Updated: Mar 28, 2020
Polish Composer and GEMS alumni Piotr Nermer, who attended last summers film scoring program, lets you in to a few tips for writing for strings. If Orchestration is your thing, then don't forget to check out our brilliant Pete Anthony Orchestration Program July 8th-11th 2019 on the GEMS Film & Visual Media Scoring Program July 1st - July 11th 2019
Have you ever wondered why your string samples in your latest mockup didn’t sound convincing even after purchasing the most detailed and expensive library available? Did you have a difficult rehearsal with players always asking how to execute something? Well, the answer is probably simple and it’s because you didn’t write your strings thinking of the real orchestral strings section. Perhaps you did it very pianistically in your DAW or wrote a score in Sibelius still imagining a keyboard instead. In this short article I’d like to point out some of the most common mistakes film composers used to DAW production do.
My name is Piotr (Peter) and I am a violinist and composer. I played in various instrumental setups, from solo to symphonic. I also did quite a few recordings for fellow composers and worked as a session musician. I’d like to share some of my observations.
Check out Piotr Nermer interveiw from last summer
How does a string player play? “He just uses his bow like this and presses strings on the fingerboard” a person would answer while making a waving right-left gesture to mimic the bowing. I wish it was that easy.
We have a huge variety of articulation techniques and bowing combinations available on the violin, viola, cello or double bass. What makes bowing difficult to comprehend is that one may play a passage in many ways with some of them being idiomatic and some of them being very uncomfortable.
There are two directions the bow can go to: up and down (even on the cello or bass where the bow moves in a horizontal way unlike the violin or viola). However, with lots of slurs and ties it becomes complicated. So what should I do to start writing comfortable string parts?
My advice would be as follows.
Study the solo violin repertoire (Paganini, Wieniawski, Ysaye, J. S. Bach) and string-focused orchestral scores (Ravel, Strauss, Mozart, Mendelssohn). You will start seeing typical solutions in specific situations (like for example pickup measures being played up, long phrase slurs divided into shorter ones etc). Listen to recordings with the score in front of you, try to judge the sound effect of a bowing figure.
Many times I saw scores with a bow mark above every single note. Please, just don’t do it. Except for tricky or uncertain rhythms, the bowing technique is kind of automatic just as speaking in your native language. The player knows best what’s comfortable for him (the concertmaster know best what’s the most efficient bowing for the group he leads). Don’t put bowing marks unless you want a special effect (like aggressive down bow strokes in the opening of “Sacre du Printemps”). The player is going to put his own ones anyway.
2. Melodies and timbre
String instruments can be very expressive when handled correctly. The tricky part is that one can play the same sounding note on different strings using different fingers. A particular note may benefit from a suddenly different tone colour. But it’s easy to get confused having many different things to choose from. For example: the violin string G has a distinct tone, significantly stronger and heavier than the rest of the strings. The string E has a cold, metallic quality.
My advice on handling this? Go to a music school and ask someone to play a chosen note on different strings and listen carefully how the timbre changes. Ask them to play a scale and pay attention to how the timbre changes according to the register of the instrument. This simple exercise can prove how many different tone colors we can have for our music’s advantage.
3. Melodies and phrasing
One of the most common mistake here is to write parts pianistically. A melody with big leaps or very fast passages in the highest register are never going to sound naturally.
The perfect 5th as a double stop is quite risky. Composers often think that it’s the opposite (“But the violin is tuned in 5ths!”). The truth is somewhere between - but I would advise not to use perfect 5ths as double stops (solo players). Better to save that for divisi orchestral parts.
Use your voice and sing or hum your melodies. Your own breath will guide you when it comes to slur placing. String instruments sound best when treated vocally.
These pieces of advice might help you with approaching the strings family. However, it’s just the top of the iceberg and there is so much more to talk about. I’d like to get into smaller details with the next articles which are soon to arrive:)
Check out Piotr Nermer live recording from last years summer program
Until next week, fellow composers!
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