The intersection of emotion and technique

October 3, 2016 at 02:26 PM · Playing the violin well has to be one of the most difficult, time-consuming, and demanding activities in the entire world.

As an amateur (but life-long and serious violin music lover), it has always puzzled me how - with such incredible emphasis on technical and intellectual matters - one is supposed to "play with feeling," and to project that to an audience.

There's the flawless technician at one end of the spectrum, and technically sloppy but emotional player at the other.

George Szell once said, "In music one must think with the heart and feel with the brain."

How do we combine them?

Your thoughts?



Replies (12)

October 3, 2016 at 02:49 PM · I don't think that players who supposedly "play with feeling" are necessarily any more emotional than "cooler" players.

I think that certain things are interpreted as"more musical" and then certain interpretive choices are interpreted as "more emotional".

"More musical" typically requires a strong sense of pulse and a strong sense of direction. There is a significant technical element to a sense of direction, since to shape the line requires fine-grained control over vibrato and bow. The way you think about a passage will affect the way that you execute it, but you need to get to the point as a player where you intuitively make the right motions to match what you're thinking of.

"More emotional" tends to involve greater intensity. Playing more deeply into the string, producing a richer sound with more vibrant vibrato, using more portamento, and more clearly shaping the line will all suggest to the audience that you're more passionate about what you're doing.

You can get beginners who have minimal technique, but whose sense of pulse and line nevertheless make it clear that they are making music, not just notes. It can be easier to see this in fiddling -- specifically, fiddlers playing for dancers -- because the sense of propulsion needed to properly accompany dancers is clearest here.

October 3, 2016 at 02:55 PM · (Oops, posted that before completing it.)

I was really struck by the comments I've gotten from audience members after recent performances, because they've changed dramatically from the past. People now tell me, "You're such a passionate player!" and I am absolutely not.

But what I do have is (1) a new violin with a terrific sound, (2) recent modification to my bow technique for a much more into-the-string sound, and (3) a teacher who constantly thinks about what the audience listens for, and how to shape a phrase and a line, and how to convey a sense of pulse. :-)

October 3, 2016 at 05:24 PM · An emotional player is one who dribbles ...

October 3, 2016 at 05:38 PM · dribble, bribble, like rain ;-)

October 3, 2016 at 05:48 PM · Not to be reductionist but...

Emotion in a musical phrase is conveyed by two main things:

1. Changes in timing

2. Changes in intensity

Great timing is inherent in other performing arts, such as acting or comedy. It can be coached to an extent, but there has to be some internal sense of when and why to use or avoid rubato, and what will sound natural or inevitable given the pervading culture and times.

Changes in intensity generally accompany changes in timing, and are accomplished by use of the bow--distribution, speed, pressure and contact point-- and by vibrato. Perceptions and tastes in these also change with the times.

So emotion= (timing + intensity) x zeitgeist

Easy to formulate, difficult to do.

October 3, 2016 at 07:04 PM · If we play alone, the emotion is inside us, and quality may not matter; if we play with friends, the emotion is shared, and we owe it to them not to spoil it; if we perform to a public, then we must convince them to feel our emotions, and our technique must be up to the task. Bit like an actor.

October 3, 2016 at 09:11 PM · Scott's equation is awesome!

October 4, 2016 at 03:45 AM · Just as an example of how a given mode of expression can be divorced from the zeitgeist, check out this short recording of a Bach invention:

In some other era, it could have been seen as a perfectly valid interpretation. But in this day and age (we are, in my opinion, still in the Age of Gould and NOT in the Age of Landowska), her use of rubato is over the top and, more importantly, arbitrary.

October 4, 2016 at 08:14 AM · I like Lydia's account, showing how audience emotion is often different from the performer's. Especially when approaching an exam, I tell some students that they are ther to convince, not to express theselves.

Imaging the actor/actress whispering "I love you" for the 50th time to a partner whose costume reeks like a changing-room, but where the passion must reach the last row of specatators!

October 4, 2016 at 09:18 AM · Hi,

I think that the transition occurs when one goes from the rational to the intuitive. In a way, we practice rationally, but performing has to be intuitive. That is where the transition towards better communication occurs in my humble opinion.


October 4, 2016 at 06:05 PM · Agree. Practice with e every ounce of brain, but, when playing otherwise, trust your fingers (of course, this assumes training in varying the bow shades, vibrato, and emotional impact).

This last aspect seems to be very lacking in quite a few players, sad to say, whose formula is more intense = loads of overly wide vibrato and extreme bow pressure, less intense = slow bow, but lack of varied bow subtleties and/or glissando. :(

October 4, 2016 at 07:41 PM · Not in disagreement, but I don't know about trusting your fingers!!!

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