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Using a Bow to Teach Wind Articulations

Anthony Pursell | March 2016

    Describing articulations and airflow to wind players can be difficult. From the speed of the air to the location of the tongue, defining this instantaneous process can be cumbersome for directors and outright confusing for the student musicians to comprehend. One way to assist students is through visualization. Finding a visual method that closely relates to wind players’ performance may be as easy as using string bowing techniques.

Introduction of Terms
    Even if you do not have an orchestra, you may have a string bass bow with your percussion equipment. If not, it is best to find some sort of similar device that can provide visual assistance to the students. I will often use my conducting baton when rehearsing a new group to save time if a bow is not readily available. If a bow is obtainable, it may be most effective to use it during the initial setup of the idea. Afterwards, a baton should be sufficient to convey the idea during everyday rehearsals.

    To begin demonstrating string bowings to wind players, I identify the parts of the bow and the general concepts of string performance techniques. The vocabulary between bowings and other techniques can grow as the demands of the music and your interpretation dictate, however I keep explanations as simple as possible. It is the visualization that is important.
    Several sample phrases I may use include: up bow starting at the tip, start at the frog and only use one third of the bow, and to play this passage lightly and at the quick tempo desired, think about performing this like a violinist using a ricochet bowing. When first introducing these terms and ideas, I will prepare students by finding a video clip from the internet that demonstrates the desired interpretation. In many cases, the style, articulation, dynamics, and other musical attributes improve after a brief visual demonstration. Achieving this performance unity is vital to giving musicians and the audience the best overall experience.

Execution: Articulation, Style, & Dynamics
    The two most basic aspects of string performance are using the bow and pizzicato. When band students are shown these concepts, the relationship to the amount of tongue, airflow, and general performance style becomes clearer, resulting in better rehearsals and performances. Once the ensemble has a general understanding of how the conductor will employ the given techniques and terminology, using the method in practice can begin promptly. Excerpts from the first movement of Gustav Holst’s First Suite in Eb, Op 28, No. 1 work well to demonstrate these concepts.

Soft Articulation, Legato, and Soft Dynamics
    Using the following example from measures 1-8, I would describe the opening attack as an up bow, beginning at the tip, with each subsequent note be performed under one full bow stroke. The natural tendency when playing the anacrusis is to perform this as an up bow. Although this can always be modified to fit the interpretation of the conductor based on the literature’s demands, it is generally due to the weaker emphasis of the attack. Wind players may not have this innate sense as we do not have a visual mechanism in place to differentiate how the attack may differ. This is where the visual motion of the bow may assist. For the wind performer, not having the visual stimulation may make the performance of the anacrusis potentially identical to the performance of the stronger downbeat.
    If a string player was asked to mark their bowings, it may look like this:

At the indicated tempo, no string player can play either four-measure passage on a single bow stroke well, but wind players may best understand the visual concept better if a less technical information is given.

Staccato and Medium-Strong Dynamics
    The passage at measure 32-40 has a large number of wind players performing a rhythmically identical passage.

The vast number of interpretations that may be performed of this passage could be as high as the number of players assigned to the parts. To gain consistency among the 17 similar parts, I would ask the performers to listen to the snare drummer perform the selection. I would then have the performers picture using two to three inches of the middle portion of the bow played against the string with greater pressure, producing a heavy and biting attack, or a martelé stroke.

    Although there is little need for band conductors to know an extensive vocabulary of bow strokes, I find that using some of the most basic bow terms limits how much time it can take to explain my interpretation. It can also give wind players the opportunity to connect if they perform in an orchestra. This is especially helpful if the conductor of the orchestra has limited experience working with wind players.

Marcato Style and Strong Dynamics
    For stronger sections, I might ask wind players to perform as if executing a down bow motion. The stronger I wish to have the articulation and dynamics, the closer I will ask the wind players to execute the down bow closer to the frog. Using the excerpt from measures 41-48, I would ask the low saxophones and brass to perform all notes down bow, beginning at the frog, and only using one quarter of the bow. If a string player were to mark the part, it might look like this:

    The resulting performance, given this visual assistance, should be marcato, at a strong dynamic, and with slight resonance, but having separation between each note. Giving all players the same focus should also result in consistency among the players who have this part.

    Although there are numerous ways to present visualization techniques to assist with band rehearsals, I find the use of string performance techniques beneficial because I can use a baton as the visual device. By providing a more visual model that relates to wind playing, students’ understanding and performance may be greatly enhanced in rehearsal, resulting in higher quality experiences for all.