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Roy Sonne

How can I play like a singer?

July 22, 2013 at 5:15 AM

“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
Please visit me there for more like this as well as video instruction for developing violin artistry.

From Trevor Jennings
Posted on July 22, 2013 at 3:35 PM
Thank you, Roy! This is easily up among the best advice I've ever read here. It is something my teacher instils in me and which I am trying to put into my playing.

It has been truly said that one can't really play the violin music of the second half of of the 18th century and going into the 19th, including that of Mozart and Paganini in particular, unless one acquires an in depth appreciation of the operatic oeuvres of the period (Paganini was influenced by his love of opera).

From Corwin Slack
Posted on July 22, 2013 at 6:35 PM
To really sound like a singer you need to listen to real singers. Sinatra and Crosby are for real. Also listen to Rosa Ponselle, Renata Tebaldi, and Benjamin's Gigli among many others. There are some links here . The embedded videos are gone but the links are good.
Then listen to Kreisler, or Thibaud or Quiroga or Maude Powell. You will get a taste of what was in their ears and how they expressed it.
From Roy Sonne
Posted on July 22, 2013 at 11:12 PM
Trevor, thanks in turn to you, for your appreciation.
The italian opera composers of the early 19th Century, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini, created a style which played a large part in the music of the entire century. All the cantabile passages in Paganini are completely in that same style. Chopin made it a defining aspect of his piano music. And later composers including Mendelssohn, Liszt, Wieniawski carried it forward. And of course, Verdi.
Corwin, you have exquisite taste. Those are all very real singers. I do feel, however, that there are many, many real singers. I don't feel that the true art is only achievable by an elite handful.
From Christian Vachon
Posted on July 24, 2013 at 11:06 AM
Hi Roy,

Excellent post! I find that with having a vocal style on the violin, how we connect the notes is important. There has been a tendency to want to eliminate slides and shifts in recent modern playing that leaves gaps in the sound and phrases and seems to further distance us from the vocal quality in violin playing.

As for words or no words, one of the important things is the relationship between harmony and harmonic progression and text. Often, the harmony comes in to highlight certain dimensions of the text that are there or the composer wishes to highlight. Great singers are sensitive to that and will color the sound accordingly. I think that as violinists, we can gain a lot by paying more attention to the harmonies and harmonic progressions that accompany our lines and shape our sound accordingly.


From Jim Hastings
Posted on July 24, 2013 at 3:06 PM
Roy, thanks for posting this. Being a long-time opera fan, I can definitely relate to what you said. I believe it was your video I came across a few years back on YouTube, describing the Accolay a minor VC as operatic in character. Agreed. My teacher made the same point about the piece when I studied it in my early years of training. I've noticed that Josh Bell has a penchant for playing violin versions of arias.
From Roy Sonne
Posted on July 24, 2013 at 5:10 PM
Christian, I couldn't agree more about slides and shifts. They went out of favor in the mid 20th century as part of the reaction against the excesses of the Romantic era. I think that the tide may be turning again. Many of the younger generation are more willing to play with more creativity and freedom including a greater use of slides of various types.
I used to think that Heifetz and Kreisler were the all time masters of the slide. Then I became acquainted with the recordings of Grapelli and Stuff Smith. It was a revelation. I'm not sure how much of what they do could be incorporated into classical playing, but it's certainly worth exploring. What do you think?
From Roy Sonne
Posted on July 24, 2013 at 5:16 PM
Jim, Many thanks for the heads up about the URL to my website. I've fixed it up :-))
I feel that the major linkage between violin rep and operatic style started with Paganini who was stylistically right in line with the Italian opera composers of that period -- Donizetti, Bellini, and Rossini. Then the whole line of violinist composers followed in his footsteps stylistically to some extent: Dancla, De Beriot, Spohr, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski. Interestingly enough, Chopin also incorporated the long elaborate singing line of the Italian opera into his piano music. And of course, Chopin was even more influential than Paganini, shaping the style and sound of piano music for all who came after him.
From Christian Vachon
Posted on July 25, 2013 at 6:23 PM
Hi Roy,

It is nice to see more of a return of expressive playing.

About Grappelli and Stuff Smith... The thing is that the slides and expressive devices that they use go well with Jazz because they go with the phrase structure, the rhythm, chord progressions and harmonic rhythm. I am not sure if applied to classical music, they would work in the same way.

When I play tango nuevo and Piazzolla, I use a lot of slides that are in that style. There is something vocal in the way that they are used; if you want, listen to Milonga del Angel played by Piazzolla and his quintet with Fernando Suarez Paz on violin. I do use some of this in classical playing now, particularly sustaining through a shift or slide which really gives it direction, and does indeed make it sound more vocal.


From Amy Barlowe
Posted on July 28, 2013 at 10:24 PM
So glad to see this wonderful blog, Roy! Just wanted to mention that my "Six Favorite Songs", arrangements of six of Schubert's most heartfelt songs for violin and piano was very recently published by Black Squirrel Music. My introductory words will most definitely support your much needed comments. I've taken great care to try to illustrate the sublime poetry with articulations and bowings that I feel to be most appropriate to the words, and I have remained faithful to Schubert's original intentions, as I know he would not have been happy otherwise. Piano parts, not included, but easily accessible in libraries, schools or at IMSLP, are the same as those used by singers. I chose these songs because they are so beautifully suited to the violin and can provide the professional or amateur violinist with what I feel is a most soulful experience and relationship between Schubert's songs, the violin, and the human voice. Thank you again for providing what I feel is invaluable advice for string players!

All best,
Amy Barlowe

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