra may have had small string sections and bowings were done to reflect this; the players may have been young or very inexperienced; or the set might not have been used for 30 years! It is wise for the conductor to take quite an active involvement in this situation. Obtaining copies of bowings from a trusted source, sharing those with the string principals, perhaps even making up a set of parts using online material if the work is not in copyright. In short, expect more potential complications than in a professional situation, and it is always better to enquire earlier and discover everything is fine than come against a big problem in the first rehearsal.

If you are not a string player, you can read books about bowings and find information online very easily. An interesting exercise can be to transcribe bowings from films of concerts you find online. The next stage can be to do your own and ask a friend for feedback, maybe trying them out with a string quartet. Orchestras will not expect you to be an expert, therefore if you can occasionally say something intelligent on the subject they will be impressed. 

Beyond bowings, there are some situations in which it can be worth putting markings in the parts, or at least providing some information to the players. There is a famous quote from Sir Thomas Beecham about his approach to rehearsing:

“There’s only one way to rehearse an orchestral piece, which is what I do. I take either a Mozart symphony or a Strauss tone poem. I play the whole thing through beginning to end without a stop. The whole blessed thing. The orchestra makes a few mistakes, naturally. I play through a second time. The orchestra makes no mistakes. I then just take a few little difficult parts. I pinpoint them, I emphasise them, I repeat those three or four times – I’m ready for performance. What does the young conductor do, who will never profit by anybody else’s experience, thanks to his unconquerable egotism and innate stupidity? He will take a first-class orchestra, and after playing twenty bars he will stop, and he begins educating them – fancy educating a body of people like the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra! They already know the piece ten times better than he does. He gives us once more twenty bars, stops, starts educating, teaching them. That’s why he wants six rehearsals, and that’s why I can do with two!”

What he doesn’t say is that the parts were “marked up” in great detail: adjustments of dynamics; articulation; phrasing; indications of rubato and much more in addition to bowings. If time is short, this can be a useful approach to take. On the other hand, as a young relatively unknown conductor, you may risk all kinds of questions from the players and complaints about too much detail to process. 

In complex contemporary music, it can be useful to provide information about how you are beating certain bars, for example the 7/8 is 2+2+3, or the 10/8 is in 4 beats. A list of translations can be useful if the composer uses something other than Italian terms. For example, instructions from Mahler, Debussy & Ravel can take a bit of deciphering for non-German or French speakers.

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