My usual “hat” in the orchestra is the job of concertmaster. The concertmaster is the symbolic leader of the orchestra’s musicians, and the practical musician-leader of the orchestra’s string sections (first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, double basses). Each string section has a principal — the “first chair” of the section, who leads that section. The concertmaster is the principal of the first violins. They’re the person that you usually see walk on stage when the concert begins, take a bow (symbolically, on behalf of the orchestra), and then turn and point to the principal oboe player, who gives an A — the signal for the orchestra to tune their instruments.
One of the concertmaster’s jobs is to decide what bowings are used by the string sections. A string instrument is held in the left hand, which does the fingering that produce pitches. The player holds a bow (a stick of pernambuco wood strung with hair from the tail of a horse) in their right hand, which when stroked across the strings, produces the sound — a process akin to an artist using a brush on canvas.
Bowings are more than just deciding what direction the bows are moving (which is part of the visual uniformity of a string section). Bowings help determine sound, articulation, and musical shape (phrasing and direction). They are part of ensuring that the orchestra realizes the conductor’s vision of a piece. The concertmaster typically bows a first-violin part, then passes that marked-up music to the principals of the other string sections, who then bow their parts in turn.
Most professional orchestras have musical libraries that have been built over the course of decades. Those libraries contain the bowings of string principals of the orchestra’s history, for all the works that the orchestra has performed in the past. A professional concertmaster mostly needs to look over the work of predecessors and then make whatever changes they deem necessary. But most community orchestras — including ours — lack that library. That means that I, as the concertmaster, need to do bowings “from scratch”, which is a significant amount of effort.
I usually start by listening to several recordings of the work I’m going to bow, while following along by looking at the score (the sheet music that shows the parts for the whole orchestra). I try to pay particular attention to the recording that the conductor has chosen as an exemplar. If I’ve played this work before, and am familiar enough with it to recall old bowings, I’m likely to go through it with my violin, marking the bowings that I recall or which are instinctive. Otherwise, I work through the bowings like a puzzle, starting from the places where I’m certain I know what I want, and then filling in the missing bits that come before and after. It’s a stimulating intellectual problem, and I often experiment a bit before I settle on a bowing.
The “puzzle” has lots of elements. Different articulations work better in different parts of the bow, and the articulations must be appropriate to the historical period of the music, the composer’s intent, and the conductor’s preferences. The physical distribution of the length of the bow between different notes has to be worked out such that nothing feels either too cramped (which will not produce a good sound) or too excessive (which will cause an unwarranted accent). And it must feel reasonably, intuitive, and not require too much practice to feel comfortable and easy.
I often use the New York Philharmonic’s public archive of parts if I want a reference to work from. I’ll also watch videos of professional orchestras playing the piece. Sometimes I’ll also turn to YouTube videos of community orchestras or youth symphonies playing the piece, if I’m trying to come up with a bowing that’s less complicated or tricky. The best bowing for professionals is not necessarily the best bowing for nonprofessionals.
Furthermore, orchestral bowings are different than the bowings used when solo or in a quartet or the like. They are focused on the producing the right section sound rather than the individual sound. There’s a visual element as well, creating bowings that make it easier for section members to stay in sync with one another by keeping an eye on the bows of the players seated in front of them. I’ve been lucky to have played under great conductors and learned from great symphony violinists in the past, as well as taken some one-on-one concertmaster coaching, which has helped inform my approach.
Once I’ve bowed a first violin part, I’ll often bow a second violin part as well (and send it to the principal 2nd violinist for their review), but I don’t play viola, cello, or bass, so I leave those parts to their section principals to bow. I try to finalize my bowings at least two weeks before we start rehearsals for a set, so that the other principals have time to get them done before the set starts. I like to have bowings pretty solidly set before we rehearse, so people can incorporate them as they practice — I generally only change them once rehearsals have started if the conductor asks for something different than what I anticipated.
The useful side-effect of this work is it really forces me to do some practice and begin to learn the pieces before we start rehearsals for the set!