I was reading the blog of Pittsburgh-based violinist Roy Sonne and came across a fantastic article called
“How can I play like a singer?” Those of you who have listened to our podcast interview of violinist Roy Sonne know that his wife is a professional singer and that Mr. Sonne has accompanied many vocalists in his lifetime. As a result, he has and has had first-hand experience with this crowd and his article comparing playing the violin and singing is fitting.
I will start off my blog by quoting two of Roy’s examples as a starting point. Roy shares with us the words of the Belgian violinist/composer Charles August de Bériot (1802-1870):
“The true mission of the violin is to imitate the accents of the human voice, a noble mission that has earned for the violin the glory of being called the king of instruments.”
While it might be true that this statement is up for debate among musicologists and others in select musical circles, it is my belief that the great violinists have all been great purely because of their lyricism and ability to tug at our heartstrings.
Example number two is a quote Sonne attributes to the great violinist Nathan Milstein (1904-1992).
“The violinist’s dream is to imitate the human voice.”
From my own personal experience, I have found that there are two other elements that allow the violinist to “sing”. These elements, which are “ease and efficiency” were imparted to me by the great pedagogue Eric Rosenblith (1920-2010) in my student days at the New England Conservatory.
Before I was technically proficient, I had countless mentors, conductors, and musicians say to me “If you can sing it, you can play it”. While this statement has validity for many reasons, it lacks the crucial “how-to” element. In other words, unlike vocalists, we instrumentalists must deal with the technical aspects of playing an external-to-the-body apparatus. Vocalists have the luxury of having a direct connection to the larynx which is internal to the body. Yet, for the instrumentalist, once the technical mind/body elements are mastered, the instrument becomes our voice.
This is a long process which takes years and hours of daily practice.
I find that there are two equally important philosophical approaches to playing the violin. The first is the intuitive guide that our inner and outer voices give our bodies so that the necessary and proper technique works its way out. The second is the technique, or, more accurately, a certain tradition of technique that must be taught in order to let the body sing through the instrument. In my experience, the former has served me well but the latter had to be developed to make me into the musician that I am today. This could only be achieved with proper guidance from high-level teachers.
In the classical music world, many teachers refer to particular students as “gifted”. These are the children who most likely were immersed in music as babies and toddlers. In addition, and equally important, these children are quick to pick up instruction from the teacher and execute what is taught. Finally, they also often have hands and fingers that are suited for the instrument. With hours of practicing and crucial guidance, these children learn how to “play like a singer” at a high level.
Despite the above definition, being “gifted” is not, in itself, the be all and end all. Having the desire to “play like a singer” is actually even more important that being “gifted”. This desire is what nourishes the mind, body, and soul when things get tough (and they do at one point or another for every serious student of instrumental music). It is not a forced-will, but one of constant questioning, retooling, and calm introspection. The violinist is always in an ongoing dialogue with his or her body and mind, asking “How can I play this difficult passage more naturally”, or
“What fingering and bowing combinations will truly allow me to use my body to sing to the audience, the way I believe the composer intended?
This, journey, my friends, is lifelong, and the possibilities for self-expression are endless.
Parent tested, Child approved
Maestro Musicians Academy, Boston
More entries: February 2014
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