I have been a part of over 100 recordings in the last two decades in New York as a violinist-albums, jingles, and soundtracks of all sizes and budgets. Moreover, I worked as a music librarian in an orchestra to copy the bow markings onto each string part. My work-study gig at Juilliard was being the first violinist for the conductor’s lab string quartet- I got paid to criticize conductors. Today, I wanted to share tips on bow markings so you can maximize your studio time!
Disclaimer: This article was written from just one composer and violinist’s perspective, and this doesn’t represent the opinions of all string players or composers.
We string players tend to discuss, write, erase and re-write the bowings on your studio time. One of the unique issues we face is that our bowings require uniformity as a section. And this process is rather time-consuming. It also doesn’t help that we use slurs to indicate both bowings and phrase markings. Whether a slur is a bow marking depends on the context and interpretation, and sometimes, they are the same. So it isn’t obvious even for the string players themselves.
As composers, we know how critical detailed markings on each part are—the more precise the markings, the more efficient rehearsal, thus better result. I have noticed composers’ concerned looks, thinking about how many more tunes to get through while string players sort out their bowings. Have you ever thought to yourself, “I should have put more bow markings”? Composers who play some violin would painstakingly put many specific bow markings. So, should a composer start writing more bow markings, up-bow on this note down-bow on that one, with meticulously precise articulation with many mini-slurs under phrase markings?
The truth is that no matter what you mark on the page, string players will always keep figuring out bowings as the rehearsal progresses, and this sometimes continues until we are already on stage. This is true for classical music, too. The most subtle tempo changes, balance with other instruments, micing, and monitoring situations could affect the bowings.
Mistake No. 1 – Putting “up” and “down” bow signs in ink on the parts
String players will want to change your bow markings, and when you put it in ink, the parts will start to look very messy, which will make it harder to read. Instead, leave the bow choreography to the section leaders!
It is also slightly annoying to the players. These up-bow down-bow signs remind us of repertoires for “student” players. As a principle, string players should know how to make the same sound whether they use an up or down bow. So it shouldn’t be a composer’s business to dictate which directions violinists should move their arms, even if the composer knows how to play the violin.
Another way to get the most out of your studio time is to leave the bowings to individual players – which we call “free bow.” Free bow lets individual players use whatever bowing they want to use. Each player will choose the bowing that will allow them to produce the best result using what is most comfortable and convenient to that individual. We use this method when we determine that benefit of “free bow” outweighs the benefit of beautifully uniformed bowing. This is an excellent way to go when you only need audio and no video. The free bow will cut down a significant amount of time, allowing more time to rehearse the music and giving players more mental space to pay attention to other things such as pitch and rhythm. (But unless you or the section leader declares “free bow,” string players will always want to know specific bowings.) Moreover, this is a great way to stagger bow changes to smooth out phrases.
But wait, does this mean we don’t have to put any slurs? As mentioned earlier, slurs are both bowings and phrase markings. What if we don’t put any slurs and let the players figure it out on their own?
Mistake No. 2 – Leaving out slurs when you want legato
A well-established jazz pianist and a producer for a record label once told me how shocked he was when the string quartet he hired played each quarter note like a military march on a slow bossa. When my jazz composer friend was still in school and instructed not to put any bowings for her string quartet piece, she took all of the slurs out, including a graceful sixteenth-note run on a ballad. To her horror, the string quartet bowed each note!! You might say, “I put ‘legato’ at the top!” or “but it’s a ballad!” The problem is that when you put “legato” at the top, it directly contradicts what’s on the staves.
We jazz musicians are used to reading lead sheets, which we use as merely a guide for what the music could sound like. But for classical string players, our job is to faithfully play what’s written on the page and refrain from individual interpretations. When string players see notes without slurs, we ARE supposed to play them with separation. You can put “legato” or “ballad,” but we will still play them like a military march if there are no slurs!
I have also seen young composers putting tenutos instead of slurs, or in addition to slurs, expecting the notes to be sound longer, thus connected. After hearing us play the notes se-per-ra-ted, their faces get red, and they scream, “tenutos mean ‘FULL VALUES!'”
Mistake No. 3 – Putting tenutos, expecting notes to be played connected
Unfortunately, if you put tenutos under a slur, these notes will be what we call “hooked” into a bow- the notes will be separated by lifting the bow while moving in the same direction. So you will never get the “full value” of the notes, and instead, you will get precisely the opposite.
Well, I hope these tips are helpful for when you work with the best string players in your town next time so you can get what you want from string players.
But here is the bonus tip (mistake), which will cancel out all three tips above.
Mistake No.4 – Getting so-called the “best players” instead of the “right” players
Over 15 years ago, I had the chance to tour with the Michael Brecker Quindectet led by Gil Goldstein. Initially, the group planned to perform with the very best local string players in each city. However, after the first tour of Europe, Mike and Gil both concluded that it was not going to work. The “best string players” were not keeping up with the rest of the band, resulting in compromised music. Hence, I got the call.
It is more important to get the “right” players than the “best” players for the best result for jazz compositions. Many of my classmates from Juilliard play in major orchestras, and they “should” be the best players ever. (At least they think they are!) But believe me. I have worked with many players who cannot keep up with Afro-Cuban rhythms. You would think you can explain and help them “get” it, but it is nearly impossible because their sense of time differs from those who grew up playing non-classical music. I grew up playing only Classical music, and I used to struggle with these rhythms myself. Though I don’t play in a major orchestra, I have had the tremendous opportunities to work with various bands and composers whom I learned so much on the job: from John Zorn to Vince Giordano, singer-songwriters to a Cuban Jewish Band, Steve Swallow to some of our contemporaries such as J.C. Sanford, Emilio Solla, and Erica Seguine. My on-the-job experiences, however embarrassing it was by turning around the beats, can never be replaced.
So be careful hiring players in major symphonies “just because” – they may not do the job well. But when you get the “right players,” they will give you much more than what you put on the page and make everything sound right- and nobody will ever know that your markings were less than perfect.
That’s it for today. If you find this topic helpful, please come see me at ISJAC symposium in Austin, Texas, where I will be sharing “10 More Mistakes To Avoid!” with a live demonstration and Q & A.
If you have any questions or would like me to demonstrate any segments of your composition, please email them to me so I can address them in Austin! MegOkuraViolin
About the Author:
“grandiloquent beauty that transitions easily from grooves to big cascades to buoyant swing.”
– Giovanni Russonello, New York Times
Jazz composer and violinist Meg Okura uses the Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble to negotiate her conflicting identities: a Japanese immigrant Jew by choice, and a mother of a black Jew, and a violinist in jazz.
Since its founding in 2006, the ensemble has performed in its hometown of New York at Birdland Jazz Club, Blue Note, Knitting Factory, Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Jazz At Lincoln Center. The ensemble has been presented at t Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., Winter Jazz Fest as well as K.L. Jazz Festival in Malaysia. Okura has released six albums under her name since and two more albums in the works this year.
Her recent honors as a composer include Copland Residency Awards, Chamber Music America New Jazz Works, Jazz Road Creative Residencies Award, and NYC Women’s Fund.
Her works have been performed by BMI/New York Jazz Orchestra, New York Symphonic Ensemble, Sirius Quartet, and other jazz and chamber music groups.
Native of Tokyo and formerly a concert violinist, Okura toured Asia as the soloist and concertmaster of the Asian Youth Orchestra as a teen. She moved to the U.S. in 1992 and made her solo concerto debut at Kennedy Center with the late Alexander Schneider’s New York String Orchestra. She then earned B.M. and M.M. degrees from the Juilliard School as a classical violinist, only to make a difficult shift to becoming a jazz musician. As a violinist, she has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, Barbican Hall in the U.K., Madison Square Garden, Village Vanguard, Blue Note Tokyo, Hollywood Bowl, and numerous jazz and Jewish music festivals worldwide.
Okura’s credit appears on over 100 albums/films/live videos, including David Bowie, Michael Brecker, Lee Konitz, Steve Swallow, Diane Reeves, Tom Harrell, Vince Giordano, Jeremy Pelt, Sam Newsome, and Grammy-nominated album by Emilio Solla y La Inestable de Brooklyn.