Finding the Violin's Voice

January 11, 2019, 10:39 AM · 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?”

watercolor girl violin

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…

Breathing….

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.

Consonants…

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.

Words...

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.

La Stupenda…

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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Replies

January 11, 2019 at 09:43 PM · Ms. Skinner hits the nail on the head! It is rare to come across such a comprehensive, succinct, and inspiring analysis of the relationship between singing and instrumental playing. My piano teacher insisted that all of his students become skilled at an orchestral instrument so that they would learn how to be a successful ensemble player, LISTENING to other musicians. In a similar vein, all instrumentalists should take voice lessons to learn to breathe with the music and use the words, real or imaginary, in order to be as expressive as possible. As Toscanini shouted at the NBC Symphony in rehearsals: "Canta, canta, canta!" ("Sing, sing, sing!")

January 12, 2019 at 01:55 PM · What a perfectly insightful article!! My conducting teacher Dr. Ronald Staheli asked me to put my arms down once in my lesson to sing the passage I was working on (and struggling with). I saw myself clearly in your first anecdote! This is so applicable to every kind of musician—we should all seek to infuse the music with communicable meaning. I especially love the idea of working on consonants next time I conduct an orchestra. ~Christina

January 12, 2019 at 03:19 PM · I loved this article. Beautiful information. Thank you.

January 12, 2019 at 03:34 PM · Mark: Thank you so much for the vote of confidence! It is greatly appreciated!

To 17: Thank you so much, as well. I was not familiar with the Toscanini quote. Loved it! And the advice from your piano teacher seems ideal.

January 12, 2019 at 04:28 PM · I, too, loved the article, Diana, especially the way you wove together so many wise analogies for drawing on the vocal resource we have within us as we approach instrumental phrasing. On the lighter side, I found this page on Violinist.com that gives various...er...lyrics for the instrumental repertoire--some descriptive, and some just amusing:

https://www.violinist.com/discussion/archive/9936/

Thanks always for your ever perceptive thoughts on our instrument and our community!

January 12, 2019 at 06:07 PM · Christina: I appreciate your conducting story so much! Thank you!

207: The discussion blog you noted is hysterical! I had not seen it before. It's really wonderful! And thank you for your kind comments.

January 12, 2019 at 07:19 PM · Diana's article reveals a whole new vista in bringing together the singer's experience and the instrumentalists tone. Indeed, every musician would do well to draw inspiration from wherever they can.

January 12, 2019 at 08:22 PM · That was fascinating. Every time I read one of your posts it opens up my mind to new dimensions, new thoughts, new avenues. I love it.

Yes I so agree with your teacher that music should be played the way you’d sing it. After all, any music starts in the composer’s head and he/she then “sings” it onto the manuscript paper. Obviously. The natural phrasing should be the way the composer sang it in his/her head. It’s the composer’s music. That sounds so easy to do….

My mind took off on the idea of descriptive titles creating words to our music. I went to my bookcases filled with music and the first book I happened to see was Schumann Kinderszenen, music I haven’t played for decades. I opened the music, made note of the titles as I played and the words jumped out at me as did the intended emotion which of course is synonymous to music. Fascinating. I need more time to pursue this now.

And so true about the conductor breathing with the singers. So important. Hopefully the conductor can convey that to every member of the orchestra.

Any instrument’s voice is the composer’s song. Music is and always will be our song. And by the way, I love the graphic of the little girl playing the violin. It speaks volumes!

January 12, 2019 at 09:05 PM · To 15: Thank you! I agree... we must get inspiration where we can!

Joe: As immersed as I am in the subject, I never even thought about the music starting in the composer's head and then being "sung" onto the manuscript paper. Love it! Thank you for your thoughtful comments, which have inspired me. You are poetic. Oh, as for the graphic, Laurie Niles came up with it and I agree that it is perfect!

January 13, 2019 at 01:49 AM · Diana, I am very impressed and moved by how poetically you write about music and the ear. You obviously love music and musicians in a way that has filled your life with joy. I had an interesting experience in which I was about to go on stage to play a difficult trio by Hindemith. Just moments before I walked out, I could hear my inner voice loud and clear, like I had never heard it before. It gave me a sense of stability that felt better than cold, intellectual counting I was used to. I knew that was the song inside my head that you talk about.

January 13, 2019 at 12:24 PM · OUTSTANDNG! Every musician should read this and then reboot. Haydn Op 50 here I come....

January 13, 2019 at 03:17 PM · To 150: Never before have I been accused of being poetic! I'll take it! Thank you! Your story about the Hindemith and your inner ear are moving to me. Thank you for taking the time to write such a lovely comment.

To 60: Thank you!!! Yes, Haydn, here we come!

January 13, 2019 at 06:31 PM · Good job Diana,-- I have been fortunate to have taken both violin and voice lessons, (most of my playing is with Mariachi!), and they compliment each other. Here is my list of analogies: bow speed = air flow. Weight/leverage = "support", tricking the diaphragm to do the work. Point of contact = placement. Singers do a lot of weird mental imaging like singing through the eyes, bouncing a tone off of the hard palette,, yawning to raise the soft palette, placing a high note at the top of the head. Attacks, articulations = consonants, sustain = vowel. The main benefit for the violinist is to connect the dots, the long line, to not interrupt the sound production when changing notes or bow direction. Because the left hand technique is so complicated, it is a real challenge to transfer our mental focus to the right hand, and trust the left side to do what we have trained it to do. It is the right side that produces and controls the sound.

January 13, 2019 at 06:45 PM · Thank you so much, Joel! And I greatly appreciate your voice/violin analogies, which are right on target. True, we singers do use some weird mental images, many of which I'd love to list, but Laurie would inevitably have to edit them out as they're suitable for mature audiences only! I appreciate also your comment about trusting the left side to do what we've trained it to do. Great advice!

January 13, 2019 at 07:16 PM · When a musical passage is marked "cantabile", the composer is reminding us to sing.

January 13, 2019 at 07:47 PM · Beautifully put, Charlie. Thank you! (P.S. I love that you have referred to yourself in the past as "The Accidental Violist." What a wonderful moniker!)

January 16, 2019 at 07:19 PM · This reminds me of my violin mentor always reminding me that what I hear coming out of the fiddle when it's next to my ear is NOT the same thing the audience hears when it arrives at their ears about 20 or more feet away. My ears were really opened when I had the privilege of hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra play live a few years back. Boy, could you hear the conversations! Judging on what I was hearing in the audience probably means the consonants were screaming at them on stage.

January 16, 2019 at 09:14 PM · To 87: What a wonderful comment! And I agree that hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra play is truly a privilege. Glad you experienced the orchestral "conversations" that Ozawa discussed!

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