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elise stanley

The three voices of the violin

July 30, 2010 at 10:25 AM

Simple, right?  You pick up the violin, you play and we hear the music.  Least that’s what I thought but what is becoming apparent to me (as a result mostly of the earlier volume topic) is that there are as many voices to the violin as there are listeners but we can group them into three categories:

First, there is the sound the audience hears: as alluded above, this is actually as many voices as there are ears both because each person is in a different space with its own acoustic properties, and each senses the music differently because of physical variation and all the mental factors related to experience, age etc etc.  However, we can still group them together with respect to the sound coming out of the violin - they will all hear something similar.
Second, there is the sound that comes out of the violin under your chin.  This is a distinct voice since only the person that close can hear all the tones, overtones of the music - and all the scrapes and crunches that are hopefully below the sound level of the audience. 
And then there is the third voice that has only just become apparent to me.  And that is the one inside your head: what you imagine the sound to be.  I'm actually writing this because I discovered that for me this voice is far louder than the one coming out of the violin.  Thus, my playing is what I imagine it to be rather than what it is.  This might explain why when I play something and then listen back to it on the tape recorder its often so different - the playing has the emotional content but not the technical perfection that I thought I heard! 
What’s so fascinating about this is that I realize that all three voices are critical.  Obviously, the audience one needs no explanation: you have to play in a way that the audience will get the cream, as it were. To do this you must hear the second voice, that of the instrument itself, to be in tune and to adjust tone and tempo. I was beginning to think that the third voice, the one in your head, is a bane – but it is also the biggest blessing. Its only just dawned on me that this voice is the one that gives playing musicality: its what you are intending to say and hence what you are projecting onto the instrument and audience. 

From John Cadd
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 1:08 PM

Elise     I have a useful way to look at this.    Compare playing with painting and decorating.  The big lesson to get a good result is to pay attention to the edges.Badly cut wallpaper and wonky smudges of paint are a small part of the whole but can drag down the overall impression. If you have wobbly ladders and old paintbrushes that will make your job harder.See the comparison

.Paint brush= bow.

  Brain speed increases with good practice.You start to notice more exactly where the smudges are.Then you have to stop and pay concentrated attention to that part .It will only get better if you work on that exact piece of ---wallpaper.See?

From elise stanley
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 2:48 PM

I like that - but I see violin more as a work of art than a decorating job - at least if you are being heard and not just providing background ;)  In which case the inner violin is doing a lot more than just checking edges and makine a clean finish....

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 5:11 PM

Well, lets put it that way... as a human being, creation has to do with spirit, mind and body. Usually, things are done with mind and body solely and some people only use their physical aptitudes,and this is very sad.

Mind has to do with the collective memory: It does apply to violinists and it does cumulate hundred of years of knowledge... How to hold the instrument and playing is a combination of mind and body... Spiritual matters ( it does not have anything to do with religion) are  related to the very present moment. It is very difficult to describe but it has to do with inspiration. You have the strong believe that this is the right thing to do and it becomes your own creation. In fact, a good interpret and musician can recreate completly a masterpiece.

Spiritual matters are the very last concerns applied nowadays, in our highly technologic world. We are conditionned by the mind and the collective experience to be as predictable as possible in any field. This is an erroneous concept. The spiritual has to be cultivated and sollicitated all the time in terms of creation and innovations. The mind dictates what you have learned and experienced from others. The spiritual gives you the freedom to think differently, to act in another direction and to set aside the conventions. This is the secret of all the great ones in the human kind. Copernic and Einstein were unpredictable and they both revolutionalized  with complete diifferent views well established concepts and firmly approved believes in the scientific community. Spiritual has a great deal to do with consciousness and awareness and it must be second nature to be complete as a human being.

That is the reason why Kreisler and Oistrach were so great compared to the others who did not evolved in a spiritual way. Kreisler did not like to rehearse to much, because he did not wish to become to mechanical in his approach. This is so true that everytime you hear a recording of him, you really have the impression he is improvising.

Today, most of the teachers have followed the steps of the perfect violinist, being as accurate as possible. Mind and body solely... Today, most  sound alike. Charisma and magnetism is the strongest interconnection with the auditor= the first voice as you mentionned. Well,where are the big stars of the violin now, or what have they became... This has a lot to do with communication. Argerich is recreating any composer she plays in front of thousands of people all over the world, since 50 years now. This has not been seen since Callas, Horowitz, Heifetz, Oistrach, Kreisler and Caruso.

I am a composer and I feel free now,because I am applying these principles. What I feel is right, I write it down. I do not use any instruments and everything must sound like a "Premier jet". That is the main reason why Bach and Mozart are universal and modern. They both went far beyond the mind and body. Still has a lot to experience in terms of creation... I really mean,a lot


Very interesting subject as always Elise...

From Michael Snow
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 6:18 PM

Reminds me of a comment Ivry Gitlis made on the Art of the Violin series. He said, when practicing, he works and works and works until what he hears "under his ear" matches as closely as possible to what he hears in his head. So, listening to the voice in the head is first, then we try to listen to the actual voice "under the chin" and keep shaping it to match. Of course, we have to practice listening as objectively as possible to what's coming out the violin (without reacting to it, ignoring it, or imposing what we imagine onto it). I'm trying to focus on this much more now, by slowing way down and paying attention to subtler details than I am accustomed to hearing while practicing.

From elise stanley
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 6:22 PM

Thats exactly it - getting the two to correspond.  I obviously have to work on my listening ....

On the other hand, I don't want to swamp my inner voice with the external one.  I think therein lies mechanical playing - where you dutifully play the notes but forget to play the music ;) - as, I hasten to add, Marc was alluding to above.  I think I understand now why Hilary Hahn practices her pieces on the piano - so that she does not get obsessed with technical perfection (I'm sure even the best violinists have technical aims too).

Another question is: does memorizing a piece help or hinder the outer and/or inner voice?  I think I'm finding that it really helps the latter - once the notes of the piece are automatic you can let your imagination go (though not too wild...)

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 6:31 PM

Elise: I add a third paragraph to explain the true meaning of "spiritual matters" and you have replied in between... Very inspiring subject. Makes me think a lot about me, about others...

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 6:47 PM

Memorizing the complete score is the first step to experience freedom in terms of creation!!!!

From Ronald Mutchnik
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 10:28 PM

If technique is always in the service of the music then it is a means to an end rather than the end in itself. One wants to have sufficiently reliable and accurate technique, play in tune- all understandable goals, but only if they will serve the music.  It is also true that as composers imagined new music, technique had to catch up to the composer's imagination. Some pieces that were considered impossible by professionals at the time are now taught to high school students not yet  entering music conservatory. So, in general, performers have risen to the occasion because of the musical demands made on them. 

I forget the particular violin sonata in question, but Beethoven reacted to someone's complaint or concern that he had written something very awkward for the instrument and  he replied that  he composed what he felt and what needed to be and had little sympathy for the  violinist for whom it was a challenge.

You can have a basic working knowledge of how to do this or that on the violin, but to make it special, unique, you must develop, and ultimately, trust your inner ear. The greatest most wonderful freedom comes from this. The great violinists who are truly memorable have all found their own voice inside. We each have that potential if we listen closely enough. It is a lifelong process.

From elise stanley
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 11:12 PM

Ronald: how beautifully put.  What you describe is also the reason that many violinists move away from (I will not say abandon because that is a value judgement) classical music and go into fiddling, jazz or blues - because of the freedom to let the inner voice express without the constraints of the highly evolved form.  These are wonderful branches of music but I think we all have a soft spot for the violinists who can reach the technical perfection that enables them to play the epitomy of classical music - and yet retain their own voice. 

Is that a goal that we all share?  Fortunately (least I like to presume) it is a goal that can be reached at many levels: I would like to believe that for the 'true' musician the satisfaction to performing 'Mary had a little Lamb' witih minimal error at the beginning of the technical journey is just as intense as that for the virtuoso performing Paganini... but, that is another story ;)

From Marc Villeneuve
Posted on July 30, 2010 at 11:37 PM

Ronald: It is the famous Kreutzer. He never performed it because he never understood the music. It is another famous violinist who created the work, George Bridgetower. Kreutzer thought it was unintelligible for the public...

Now, I heard Vengerov in a recital playing the famous Kreutzer Stradivari. He adressed to the public mentionning that on that particular instrument was created the Kreutzer sonata. Everybody in the concert hall went AHHHHHHH OHHHHHHHHHHHH... I knew it was completely false...

It reminds me the Vieutemps blog...

From Julian Stokes
Posted on July 31, 2010 at 7:40 AM

@John Cadd: Great analogy - That is so right - I'll now know where to focus. I hate edges in decorating!

@Elise: About the recorded "voice". I think here are 2 versions of that.
Version 1 is what you hear when listening back to it, (hyper)critically, as its creator. You will be aware of all its faults, every squeak, every badly timed and poorly intonated note.
Version 2 is what anyone else listening will hear.
Version 3 (yes I know) - it's what experts with trained ears will hear.

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