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Brian Hong

Freedom, not Conformity: A Call to Young Musicians

August 28, 2011 at 3:55 AM

               Artistic freedom.  To many music students, the phrase conjures forth images of a metaphorical no-man’s land – a forbidden territory that they are afraid to explore.  What is to blame for this recent trend of stagnation?  In my opinion, it is because of a ubiquitous mentality that “musical” playing relies on the overrated concepts of conformity and imitation.  One cannot deny the flood of adept, technically sound and fluent musicians that have been surfacing over the last several decades; in fact, one could very well argue on a factual basis that those said players perform at a higher technical standard than did artists of the past.  However, at what cost have they achieved such prowess?  What other aspects of music have been lost along the (admittedly attractive) path to perfection?  The answer to that, my dear colleagues, is artistry – the ability and the freedom to develop one’s own voice and present their own musical ideas in a unique, convincing way.

Musicianship over the past years has been leaning evermore onto the crutch of technique.  Many young aspiring students consider great playing to be safe and clean, sometimes imbued with an artificial sense of virtuosity by movement.  I find such colloquial playing to be rather stagnant, and, quite frankly, unimpressive.  It is very easy to lump many modern players into the “school” of the soloist whom they are trying to imitate: Heifetz, Milstein, and Oistrakh, to name but a few.  However, one must realize that those aforementioned artists became who they were NOT because of a mindset of imitation, but rather because of their courage to take risks in presenting ideas that had never been heard before.  Much of their intrinsic ability to take risks and discover their musical identities came very early on in their careers because of the teaching style.  Pedagogues like Auer, Zimbalist, Galamian, and DeLay constantly pushed their students to discover themselves, to experiment with different ideas to develop their own voice.  Adversely, much of the teaching of today is focused on building solid technique (which the professors of old did as well – very much so) instead of developing that one unique voice in each student.

Fortunately, not all instructors teach in such a torpid way.  There are plenty of wonderful pedagogues who offer priceless advice and inspiration.  For example, this summer, I was privileged to work with the great violin teacher Sergiu Schwartz at the Bowdoin International Music Festival.  Mr. Schwartz has an incredibly refreshing view on young musicians; he inspires the artist in every student to surface and to take charge.  Ironically, he goes about this in a very intellectual way, helping his pupils analyze the harmonic structures of each piece and letting them interpret what they believe the composer intended.  He then works with the student’s ideas, helping them to mold those thoughts and to present them in the most fluid, sensible way possible, all the while encouraging them to let go and let the heart take over when the time finally comes for the work to be performed.  With his help this summer, my performances of Ravel’s Tzigane, the Schoenberg Phantasy, and the Bach Chaconne, along with numerous chamber works, were technically and musically the most successful I had ever done.

The world needs more teachers who help their pupils discover their inner voice, their musical soul.  And while there are only so many soloist slots available to these pupils, this should not cause a young player to refrain from exploring their ideas and presenting material in a fresh, interesting way.  However, this does not mean one should play in a musical muddle, throwing out random phrases willy-nilly just hoping to be “different”.  In fact, it is quite the contrary - in the words of Sergiu Schwartz: “In-depth analysis and serious musicianship are essential to support individuality…in other words, to have the weight and authority, one must know the substance and message to be expressed.”

So, in conclusion, this is a message to all of my fellow students and colleagues.  Analyze your music!  Take risks!  Explore different ideas, different sounds, and different facets of interpretation to ultimately construct your own unique tapestry.  Too long have musicians hid behind a curtain of technique.  It is time for us, the next generation, to make our own musical mark, to turn our backs on musical conformity and imitation, and to present something intelligent, something fresh, and something exciting.

From Francesca Rizzardi
Posted on August 28, 2011 at 6:12 AM

Well said, Mr. Hong.

I know your essay was aimed at young musicians who are aiming at a career in performance, but even my teacher encourages me to give my own interpretation of the Suzuki etudes!  (I'm an adult learner and will never be a soloist!)  I'll have to find out who her teacher was.  I think she was at Julliard about the time Dorothy Delay was a student there too, so they could have been influenced by the same teachers.

From John Cadd
Posted on August 28, 2011 at 11:37 AM

Present your musical ideas in a convincing way, or a convinced way , but not a convicted way.  That means they have locked you up .  Good topic to keep on the table .   In fact the difference in meaning may only exist in England.Much like the phrase "I couldn`t care less"(Here) compared to  ."I could care less"(There).

How do you see the Hungarian school of playing? There is a very nice (almost masterclass) Youtube video of Peter Csaba conducting and talking to a young orchestra and giving the same message as you.  His records can only be described as artistic. His playing shows changes and shades of mood inside single notes .Sandor Vegh was keen on all that .

From Brian Hong
Posted on August 28, 2011 at 1:26 PM

 Ah, yes...I wrote this blog in an hour so there is definitely going to be a typo or two.  

Changed "convicted" to "Convincing".  Darn this English language.




 Augh!  I accidentally deleted a comment made by Emily Liz that brought up an interesting question...did players like Heifetz, Milstein, and Oistrakh become as unique as they were because of the lack of resources (recordings, etc) and technology or because of the teaching style?


Emily, you bring up a very intriguing subject. Surely, much of my generation has heard hundreds of recordings of the pieces we play. We have a plethora of interpretations to enjoy, and we definitely find phrases and nuances which we connect with. It is fine to take those ideas, but not imitate them. We must understand them, know what is going on behind those ideas and in turn make them our own. And I think that is part of the problem; we don't do that, we just imitate.
So, in answer to your question, it is a matter of both circumstances - the lack of recordings and the greater need for self reliance of the old masters definitely attributed to their sound, but I also think it was the teaching as well that helped them. I believe that teaching back then focused more on understanding, and helping those students know why people make such choices.
I remember my full time violin teacher one time telling me that I listen to to many recordings. She was (and still is) absolutely right..I was imitating, not understanding. However, with a little study of harmonic structure and topography, one can definitely delve into the ideas that have already been presented by other players and make it their own.

From marjory lange
Posted on August 28, 2011 at 5:54 PM

To the last comment--my (Probably) wisest teacher said to listen to lots of recordings, but NOT of violinists.  Operas, symphonies, (he was ok with chamber music), piano, organ, choric pieces--so I would become adept in stylistic matters, but not too influenced by other violinists' habits.

From John Cadd
Posted on August 29, 2011 at 9:17 PM

Brian  The older players were not such an influence on me as a teenager.The British radio programmes were a complete mixture of plays ,light music and some serious music.The Third Programme was for classical music but it was not wired into our Redifusion set .  Radio Luxembourg was early Pop music. Ardahl O`Hanlan said the interference on that station was like deep frying a herd of live pigs.  Maybe it cost a bit more. At that age I never asked such questions.  The biggest musical advance for me was building a transistor radio with headphones.  Then , almost an earthquake effect of hearing David Oistrakh in a concerto for the first time.      Apart from the school orchestra where you "just played " but had very little tuition I bought a second hand Teach Yourself Violin book. There were a few pen drawings illustrating how to stand and hold the bow. The "model" was a man in a long  tailcoat.   The directions about portamenti were learned and practised along with "turns " ,mordents and trills. Later a teacher seemed surprised that I knew the portamenti without being told. They just turned up in the music almost unplanned. Now I wonder why so few players use them.  The city I grew up in was a Naval Base so --Military and mostly unmusical.  I was swimming against the tide.

From John Cadd
Posted on August 29, 2011 at 11:34 PM

"Take those ideas but not imitate them"   .So should we play different notes?   If a child asked such a perceptive question , what would you say?  Why not copy to learn first? Then learn to be original.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on August 31, 2011 at 3:26 AM

Mr. Cadd:   It is obvious that Brian can indeed express himself very well, not only musically but also with both the written and spoken word; nevertheless, I feel the need to submit a comment here.  This comment is not, however, on Brian's behalf - it is in his defense.

Brian Hong has, in the time that I have known him, become both a very good friend and definitely someone that I both applaud and admire for his work-ethic, ferocious curiosity, and his spirit of continuous improvement.    I have had the pleasure of seeing him perform live (as the concertmaster of the American Youth Philharmonic Orchestra) as well as viewing video of his solo performances, and I must say that I have been humbled by what I have seen and heard.    To put it plainly, "this kid's GOT it".

Regarding his thoughts on artistry:   the thoughts expressed by Brian in his entry have been shared by MANY musicians, including Kyung-Wha Chung - one of the world's greatest living violinists and musicians.    Another worthy violinist, Peter Zazofsky (of the Muir String Quartet and the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music) spoke of the "copying" phenomenon in an interview that was published in The Strad some years ago.   In this interview, Mr. Zazofsky spoke very candidly about his time at Meadowmout and specifically about the many performances of standard repertoire that he heard during those summers.    The account includes Zazofsky's very keen observation that many of the violinists that he heard were doing "the same slides and the same bowings", with the final statement being "They weren't good violinists - they were 'correct' violinists".

I have had many teachers who advised me to listen, not only to violinists but to opera singers and other instrumentalists, for the purpose of getting sounds in my ears.    It would be silly to speak of the importance of continued musical education in the form of listening and evaluating great performances here:    the point of the listening is not only to become familiar with the large body of work known as "classical music", but also to understand that work and its interpreters, knowing that we who choose to pursue careers as performers of this music are becoming a part of a continuum much larger than any one of us could comprehend.  

Recordings, as well as the myriad of books in which interviews and essays are collected, are all tools to which every musician should refer, as it is only by understanding the motivations of great artists and their artistry that we can transcend technique with the hopes to reach the very mystical and spiritual heights found by those we revere.   

I do have to agree with Brian wholeheartedly, as I too have seen and heard many "correct" violinists in my short life.    Of course, there is NOTHING arguable about the search for technical perfection.    However, what I'm assuming that Brian speaks of here is the ability to transcend "the bits" and reach deeper into one's self, the message delivered by every composer, and share that message in a manner that is both convincing and personal but also lacking in self-adulation and self-indulgence.   This is no small task, as evidenced by Mischa Maisky's reminiscences on the late Philippe Hirschhorn

So, please, I implore you to take a second look at Brian's essay with the purpose of understanding its message as opposed to attacking the messenger.




From John Cadd
Posted on August 31, 2011 at 8:44 PM

Sam    I`m not attacking Brian at all. Picture this situation. Brian has started an interesting topic.  Now you have to visualise the topic as a separate thing in front of us. I am standing beside him pointing towards the "abstract "problem discussing different aspects of it.   You have imagined me pointing at Brian for some reason. No. That`s not what I`m doing.   He is dead right in his intention to generate some interest in a more individual way of playing.  I don`t know a lot about Brian but I have no intention to knock him in any way.   If I ask a question in a quirky way it has no reflection on him or his ability.   I am really interested in the fact that portamento is chosen to be the one aspect of playing that is being starved to death while all the rest of violin playing is allowed to flourish.  I substituted Notes instead of Portamento in the quirky question to highlight the way portamento is made to walk the plank in the grand effort to avoid copying.  Brian has used the word artistry but that will usually boil down to the word portamento. That`s what I was getting at.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on September 1, 2011 at 3:55 AM

Mr. Cadd:

Thank you for taking the time to read my response.  Considering what you have written in response perhaps it would be best for anyone else interested in contributing to this conversation, as it is a very worthwhile one, to ask for a definition of "artistry".   I'm sure that the answers would be quite interesting.

From John Cadd
Posted on September 1, 2011 at 10:51 AM

Sam  Glad I mended a fence for you. My mind was on the topic of portamento just before I answered the blog. The main subject is currently under Toscha Seidel. Just yesterday Nate answered my query about whether portamento is covered by teachers and he says it`s not covered.Which I find amazing.   I found another site called "Violin Portamento -An analysis of it`s use by master violinists in 19th century concerti" by Heejung Lee.  It looks terrifyingly technical in parts.  That contrasts with my simple method developed 2 days ago where the placement of "altered notes"(my phrase) is examined first. See where the notes are in relation to the musical phrases first.Then see what exact portamento is used second. With several players it might work best with a separate sheet of tracing paper for each player being tested , to mark the notes given special treatment.   The original sheet of music will still be legible after the comparison.  What I call the pencil and paper test.   Example is Kreisler using portamento in a 3 note group will slide 1st to 2nd. Seidel will slide 2nd to 3rd .Both sound good. They don`t repeat it straight away though. The repeat notes are treated differently in each case.  It`s a subject that needs rules of what to do and what not to do as well.   It`s not so hard when you begin to play the game.  The trick is to study the music in your head as Seidel did and imagine the sound first.

The idea of young players made me think --If a young player is not taught portamento and you say don`t copy--then they will need to play differently to what they know. Hence the quirky question.

I forgot to mention this.   David Oistrakh was always collecting records and tapes of other players whenever he got the chance. It seems reasonable to assume that he would notice and study how the other players performed their music.He was not looking for something to while away the hours .It was his work. Would he absorb ideas from other players?  Yes.  Would he copy? Not exactly. He would adapt , absorb , use. Check the Thesaurus for other words similar to , but not identical to , copy.

From John Cadd
Posted on September 1, 2011 at 5:12 PM

I refined my pencil and paper method today. The trick is to write lots of 1 s on the page first. Then any slides (up or down ) get a mark in that direction.  I used 2 recordings of Ave Maria .One is Heifetz (young ) .The other is a castrato called Allesandro Moreschi.First listen to this can be rather painful.  Each pencil mark represents a note. Then mark a diagonal if a slide happens.They are very similar in their choice of notes for potamento . Such a simple tune will have less chances for variation , but the pencil method shows what I mean .  Then try different notes to see what`s possible.    An upward slide is often matched by a later downward slide to balance. That may work sometimes. Keep that in mind.       You can run through with another colour for extra helpings of vibrato if you like. It`s good fun.

From Egon de Mattos
Posted on September 1, 2011 at 5:33 PM

 Dear Brian,

You are in the ritght track. Congratulations!


From John Cadd
Posted on September 3, 2011 at 1:33 PM

I lost your blog yesterday.   I forgot to mention Phrasing. Now that will be very hard to pin down. If only we could create a makeshift method for that.  It is as important as portamento. More important for  pianists as they have some severe limitations compared to violinists.

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