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Tips on baroque bowing and orchestral touring
from Classical Music Agony Aunt ALICE McVEIGH

Hi Alice

I am a very interested but amateur cellist trying to decide how best to bow Bach's BWV1039 Trio Sonata ... so that it is smooth and even, accenting the first part of each beat and not over-emphasizing the others. I have been trying (12/8) down, up, up and down, up, down ... in each case trying to use the same amount of bow for each 1/8th note but it doesn't sound at all like the CD!

Do you have any baroque bowing tips for me or is there a website where I might read about baroque bowing styles?

Thanks for any help

Dear Lesley,

I don't to be honest know of any website (if any of my readers do, perhaps they could write in?) However, I feel your instincts are good with the down-up-up per beat thingie but wonder if you're putting either (a) too much strength on the down so it sounds like OOM-pah-pah or else (b) too much separation on the ups, giving a oom-chip-chip, with the chips a bit short and unsatisfying?

Try holding your bow about two inches up from the frog, instead of in the usual place, and see if this softens the chip-chips (this is how the baroque and classical bows were held anyway!) I don't know of any website that might help with this, but you might try to locate my friend Judy Tarling's wonderful Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners too, if you're really interested, as she's a top scholar and player. If in doubt remember that baroque bows have no ferrule, so they can't normally do cutting accents, so the sound usually blooms AFTER the start ot the note ... also that there are fewer hairs in the bow (which is also shorter) so light, airy strokes are better than full, gutsy ones. Frankly, the most common problem in baroque performance practice is playing fastish notes too short. Separate doesn't mean short, in baroque: even the shortest notes should ideally have SOME length to them, however light they are ...

Hope this is helpful!!!

Ask Alice

Dear Alice,

I read with interest your recent Strad article on orchestral touring, especially your comments on orchestral cliques. Though only recently having left music college, I've toured myself with several orchestras, and almost despaired of ever getting past the tough crust of these groups. It seems to me that you have to choose one and really struggle to be accepted -- there seems no other way. And while I agree that some time on your own is necessary for sanity and survival, surely it won't get you asked back if you don't make friends with anybody!

Worried in Hounslow

Dear Worried,

I don't blame you for being worried, because I've so often felt the same. Yet I don't think orchestra players form cliques out of preference so much as self-defence. It's just EASIER to relax into the company of a coterie who like to tour the way you do (whatever that is) rather than to flit from one group to another, never getting to know anybody very well. It takes a very brave soul to try to infiltrate more than one such joint-survival-team, especially on a short tour. In other words, the clique becomes a source of comfort (like an old armchair, that naturally fits itself around your bum) rather than any considered policy. (It's a rare member, too, who still recalls what it felt like NOT to belong -- the fluttering feeling in the tummy that no one will want to have dinner with you, the nerves that all the people who you feel comfortable approaching will have made other plans ...)

So I don't blame you for your despair, though I still urge you to combat it as much as possible. When you start with an orchestra (or on a very short tour) it may be necessary to try to hang on to the coattails of one small group, but, given time, it's much better to spread your wings a bit and make friends elsewhere. The more people who notice you positively, the better for your career -- and your sanity!

In the article I praised a Dutch violinist, who made it her goal to eat a meal with every member of the baroque orchestra at some point during the tour. I don't think that most of us would have the nerve, but what an example!!!


Copyright © 6 April 2007 Alice McVeigh, Kent UK

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