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That elusive you.

June 4, 2008 at 5:44 AM

Ruth`s blog has me thinking about the search for an individual sound and color. It’s interesting that she raised the point about over emphasis on left hand. It’s true for many, but it’s nothing new. Flesch bemoaned the very thing in his classic work `The Art of Violin Playing.` However, when one begins to explore the question of what individual sound might be I think it is also important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. One great teacher once said to me `the left hand is the mathematic and he right the art.` Even though this is out of context I don’t think I would fully agree with this these days. There is certainly something very mathematically satisfying about developing what one might call the `technical` aspects of left hand such as evenness, velocity, intonation. But individual sound is also influenced by a) our type of vibrato and use we make of it b) our range and method of shifting and c) our choice of fingerings. In this latter case for example, Heifetz would strive to keep a theme or melody on one string even if it went really high up the fiddle. In another example, consider Ysaye`s playing. Part of his unique sound was his trait of leaving shifting in scales to the e string instead of the lower string shifts (sometimes extremely low…) of more modern schools. To get a taste of this get a copy of Barber`s book of advanced scales. She includes the Ysaye fingerings.
Another factor in the search for one’s own palette is, in my opinion, the strings used today. When I started working with pure gut I was astonished at the types of different sounds available. I do not believe these same sounds are available on synthetic strings. I did find written support for this view from an interview with a top French quartet in the Strad in which the players claimed that without gut they didn’t have all the ingredients. I find synthetic strings have a good range of dynamics, plenty of power and guts, but I found on the gut a and e string a kind of piano sound near the bridge for example, which is so complex and rich it blows me away. For the first time I could see why Beethoven wrote certain kinds of apparently difficult sustained notes in his quartet. I felt he had this sound in his mind’s eye and in a weird kind of way the quartets had many passages which actually made more –musical-. I’m not a big fan of authenticity performances but being able to experience first hand much closer to the kinds of sounds that composers may have been working with sheds a new light on many old and venerated compositions. Consider how the opening of Brahms one would have sound played on gut strings. How the balances of the whole opening change- accompanied by the hilarious twanging of snapping e strings as well.;) Another interesting one is the opening pizz in Smetana`s Moldau. It so rarely sounds like a musically relevant sound connected to the ebb and flow of the woodwind on synthetic strings. Anyway, I digress.
The question of individual sound and how it filters through the bow arm has three dimensions for me. The first is concerned with the individual, the second with musicianship and the third with technique. The last two feed into and inform the first which directs and controls them in turn.
Perhaps one could begin with musicianship at the most basic level. It is crucial to play what is written on the page. This sounds simple but is rarely the case. What I refer to has a chapter devoted to it in Auer’s book `Violin Playing and How I Teach it.` The chapter is headed `nuance.` It is one to be read over and over. Auer cites Beethoven as a treasure trove of nuances which includes dynamics, articulations and expressive markings of all kinds. Until one is making a distinction between mf and forte, piano and pianissimo (complicated by the role of the instrument in that moment!) there is not much point in worrying about individuality of sound! Then one has to express the rise and fall of the music. This is best done by imitating the voice which I think is also linked to visualization. The more one works by identifying who you are though singing and visualization the closer to an individual sound one gets. I so often read about and se e in action diligent players who have put aside the shape , contour and character of the music in favor of solely `learning the notes first` even though this approach is considerably less efficient in the long run as well as being less interesting to practice. Take a great piece of music that you love and have wanted to play for years and start learning the notes and all the ideas and shapes and colors that drew you there in the first place get stuck in the back of the cupboard with all those past sell by date prune cans. This piece used to be about feelings….
Having identified what is on the page one has to make sure all the technique is available to play, so a deep knowledge of all kinds of bow strokes and daily practice of basic bowings is essential.
Finally there is the question of the individual. What comes out of the violin sound wise is entirely dependent on one’s concept of sound ipso facto one has to have one. Can this be picked up at Wal Mart? Beats me. Never been to one. Perhaps the start point is simply to listen to as many great players over and over. But I would also strongly recommend going a step further and really learning to listen to great singers. Their sound has to be individual for better or worse because it is what they are. The sound is not filtered through an external tool- they are the tool. The added bonus of listening to a lot of singing, opera etc, is that one is simultaneously learning about how words are connected to sound through the singer’s interpretation. This is something worth pondering very deeply. In our private practice we should perhaps learn to listen to and verbalize quite precisely the kind of sound we are producing and the kind of sound we want. By developing this habit one can learn to change and explore sound much better. However, it is actually pretty useless to use generalizations like `This passage has to be beautiful.` One also needs to remove the clutter form one’s mind. There has to be a space for beautiful sound in the old grey cells. It is amazing how important a walk in a forest for example, may help towards stimulating your natural sound.Looking at great art, or painting and drawing oneself may also be a great help in exploring your own color scheme in a given work.
So this gets me t the question that should have perhaps been posed at the beginning `What is a individual sound?` Although a violinist with a distinctive sound may be recognizable just from a note or two outside of the context of a work I believe one should be very careful about trying to build it by isolating specific aspects of technique. I feel this is connected to a real danger which is not often mentioned these days: the easy availability of so many recordings to today’s young players. This relentless exposure has at it’s most problematic level a violinist aspiring to `sound like Ms.x.` Alexander Technique refers to this as `end gaining` in which the wish to be something creates a false reality that one can live in for one’s whole life and never find out what one’s actual sound is. Or one may have a more subtle preconception of how one ought to sound that is at odds with what nature intended you to do and it takes outside help to let go of things and be oneself for better or for worse. Even the most thoughtful and careful listeners may absorb ideas that appeal to them but actually occlude their own god given feelings and ideas. It might well be worth considering absolutely not listening to a specific work before e playing it and working from a totally naïve perspective, . One may get a lot of things wrong, but that is always a good way of finding out what is right.
Perhaps at the end of the day questioning and experimenting are the keys. ` What am I trying to express here? If I tried this would it take me closer or further from where I want to be?` Incidentally, writing things down goes a long way towards eliminating mindless repetition of experiments because one has forgotten what one did the day before.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 4, 2008 at 6:05 AM
So many good advices and so very true! One more thing, you advised me in the recent past to play the piano parts also makes eminent sense -- not only it helps music-wise but oddly enough, it also helps my intonation. When I clearly understand who is doing what in each moment, I can shape the music better but also I simply hear myself better and play more in tune.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on June 4, 2008 at 6:32 AM
that`s interesting Yixi. I think ifone can imagine an underlying chord progression it is often helpful in developing intonation.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on June 4, 2008 at 8:16 PM
You've never been to a Wal Mart?
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 5, 2008 at 12:18 AM
I’ve been to Wal-Mart may be twice in my whole life here in Canada, but the Wal-Mart in China is a different story. For one thing, the food market there was really not that bad. I still don’t go to Wal-Mart in North America.
From Drew Lecher
Posted on June 5, 2008 at 5:50 AM

I am confused: "I find synthetic strings have a good range of dynamics, plenty of power and guts…"
But they are not guts:-)

Wal*Mart sells the 'personal sound' in the 10th isle, and K Mart offers it on the 'Blue Light Special' if one is lucky enough to be present at the time.

By the way, a great blog with so many cogent and wonderful points.

Remember: Isle 10

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on June 5, 2008 at 6:47 AM
the first time I ever used three plain gut strings on a violin was in a rehearsal for Brahms four. I had no idea what would hapen so I plucked with glee and abandon. The conducter stopped the orchestra, turned round and said `Who on earth is playing the Shamisen?` (A decidely twangy 3 string instrument native to Okinawa)
From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on June 5, 2008 at 8:55 PM
Thanks so much for answering many of the questions I was pondering . . . I have a lot to work with here as I keep learning.

I absolutely agree with the idea of starting with what's on the page. I'm re-learning the Bruch concerto right now, and am amazed at how much is in the music that I never did (or was never even aware of) the first time I learned it.

I know what you're saying about trying too hard to imitate a pre-conceived concept of personal sound (whether of a particular artist or in my head). Of course, there are many violinists I admire and would like learn from, but I don't intend to mimic the idiosyncracies of their sound. I also don't mean to develop a sound simply for the sake of sounding 'different'. I just want to develop my natural strengths and work on my weaknesses so I can express the music as convincingly as possible.

I need to figure out more bowing variety for my daily scale routine, so I'm going to dig around and get some ideas for that. I also like your suggestion for listening to singers. Any in particular you'd recommend?

Oh, and you're right, writing things down is very helpful. My music is always littered with post-it notes these days. :)

From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on June 5, 2008 at 9:29 PM
P.S. Poor Buri, deprived for so long of the joys of Wal-Mart
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on June 5, 2008 at 10:39 PM
one of the simplest and perhaps most neglected source for scale bowings is the repertoire.
I never use shops that rhyme with fart.
Singers, Caruso, Chaliapin, The early recordings of the weight cvhallenged guy who recently died, Callas, Ferrier, Schwarzkopf, Dieskau and there is another lady who`s name i gotta dig out who trumps em all.

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