StringSection Blog

Up and Down Bows


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Really, I don’t like the term ‘up and down bow’ very much because the motion of a bow is very fluid and when played artfully, gives a seamless, warm, glowing sound – nothing to do with ‘up’ or ‘down’ which sounds very rigid. My violin teacher (Kato Havas) says that all a bow going ‘up and down’ does is iron the music flat, so to get to the essence of the music the player should try and achieve a naturalness of phrasing which transcends the bow.

Nevertheless, there are instances when composers or string arrangers purposefully write a certain bow direction to attain a musical effect. For example, Stravinsky wrote several down bows (travelling in a downward motion repeatedly, lifted from the string in between notes) in a row to create an aggressive, percussive effect. An example of ‘up bows’ is in Paganini’s 24th Caprice where he alternates left hand pizzicatos (a future blog entry!) with ‘up bows’ played near the tip of the bow – the effect is of a whipping, pecking sound that goes well when alternated with the pizzicato.

Symbols are added to a score to indicate when there is a particular ‘up or down’ direction to the bowing. In 18th and 19th century music, this was often left to the discretion of the individual player but increasingly in the 20th century composers began to specify up and down bow markings more, frequently seeking the advice of professional string players on how best to ‘bow’ the piece.

In a live orchestral performance, bowings are marked into the parts in advance to enable each section to play with synchronised bows travelling in the same direction together – although Leopold Stokowski’s Philadelphia Orchestra were famous in using ‘free bowing’ which the conductor felt achieved a more glossy sound, even though it didn’t look as impressively uniform.This leads onto the phrase ‘staggered bowing’. This is where longer notes which would require more than one bow direction to keep sustained are bowed in such a way that members of a string section change in different places, this gives a smooth and continuous effect so that the change in bowing is inaudible.

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One Response to “Up and Down Bows”

  1. […] pecking sound. Paganini uses it in his 24th Caprice to great effect by alternating it with ‘up bows‘ which have a similar […]