Air on a down-bow

I joined a string section last week. Well, I say “joined”. I was tacked onto the bass clef end of the strings for a Haydn symphony. So for a brief but enlightening period I left the woodwind section and became…

A cello.

The first thing I noticed: you can see the conductor. Let me explain…

Bassoonists are nearly always in the back row of the woodwind section. We peer at the conductor through a small gap between the first and second oboes. This is especially difficult with oboists who like to sway around whilst playing. You have to sway along in the opposite direction in order to see the bloody downbeat and, believe me, it’s difficult to play the bassoon when you’re bobbing around like a meerkat.

The second thing that I noticed about string sections? Actually, at this point I’m going to apologise to all my string playing friends. I’m about to take the piss out of your single biggest obsession; your bête noire; your favourite topic of conversation. It’s the thing that causes more moaning, more arguments and more getting-a-cob-on than anything else in the world of string playing.

Bowing.

Honestly, I’ve never heard anything like it. I’m so glad I’m a wind player. We never have to worry about what to do with our bow. Having spent a couple of days in the string section, I’ve realised that there’s a war going on in there.

It goes like this: the leader of the section issues his or her battle tactic – down-up-up. Almost immediately there is quiet muttering from the back desks… up-up-down… mutter mutter… up-down-up… mutter… down-up-down. One of them bravely pipes up, “Do you think it may be better if we did an up-bow there?” which roughly translates as “Up yours with the down-bow ”.

Some of them rebel, go AWOL on the bowing front. The bows are going off in all directions. It looks like a storm at sea. At this point the section leader gets tetchy about the down-up-up and says something along the lines of “Shut your gob and do as you’re told”. The pencils come out and the official bowing is marked in the music. Deep frowns ensue.

Meanwhile, the bassoonist fiddles with her reed.

Sometimes, the bowing wars continue in the pub after the rehearsal. For a woodwind player masquerading as a string, it’s all rather entertaining. OK, we occasionally have discussions about where to breathe, but arguments are rare. We just play the notes.

And moan about reeds.

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