Bow Speed and Unity: the Cleveland Orchestra under Boulez

August 31, 2017, 4:07 PM · There is something quietly humiliating about running out of bow when you’re in an orchestra. No one but you knows it, but it’s frustrating nevertheless. I don’t remember an exercise specifically designed to teach us how to gauge the amount of bow that was left; only the admonition to "save bow," which I heard hundreds of times. That always sent the wrong message to me, making me put the brakes on. Slamming on brakes and screeching to a halt; there’s a reason why there are no brakes on a bow.

As my bow would skid to the tip, applying brakes would halt it, but it would careen towards the bridge or fingerboard. I had to become adept at limiting the damage, a unique skill that didn’t teach me how to use the bow organically. It taught me how to mitigate a disaster.

What I needed was to understand, on the simplest level, how small parts of the bow are capable of capturing the musical essence and the grand gestures of a phrase. This is one of the great lessons that music and playing the violin teach us: we can pay attention to the smallest part of the bow, while remembering the big picture. Music teaches that not only can we slow down time, but we can navigate effortlessly between crafting the tiniest detail and deciding the evolution of a phrase.

How to Find the Right Bow Speed

Rather than “save bow,” know when to change the speed and the distance. Don’t slam through a speed as if the bow is hydraulically charged. Instead, treat the bow like a telescope, in which sections work independently. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a direct conduit between the sound in our ear and the intuitive movement of the bow?

Imagine how a beat appears visually for each part of the measure. You won’t run out of bow if you know what a beat looks like, and all you have to do is watch a conductor -- a good conductor -- to start understanding that. You hear ebb and flow, and you see it when you watch your fellow musicians. The next step is to interpret the signals and the boundaries of music. Study the countless examples online. In terms of dynamics, the greatest volume can be achieved with a small amount of bow. On the other hand, you can create a quiet shimmering sound with long, light and fast bows.

The biggest mistake in managing bow speed and distance is that the musician loses track of the shape of the phrase. One bow speed should be good for one moment. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the parts are small, they’re completely different, they fit, and they create a new visual with each new piece. One musical phrase has a series of staccatos, legatos and bow distributions. By savoring each moment, a violinist becomes adept at seamlessly folding in the various bow speeds.

The mind of the violinist sees bow speeds as a series of adjacent, independent, changing speeds. As the mind develops, it’s remarkable in its ability to compartmentalize.

An orchestra player leaves room in his thoughts to see how the phrase is going to unfold. This is quite a juggling act; to appear assertive while waiting passively for signals. String players with ultra-dominant bowing philosophies have a hard time controlling their edgy, and hyper bow arms. The over-riding signal they receive may be the teacher that told them to use a full bow on every note, or some other extreme pedagogical admonition. Over-active technique may be accompanied by the super aggressive drive to be on the beat. This desire always leads to being ahead of everyone else.

It’s how we organize the signals that music and musicians are transmitting to us that spells the difference between good and great.

Gift from YouTube

All professional orchestras and hundreds of college and youth orchestras demonstrate unified playing. Things of course feel more different, awkward and chaotic for the musicians within the orchestra than what the public sees and hears, but the dominant qualities of the music camouflage the messiness. So what’s special about the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez?

One video on YouTube stands out for its pristine view of an orchestra in a state of elegant and graceful simplicity. The piece is Mahler 10th Symphony, the place is Severance Hall, and to watch Boulez is a lesson in understanding signals that perfectly define the music without a pushy display of emotion.

Music is an organism that has many aspects, only one of which is emotion. Boulez gives the orchestra room to let the music unfold. He does this by trusting the orchestra to not over-indulge. The Cleveland musicians have a perfectly symbiotic relationship with Boulez; there is no agenda being pushed. The pacing is not bombastic or frenetic. The result is pure emotion.

What is unique about this performance is not the perfection that the audience is experiencing; numerous orchestras and conducting can convey the same thing in a different way. What’s different here is the obvious uniformity of spirit and technique within the orchestra itself. It’s not just that the string players are all playing in the same part of the bow. It’s that they intuit the dynamic balances and create shimmering tones, all with the intent of blending with other sections. They play on the beat, but never rush towards it or coyly indicate it for the “benefit” of others.

How has the Cleveland Orchestra managed to maintain that sort of discipline since George Szell led them, from 1946-1970, with an autocratic and complete musical command of his craft? A principal flutist from another orchestra offered this explanation: they hire only the best musicians and the best conductors. That makes sense, because orchestras cannot remember, nor should they be expected to remember, how they’re supposed to play the constantly evolving music. Even those who had played under Szell and other conductors long after him couldn’t teach the new musicians what Szell would have wanted, nor would they have even wanted to. That’s not how the process works; it is constantly evolving, Any idea that is pre-determined or any bow arm that isn’t rhythmically flexible will hit a brick wall. A great orchestra is ready to make all the parts fit, while a great conductor knows how to send the right signals.

Cleveland Orchestra with Boulez

The Map and the Mind of Boulez

Some signals are easier to read than others. The more assertive and pointed the signals, the easier it is to assume where the music is heading. The emotional face of the conductor and the focus of the eyes also point the orchestra in the right direction. This doesn’t mean that visibly grand gestures make an orchestra play together. Numerous assessments need to be made by the conductor to oversee the final result. Of course, the musicians are the main ingredients. Their individual skills make up the package that the conductors work with. It’s remarkable how difficult it is for conductors to work with great orchestras who bring the most sophisticated musical set of parts to them. The hardest thing about music and the role of conductors is how the leader talks about the music and how he or she facilitates changes.

Boulez was the master of the craft of signaling to an orchestra the complex collection of musical details. He relied on the orchestra’s skill of finishing his thoughts. Any interruption of the flow between his leading and their following would not have been possible, because all the members of the orchestra trusted his leadership. Following him couldn’t have been easy; when gestures are that void of extravagances, they resemble the starkness of an all-white jigsaw puzzle. This is proof of music’s complexity. Nothing less than such a puzzle can come close to describing the physics of sound and emotion fitting together.

What makes him the perfect picture of showing us how the parts fit is the clarity and lack of histrionics. Nothing in the traditional sense of conducting techniqe that we depend on existed in Boulez. There wasn’t an overwhelming gravitational pull towards the beat that drives students. Instead, he conducted as if the music was unfolding in the moment, and that gave the fine musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra the freedom to finish the phrase, even in fast sections.

The most exquisite and balanced sound resulted. The first and foremost calamity of any rhythmic chaos is sound. It’s not noticeable to the audience, but it leaves an orchestra scratching its head, amazed and dumbstruck at how different each musician can play from each other. Boulez and Cleveland avoid that trap. It’s incredibly unique, and to experience that on YouTube with Mahler being played in Severance Hall, is second to none. It’s a performance I’ll never forget.


September 2, 2017 at 05:09 PM · What an insightful article! "Quietly humiliating" sums it up perfectly! And the signaling among Cleveland, Boulez, and Preucil is quite amazing. Combining your thoughts on bow control and signaling was particularly interesting. (As an aside, I had the opportunity to hear Preucil live last summer and his use of the bow is nothing short of spectacular. Each up bow and down bow seemed to go on forever... and the sound was always rich, full, and vibrant.)

September 3, 2017 at 02:32 PM · While not a huge Mahler fan, this spectacular display of symbiotic musicality and singular purpose are as suggested Divine in all respects...extraordinary string playing. Mahler is never easy but this movt calls for consummate bow control and stratospheric position work...tough to beat the Cleveland under 'some' conductors.

Boulez is in-his-element. Other styles and composers don't come-off as well in his hands.

September 4, 2017 at 04:42 PM · What I found most fascinating is that the musicians were watching the conductor so intensely, and secondly that they all used the same part of the bow all of the time.

Maybe I don't watch enough performances, but as semi-amateur, (B.M. in violin performance, but work in a different field), my experience has been that no one watches the conductor as much as this group. Of course, I don't play in the Cleveland Orchestra, but I was taught to look up as much as possible. While playing in an amateur group (and watching some professional groups), I find that unusual. I hope this inspires more of us to do so.

The unity they show is amazing.

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