Breaking Emotional/Musical Barriers With Students

September 11, 2017, 2:27 PM · (This mainly applies to adult students)

In years of teaching, I've figured out ways around most technical and physical issues with students; bow technique, listening/recognizing intonation, etc...

But one thing I have always struggled with is the point at which a student can play adequately, but can't actually MAKE MUSIC. Yes, they are playing the notes. Each note is in tune, perhaps even with vibrato, and arrives at the correct time.

But it's not music.

In tracing this problem to its origin, I've realized that generally, the students that have this problem are also the most emotionally closed-off. I can play for them musically, and I can have them listen to recordings of great players. But in general, they tend to "recognize" what good music is, yet don't have any sort of emotional response to it.

This has been - by far - my greatest challenge in teaching. Has anyone else encountered this issue? How did you get around it? Or, did you perhaps find that certain people are just born with an innate musicality?

Replies (54)

September 11, 2017, 2:35 PM · Try having your students play a phrase demonstrating a variety of emotions. For example, I might have a younger student play something like Allegro or Minuet 1 the following ways: angry, happy, sad, nervous, worried, etc. The more exaggerated, the better. Don't worry about whether the emotion fits the piece. You're not trying for "correct" here; you're trying to get the student to convey emotion through notes.

After that, you can have a conversation about exactly what feeling a certain phrase might best convey.

Edited: September 15, 2017, 6:21 AM · I think Roy Sonne, retired first violinist of the Pittsburgh Symphony and sometime participant here ( http://www.violinist.com/directory/bio.cfm?member=roy ) has "hit the nail on the head" with his linking of music to scenarios or stories. Yo me his DVD on the Accolay A Minor Concerto is outstanding in this regard. I think using that approach will encourage even very young students to picture stories that fit the music they are learning. As their emotional lives mature so may their playing.

Perhaps one way to instill "emotion" into a student's playing is to have them work on specific music for two extremes of emotion. I think, for example, of my having played the Meditation from Thais several times for weddings and once for a funeral - totally different music in my own mind each time and with different results. Or perhaps the slow movement from Vivaldi's Winter concerto as a love song - a great wedding piece. One thing I enjoyed many times was playing the Schubert "Ave Maria"as a cello solo in churches - but played as a love song - just to bring tears to the eyes of the old ladies - at least it brought out their handkerchiefs.

Edited: September 11, 2017, 3:28 PM · "In tracing this problem to its origin, I've realized that generally, the students that have this problem are also the most emotionally closed-off."
Another proof that one plays music naked - no place to hide.
This reminds me on salsa training on one of the Caribbean islands - most of Westerners will learn the steps, but liberating hips and pelvis is simply impossible.
Not really sure if it is teacher's role to help someone in emotional expression. Could be done, but you would need to put your psychologist's hat on.
More efficient to direct them toward a psychotherapy, such as psycho-drama, gestalt, etc.... but you may also lose a student due to stigma.
As Stern once said "One does not use music to play violin - one uses violin to play music"
Edited: September 11, 2017, 3:44 PM · Are your students not understanding the emotion, or is it that they feel emotion but have trouble executing it on their instruments?

What about having your students put away their instruments and asking them to sing what they want to play? Or have them chant with feeling. If they won't do that, then there may be deeper issues going on.

September 11, 2017, 4:11 PM · Pokem in the ribs with your bow while saying more krov , worked for Auers students :P
Edited: September 11, 2017, 4:25 PM · As an adult student, It seems there is no alternative but to work with what you have. The paradox that I see is that the young learner probably assimilates the technical more easily, but what's missing is the maturity to express a lifetime of emotional experience in music. The adult on the other hand may have had the life experience, but struggles with the technical ability to express it. I like the idea of trying to connect a piece with emotional scenarios that a student, at their acknowledged stage in life, can understand and express. With good technical foundation, the emotional expression can then build with maturity. In the words of Eugène Ysaÿe (with apologies for his gender specificity): "A violin master? He must be a violinist, a thinker, a poet, a human being, he must have known hope, love, passion, and dispair..." Give young students the tools, and Ysaÿe's definition of mastery may be realized.
September 11, 2017, 4:47 PM · "This mainly applies to adult students." I'm going to switch the focus, for the moment, to kid students.

One thing to keep in mind is whether the student is self-motivated or just parent-motivated. Violin lessons were my idea. I had heard violin music before I even started school, always liked it, and wanted to make this kind of music myself. I first had basic piano instruction -- probably less than 6 months -- before going to violin. A number of my peers also started violin but dropped out before long. Their parents had signed them up for lessons, but I could tell that the kids themselves just weren't interested.

Other possible dampers: poor chemistry between student and teacher; an overbearing stage-mom or stage-dad who just won't get out the way and insists on being more involved in the student's musical life than the kid would like. My parents were involved -- that is, to the extent of paying for lessons and requiring that I practice. But they weren't with me during lessons or practice time. Can't speak for the next learner, but this method worked well for me.

Whether adult or kid, to become emotionally involved with a piece, I feel that you have to identify with the piece and feel motivated to convey a message that you yourself find in the music. One reason I balked at the idea of performing the Mendelssohn e minor concerto in recital was, not that I couldn't play it, but that I was sick of hearing it in student recitals by my peers. Rebel that I was, always the non-conformist, I would think to myself, "Can't these kids come up with something else?"

On the other hand, the Beethoven, which pedagogues generally rate as more difficult than the Mendelssohn, came more naturally to me. I'd gladly pull off the Mendelssohn in studio -- or the garage -- for fun. It's an appealing score. But I still don't personally identify with it as much as I identify with the Beethoven.

September 11, 2017, 7:04 PM · Not quite sure I understand the whole concept of this. How does one put emotion into their playing? Is this mostly variation in volume (and perhaps speed of vibrato)?

Sometimes I get frustrated and angry, so I put more pressure and use more of my bow. Does that count?

I can't think of any other variable because doesn't changing the speed make the music 'wrong'?

September 11, 2017, 7:26 PM · Part of the picture might be nerves. A nervous student might just want to get through a piece without it being a total train wreck, somewhat involuntarily placing artistic expression on the back burner as flight or fight mode takes over.
Another part may be the filters a student has been trained to apply ,though increasing experience, to each work regarding what constitutes a "correct" interpretation. Some students may come to you having had teachers who think there is only one right way to play something, who think that they, for instance, "know exactly what Bach wanted", and that they are uniquely qualified to preach their interpretation of his "bible". This kind of mentality can suck all of the pleasure out of music making, and make it feel more akin to reciting a long-winded recipe to an audience.
I think that both of these issues are worsening in the age of recording, as audiences are coming to expect more sterile performances,'and with the trend toward favoring strict application of musicological research to interpretation.
September 11, 2017, 10:43 PM · Adults are tricky. Mary Ellen's approach sounds solid, and/but/also...

I'm imagining my mother-in-law (an adult violin student), who would probably give you a deer-in-headlights look if you asked her to play with emotion. My mother would probably do the same. Both were raised in military households, were trained to suppress feelings and emotions in all but the most private settings. I think many in their generation had a similar up-bringing.

Then, too, there's the fact that adults can just generally be more closed off to each other (with a few exceptions). "You're a teacher, not a therapist," might be one person's line of thinking.

Could it be that a combination of physically relaxing and following precise technical instructions would get them 60-70% of the way there? I think a lot of people *think* they play with more emotion than they actually do (because we don't always really listen to ourselves critically and we *feel* the music, so surely we're conveying it, right? wrong.) So it probably has to be broken down: a variation in vibrato at a certain point in a phrase. An expressive shift. A greater or lesser amount of bow, variable bow speed, etc.

Then record them so they can hear the difference. First teach them *how* to make the sounds they hear in their head and then you can have the fun conversations about when/where to apply them.

September 11, 2017, 10:46 PM · anyone know what a kiso suzuki violin is
September 11, 2017, 11:11 PM · I have always felt that part of the problem is the culture of main
stream classical music; high technical difficulty combined with poisonous perfectionism. The antidote for me was non-classical genres, a pro jazz band, a pro Mariachi, singing,,,, to break the mooring cables.
September 12, 2017, 12:53 AM · A lot to respond to here, so I'll just clarify a bit more:

I've never had a problem teaching KIDS to express themselves through music. Some are more closed off or shy at first, but in my experience, they all have the ability to learn the expressive aspects, and to play music with different colors, as well as following proper phrasing given enough examples and explanation.


I also have plenty of adult students who may have technical challenges but already know HOW they want to sound. They FEEL the music, but just don't have the physical training to convey that through the medium of the violin yet. And that I can deal with, since it just involves good ol' training.

But there are a select few, only adults, who simply can't express themselves whatsoever.

I've found several main factors that the most expressive students have:

1) They can sing the part (usually in tune!) AND are willing to sing the part!

2) They have movement in their playing. Not necessarily huge movements, but they sway while playing.

3) They respond when I play something beautifully, as opposed to dryly.

4) They seem to feel joy when playing. They get "in the zone."

5) They can hear in their head HOW they want to sound.


Now, the students in question - the ones who lack musicality - CANNOT do any of those things. I try to address them 1 by 1. For example, I might try to get them to sing. But usually they either won't, or can't. If I do force them to, it's a half-a** attempt. And anything beyond that is usually just pointless.

So, instead of singing, perhaps I try to incorporate movement into their playing. But once again, this seems so forced and mechanical. Even if they're willing, the movements never seem integral to their playing. As Rocky put it so relevantly, it's much like Salsa dancers who can technically do the movements but can't open their hips or pelvis.

Basically, trying to tackle this particular challenge in the same way I would tackle technical challenges seems to be utterly useless.


Personally, I think it comes down to 2 main things: Social Inhibition and Lack of Emotion.

If there is no underlying feeling for the student to convey, then it will never come out through the instrument. Perhaps they simply don't NEED to express anything. Personally, when I'm sad, I play sadly. When I'm happy, I play joyfully. And if I'm studying a piece with particular moods, then I will change my moods to match those. But if I didn't feel anything at a given moment, I don't think my playing would be very interesting at all. But I was never trained to feel. I have simply done it since I began playing. My discipline and technique was my weakpoint, not the ability to express myself.

Then, there might be those that need an expressive tool, but are simply too nervous or inhibited to "let loose" on the violin. I think they feel rather contrived when attempting to be expressive (at least in front of me). I suppose this is theoretically trainable, but as Katie B. put it, "you're a teacher, not a therapist." Not that I mind being a therapist if it gets the student somewhere, but I do think some of these problems run deeper than I can dig.

Edited: September 12, 2017, 2:01 AM · I think all we can do is offer all we have. It is not not for us to "break a barrier" into someone's soul. We simply (!) give the technical and expressive means. We are artisans, guides, assistants, not lovers!

In any case, we ourselves often play to induce feelings in the listener, (even if we have an immense pleasure in doing so,) rather than express our own, moment by moment.

September 12, 2017, 2:03 AM · Music is played from the heart. Most will never get it. I suppose I'm a bit Calvanistic there - to each their own.
September 12, 2017, 2:45 AM · We teachers are the finger pointing to the moon. We have to point straight. So does the student. Then maybe we share the beauty.
September 12, 2017, 5:38 AM · You may already do this, but have you tried simply teaching them expressive playing through the technical steps?
1. Have them identify the phrases, and mark them in the music. Where does the musical naturally start and end? (you can identify this for them if they don't get it)
2. Identify the high point of the phrase (and mark it), where does the music go to and come away from?
3. Once those have been identified, have them practice doing a slight crescendo to the top of the phrase and a diminuendo to the end, write these dynamics in. (this is very basic phrasing, but it is a place to start).
4. Find a place where the vibrato should intensify through a long note and mark it in the music. Demonstrate what you want them to do.
5. Do they know the techniques for varying their tone/dynamics (bow speed/amount, weight/pressure, and contact point)? Ask them to use a particular technique for a dynamic change.
6. Find places where they can vary their bow distribution to make a phrase more interesting. write this in too (W.B. 1/2 Bow etc..)
This is all pretty basic stuff, but the point is you don't actually have to feel anything to play in a way that sounds "musical" and often students who feel the music still sound mechanical because they don't understand or know how to implement the technical aspects of musical playing. If you can force these students to play "musically" through technical instructions they may start to understand/feel it or at least enjoy the sound they make when they play like this.
September 12, 2017, 5:55 AM · For those of us who do have difficulty expressing emotion with our music, how does one develop that? At my age I have had decades to shut emotions away and separate them from skills that involve critical thinking. Adding them back in on top of technique means two worlds we usually keep separate have to work in tandem, which is difficult for those of us who specialize in not doing that.

I think Mary Ellen and Katie B. hit on a couple of good teaching points; but has anyone had any real success with teaching how to break that barrier?

September 12, 2017, 8:05 AM · I remember that I was already well into my teens, and already a technically highly accomplished player, before a new teacher realized that the reason that my playing was clean but inexpressive was that I simply had never been taught to produce a broader range of shadings. (Part of it also turned out to be the fact that I really needed a better violin.)

He spent a good chunk of my lesson doing nothing other than demonstrating a whole host of ways to end a phrase -- combinations of bow speed, changing in sounding point, change in vibrato, an expressive slide, etc. -- and voila, instant improvement. I had all the technical control I needed; I just needed the explanation of how to combine those skills for a desired effect.

Some of it is also having the line in your head. I tend to chop things into small units, especially in practice, and thinking about where you're going as a continuous unbroken line is very helpful. Not everyone has that instinct, and students who don't listen to much classical music often have very little sense of the desired style.

September 12, 2017, 9:04 AM · Hi Erik,

I'm an adult beginner and see myself falling into that category you mentioned that you have trouble with. I will share my thoughts and experiences, which may or may not be applicable to those students.

1)It's just how the brain functions. There are people who are more logical and people who are more emotional. Neither are wrong nor right. I fall into the more logical side -- analytical, technical, always thinking. On the extreme, we are often thought of as the cold-hearted robots. If you played a very beautiful piece, I may likely just nod with a small smile and say nonchalantly that it was great. Sorry, it's not that I'm not impressed or unappreciative... I just lack the ability to show it -- I am not very expressive. At that moment, I'm likely busy thinking of all the technical aspects on how you played it so beautifully. My emotional counterpart would likely be "Woooooow!! That was amazing!!" and have more joyous movements with their body. I can do that too, but it just won't feel natural for me to do. It sucks because I do feel, I'm just not good at portraying it.

2)Perhaps they purposely play the violin to suppress or get away from emotions? It took me a very long time, but I understand my emotions. Unfortunately, because of my experiences including a depressive childhood among other things, a great majority of my feelings are very negative. I play the violin to have fun and be away from emotions. If someone would ask me to play with more emotion, I may just give a somewhat annoyed look and continue what I've been doing. I don't want to dig up those feelings and relive dark moments. It's double edged, but I'd rather be seen as someone who is emotionless than have people knowing what I've been through. I'm still learning to be happier and more positive. It will be a long process. Hopefully someday when I find those, then I'd be more willing to integrate emotions into my violin playing.

If you're dealing with a very logical type of person, simply asking to play with more emotion won't cut it. It would be almost an alien word especially for those who haven't explored yet what emotions mean and feel. I'd say tell them it's ok to have variations and it's not wrong to deviate. We tend to have a strict interpretations ie this note should play like that or this piece should sound like that... like 1+2=3 with no possible different answer. We are satisfied getting things performed technically correct based on what we were taught and what we heard. Combined with our lack of ability to express through movements, I could see what you mean by "cant actually MAKE MUSIC". It's played correctly, but it's missing something like personality or emotion.

Without using or bringing up the word emotion to the student (since that's an alien word for some of us!), I would maybe ask something along the lines of, "You're free to play this piece however you want to -- no rules, just do whatever you want -- how would you play it differently?" That would break that 1+2=3 logic. They'd be free to add variation. Then perhaps the emotion would show after the fact depending on how differently they play it. Just a thought! I hope it helps! Let me know what you think and if you do try it, I'm curious what the results are. Also let me know know if you have any question for me.

September 12, 2017, 9:35 AM · My teacher has been working with me to play more "musically" with the Wolfhart etudes I've been going through. I consider them such blanket technical exercises that I don't even bother to consider that they are music as well. Her current solution for this problem of mine is to let me "learn the notes" then ask me to work on it again until our next lesson to play it more musically/expressively. My most recent etude has allowed me to change some of the bowings and dynamics - which has been really liberating. Of course, the verdict has yet to be given on whether how I want something to sound meshes with what I am producing.

On the other hand, I was told that I play Bach too romantically. So I guess that (in a way), playing expressively is not as much of a problem for me. I certainly don't know though.

I think part of the problem is the "letting go" aspect. Letting the playing be just as it is and feeling that, in that moment using all of life's experiences (not necessarily specific ones, but the aggregate of experience, emotion, thought, feeling, sensations, etc.) to inform the work. I feel that my playing is better when I "get" the piece I am working on, and if I don't or have a block, then the playing is flat.

I do feel that I get tight during lessons, because I'm concerned with playing things as (technically) well as possible. I agree that the issue of perfectionism in classical music is poisonous - especially to adults who pride themselves on "doing it right". Embracing mistakes seems to be paramount to the process.

(I am one of those who knows how she wants to sound/play; I just don't have the technical ability yet. One day, hopefully, one day!)

OP - is this Dorothy DeLay territory?

September 12, 2017, 11:45 AM · Whew, so many responses with so much dense info! I forget how high the response rate is on v.com. I'll have to get back to this later to appropriately respond to all.
September 12, 2017, 2:08 PM · A very interesting thread to read. I am left wondering though, how many here would have been trying to get Heifetz to play with more emotion*.

Neil

* FWIW: I think Heifetz's music contains wonderful emotional expressiveness, even if his physical appearance didn't.

Edited: September 12, 2017, 2:22 PM · Perhaps it might help if tunes were selected that had an obvious emotional state built into them. I'm thinking of tunes like "Niel Gow's lament on the death of his second wife", "Ashoken Farewell", "The lovers waltz" and most of the modern era waltzes-(see the waltz book collection by Bill Matthiesen). The technical ability is not as important as the expressiveness of the player on tunes like these.

For "happy" based tunes it's hard to beat some of the Irish jigs. Play Irish washerwoman a few times through without smiling and getting a little bounce in your step. Movie or TV theme based tunes might also be appropriate especially if the student has a emotion connection to the movie.

September 12, 2017, 2:21 PM · I think many of us find that Heifetz' playing is enthralling, but does not always correspond to the music itself.

If I understand John C's post correctly, one can also find much satisfaction, even solace, in the order and logic of music. But even in the simplest scale, one can thoroughly enjoy trying to get the best sound possible, and make this one's goal. Then we are better equipped to respond to the music's inner workings inn a more spontaneous way.

Edited: September 12, 2017, 2:53 PM · I totally agree with Lydia's post. Almost exactly what I was thinking. I therefor dont think the fault is to be necessarily identified in the emotive nature of the students. Inmy opinion (and its just an opinion), the reason might well be far less relevant to emotions and more so to cold, calculated mastery of technique and musical knowledge.
September 12, 2017, 3:27 PM · I think the factor that makes "emotion" so difficult to invoke in OTHER people is that everyone experiences it differently. It's essentially impossible to define, as it's like explaining what "red" is to a colorblind person. It has to BEGIN internally, and then the teacher can guide that raw feeling so a more refined state. But if it hasn't began, then I'm not sure the teacher can do much.

I mean, think of how long it takes a trained therapist/psychologist to coax emotional openness out of a client. Years! Years of slow, sustained 1-hour sessions every week, where the ONLY goal is to coax that out. And sometimes even that doesn't work after years of trying.

In comparison, a violin teacher has 30 minutes (most of my students won't/can't pay for 1-hour sessions) once a week, where they might be able to commit 5-10 minutes (at best) to coaxing that out. And they're not even trained to do it properly. So when looking at the task at hand, it seems borderline impossible for a violin teacher to bring emotion out of a player who doesn't already have SOME degree of self-awareness of ease of expression that they're naturally developed.

Something else I've noticed: musicality/expression is highly genetic. Even in kids whose parents happen to be learning at the same time, the genetic link is very clear. It doesn't seem to be instrument-specific either. They either "get" music or they don't, whether it's on the violin, singing, piano, etc...

When I have very good students, they almost always have several relatives who are natural musicians, also. And if they don't, it's generally because those relatives simply never got the chance. They still have it within them (which is proven when they occasionally decide to learn along with their child).

September 12, 2017, 3:54 PM · I agree with Freida about singing. I should actually do this more to clarify phrases. Maybe you can encourage them to sing at home alone when they won't have to feel shy about it, or explain the concept of them singing it in their heads. Some shy kids might be more amenable to that. If they can sing it in their head with a lot of expression, then they probably have it. I don't even think you need to be able to sing well to benefit.
Edited: September 12, 2017, 4:17 PM · Wow ... a lot of amateur psychology in this thread!

Maybe you should back away from asking your students to put their own emotional baggage into their violin-playing. That could be not only difficult but also uncomfortable. One's own emotions are probably too distracting.

"Conveying emotion" in music doesn't necessary mean conveying an emotion that the violinist is actually feeling, but merely one that the violinist wants the audience to infer. I wonder how many people who perform "Schindler's List" are actually thinking about Holocaust victims while they are playing -- or whether they are thinking much more coldly about how to execute the slides, rubatos, and other romantic elements that will have their audiences in tears.

Perhaps you should be teaching your students how to fake it. Teach them the technique of schmaltz, possibly include those aspects of "stage presence" that will bring it off. I'll bet your more outwardly wooden students are not necessarily unfeeling. But they may be inhibited, perhaps by some sense of integrity or "intellectual honesty", from faking it or even from hamming it up.

September 12, 2017, 4:48 PM · Paul:

I definitely think "holocaust" when I'm playing Schindler's list. I think good musicians always try to use visualization and relational concepts (metaphors) to make an authentic performance. When I speak of "emotion" I don't necessarily mean something simple like "sad" or "happy." Usually it's more of a "feeling" than an emotion. But it's definitely something. And if you're not feeling ANYTHING while playing, how can it be interesting to listen to?

My personal belief is that if a genuine emotion of some sort is not felt by the performer, then their playing will not come across as interesting or moving in any way. Perhaps it will be impressive - like seeing someone juggle 10 balls at once - but not authentic. Maybe this belief is held exclusively by me, but when looking at the top pedagogues of the world, it seems they often talk in more figurative/metaphorical terms than in literal ones, in order to turn "good" performances into "great" ones.

September 12, 2017, 5:09 PM · Erik, consider the logical extreme of what you're suggesting: that every orchestral performer is really *feeling* the Sugarplum Fairy Waltz or the Stars and Stripes Forever or their 20th performance of that Rossini Overture...that every time a soloist throws off a Kreisler or Paganini nugget at the end of a long concert, they're centering themselves in Vienna or a practice room or whatever Paganini evokes for them.

I'm not sure it's possible to ooze so much on command. And this is coming from someone who is definitely on the more emotional end of the spectrum.

September 12, 2017, 5:12 PM · Also, here's an old-but-interesting thread from the perspective of students. https://www.abrsm.org/forum/index.php?showtopic=18797
Edited: September 12, 2017, 6:48 PM · It is a conceptual confusion to mix musicality with personal emotions. The two can be related but they are not the same animals. As Ingrid Popp and many others have pointed out, we can be very emotional when listen or play music, but it doesn't mean we must be emotional in order to play musically or expressively. The opposite is often true, to successfully express music ideas and solicit emotions among the audience, one has to focus on the music, to be totally centered when playing. The last thing we want is to be lead by our personal emotions, which can mess things up and music won't be properly served when this happens.

Instead of questioning a student's emotion, I'd rather a teacher give the benefit of doubt by saying to a student: "I know you can feel the music, but let me help you to express it so that others can feel it too."

September 12, 2017, 7:20 PM · "I'm not sure it's possible to ooze so much on command" is my new favorite sentence from v.com. Thanks, Katie!
September 12, 2017, 8:36 PM · LOL Katie, very well put. I guess I was thinking of more soloistic performances with melodic pieces.
Edited: September 13, 2017, 5:09 AM · Sorry duplicate / deleted posts!
September 13, 2017, 5:08 AM ·
Edited: September 13, 2017, 8:00 AM · I think much of this has to do with the personality types I mentioned some months back.

I can't speak for everyone. In my own experiences there has been a recent turning point where I can begin to express emotion and I start to see the song in a different light. At first it was technical, now I'm beginning to feel something and even express new emotional ideas into something that once sounded lifeless. I have even started to tear up on some of it. Mostly the slower less technical music.

I'm beginning to make some of the Irish music sound the way the writer might have intended in a way that conveys more than the written note. It's difficult really to quantify to someone, especially someone who is "emotionally tight".

I've never been the type to show outward emotion as a basic rule. I come from a "men never cry" background. I'm soon probably undergoing necessary hormone therapy that some say will make me "more like a woman" emotionally because it blocks testosterone. I'm not sure how that's going to play out. I might cry playing " Mary Had A Little Lamb". :)

Edited: September 13, 2017, 11:06 AM · Some ideas...

-It's been mentioned that some of it could be technical--some people seem to figure out how to produce tonal variations with less help, but most need some guidance and lots of practice on how to use the violin's capacity for expression (i.e. difference between not only f and p, but the combo of weight/speed/contact used to produce it creating different types of energy). I've had a lot of success getting students on the right road by listening for and learning how to produce specific tonal combinations, and asking what fits the music. As addressed earlier, you can do the same with phrasing, planning and measuring the rise and fall. It is "academic" sure, but also inherently artistic, especially if used in combo with listening. Even the more analytical students I've had can tell me what kind of tone they think fits a section better and learn to produce it with variations, and usually that kind of thinking starts opening up the "big picture" expressive scale, though it can take a while.

Also, changing the terms from "emotive" to "expressive". And realizing it doesn't have to be YOUR (the student's) personal emotion expressed. Some students are less comfortable communicating their own emotion and (at least in the lesson setting) THAT IS OK! :) but they can imagine what feeling it is meant to express, and imagine it, and convey that. Some students need coaching/ "permission" to go "over the top" (and for some students anything over mf feels over the top!) keep it positive and you don't have to make it about them, but learning to tell a separate story (or paint picture if that analogy. works better) in their own way.

September 13, 2017, 11:32 AM · I recently read this blog on playing expressively, answering pretty much the question that the OP asked. This is in regard to children, but I think many points can be applied to adult students too. In fact, many adult students in my FB group reacted favourably to the ideas in the blog. LINK
September 13, 2017, 11:33 AM · @Kathryn
Interesting points about producing tonal combinations from an analytical standpoint and "emotive" vs "expressive". I like your ideas. It doesn't have to be the player's emotions. Very helpful for someone like me who is analytical and doesn't want to use personal feelings. Thanks!
September 13, 2017, 2:11 PM · Erik,

Two things I have done to address the same problem.

1. Ask them to name any piece of music that they want to play and teach them how to play it.

2. Get them to improvise a tune - play simply for the fun of it.

You may be dealing with a student who is taking lessons because a parent thinks that this will be "good for their development" That is deadly and there simply is no way to get them to put their feelings into the playing as they don't really want to be there.

September 13, 2017, 2:50 PM · Yes, as always, Paul is onto something, and so are the others. I was shocked when I watched an interview with Harrison Ford a few years ago. His personality has nothing to do with the roles he played so well on big screen! In personal life he appeared to be at the opposite side of Indiana Jones.
Very similar with Johnny Depp - far cry from Captain Jack sparrow!
However, they know how to "fake it" and that is the reason we love watching them.
The whole era of Baroque music was very much engaged in producing "affects" in listener. How and when did it come of the radar, is a question to ponder about.
Edited: September 13, 2017, 4:17 PM · By contrast, some might think they play expressively...their vibratos are so wide its distateful, their dynamics are hysterionic
In my opinion, it should be like speaking a language as its meant to be spoken, with its inflections, its tonalities (like raising the tone at the end of a question)...it expresses emotion through mastery and knowledge of conventions, not the other way as suggested here (ie emotions naturally bring forth the realisation of these expressive conventions).
September 13, 2017, 5:15 PM · If you're working with a student that seems emotionally closed off, it helps to avoid trying to "open them up."

Still, I don't think this has anything to do with musicality. Perhaps the music isn't to their liking or they don't have a relatable story in mind as a reference point? Or maybe the both of you aren't connecting or speaking the same emotional message, so they can't grasp what you're asking them to do.

Speaking as a person with an aloof personality, it's annoying when others attempt to 'help me' be more like them. It's even more frustrating when a teacher tries to strong arm me into playing exactly how they would play. [This hasn't happened in a long time, but I'm having flashbacks]

September 13, 2017, 7:42 PM · I'm an amateur but I suppose you could call high school senior players as "young adults". I had introduced this one senior to a summer music camp, and he started off camp with no emotion to music whatsoever, he just liked playing the instrument, and after the camp I could tell he was a different person. I believe that sometimes we just have to go through some kind of event that makes us click.
September 13, 2017, 11:40 PM · Zina Francisca, thanks for the link to my blog post on this subject. I indeed use the same techniques with adults as I do with young students and they work equally well. I just change my vocabulary and explanations according to their age and intellectual level. It is my firm belief that everyone is musical, admittedly some more than others, and it is up to an adept teacher to find ways to bring it out of a student. Indeed, it's quite a challenge but whoever said teaching should be easy?
September 14, 2017, 11:58 AM · You're welcome Eloise! You sound like the kind of teacher that many of my fellow adult starters would be very happy to study with.
Edited: September 14, 2017, 10:07 PM · The most important thing about being musical is understanding, to have a clear concept about a piece -- the history, the composer and the structure of the composition, etc. If a teacher can do something like Geoff Nuttall did in this video, then I think it'll be very hard for the students not to be inspired to play musically:

September 15, 2017, 4:28 AM · Yixi we saw the St. Lawrence Quartet here in Blacksburg. Nuttall did a presentation before each half just like this where he introduced the main themes, etc. It was a scholarly job, but he's a master showman for sure. In addition to their usual Haydn (they played Op. 20 No. 5), they did the Beethoven Op. 131. (!!)

After the performance they had a play-in where the members of the quartet led each section of a string orchestra made up by locals like me who signed up in advance. Maybe 20 people. We were told what the pieces would be, too, so we could practice it. The first one was the piece in your video ... the first movement of the Emperor. I played 2nd violin. The other piece was a couple of movements of "The Seven Last Words of Christ."

September 15, 2017, 8:11 AM · Paul,

Audience participation can be a great tool. I'll never forget this early music concert I went to where at the end, the conductor cued the harpsichord to improvise a continuo line in C major, and had the audience do improvised singing, where he would point to different sections of the audience to start singing. The players on stage also joined in on the improv. He also incorporated some call and response. By the middle of it, everyone was clapping along as well.

Edited: September 15, 2017, 10:14 AM · Paul, your experience with the SLSQ sounds amazing. Do you know they have the Annual Chamber Music Seminar in Stanford? Its attendees vary from young professionals to advanced amateurs. I chatted with Geoff about it last year when I was at the Banff International String Quartet Competitions (BISQC). He was extremely encouraging to amateur string players. I'm quite tempted. Just a couple of weeks ago, SLSQ was doing another "Haydn Discovery" at the BISQC chamber music festival, where my husband and I attended. That was a lot of fun.

SLSQ is not the only one does this form of presentation before performance, it has been adopted by a lot of professional performers. Speaking of doing a scholarly job and being a master showman, Rob Kapilow came to mind:

September 15, 2017, 11:19 AM · I think it's more about "playing with emotional expression" than "playing with emotion."

Everyone has emotions, and feeling emotions while you play is different from expressing emotions. Expressing emotions is actually a pretty calculated thing, it's more like being an actor than it is about "emoting." And there are many, many things about expression that can be learned and can be taught, it is about using technique in a very fluent way, but it does indeed begin with a level of mastery that allows for fluency.

September 15, 2017, 1:58 PM · Yixi, my understanding is that the SLSQ does these play-ins a lot of places they go. I'm on their mailing list and their Seminar in Stanford sounds awesome but right now I'm kind of aiming toward Bennington.


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