“Reverse” bowings refer to those bowings in which the beats, pulses, or accented notes are played on the upbow. We won’t talk here about why this is, but it certainly feels most natural for string players to have the pulse (the accented beat) on the down bow, especially when we are playing many fast “small” notes.
It would seem that when these two bowing symbols first appeared, they were derived from the latin words “nobilis” (noble) and “vilis” (weak, unimportant).
French renaissance composers liked to write an “n” above important notes, indicating that they were to be played in a particularly beautiful, noble fashion. To the players, this was generally a prompt to play those notes from the frog (downbow). A “v” above a note meant the opposite, indicating that these notes didn’t need much attention. These notes were thus used as an opportunity to bring the bow back towards the frog (upbow). [thank you to Music Stack Exchange]
The “n” and “v” letters thus evolved into our present day bowing signs. It is not surprising that these symbols originated in France, because they are only valid with the “french” (overhand) bowhold. With the german (underhand) bowhold, the upbow was the stronger stroke while the downbow was the weaker return stroke. Nor is it surprising that these symbols evolved in the Renaissance/Baroque period, because with the primitive bow, the difference between up and down bows was much greater than since the invention of the Tourte bow at the end of the 18th century.
Getting comfortable with “reverse bowings” is a surprisingly useful skill because these bowings are not only often unavoidable, but also are sometimes our bowings of choice to get us out of some tricky situations. Developing this skill is a little like developing the ability to be ambidextrous (being able to use both hands equally well). It’s as though we were learning to write with our “other” hand, with the difference that we will need our reverse bowing technique much more often than we will ever need to write with that “other” hand! Sometimes they are unavoidable, but at other times we will choose to use them, for various reasons. Let’s look now at these different situations:
UNAVOIDABLE REVERSE BOWINGS
The most obvious of these situations are found in triplet (ternary) rhythms. Here, for separate-bow passages, every second triplet figure will start with the “reverse” bowing.
3/8 and 9/8 passages are of course the worst as they “compound” (multiply) the difficulties. In these time signatures we don’t only have to manage groups of three notes (triplets), but we also have to group them in threes! This means that every second bar begins on an up bow and even a repeated bar will have the reverse bowing the second time.
CHOOSING REVERSE BOWINGS FOR STRING CROSSING PASSAGES
In string crossing passages, the bow has a very strong natural preference to go to the lower string(s) on the downbow and to go to the higher string(s) on the upbow. Click here to go to the article dedicated to this subject. This mechanical preference for having the downbows on the higher string (and upbows on the lower) will often override our rhythmic preference for having the downbow on the beat, which means we will often play string crossing passagesd with “reverse” bowings.
CHOOSING REVERSE BOWINGS IN ORDER TO BE IN THE RIGHT PART OF THE BOW
Rapid separate-bow-passages are easier in the upper half of the bow. We may prefer to play them with a reverse bowing out there in the “easy part of the bow” rather than with a non-reverse bowing in the scrubbing region (lower half).
In the above example we deliberately chose our bowings in such a way as to give ourselves reverse bowings. We can also do the opposite – choosing our bowings to avoid these reverse passages.
HOOKING TO AVOID REVERSE BOWINGS
In Minuets, Waltzes and other ternary music, when the articulation and speed is favourable, we often just play “down-up-up” (the equivalent of typical Oom-Pah-Pah figure on the tuba), hooking together the two last notes on two up bows instead of doing a reverse bowing on every second triplet figure. But this bowing is not always possible or desirable, especially at faster speeds. Play the following example at a constant metronome speed. Above a certain speed, the two hooked upbows are no longer practical.
RETAKING TO AVOID REVERSE BOWINGS
It is not only in ternary and composite rhythms that reverse bowings appear. In many passages in “binary” rhythms, we will find groups of notes in which the normal backwards-and-forwards alternation of bow directions produces figures with reverse bowings. Sometimes we can retake to avoid that.
HOW TO DEVELOP REVERSE BOWING SKILL
To develop this skill progressively and logically, take any study or extended passage in continuous quavers (8th notes) and play it in the following ways (in order of difficulty):
1: Play two semiquavers on each note (or, to make it even easier, four). Play with down bows on the beats.
2: Do the same but in 6/8 with three bow strokes now on each note.
3. Play this triplet rhythm with a 9/8 pulse.
4. Do the 6/8 version (nº 2), but starting each bar on an up bow.
5: Now do the first exercise (binary semiquavers), but this time play with the up bow on the beat.
This progression is shown in the following example:
Soft, gentle tremolos with imperceptible starts, such as those that begin most Bruckner symphonys, sound better (less defined) when we start them on up bows. Playing tremolos in this manner also helps us to get used to reverse bowings. Gentle ends to tremolos are also much better on up bows. In fact almost all gentle starts are better on upbows, independantly as to where the “beat” might be.