Mailbag- bowings and score study

Not long ago I reminded readers how welcome questions are on this blog. Fortunately, a couple of regular readers took the bait, although it has taken me until now to sit down and write a response.

The first batch of questions come from conductor Teresa Metzger Howe- an alumni of the 2007 Rose City International Conductors Workshop, and someone who’s work impressed all of us there that summer.

Teresa writes-

As always, great to read your thoughts, Ken. You encouraged questions from the audience, so here are a couple. I’m a recent reader and haven’t gotten through all your old posts, so my apologies if you’ve already dealt with these nuts and bolts questions. Also, my apologies if these are “duh!” questions. Here goes:
1. When you guest conduct, who provides the bowings? The orchestra in their usual way or do you bring in bowings?
2. When you have a schedule that is stacked up pretty tight, when do you score study for the program you’ll be doing AFTER the rehearsals you’re presently in?

I’ll deal with bowing part of her question first. It depends on the piece and it depends on the orchestra. I have some pieces that I’ve done many times, in which the bowings I’ve worked out seem really essential to the performance of the piece I’m trying to achieve. These tend to be core pieces that one does a lot, like the Beethoven or late Mozart symphonies, but even in these pieces, there are inconsistencies. I can’t really imagine doing Beethoven 7 without using my string parts, but Beethoven 5 is a piece where I changed a lot of bowings just going between Lancashire Chamber Orchestra and Surrey Mozart Players last spring based on different sized string sections, different halls and the use of natural vs modern brass instruments.

Over time, I’m working on building a library of parts that have my markings in them- if you want your bowings, the librarians where you guest conduct would generally prefer you send your parts rather than making them re-mark theirs.

However, some orchestras strongly prefer that their concertmaster or section leaders do their own bowings, while others use whatever their music director might have asked for last time he did the piece. Even though I’m a string player and usually have pretty strong ideas about bowings, I’ve found there’s no harm and often a lot of good in using other people’s bowings as a starting point. Chances are, your magic bowing is probably only essential about 10% of the time in a piece- why not let them do what they like and what they’re used to the rest of the time.

Pieces that get almost no rehearsal time, like The Messiah, are ones where it really pays to own your own parts. Otherwise, you really have no chance of a performance that’s going to have any sophistication to it. With Baroque music, it pays to not only mark bowings, but articulations and dynamics, and even when to vibrate or not. David Zinman always used to tell us that his Beethoven parts “look like fucking Mahler symphonies with all my markings.” Thomas Beecham was the greatest editor of parts- that’s why he never needed rehearsal time. In spite of his wealth, he never hired a personal librarian- his poor wife was stuck with the job throughout their marriage.

Open minded as I may be, I’ve learned to take a quick peek at a new orchestra’s bowings whenever possible. I did one major symphony that I thought was nearly bowing proof- I’ve played it maybe 50 times, and with every bowing I could imagine, and all of them work pretty well. Then I got to the first rehearsal for Orchestra ______, and realized it is possible to make this piece impossible with the right bowings…

Another funny bit of confusion came about when I did another major symphony with the a lovely professional orchestra this season. I’d done the piece not too long ago and also knew it was likely to be unknown to most of the players. I asked the manager how they liked to handle bowings and offered to provide a set of string parts. He thanked me and said that his concertmaster preferred to do the bowings.

Then, the day before I arrived, I got a voice mail from the concertmaster- it turns out the manager had never asked her if she wanted my bowings. She’d never come across the piece before and didn’t feel like bowing a 60 minute symphony she’d never played when the conductor had his bowings.

Except, I’d already left Vftp Headquarters, so I couldn’t help her!

I tend not to study too much for the program I’m doing once I start rehearsals, although that varies depending on the piece. However, this often means I can start to really refresh the music for the next concert while rehearsing the current one. Of course, when things go according to plan, I will have been working on the piece for some months, but not always.

However, I have a secret weapon that has saved my ass more than once. No, it is not the fact that I’m a reasonably good faker. That has also saved my ass more than once.

No, the secret weapon is what I call the “no prospect” list. Many, many, many years ago, I found myself wasting the days of a Christmas vacation. After absorbing as much family joy as I could cope with, I realized I actually had some free time. In a moment of madness, I pulled out the score of the Rite of Spring and sat down at the piano.

“But Ken,” I said to myself, “You have absolutely no prospect whatsoever of doing this piece anytime in the foreseeable future.”

“That may be true, Ken,” I told myself, “but by the time I get the chance to conduct the Rite of Spring, I’ll be too busy to learn it.”

So, learn it I did. I still haven’t conducted the mo**£(&£”*&&£$^*”&^%£”r.

Since then, whenever I’ve had a real break, I’ve pulled something off the shelf that I had no chance whatsoever of doing anytime soon, whether for budget, difficulty, obscurity or any other reason. I always tried to choose pieces like the Stravinsky that were unusually difficult to conduct. Over the years, I’ve gotten through quite a few pieces, and actually, I’ve since conducted quite a few of them. And, as I foretold with the Rite, I’ve generally gotten chances to do them when I didn’t have time to learn them.

A couple seasons ago, I was slated to do Elgar 1, which is not a readable or fake-able score. Not long before things got going with rehearsals, I had a string of disasters including two horrible family health emergencies. When I first stood in front of the orchestra to read the symphony down, I had not had a chance to spend a single minute with it since I’d learned it as a “no prospect” work 3 years earlier.

But…. I had learned it as a “no prospect” work, and the rehearsal was fine and the concert a bit of triumph.

If you’re doing a lot of concerts, you need a repertoire- my first five years in the real world, I hardly repeated a single piece (I could easily learn far more pieces than I had opportunities to conduct), but now I try to do at least 1/3-1/2 pieces I’ve done before. Then, I’ve tried to use the “no prospect” list to insulate myself from things like the Copland Short Symphony, Rite, Turangalila, the Mahlers and so on that will always need tons of extra study time. I still need to re-study those pieces, but their presence on the “no prospect” list means I can prepare them in a similar amount of time to a more straight-forward piece.

The bad news, however, is that this system doesn’t really work. Sorry, Teresa. Well, it works as far as not making a fool of oneself in rehearsals, but I find that the pieces I’ve lived with the longest and worked on the most are the ones I most want to study in greater depth. I can’t tell you how much time I spent on Beethoven 5, which I did twice this year, and I spent about twice as much time on the second performance as on the first….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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