Sunday, 27 January 2013

Fighting the bulge.

If, like me, you are a conductor with a weight problem and have opened this post looking for enlightenment, or support from a kindred spirit, then I'm afraid I have misled you. This post is not about conductors weight problems, hair loss or fashion tips - it is about something that has driven me mad over the last 20 years as both a conductor and professional violinist, the bulge!

What, you may ask, is a bulge? I'm tempted to say that if you are a string player and you don't know what it is, you are a bulger! But if you are not and want to find out why it drives me round the bend and what can be done about it, then read on.

This is a bulge.......

and in this case, it is exactly what Mahler wanted the First Violins to do in the Adagietto of his 5th Symphony. How do we play it?

Usually we start at the extremity of the bow (either the heel or the tip), draw the bow slowly at first, then quickly speed up (sometimes adding extra weight to the stroke, sometimes vibrating more with our left hand, and sometimes both!) and then rapidly decelerate just before reaching the other end of the bow. And there, in a nutshell, is how to play a bulge.

Why does this bother me? It doesn't, when specifically asked for. It bothers me when string players do it all the time! Which leads to another question, a much more involved question......

 Why do string players bulge?

I think there are many reasons why. In no particular order they are

1. Rhythmic uncertainty
What? How can rhythm effect the tone? Well it can, mainly within a section of players. If the player is unsure of where to place the note, one way of hiding that uncertainty is to "bloom and blossom" the sound momentarily after creeping in, ie. a bulge. The player doesn't want to show they are unsure where to play rhythmically yet want to show they are "committed" and "contributing to the section sound" so the best way to avoid coming in wrong or causing section instability is to bulge. Common in unsure trialists and extra players.

2. H.I.P. practises being misunderstood
H.I.P. is short for Historically Informed Performance. For a long time the bulge made many appearances (along with its sidekick, poor intonation) in recordings and performances of Baroque music, sometimes creeping in to Classical pieces as well. Why? The player is told that vibrato was not being used at that time in history and for some this is a problem! For some, vibrato is the primary colouring method for phrasing, for others the only method!
When their vibrato is "banned", these players have a problem. How can they make a note beautiful without their old friend vibrato? They bulge! But if they had learnt to phrase with the bow first, rather than rely on their vibrato, this would not be necessary. I used to make all of my pupils learn a Bach Solo Partita or Sonata, playing with no vibrato yet learning to phrase with the bow, preferably a Baroque bow. It meant that they could build and shape a phrase of music without relying on vibrato, relying only on bow speed and distribution.

3. "I'm making a beautiful sound" syndrome
For me, this is the most inexcusable! Every string player knows how satisfying and amazing it feels when one can get the instrument really ringing and vibrating, sinking into the string and drawing out the fullest sound we can get - it's why we play them!
The problem is that some players get hooked on this "open sound" and think that if they can get that sound on every note that they are being musical and "wowing" us with their gorgeous tone! They forget to listen to how the phrase should go, how it should be shaped, how each note should lead from one to another culminating in a beautifully sung line of music. Their phrases last exactly one bow long, each bow being a bloody great bulge! It doesn't matter how many notes you play like this in a phrase - the phrase can only last for one bulgy bow!

So, how can we avoid this? What can we do to rectify it? My first suggestion would be to......

Record yourself.
And not only students! Anyone who suspects they are bulging should switch on a tape player, or even the Memo App on their smart phone and listen to themselves play a long melody. I used to make all of my students do this and if that didn't work, which was rare, I made them sing the phrase to me. In the end it doesn't matter what instrument we are playing, the phrase must have shape and structure. Each phrase, however long, has its high point - the note on which the composer would set the word "love" or "death" in a song. Often some players get so stuck on bulging that they lose sight of where this note is and bulge happily away on the words "of", "it" or "and"!

So, having listened to your playback and been nearly sick listening to your bulges, what next?

We need to look at two things coupled together to battle the bulge - bow speed and linking between the bows.
For me the speed of the bow is paramount. When one listens to a great singer or wind soloist, we listen to a phrase of music which builds and dies evenly and without extraneous bulges. This is because they are sending the air through their vocal chords or instrument at a constant speed or skilfully increasing or decreasing the speed to effect crescendos or diminuendos. Imagine listening to your favourite opera singer singing your favourite aria whilst having someone jumping up and down on their diaphragm - this is what a string players bulge can sound like!
If the player can learn to control the speed of their bow, they can at least make an even sound. Even speed, even sound.
Then, if the phrase needs a crescendo, the end of one note must crescendo so that the start of the next links with it. This needs the player to again control the speed of the bow but also colour with vibrato so that the end of one note and the start of the next sound the same - this is impossible if you bulge, impossible! If you want an exercise, play Kreutzer Study No.1 at 120 BPM, starting on a down bow. You will soon learn how to distribute your bow, your bow speed and your vibrato.

This is a problem I encounter at every level I conduct at - with Youth Orchestras and amateurs I sort of expect it but I often experience it in the professional arena! I am not saying we should never bulge, far from it! Some composers demand it but not every composer. All I am asking for is that more players listen to the sound they produce for longer than one bow and think harder about their bow speed and control.

Why am I getting all upset about bulging? Because just one loud bulger can wreck a phrase of music in a string section. The best string section I have ever played in is a hand-picked orchestra whose players all use vibrato wisely, do not use portato (another bugbear of mine) and do not bulge. The difference when everyone players like this is obvious and it sounds so much more unified in approach, tone and phrasing. It is not out of reach of every orchestra to use these fundamental skills to make their string sound more homogeneous.

Next time - marking up a score - should we and if so, how?



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