When I was studying violin in college, my teacher would consistently pose the same question if I was having trouble with a lyrical passage: “How would you sing it?” After singing the phrase in question, he’d reply with his trademark twinkle, “Well, why don’t you play it that way?”
This interchange inevitably proved his point — that natural phrasing and articulation tended to emerge organically through the voice, whereas the same phrase tackled by the fiddle got mired at the ugly crossroads of intonation and technique.
Singing is a natural form of expression and, as such, the path from brain to mouth is somehow less convoluted than the path from brain to fingers. Please understand, I’m not talking about the technique involved in singing opera or lieder. Trained singers can get as caught up in technique as violinists can. I’m talking about the natural voice that starts in early childhood — the one used for singing simple songs and lullabies.
The connection between singing and playing is one I find endlessly fascinating. And it appears I’m not alone. Through books and the never-ending joy of YouTube, I’ve recently come across several prominent artists who have all spoken about the importance of singing as it relates to overall music making. Their thoughts brought me back to those moments with my violin teacher so many years ago when he encouraged me to make this rather fundamental connection.
A few thoughts from a few great musicians…
At a very young age, conductor Christian Thielemann was told by Herbert von Karajan that he should start his career in a small opera house because “you have to learn to breathe with the singers.” The point was that breathing is at the core of all musical expression, not just singing. Singers, obviously, breathe out of necessity. Violinists have the luxury of a seemingly endless bow with which to generate a constant stream of sound. And while that never-ending line might be rapturous in certain instances, it often obscures the phrasing that truly makes a piece of music come alive. Back to my teacher’s advice. Sing the phrase you are trying to play and that act alone may unlock its mysteries.
Countertenor Andreas Scholl has what appears to be endless control of his breathing when he sings. But he’s quick to point out that if one needs to breathe outside a delineated phrase, it’s not the end of the world. You can indicate through intensity and momentum where the phrase is heading. The same is true when we need to make an inopportune bow change (the violinist’s version of taking a breath in the middle of a word). If we communicate through our concentration and sense of intention that the phrase is not over, our listeners will believe us.
In Haruki Murakami’s book Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa, Maestro Ozawa states that one fault he finds in certain orchestras is the inability to use consonants the way a singer would. (Wait. Consonants? I, too, thought this reference was strange on first reading. But sing the iconic opening four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and I guarantee that you will use consonants, and not just vowels, to indicate the musical notes. You might sing “Da, Da, Da, Daaaaaaa.” Or you might use “Ta” or “Pa,” but I will say with certainty that you didn’t sing “Ah, Ah, Ah, Ahhhhhh.”)
When listening to a certain orchestra performing on a recording, Ozawa notes, “When the instruments of this orchestra talk to each other, the consonants don’t come out.” Ozawa contends that when the sound registers as all vowels, it is difficult to have a “conversation” between musicians. Just as consonants are mandatory in actual verbal conversations, they are needed in musical ones as well. Orchestral musicians, obviously, cannot actually use consonants in their playing. But, according to Ozawa, they can create the sound in a way that indicates a consonant, or as I might interpret, a definition or even slight stoppage before the tone sounds. Great players can give the illusion of consonants, and even a specific consonant, which further drives the musical conversation.
Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato defies conventional rhetoric by saying the singer’s instrument isn’t the voice, rather, it’s the words. Words, in her opinion, are paramount. True, violinists don’t have the advantage of lyrics. But we can pretend.
Read any book on Bach and you will find myriad references to his text painting. Climbing, running, hastening… all these words come alive through ascending sixteenth notes. Despairing, disheartened, deserted … words aided by a descending cantus firmus. When I work on unaccompanied Bach, I often conjure up words that I believe correspond to the emotion a musical phrase is striving to evoke. This simple exercise helps me enhance the tone and bring a new layer of richness to the sound. When we approach a phrase as if it had words, as if we needed to breathe at a certain point, what a difference it makes in the overall shape and sense of meaning.
In some cases, composers give us a gift by adding a descriptive title to a piece — another way we add words to our music. Is there any question the type of sound Vaughan Williams is going for in “Lark Ascending” or Sarasate in “Ziguenerweisen?” These words give us a context that helps mold and shape our overall sound. I advocate coming up with your own personal names for sonatas or other pieces you’re working on. Images, like words, can truly inspire.
All this talk of breathing, words, and images brings to the foreground one of the greatest singers who ever lived. It’s been said magnificent diva Joan Sutherland learned to trill as a young girl by listening to the birds. I’ve always imagined that Stephen Sondheim knew this story and had it in mind when he wrote his lovely song for the character Joanna in Sweeney Todd. As she sweetly sings to the caged birds, her poignant words break my heart each time I hear them: “If I cannot fly, let me sing.”
Oh, that our violins could become our voices and that our music become our songs.
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