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Being musically multilingual...

Michael Fox

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Published: December 2, 2014 at 12:24 AM [UTC]

A classical player "crossing over" into fiddling or rock (or vice versa) comes into many challenges - and sometimes struggles to know how to sound "authentic." When I first starting playing old-time and Celtic fiddle tunes, I sometimes got discouraged that things weren't sounding right. I had all the notes down, but I was still sounding very stiff and not sure how to make things sound as cool as my teachers.

In our increasingly diverse and interconnected world, it is becoming more and more important to be multilingual, that is, able to communicate comfortably with people from nationalities other then your own. In the same way, being musically multilingual is the very important musical skill of being equally at home in a string quartet and a rock band (to give just two of many examples).

Learning a language is more then just learning vocabulary words, but involves learning new grammar, syntax, and idioms and rules that may not make sense if you tried a direct word-for-word translation. In the same way, it is not enough merely to know the “tunes” of a different style of music, and simply impose a single technique on all of them. Songs like “Cielito Lindo” or “Hava Nagila” or “Ole Joe Clark,” are not just a sequence of notes, but they are whole universes of unique performance practices. If you are a classically trained violinist, you owe these songs the respect of doing your homework (of very careful listening to it’s culture’s insiders) before playing them. Just like learning a language means learning grammar, accents, and new cultural idioms, so different styles invite different techniques.

Tracy Silverman has pointed out that, although many electric violinists take their inspiration from guitar players, the performers who might have the most to teach violinists are those who play on the instrument that can be accessed by every person on the planet – the human voice. So with that in mind, here are two very different styles of singing – as a way to look at how musical traditions create their own techniques.

In opera singing, each note rings out clearly and separately. The singer holds notes out, sometimes with heavy vibrato, so that each note rings out as a pure and clean tone. To create a sense of drama, she uses a wide dynamic range, getting noticeably softer and louder at key points. Notice that Nina Stemme’s mouth is sometimes stretched extremely wide open – creating a really big and resonate sound.

By contrast, gospel singing involves more guttural, scratchy, sounds with a rough and “soulful” sense of belting. Shirley Casear and members of her choir sing with a carefully controlled but enthusiastic, careful “shout” that privileges emotional intensity over a “clean” tone. Although the singers use less vibrato, and sing with smaller differences in volume, they have improvisational freedom to transcend the will of the composer, playing with the rhythm and the pitch with syncopations and sliding between notes in elaborate melismatic lines along the blues scale.

How are we able to imitate both of these different musical styles authentically and creativity on a violin/viola/cello? A large part of the answer lies in what Mark Wood calls “the violin’s secret weapon” – the bow. Just as singers work with breath, inhaling deeply and adjusting the way air leaves our lungs and throat – the stroke of the bow can control how a note “sounds” – and that can make your performance both truly emotionally engaging and authentic to a cultural tradition.

For the Classical violinist, we often imitate opera singers with a big, clear, and lyrical sound. This is achieved by bowing smoothly along the “Kreisler highway” (roughly the center between the bridge and the finger board,) so that we achieve uniformity and smoothness along all our legato notes. You are expected to adjust volume at a strong level, often crescendoing or decrescendoing over a long tone.

Fiddle from blues-derived styles of music, on the other hand uses crunchy bow strokes, scratches, rhythmic chops and ponticello techniques, sounds that would be considered “dirty” in a classical tradition, but that can give your tone variety and energy. Shuffles and strongly accented rhythms are emphasized and strengthened to make the music more danceable.

This is of course just the beginning of what it means to adjust your technique to fit whatever musical style you choose to learn and play. The key is to always be listening, and always experimenting to see what can get you closer to what you hear.

From Paul Smith
Posted on December 2, 2014 at 4:12 PM
I think most good players realize that a huge variety of colors and bow sounds (like scratchy attacks) transcends genres. Fiddlers should be able to muster a sweet sound and "classical" players should be able to dig in with harsh, crunchy sound whenever the music demands it.
From Michael Fox
Posted on December 2, 2014 at 10:58 PM
Thanks - I appreciate your feedback. In the effort to make a point, I exaggerated and reduced things a bit too much - there isn't one "correct sound" that will work across the board with any style.
However, there are certain subtle "colors" or "accents" that do vary from style to style - things you can really only get right by inhabiting that world and doing lots and lots of careful listening. For example, 19th century Romantic violin often makes use of heavy, slow vibrato on long notes, while jazz violin might let the note ring out clearly, only adding a little quick vibrato at the end.
Posted on December 3, 2014 at 3:33 AM
Great post! And, hello to a fellow Wheatie!
I love how Scottish and Irish fiddle music sound a lot like their respective accents!

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