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Prunes are the best way to be moved.

February 13, 2008 at 4:58 AM


Quite a few years ago I had an experience which crystallized my thoughts on a rather tricky tropic related to violin playing and teaching. I was at a teacher training seminar for Alexander Teachers and a student wanted to be worked with while playing some blues on the harmonica. He is quite an experienced player and performer and he gave us a good rendition which we duly applauded. Then the teacher worked on his primary control (head, neck and back relationship). Suddenly his playing took on the most haunting depth of sadness one could imagine. The other ten of us were sitting there in stunned silence when the player blurted out angrily `What have you done. You took away my sadness. I hated that.` I have had similar experiences with my own playing, a sense of playing in a rather cool manner but then finding the audience has been very deeply touched whereas the same work played a moment before elicited a polite but rather less emotional response. What is actually happening is we are taking out the habitual superficial emotional states that reflect the maelstrom of modern living and reconnecting with the origin of music and genuine communication with others. But it feels very wrong initially, as the emotions embrace homeostasis as deeply as the muscles. Same thing in fact.
These experiences while working in Alexander seminars and classes do have a genuine counterpart in the day to day grind of er, mainstream pedagogy. If you are an avid reader of the literature of the string world such as The Strad, you will notice every now and again a very interesting piece of advice cropping up from coaches and teachers: we are not here to be moved- we are here –to elicit an emotional response in another person.- Or as the great cellist and AT teacher Vivienne Mackie but it in her blunt fashion, `there is nothing more boring than watching people cry.`
I believe absolutely and totally that players who kid themselves they need to draw on and express their own emotions as something to project at other people, an extremely common affliction, are doomed to at best slow progress and an utter failure to realize their potential. And it is teachers at fault when they talk about `play this like you are angry, this is a happy melody. Think of a dying relative and play this passage with great sadness.` What actually happens at these times? Usually very little good to be honest. It is pretty easy for example, to get somebody to conjure up their own egocentric emotions of anger and kidding ourselves its good teaching or good thinking about the instrument. However, since the mind and body are one entity one draws up all the physical tension concomitant with that rage and negativity resulting in a superficial appearance of anger which in reality is more a manifestation of the students frustration at not getting a genuinely good sound out of the instrument with the teachers egomaniacal believe they have `helped` the student express herself better.
Just this one example is a flagrant contradiction of the basic premise that if one wants to express things with more volume and articulation then greater relaxation is generally needed overall. Tension and emotional stress are contracted states non-conducive to playing –that elicits an emotional response in others.-!
What then, is expressive playing and how does one get there? Not saying there are any really easy answers but the start point is what is written on the page. This might sound banal but an awful lot of players cannot be bothered to think about the meaning of even the most basic instructional words that a composer may have written at the beginning of a piece and even if they have they may be unable to put it in any rational framework because they are ignorant of the composers milieu and oeuvre. It’s all relative! And we haven’t even got to the notes themselves. A rhythm may need to be played exactly correctly to get the effect the composer wanted (I am thinking of the opening of Tzigane right now. If the exact rests Ravel wrote are adhered to it sounds very much closer to an improvisation than a rushed /cut rendition by a violinist trying to play `with the heart and soul of a gypsy.`) Or it may need to be changed slightly according to conventions of the time (cf double dotting) or it may require some artistic license to create a very specific nuance but these things can be thought about and defined very objectively. I recently sat through an excruciating series of day long masterclasses in which the supposedly cream of Japan’s youth hacked through the Tchaikovsky concerto (more than any other work). The visiting teacher/soloist spent a great deal of time on pretty much the first two bars with just about everyone. There was certainly a lot of emoting and heavy breathing going on, but not one of these kids could actually play in time to start with , or control the bow sufficiently to play without unwanted miniscule dynamics and sloppy bow changes. It could have all been summed up as learn to listen to yourself but it really does often take something like the Alexander Technique to break through our habitual beliefs that we –are- listening to ourselves when we are actually fantasizing, something that has an exact counterpart in the Bhuddist purpose of learning to be present in the actual world rather than the one you wish existed. Hence the shock of the tape recorder for many….
The thoughtful and objective work needs to be continued on all the different kinds of kinds of accents, articulations of left and right hand and so on. I have far more respect for a teacher/player who has noted the difference in length between the ascending and descending colle/spiccato arpeggios in the first movement of the Spring than one who talks about `a pastoral mood and try and imagine Beethoven’s anger at deafness at this point yadder yadder.` Indeed, unless one is consciously experimenting and articulating what one is experimenting with then practice is doomed to ill remembered repetitions of an effect one stumbled on the day before which suited the whim of the moment.
It’s interesting that the really great teachers one can read interviews of have tended to avoid this constant use of ones emotions to create an effective performance in the practice room. Good teachers generally use language very precisely and often encourage students to analyze in the same manner. Talk about colors and where they are situated on the instrument, a more energetic sound with more shoulder, a darker sound nearer the bridge, a thinner sound, a more muted sound, a more intense vibrato on this note to bring it out. And so on.
They talk in terms of bow division/speed and sound point, the specific means to get a dynamic the composer wrote, or an unwritten one you intend to do because it corresponds to what the emotion within the music demands of you to represent at a given moment. But that decision to insert a specific dynamic is not because you believe the music is `happy or sad or angry` at this point.` Its because the music is asking you to look behind its notes and see what is lurking. What is –not- lurking is ones superficial, ever shifting psyche. It may be intended to elicit some kind of emotion in others but the player is the medium which searches out these things, considers carefully how to express them and then acts as a conduit to get that message to other people who will probably react but in some cases won’t. In the latter instance it is probably because the violinist has once more slipped into the trap of not shouting `listen to what I have found to say about this music, but rather `Listen to what I am using this music to say about me.` Were this to be the case the best performers would simply be the ones with the greatest and most unstable range of emotional experiences and capacity for anger and self pity. A mental institution might be a good place to search for such students…

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 6:22 AM
Now, this is brilliant :) My best experiences with music and violin has been when the technique was "there" and the rest just followed. In the sense that Ilya once described (seriously I think) as playing "empty-headed." It is, yet it isn't, and that's only part of it in addition. Along the same lines, a little bit, if you take a midi file, and importantly, set things up so that it will sound like a real instrument, it's surprising the range of emotion that's apparently portrayed by it. And of course there are the famous stories like "That was a remarkable performance. What where you thinking about." Answer: "Oh, what time my plane was supposed to leave."
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 6:37 AM
thanks jim. I sweated a bit over this one for two reasons. One, I think what I am trying to say might ruffle a few nose hairs and two, its actually quite difficult to articlate the difference between the two approaches. Demonstration/expereince is so much more powerful than language. Thinking about it now though, I think i would point to the currently available DVDs of Zhakar Bron who is surely rated as one of the finest teahcer sin the world today. I cannot recall one instance on any of those DVDs where he asks a stduent to epxress there inner child or whatever. Pretty much all he talks about is using the bow effectively to create the phrasing of the music* which part, save it, don`t jerk and so on. Interestingly, I find what for me is a rather weak point in his masterclass/open lesosn teaching. When he criticizes a student for bad intonation he angrily exhorts that player to `play in tune.` A world removed from Ms. Delay`s charmingly worded `what`s your concept of F#?`
From Jon O'Brien
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 6:25 AM
That was a great read. It's interesting how so much of good art always comes back to basic principles. I think the visual arts especially has suffered from letting many of these basic traditions get forgotten in favor of feelings and moods and messages. Nothing kills art more than lack of basic, foundational (and generally traditional - because it has been found to work) knowledge. An artist has to know from whence he or she has come, and ultimately be thankful, too.
From janet griffiths
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 6:53 AM
Lots here to think about.Is the violinist an artist or a craftsman? If he/she is an artist to what extent does an expressive rendering of a piece rely on craftsmanship and where does personal artistry play a part?
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 8:00 AM
Fundamentals! as the sportscasters say.
The rest is so much bigger than our snivelly little emotions could imagine.
From Stewart Siu
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 8:51 AM
This is a great post, but I do have a question. Could the player's genuine emotions serve constructive purposes for the playing? I remember there are times when I felt emotional, and subsequently found a personal interpretation of the piece in front of me that suited my mood (this is particularly true for the likes of Brahms and Beethoven). While I was certainly projecting my feelings into the music, arguably I was also uncovering a new reading (that the composer might have approved of). Rather than taking the two extremes: one being to expect that the score/history would tell you everything you need, the other being to force your own impulsive feelings onto the notes, I'd rather take the middle ground and say that a good performer should find a resonance between his/her feelings and a respectful reading of the written notes.

Would you agree?

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 9:05 AM
Well said, well written - and nothing else needs to be said.


From Jon O'Brien
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 12:00 PM
AT sounds interesting, Buri. What is the best way to find a suitable AT specialist? Do some specialise in advice for violinists?
From Raphael Klayman
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 2:27 PM
I often get quite emotional when performing - as well as listening to -music. But those emotions come from the music, itself. I know that this projects to the audience because people have told me so. I'm something of an amateur actor. I've always had a problem with method acting, which, at least in some manifestations of it, seems to ask the actors to take emotions from incidents in their own lives, in order to cry in the scene, etc. I think that it's the scene, itself that should make you cry - and if it doesn't, it doesnt; do something else with it. It seems that you are cricizing something similar. Be in the moment of the scene - or the music.

Now I have a different question, Buri, of momentous importance. You always make sense, conceptually. But how come in your blogs, you use the English alphabet, but in many of your responses in various threads you use prune-o-glyphics?

Just teasing! ;-)

From Raphael Klayman
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 3:16 PM
Actually, giving this a little further thought, I also feel that there's room for some middle ground - as long as we keep it relevant and constructive. Auer would say to his students about the Beethoven Concerto "I cannot say exactly what your thoughts should be, but they must be sublime." Rosand, speaking of the bridge section in the Mendelssohn, between the 2nd and 3rd mvts. that he likes to think of it as a dialog between an old professor and an upstart student! In playing many Mozart passages I imagine them as scenes in this or that Opera of his, without getting too specific. I see nothing wrong with beginning the Maggore section of the Bach Chaconne, and imagining oneself in a cathedral - if that is helpful. If it - and any other image I mentioned - is not helpful, then by all means forget about it.

What I feel can be really harmful is thinking: "well, this piece is supposed to be sad. But I'm not feeling sad. OK - let me pull up painful memories of someone close to me dying, or a bad breakup, etc." That's the sort of thing I'd definitely stay away from.

From Terry Hsu
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 9:17 PM
I was once at a masterclass of Sandor Vegh when an Australian girl played the Brahms G major, quite beautifully. But she moved quite a bit.

Vegh said, "The more you move up there, the less the audience feels in here (pointing to his heart)"

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 10:16 PM
Thank you for posting this. This is exactly what I want to do, exactly what I need to work on. All the personal feeling in the world won't count for anything if we can't figure out how to translate it in musical/technical terms. Agh! So challenging, but so important.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 10:35 PM
hah, this blog needs so many diffenret repsonses I hardly know where to start;)
Jon, re AT you need to go to a reputable organization to get a teacher. In genreal teachers are held to a veyr high standard to get a loicence so you can`t go that far wrong although like in any similar filed an oddball will slip through ocassionally. What countyr are you base din? Too lazy to check...
Whether or not they can paly the violin is irrlelevnt. An AT teacher is primarliy cocnerned with the misuse of the body centered around the head, neck , back relationship which is central to misuse of the self. It is a smuch psychological as physicla becase Alexander categoriucally denied any Cartesian split between mind and body. Thinking is movement and movement is thinking.
The best violin lessons I ever had have been from dancers turned AT teachers.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 13, 2008 at 11:16 PM
Stewart wrote:
>Could the player's genuine emotions serve constructive purposes for the playing?

Yes. But how does one identify genuine emotion? How much of it is necessary? What is irrelevant? What if it really is in conflict with the overall concept of the work?

>I remember there are times when I felt emotional, and subsequently found a personal interpretation of the piece in front of me that suited my mood (this is particularly true for the likes of Brahms and Beethoven). While I was certainly projecting my feelings into the music, arguably I was also uncovering a new reading (that the composer might have approved of)

Agreed, almost.
It was almost impossible to express the whole massive field of what I was trying to say in the space of one blog.;) First of all one always feels emotional at any given moment I suppose. Other wise one is probably dead. Indeed, I am a very strong advocate of preceding every practice session with some emotional stimulation even if it boring technical work. Scales practiced with attention to mood are far more useful than those without in the long run.
Then when one plays –any- music presumably one is listening and this surely provokes an emotional response at some level which is going to feed into the music. My main point I think is that you had to do very specific technical things (at a more or less unconscious level depending on your currnet skill) in order to allow the emotions inherent in the music to resonate in you and the main focus of your intention is allowing that to unfold in performance. I don`t think you were projecting your emotions-the music contains that and will trigger it in you, but because you are unique how it manifests will be unique.
As I write this I am thinking that part of the fakeness of expression that many players habitually use is tied up a great deal in words. A great teacher tells you this passage is angry so one stores this verbal instruction and talks oneself into a bad mood and tryst to play that way etc. However, I use the word `many` intentionally because as I said in my post- I have seen so many top class players change into true artists when brought into the present and just letting the music unfold. The sadness will be there, you will recognize it in the end but it’s the real thing. The rest is what you get from crying over a decent movie. Very cathartic but more celluloid than reality.
Just a couple of examples because I’m now going round in circles;)
The other day my piano trio played through the last movement of Schumann’s Fantasistucke for the first time. The movements are all utterly sublime but midway though this one violin, cello and piano are exploding together the most-fantastic- chords and melody one could wish for. That little section has no repeat marks but by sheer empathy we all stopped, grinned nodded and returned to the beginning of those three lines and played them again, and again. I lost count -probably about 6 times. Then we stopped and had a really fun discussion about whether it was more like the Schumann piano concerto or my contention that it was directly influence day the unison passages in the Brahms double concerto. The three of us were as high as a kite on that passage while we played. At no time could we say that we were consciously being dynamic, demonic, happy or over the moon. We were just listening and responding to allow the best possible sound and phrasing to flow together as one. That’s all it took for one of the great musical moments of my life. There was nothing more.
Or, recently a student came to me with a somewhat lackadaisical sounding opening of the Saint seans concerto. During the time we worked on it we addressed intonation, equalizing bow strokes and bow speed, sp and vibrato and where the music was going as a phrase. To get the student to sound bigger we worked a little on the sound projecting out in all directions to vibrate all four walls of the room. The player got where they wanted to be. That was all. What are the fundamentals of a passage? How are you misusing the body to block the power of Saint seans, music from entering you from heaven or hell depending on your perspective? How does it relate to the whole work in terms of proportion?
Not much left for me;)
Raphel my brain has gone. Maybe this works in with what you are saying. I`ve gotta rea dyour stuff again....

From Jon O'Brien
Posted on February 14, 2008 at 12:17 AM
Buri, I'm south of you: That big island where there are sheilas and blokes, and everyone watches the cricket on boxing day.

Would you know of any organisations here where I could ask about teachers in my area?

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 14, 2008 at 1:00 AM
Jon, reputable-
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 14, 2008 at 3:50 AM
Raphael, you last post summarised what I wa strying to say very succinctly. I do belive the question of imagery is a diffenret thing altogether. Those things are leading one to pose rhetorically at various levels of consciousness what kind of sound one wnats and this is the start point. The correctly trained and use dbody willtake care of this at the level one is at. In the practice room this exploratory work derived from creaitve us eof imagery ilkl become more and more automated until at your level you almsot certainly not really paying much atention to the mechanics in actual perfromance.
From Anthony Barletta
Posted on February 14, 2008 at 7:28 AM
This is a fascinating area of discussion as usual, Buri-san. The distinction between emoting and eliciting emotion is an important one. Music can paint a picture in the mind's eye, but the reaction to that picture must not be dictated. Somehow, the more a musician emotes while playing, the less I'm involved as a listener. Maybe I just don't like being spoonfed, but I want my emotions, whatever they are, to be mine.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 14, 2008 at 10:27 PM
How come I spend hours trying to figure out what to say , churn out a prolix essay and suddenly everyone condenses it brilliantly into one easy sentence....;)?
From howard vandersluis
Posted on February 15, 2008 at 4:49 AM

Great post, Buri, and it made me sit up and pay more attention to what I was saying in lessons again.

As regards people pithily condensing your writings though, remember that it was you who picked the plums, then you who lovingly dried them and juiced them. So after all the work you did, is it really all that remarkable that somebody finally figured out how to pour the juice into a glass and drink it?

I'll take this glass over ice please...

From Anthony Barletta
Posted on February 15, 2008 at 6:08 AM
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on February 15, 2008 at 6:10 AM
Buri, thank you for writing on one of the most fascinating issues about music! A lot have been said but there are at least two issues are so salient that worth further commenting:
First, emotion distracts. Any trial lawyer or surgeon will tell us that one’s emotion has no place during one’s performance under pressure. For this reason, lawyers and surgeons I know always hire someone else to act on their own cases or to operate on their loved one, so much so that it’s like a taboo to do it on their own even they are the best in town on the subject. From what I see, the performance of a good lawyer or a surgeon is just as much as that of arts as that of logical persuasion and science, and this ‘taboo’ I described is quite applicable in violin performance.
Of course we do and ought to have emotion during performance. What do we do about it? We can let us be carried away by it, we can block it, we can feel/observe it and let it pass, or we can be aware of it without attending to it. Buri, I wonder whether you are advocating one of the last two approaches.
Incidentally, it’s often said that a certain degree of excitement/nervousness/adrenaline is necessary for good performance so much so that the day one stops feeling this, one should stop perform, be it litigation, surgery or playing the fiddle. I don’t know if any emotion beyond this type is useful for performance? Milstein, when asked what he was thinking when playing (DVD “Nathan Milstein – In Portrait.”), he said something to the effect that he thought about the music/how it sounds and tried not to spoil it. If you give this type of focus to the sound, where is the room for personal emotion?
The second issue is that expressiveness brings emotion out of the audience, but a performer’s emotion can only attract sympathy towards her, if not laughter. Aside what you’ve nicely explained, Buri, I also think it’s interesting to think about the contour of the music – the expressiveness of the music (rather than emotion) that elicits emotion in the listeners, including the player herself to a certain extent (after all, she’s got to listen to herself). The expressiveness is of course achieved through hard work with thoughtfulness and technical details as you described, and it is independent of player’s emotion, conceptually and in reality. After all, why does a Saint Bernard have a sad face even when it is not feeling sad?!
From Drew Lecher
Posted on February 15, 2008 at 6:54 AM
So, are you saying we should perform the music in the context of the work and even follow the composer's specifically expressed wishes, allowing the audience to hear the work the best we can and thereby not wallow in our own emotions?

This was a brilliant blog and so well responded to.

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