July 2013

How can I play like a singer?

July 21, 2013 22:15

“The true mission of the violin is to imitate the accents of the human voice, a noble mission that has earned for the violin the glory of being called the king of instruments.”
Charles-Auguste de Beriot

One of our major goals in life as violinists, is to make the violin sing. Our teachers tell us to “sing”. Conductors tell us to “sing.” The great artists advise us to listen to singers so that we can learn to sing on the violin. Milstein used to say : "The violinist's dream is to imitate the human voice.” according to my friend Ollie Steiner, who studied with him.

In my own musical life I have been fortunate to play the piano well enough to spend many years accompanying singers. Those experiences have played a major part in shaping me as a violinist.


What does this mean for us as violinists?
What can we learn? Which aspects of singing can we adopt?
How shall we go about it?

We can start by listening. Listen to recordings of the great opera singers, such as Placido Domingo, Maria Callas. there are so many. Listen to the great pop singers: Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand. Listen to the great singers of lieder: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Jessye Norman. Listen to great jazz singers: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan.

Listen! And drink in the sound and the style. Then listen again and imagine yourself playing their songs on your violin. What can you pick up from them?
Find a recording of a song you know and love. Try playing it yourself. Try to imitate the recording. Then try playing along. How does that feel? Did you find yourself doing nice things that you have never done before? Or did you find it uncomfortable? Disorienting? Impossible to stay together with the recording?


In this video of Frank Sinatra singing Cole Porter's “I get a kick out of you,” notice first of all, the conversational style, on the borderline between singing and speaking, casual but always precise, every word clearly understandable, every note impeccably produced. He shares these qualities with Heifetz. The kinship has often been noticed, and in fact, Sinatra was an admirer of Heifetz. Notice also the way every small phrase has shape, and how he takes his time between phrases. Notice how he plays with the words, adding unexpected nuances of expression. And of course, the irresistible voice which imparts so much meaning and nuance.


What are some features of singing that we might adopt?

A singer tells a story

Can we tell a story without words? A story is about emotions and moods. It’s about characters who we love or hate. It’s about suspense and drama. How much of this can we evoke with our wordless violin playing?

A singer sings with words.

The words have their own flow, and their own emphasis which does not always coincide with the flow and emphasis of the music.

A singer uses vowels and consonants.

The different vowel sounds have different tonal qualities. A singer often modifies the vowel sounds to achieve a more beautiful vocal quality, especially in the high register.

Consonants have different qualities. Some are hard, some are soft. Some are voiced, some are voiceless. The singer can make them long or short. The singer can place them before the beat, after the beat or in between. Because of the necessity to enunciate the consonants, a singer’s rhythm will often become ambiguous or imprecise. The singer relies upon the accompanying instruments to maintain the rhythm.

The meaning of the text shifts and changes.

In songs with strophic form, where you have different verses with the same music, the meaning of the text will change with every verse. So the same music expresses different emotions in every verse. The singer will change the expression from one verse to the next according to what is happening in the text.
Also the agogics of the words will change with every verse... So the shape of the phrases changes from one verse to the next



Ruggiero Raimondi sings Non piu Andrai from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Does this tell a story? Of course it’s more than music. There are characters on the stage interacting with each other. There is a stage set and costumes. There is a plot. And there are so many different levels of meaning, it boggles the mind. Who is this man anyway? And who is this person he is singing to? What is this all about? Does it make you want to know more?

Think about this aria in relation to your own violin playing. When you play, are you directing your message to somebody in particular? Did you ever create an imaginary opera scene to go along with your concerto? It’s a great exercise. And it’s fun.

This video also shows how Raimondi integrates the very complex sounds and articulations of the italian text into the music in a way that is both meaningful and graceful. Think about how you might do something similar with bow articulations, and slides.


A singer breathes.

A singer naturally takes a breath between phrases. Sometimes the breathing time is written into the music with a rest. Other times the singer has to shorten a long note. Sometimes a singer has to take some extra time in order to breathe.
In long phrases a singer often has to breathe in the middle of the phrase. Sometimes there is an obvious and natural place to do so. Other times this is not the case. Then the singer has to find a solution; perhaps altering a rhythm, but never breaking up a word.


In vocal music, dynamics are rarely indicated.

Even when there are some dynamic indications, there are not nearly as many as in the instrumental music. A solo singer is expected to “Sing your own voice.” The piano or accompanying instruments will adjust accordingly.

Singers are very sensitive to register changes.

The whole sound and emotion of a phrase will change according to where it lies in the voice.

A large leap in the music will usually require some extra effort, and will express a heightened emotion. A singer may also need a bit of extra time for the large leaps.



Jessye Norman sings Schubert’s Ave Maria. Most violinists play this piece some time or other, so we can relate more easily to this performance. Listen to the long endlessly soaring line, like a bird in flight. That is the Romantic ideal, and Jessye Norman does it better than anybody. And enjoy the voice that has been hailed as the greatest voice of the twentieth century.

This blog post is reprinted from http://schoolofviolinartistry.com
Please visit me there for more like this as well as video instruction for developing violin artistry.

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