String players often discuss the need for ‘bow markings’ or simply ‘bowings’, but what are they and why do they matter?
The basic premise is that the bow travels in two directions (down and up) and whereas a versatile player should be able to play all but the most challenging passages of music starting with either direction, often one direction leads to greater ease and comfort than another. As intricate passages of music often involve many changes of string (bowing from one string to another) the direction of the bowing takes on a greater significance as it will lead to a clockwise or anti-clockwise movement of the arm (whether that be emanating from the elbow or shoulder). Generally, if a rapid bow stroke starts on the lower string and leads to the upper string, then a clockwise movement is more effortless (although there are many instances where the opposite can create a desired effect!). In this instance, a down bow on the lower string followed by an up bow on the upper string could allow the player to perform the passage smoothly. This is just the beginning, as the array of different musical contexts where an appropriate bowing can help create the desired effect are almost limitless.
Bows are also weighted in favour of the bottom part (the ‘heel’) with a much lighter upper part (leading to the ‘tip’). This means that the proportion of weight isn’t evenly distributed (which is why the point of balance on a bow is approximately a third of the way up the bow from the ‘heel’). Again, an accomplished player shouldn’t need to crescendo down to the ‘heel’ or diminuendo up to the ‘tip’ but acheive the opposite with ease. Nevertheless, there are many examples where this knowledge can be put to good use.
In a more ‘legato’ context, all of the members of the string section are capable of acheiving a seamless, singing line where the changes of bow become invisible and the sound takes on a glowing, expressive quality – like an endlessly spun sound. This is where we can close our eyes and forget that the bow exists at all (an aspiration of most string players!). Whereas the composer’s intentions are always paramount, if more bow strokes are needed to play a certain passage, they can remain invisible if placed at natural ‘breathing points’ along the way.
If you are a composer, string arranger or orchestrator and are unsure of the role of bow markings in a composition, the best advice would be to spend an hour in the company of a professional player who could explain bowings in different contexts. Or you could take a leaf out of the great Baroque masters’ book: simply leave your score blank and leave it up to the string players to bow it to their satisfaction!