What criteria should be followed to determine what bowing to use in bass music?
Ann Silver, Austin, USA
Jeff Bradetich: There are many factors to consider when determining bowings. First and foremost is what the composer indicated. In many editions, it is not possible to know whether the bowings are original or if they come from the editor. If the bowings are from the composer, did they know the bass well enough to understand what bowings work under particular circumstances? Was the composer aware of the possibilities and differences in bowings on the bass? Bass player–composers writing before 1950 were playing on strings that responded considerably differently to modern strings, so their bowing and sustaining needs were at times vastly different than those faced today. In transcriptions, what was the original instrument and what natural bowing differences exist between the original instrument and the bass? Are the slur lines phrase markings rather than bowings?
These are often impossible questions to answer. Therefore, it is paramount that performers consider the multitude of possible expressions inherent in the music but not necessarily visible on the page. Practically, they should establish an idea of how the passage should sound based on their instincts and their knowledge of the composer, style and period of music. Next, they can sing the passage. Then, in sequence, they should practise the passage as written; without any slurs; with both slurs and separate bows, using slurs in the obvious places; and finally, with one over-arching slur. Which bowing brings out the innate nature and intent of the music?
One of the simplest ways to determine bowings is to decide if the music is becoming more extrovert in its expressiveness. If so, more bow changes are usually needed, especially at the high points of the phrase. If the music is becoming more tranquil and passive, fewer bow changes are usually desirable.
Jeff Bradetich is professor of double bass at the University of North Texas College of Music and at Cleveland Institute of Music
Our Teacher Talk series was first published in The Strad in January 2011. Subscribe to The Strad and get the best in teaching tips every month, from Simon Fischer's long-running Basics column to advice from top string players in Masterclass. Or click here to find out about our digital edition.