bows of contention

And I thought I was the only one!

I often reflect that whatever catastrophic technical deficiencies I may have picked up and entrenched over the years, one of the things I can do is push and pull a bow. That I must do this in order to play the viola is not a matter of regret, however. Wielding a bow is no burden but a matter of joy, of freedom, a peculiar tactile pleasure. The fact that I can control such a wilful bastard to the minutest degrees makes me sometimes glad to be alive. Negotiate a tricky combination of strokes such that a bit of music flits off effortlessly, and you feel like a little superhero.

Of course, you might want to stamp out all that nonsense talk of self-expression, of individuality. You might want to insist on bowing. Not bowing as an act, but bowing as a fearful gerund: a regime, a means of regulation. “Put the bowing in!” a section leader might order. “I haven’t done the bowing,” another might confess. “Can we agree on a bowing for this passage?” a third might threaten.

As so often happens in music, convention dictates – dictates! – that certain figures are bowed a certain way. Maybe it makes sense that strong beats are on a down bow, like stepping out with your strongest foot. But maybe it doesn’t, maybe deliberately going against the grain (like walking uphill) gives you more control. And isn’t it fun sometimes to shoot at goal with your weaker foot, to do things with your weaker hand (it makes it feel like someone else is doing it, if you know what I mean)? Even if it’s just to show you can do it.

There are all kinds of properly musical arguments to make though, and James Boyd, another viola player, runs through a host of them in this nicely provocative piece that I’ve just stumbled across:

Now, as far as I’m aware, no groups have come out as in-your-face, card carrying free bowers. But bowing is surely as important a contributory factor in an ensemble’s overall sound as vibrato, that much challenged shibboleth. So who’s going to be first?

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3 Responses to bows of contention

  1. Maestro d'odio says:

    I’m now thinking of a way of avoiding this particular gerund (but only if I can get the conducting right)…

  2. I’d be the first. If I didn’t play the bassoon.

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