Bow Speed, Pressure, Point of Contact, Hair Angle and Tension: (Dynamics)
These bowing factors are totally, intimately and inextricably interrelated. It is by varying the different combinations of these basic elements that our bow-arm is responsible not only for finding the right dynamics (pp, ff, and everything in between) but also for expressing the greatest part of our musicality. While the left hand certainly contributes to our sound quality and artistry, it is here in the right arm, with our bow-use, that our fundamental sound and musicality are created and transmitted.
Our use of the bow is in many ways similar to a graphic artist’s use of the paintbrush. In fact, a musical sound has the same liquid characteristics as paint: the crescendos and diminuendos giving it the properties of fluidity. By changing the above bowing variables we choose the viscosity and the colours we want in the same way that artists choose what materials they want to work with. We can choose anything between the extremes of lightness and delicacy (watercolours and pencil drawings) and the thick, heavy dense textures of oil painting.
Grinding the bow backwards and forwards, making an ugly and unvarying sound like a machine, is the artist’s equivalent to painting a concrete wall – it’s easy (although it can be tiring) and doesn’t require much sensitivity. “Making music” however, (making a beautiful sound, with living dynamics and a large palette of colours), is the equivalent of painting a beautiful and interesting picture. This is difficult, requiring much more skill, attention to detail, and creativity. Even with great musical sensitivity and physical ability, learning to manage these bowing variables (finding the right “mix” of pressure, speed, contact point and hair angle) is a complex task that requires years of practice. Getting this mix “right” is a huge part of being a “good” player.
This “right mix” varies widely according to the type of music we are playing. If we look at the historical period in which the music was composed, we can see that “Baroque” and Classical period music (Pre-Romantic) use a lighter sound than music from the Romantic and Modern eras. The national origin of the music also influences the type of sound we may look for, with Germanic and Eastern European music tending to favour a denser and heavier sound than the music of the southern European countries. French music in particular tends to be much lighter and “airier” than the music of their German neighbours.
To find this right mix we can use both intuition and analysis.
Using concepts outside of music that we all understand (such as painting) is an intuitive way to develop our sensitivity, understanding and skill with these factors. Irene Sharp uses a very nice intuitive concept that works especially well for children: she talks about using the bow as if it were a spoon for serving ice cream. The interaction of spoon pressure, speed and angle on the amount of ice cream you get in one scoop mimics very well the bow’s ability to get sound out of the cello. And if the ice cream is melting slightly at the edges then even “point of contact” is also mimicked: the closer the spoon is to the edge of the container (equivalent to the bow being closer to the fingerboard), the softer the ice cream.
When playing a piece of music, the evolving musical effects require that the “mix” of these four variables changes not only constantly but also very rapidly. This means that when playing “music” (musically), we will ultimately depend largely on our unconscious automated instincts to do the mixing, based on what we hear, because in an emotional, “performance” context, the conscious brain cannot cope with this level of complexity – it just can’t process the information fast enough.
In a practice context however, we can isolate the different elements and work on them separately and in different combinations. This is very useful for programming our brain, or in other words, for automating the mixing process, so that when we do play a piece of music, we don’t need to think about these factors in a technical way and can dedicate all our energies to just feeling and communicating the music in a spontaneous, emotional way.
Click on the links below for an analytical discussion of each of these different elements, one by one. In these discussions, we can continue to use the analogy between bowing and painting, exploring the similarities between the bow and a paintbrush, and also between the cellist’s sound and a painter’s paint. For a variation of this analogy (especially for children), we can replace the paint with ice cream: now our bow is an ice cream scoop (spoon) rather than a paintbrush!
The ultimate objective of our different choices amongst these four elements (bow speed + pressure + point of contact + hair angle/tension) together with our choice of bowings (bow directions), is to be in the best possible part of the bow at every moment. This “best” part of the bow is the part where we can achieve most easily both the musical (dynamics, phrasing etc) and technical (bounce, legato etc) requirements. This is the complex art/science of Bow Division which has its own dedicated page.
Good bow division requires quite a lot of thought: this is an intellectual skill. At the opposite extremity from bow division skill is bow technique. With a wonderful bow technique – natural or acquired – it is possible to play very well in spite of very bad bow division planning. We need to develop both skills. Bow division for our right hand is like ecology for the earth: it is a huge, vital, all-encompassing subject that affects and is affected by everything. For this reason, references to bow division are found on many of the pages dedicated to bow technique.
Below we will look at some of the different musical factors that result from the combinations of these basic elements of bow technique:
SWINGS AND SMILES
Music is a reflection of life, and many of the sounds of life – unlike those of machines – are not monotonous, sustained, mono-volume sounds. Most of the sounds of life come in waves or pulsations, with a rise and a fall in each individual wave: just think of breathing, the wind, conversation, waves breaking etc. A very natural type of basic bowstroke, especially in Pre-Romantic music, is one in which each stroke has its own gentle rise and fall. We can use the analogies of a children’s swing, and also the analogy of a smile, to better illustrate this effect. Both the bow pressure and speed increase towards the middle of the stroke to make this “living, breathing” effect. Of course, we do need very often to be able to play with a seamless, unvarying sostenuto legato, with no wave-like effects, but the “swings and smiles” bowing is a lovely, relaxed way to make music and is probably a healthier and happier idea for our basic bowstroke than the machine-like sostenuto.
DYNAMICS AND SOFT PLAYING
Dynamics are made using all these bowing variables. It’s worth noting that it is very much easier to play loudly than to play softly. Soft playing is like delicate fine calligraphy, requiring greater control and more careful dosification of speed, pressure, point of contact (and vibrato) than loud playing, which has more in common with house painting or bricklaying. Anybody can play loudly, but a true artist is revealed through beautiful soft playing. We tend not to practice our soft playing much, considering it weak and hesitant in a world that demands supreme confidence, assertiveness and projection. Soft playing is however a very useful skill, especially in orchestras where we are often required to play so softly that we are barely audible. In fact, we will probably never be asked to play as softly in any other musical situation. We could rate the different musical combinations in decreasing order of the need (frequency) for pp playing: 1: concerto soloist 2: solo pieces with piano 3: chamber music with piano 4: string chamber music 5: orchestra playing.
It is especially difficult to play very softly at the frog as this requires that we carry almost all of the weight of the bow. This means that we will ideally try to stay in the upper half of the bow – or at least start there – for soft passages. The upper half of the bow is ideal for producing beautiful, gentle, smooth, soft, brushing bowstrokes. Try, for example, the Prelude of Bach’s first cello suite in this part of the bow, perhaps with the following bowing patterns:
Sometimes however it is not possible to be in the upper half for our soft passages. We will often need to start pp bowstrokes near the frog as well as do long pp bowstrokes that take us between tip and frog. Neither of these is easy – playing pp at the frog is almost like a Yoga or Tai Chi exercise. One of the common situations in which we may have to start our pp in the lower part of the bow occurs when our pp comes so soon after a pizzicato that we haven’t enough time to place the bow on the string nearer the tip.
The thinner the string, the more delicate the bow control required to play very softly with a warm sound. Try the following passage from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony (the second theme from the first movement) to experience the difficulties of finding control and a beautiful sound in pp playing on the A string. To make it doubly difficult (and thus an excellent exercise), play it nearer the frog of the bow, or do two bars in one bow, starting on both up bow and down bow:
VERY SOFT PLAYING AND BOW SPEED
Perhaps one of the most difficult skills in bowing is to play slow bow strokes very softly but with a “good” sound. In order to make the instrument resonate at slow bow speeds (and not just sound “dead”), we need to move the bow’s point of contact closer to the bridge, which can feel unnatural for soft playing. Doing this helps to diminish the sensation of “suffocation” which we feel (and hear) when we have to make our bow stroke last so long that our bow speed falls below the critical minimum velocity necessary to set the instrument in resonance. Of course, this critical minimum velocity changes not only with the point of contact but also with the quality of the instrument. Having a great instrument that resonates easily, is an enormous help.
Faure’s beautiful Elegie gives us an excellent example of this problem. The opening theme comes four times during the piece, each in a different dynamic. While the forte opening and ff final statements of the theme pose no problems, the identical passage in pp – and then the even softer ppp version a few bars later – are incomparably more difficult to play convincingly. As with so many cases of soft playing, here, softness does not necessarily mean “deeply relaxed” or “low energy”. Perhaps the first pp statement could have huge pent-up energy behind it which, rather than a dying breath, is more like an ultra-high-intensity whisper or a very concentrated laser light that can cut through steel whereas the next ppp version could be the resigned, exhausted version. High intensity in a soft passage is achieved by keeping the bow closer to the bridge whereas to portray exhaustion we would probably do the opposite. Here are the four versions of the theme, with Fauré’s bowings:
Apart from the difficulty of making a good soft sound at slow bowspeeds, very long, slow, soft bow strokes tend to make the left hand seize up. It is extremely difficult to maintain loose relaxed left-hand shifting and vibrato when the right-hand is moving so slowly. We can eliminate this problem by using more bow strokes, thus allowing us to increase the bow speed. This usually requires breaking long slurs, but because slurs – especially in slow legato movements – are often only phrasing indications rather than bowing indications, it is often well worth it. Bow speed gives oxygen, life, vibrancy and energy to the sound, and freedom and flow to our movements and these qualities are often especially necessary in pianissimo passages. Unfortunately, in orchestral playing, we have to do the bowings that are given by the conductor or group leader (who usually has a good cello, a good bow, and an excellent bow arm).
Fortunately, slow soft bows are not only an uncomfortable reality and a necessary skill but are also an excellent exercise in body control (a string player’s Tai Chi or Yoga at the instrument). Try the following example from the opening of the second movement of the same Schubert symphony. Then try it with one bar to a bow to see how much easier it feels, and how much more vibrant, singing and free it sounds.
So what style of painting do you most like or identify with: watercolours or oils? ……. how much paint do you like to put on your brush? …….. are you frugal or generous when you spread the jam, peanut butter, honey, hummus, butter, mayonnaise etc on your bread? ……. do you like your shower with lots of water pressure? …… do you prefer big strong animals or small delicate ones? ….. are you strong and determined, or more sensitive and thoughtful ….. ?????
Our sound at the instrument, like our voice, normally reflects fundamental aspects of our psyche. Combining the different bowing variables (speed, pressure, point of contact and hair angle) is a complex task that we do largely automatically, searching unconsciously for the sound that most resembles (pleases) us. In the same way that each individual has a unique voice, we each also have our own “sound personality” – our personal sound profile. This applies of course both to performers and to composers. Players imprint their sound on the music they play and composers do the same in the music they write: Brahms likes darkness and thick, dense textures (oil paints) whereas Mozart and Debussy are quite the contrary (watercolours and lightness).
Even though our personality is almost certainly better adapted to some musical styles than to others, we need to be able to play in all musical styles. Therefore we need to be able to work in an objective, scientific way on these bowing variables in order to acquire the necessary skills, to be able to vary them from what comes naturally, and thus make ourselves sound like “someone else” when needed.