Clarifying String Bowing Terms & Technique: Part 1

Part 1 – On the String Bowings

String bowing terms often create confusion for directors of church and school orchestras, even veteran directors who are string specialists. There are two general types of bowings: those prescribing that the bow bounce off the string, “off the string bowings”, and those prescribing that the bow remain in contact with the string, or “on the string” bowings. In this column we will take a look at “on the string bowings” in an effort to help clarify terminology and technique.

Grand detaché or detaché is the smoothest possible “on the string” bowing. Despite the term’s immediate image of deliberately separating one bow stroke from another, the term refers simply to the natural change of down-bow to up-bow and up-bow to down-bow. Detaché is the smooth change of bow that occurs as the player connects one bow change to the next. It is most often performed with the full length of the bow but can also be performed in the upper half, middle third and lower half of the bow, depending upon the passage of music. String players will often practice scales with a long detaché bow stroke. This bowing would be used to perform the melody for John Dyke’s Holy, Holy, Holy, or the melody for Beethoven’s Ode to Joy from his Ninth Symphony.

Martelé is a “chopped” bowing. It is produced by the player deliberately “pinching” the bow to a stop, then releasing the pinch and starting the bow quickly across the string only to stop again. The pinch occurs as the right thumb, forefinger and second finger rotate and lean into each other and the bow stick suddenly. Each stop of the bow allows a break in the sound, and each change of bow direction begins with a bow “click.” Think of the bow click for strings as you would think of a strong initial consonant for singers. The martelé bow stroke can only be used at moderate tempos that allow time to stop the bow. This bowing would be used to perform the melody in the first movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite.

Slurred bowing is a smooth bowing that includes two or more pitches in one bow stroke. Slurring should mimic vocal phrasing in hymn orchestrations, arrangements and accompaniments. The number of pitches included in one slur is limited only by the tempo and the player’s ability level. Young string students in a church or youth orchestra will find it difficult to slur more than a few pitches without having to change bows. Advanced students and professionals can slur many pitches on one bow.

Slurred staccato bowing is a combination of slurred and martelé bowings. The player slurs several pitches under one bow but stops the bow movement after each pitch. This bowing may be used only at moderate tempos to allow the player time to stop after each pitch while keeping the bow moving in one direction at a time.

Louré bowing is a smooth version of the slurred staccato. With louré bowing the player slurs several notes under one bow with an almost imperceptible push of the bow on each change note change. Using a canoeing analogy, the bow moves along the string similarly to a canoe moving through the water. With each dip of the paddle the canoe surges ahead but continues to glide when the paddle is removed from the water. Pinching the bow slightly without stopping the bow will produce a slight pulse for each note change. This is much more subtle than using single detaché bows for each note change.

Helpful Hints:
Down-bow moves the bow from frog to tip. Up-bow moves the bow from tip to frog.
• The principle of the down-bow implies that a down-bow should be used for the first beat of a measure or any heavy agogic accent within a phrase. Conversely an odd number of bow changes before a measure or an accent should begin with an up-bow.
• The bow produces tone by combining three factors: bow weight, bow speed, and bow contact or sounding point. Bow weight refers to the amount of heaviness from the bow arm that is transferred to the bow. The more weight added to the bow the bigger the tone. Bow speed refers to the rate at which the bow travels across the string. Faster bow speed gives more energy to the tone. The contact or sounding point refers to the placement of the bow between the fingerboard and the bridge. The closer the bow is to the bridge the more intense the tone that results. Changing any one of these three factors will necessitate changing both of the remaining factors. For instance, if a player adds weight to the bow with a slow bow speed the tone will break up and sound crushed. Adding bow weight will necessitate increasing the bow speed and moving the contact point towards the bridge so that the bow can support the weight and the faster speed.

For a more in-depth look at string bowings consult the bowing chart in The Modern Conductor, by Elizabeth A.H. Green. American String Teachers Association with the National School Orchestra Association publishes The ASTA Dictionary of String Bowings, a comprehensive reference book.


This article first appeared in Lines & Spaces, a newsletter published by David E. Smith Publications, and is used here by permission.
Jay-Martin Pinner runs Pinner Studios, an in-home private string studio with over 40 violin, viola, cello, and double bass students in Greenville, SC. He served as head of the String Department at Bob Jones University for 25 years and is the founding director of the Bob Jones Academy and Junior High Orchestras.

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