Playing Notes vs Playing Music

November 3, 2009, 12:29 PM ·

It seems so simple and obvious: Playing notes is not the same as playing music. I once saw a musician wearing a T-shirt that said, "Just because you know a lot of notes and can play them fast doesn't mean you're a good musician." I believe that.

I'm a sort of hybrid because I play both classical and nonclassical music. I hear ignorant criticism and snobbery from both sides.

I had an interesting conversation with a very good musician, a folk guitarist, about the state of classical music in the U.S. We agreed that classical music is fighting to stay alive while newer styles of music keep gaining audiences. His opinion of, say Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, was that if you've heard one performance of it, you've heard them all. Every time it's performed, the musicians play the same notes and markings, so the outcome is always the same. I considered the vastly different sounds of a given piece when played by different orchestras or under different conductors. I remembered the debates on about the merits of different violinists who play the same pieces with entirely different interpretations. I thought of pieces written a few centuries ago which are still played and loved today, and I compared them mentally to pieces of music which were very popular ten years ago but completely forgotten today. I wondered how I could convince this man that different performances of a given piece can reveal vast varieties of beauty or that one can hear completely different things in a single recorded performance of a single work each time one listens to it. There is something deep within the listener which resonates with the music. People who respond strongly to classical music may have grown up with it or may just have it written in their genes.

There are many kinds of nonclassical, European and American music, and I've tried playing a bunch of them. I gravitate towards the ones in which technique is important because my roots are in classical music. Scottish fiddle music is very technical and appeals to a lot of classically trained musicians like me. There are virtuoso soloists, of course, but even fiddlers playing in a group play some pretty technical stuff. In Irish music, fiddle soloists can really flaunt their virtuoso techniques. The same is true of bluegrass music, although I haven't noticed many classically trained violinists turning to that genre. Something that all these kinds of nonclassical music have in common is improvisation. Even if you're only improvising ornaments, you're making the music your own. My classical training has been very helpful here. All those bowing variations in Wohlfahrt, Kreutzer, and other etude books have served me very well in playing nonclassical music. Even my orchestra experience as a second violinist has taught me many ways I can contribute to the totality of the sound even though I'm not playing melody. One time when I was jamming, I had to stop and laugh because my playing sounded like the second violin part of a Mozart symphony.

I got a rude shock recently when I heard some folk musicians describe themselves as beginner, intermediate, or advanced players based on the number of tunes they knew. Don't they know the difference between quantity and quality and the sublime importance of the latter? I became sensitive to the shortcomings of some of the folk fiddlers I had been jamming with. One fellow, definitely not a beginner, proudly played for a group of us a few tunes that he had practiced a lot earlier in the day. I didn't know what they were until after he stopped playing and named them. They were tunes that I know, but his intonation was so bad that I didn't recognize them. Then a woman played lead fiddle for a set of tunes. Her intonation was not good, and her bowing was loud and scratchy. Ow! I don't let my beginning students get away with that.

Fortunately, there are some very good folk fiddlers who are also very good teachers, including Ken Kolodner. He has put out a two CD set on folk fiddling which is really fun and very educational. The CDs contain recordings of him playing 35 old time fiddle tunes three ways: first, slowly with no ornaments; second, slowly with ornaments; and third, a tempo with ornaments. It sure beats listening to a fiddle tune over and over and trying to figure out what the fiddler is doing so quickly. Of course, there is plenty of software which will play music slowed down with no change in pitch, but Ken's CDs are so much easier to use. The CDs also contain PDF files with sheet music for all 35 tunes with bowings, chords, and comments on stylistics. To top it all off, he has a PDF file eleven pages long which describes with remarkably clarity many fiddle ornaments, how to play them, and their best uses in tunes. I bought his CD set recently, and I'm having a lot of fun learning stylistics with it. I excitedly told a fiddling friend about the treasure trove of knowledge in these CDs. He responded, "How many tunes are on the CDs?"

I think I'll look elsewhere for people to jam with.


November 3, 2009 at 08:51 PM ·

You are so right Pauline! Just today I was talking to my friend about a fellow violinist and my friend said: "She is a quick learner and has good intonation but she lacks the Music". So thank you for bringing up this matter :)

November 3, 2009 at 11:16 PM ·

This is very well written and is something that I think about alot.  I am not in your league violin skill wise, but I too play classical and non classical music and truly love both.  I live in a small town and fiddlers and classical musicians have a lot of interaction with each other.  I have felt  snobbery on both sides and it really bothers me, but with my limited experience I know I can’t articulate well enough to properly defend what I KNOW (even at my level) to be often ridiculous oversimplifications and generalizations.

I have heard it often implied that fiddling (in my case I’m using fiddling to refer to Scottish, Irish, Cape Breton, sometimes Bluegrass) allows sloppy technique, is ‘easy’ – forgetting sometimes straightforward notes have nothing to do with a specific groove, bowing, ornamentation, ability to improvise, that properly capture a certain tradition - absolutely not easy.  Anyone can play something incorrectly and claim they can play it and I know sometimes, as you say, things are ‘gotten away with’ – true in many areas.  We sometimes have exposure to training from some world class fiddlers here and when they play some of these genres properly, these things are glaringly untrue.

I am equally tongue tied when people can’t hear what is actually happening in a piece of classical music, complex overlapping bits that come together to make something whole and so significant - goosebump worthy – but are willing to announce it as soulless...missing it entirely.  Largely a lack of respect…I hope one day I’m able to play the notes AND play the music, whatever I'm playing.  Thank you for writing this.

November 4, 2009 at 11:44 AM ·


November 4, 2009 at 12:54 PM ·

I agree so much about the fact that playing much technically difficult things doesn't mean one is a musician. How many talented kids with perfect coordination are pushed by their parents in conservatories...  Is it always a passion and does it always sound like a passion...   


November 5, 2009 at 01:22 AM ·

Thank you all for expressing agreement with me and even praising me.  ;-)  At first I had doubts about posting this because I was concerned that I might sound too negative.  I'm glad you resonate in sympathy with me.

November 5, 2009 at 01:21 AM · Pauline, You have hit on a topic dear to my heart. As a nominal member of a local fiddle group I see the same things you've mentioned. It seems to me folk music by definition is music written or played, in general, by amateur musicians. Most seem happy to remain at their current level and are pleased if they can make it through the piece without too many wrong notes, not to mention playing with any kind of feeling or artistic niceties. I don't mean this to sound harsh, it just seems that the bell curve places most people in that region of mediocrity. There is also the issue of types of music. I understand that a group of fiddlers wants to, well, fiddle and that's OK. Personally, I want more diversity in my playing. I have been carefully seeking group members who are like-minded and we have been getting together a couple times a month to play a wider variety of tunes in a trio type of arrangement. So far we've done Irish, Scottish, Breton, some classical (the swan and Sleeping Beauty)waltzes, tangos, rounds, as well as experimenting with some of our own arrangements and popular tune medleys. We've found plenty to keep us interested and challenged. As well, we've had s number of great conversations involving theory and music history. I suggest you do some recruiting. I bet you'll find some others who want to do more. Besides, its a heck of a lot of fun and life is too short not to have fun!

November 5, 2009 at 06:04 AM ·

David, I have rarely been to any fiddle groups like those you described, where mediocrity is the norm and people are not motivated to improve their playing.  In the area where I live, there are a lot of groups of very good fiddlers and other musicians.  At their jam sessions, excitement runs high, and you can always improve your musicianship by playing with them regularly.   In fact, playing frequently with a good group is the only way you can advance or just maintain your skills at improvising and playing with others.  Unfortunately, I don't have a car, and that limits me severely.  For a while I had some friends who would give me rides, but I don't now.  I'm still scouting around for accessible groups.

I understand how much fun and advancement you can get when you play regularly with one or two musicians who like to explore different kinds of music.  I used to get together with a friend once a week to read through collections of different styles of fiddle music.  It was lots of fun, and I'm sure it improved my playing.  I need to find someone to do that with again.

We can all learn so much from each other if we open ourselves to the possibilities.

November 5, 2009 at 02:30 PM ·

 Pauline, I agree with your answer to the person who said, disparagingly, that Beethoven's 9th is "always the same," but I would also take it a step further and wonder what's wrong with that.  I don't think that one listening of a good recording of Beethoven's 9th is enough to understand or absorb the piece.  

November 6, 2009 at 08:28 AM ·

David, I remember now playing with a group of fiddlers who were happy to learn to play a tune and never dreamed of ornamenting it or making it sound special.  That's not playing music.

November 6, 2009 at 12:39 PM ·


You have opened an incredibly deep subject here: what is Music. The sheet of paper in front of me is, of course, not music at all but rather a map to the music. How I interpret the map is what defines our experience of the music. If all I do is play the notes I am not performing music, but I would say I am allowing my listeners to 'hear the map', which they cannot see for themselves. There can be so much more depending on the technical ability of the player, and the artistry he brings to his interpretation. Embellishments can help me highlight or frame certain aspects of a piece, yet even the  simplest song can be transcendent if played with art and passion. I have been moved to tears on more than one occasion by a simple melody played with  perfect elegance.

Here is one further thought. My favorite instructor once said that the music won't begin until you have committed it to memory and mastered its execution. Then, you can turn your attention to infusing it with nuance and passion. That is where the ART begins!


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