There are five sections in the string orchestra, playing five parts, but quite often we need more than five notes at once. There are two ways to get the extra notes: use double stops, or divide sections (divisi). In 90% of situations you should choose to divide. There are issues with double stops that I will explain in the next article.
So how does the string section divide?
The default behavior is to divide ‘on the stand.’ This is also called ‘inside/outside’ as the outside player (closest to audience) takes the top note and the inside player takes the bottom. Some section leaders may instruct the section in other ways, but this is what I have found to be the default in both the concert hall and the recording studio, so if you want something else (e.g., front and back), you should mark it. No discussion is needed for a simple two-way divisi. To cancel a special divisi and go back to the default, I just write ‘div ord.’
My preferred ways to do standard two-way splits in each section are like so: violins into Violin 1 and Violin 2; violas and basses divide on the stand; and the cellos go into groups, where the front group will play the top part and the back group will play the lower note. This is because they are often going to be playing with the basses.
If you need to go into more parts, say div. a3, that is when things can get a little trickier and plans and discussions are needed. In most cases you can leave it to the section leaders to organize. For the smaller sections, it is fine to leave it to them, but for the violins where there is a large number of people quite spread out, I like to get ahead of it and plan it all out myself. This has become even more important in Covid times where players are not sharing stands, so they do not have the same inside/outside automatic reference point. If this is the case, I make sure every player has a number. Odd numbers are outside, even are inside, and working out more complex divisions are as easy as calling out numbers or number ranges. Here are some examples of a few charts I drew up to organize this on some sessions in 2020-2021:
One thing unique to film scoring is that we copy first and second violins on the same part. This allows us to easily change the the weighting. Need more people on the melody? No problem, just tell some or all of the seconds to play that line. Also, this allows us to do divisi across the whole group. For example, a three-way division of all violins is very easy to notate when they all see the same parts. Whatever you do, be sure to look at each line from the players’ perspective so it makes sense. Sometimes jumping in and out of a ‘big three-way’ can lead to terrible voice leading.
From a musical perspective, just keep in mind that the more you divide, like into five or seven, the more complicated it gets and the more time is wasted with discussions. You also increase the odds that someone will misunderstand what part they should play. As mentioned previously, I don’t mark it when the split is two-way. But I do mark it when the division involves three or more parts so the leader will see it before the section plays and can work out a plan.
What section do you divide when you need more than five string voices? Range has a lot to do with it, but let’s say we need an extra note in the upper range. In that case divide the second violins. Leave the firsts on one note. A lot of the impression of the size of the orchestra comes from this top part; split it, and you change that perception. If the top part is a melody and the next two are not, then for sure divide the seconds.
There are three cases where I like to divide into three equal groups. The first is when you have a three note chord and the top is not a ‘melody.’ This will balance better with even division (and works particularly well with tremolo chords). Next is when you have three individual parts. Use three staves and ‘div a3.’ And finally, when I have a wire or long high note that I do not want as present, I will have the back violins play that. If you take an even number from both the firsts and the seconds, they can still stay in their sections and you will get an even sound from them with a slightly more distant sound from the back players.
Dividing other sections is also an option. You can also divide violas with no problems. If the extra note needed is in the lower range then divide the celli. Due to the size and weight of the cello, the section can easily divide without changing the weight of the sound. If you need root, fifth, and tenth down low, basses would take the root and celli the next two notes. The cello will have a much richer sound on the 10th than the violas if it is in the middle bass clef range. Basses are too thick sounding to divide into anything other than octaves, unless it is an effect you are after. If you are searching out interesting colors then go ahead and divide sections in other ways, div a3 or a4. The above rules are designed to maintain the full sound of the string section, not to be overly artistic!