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Musical Identity Crises: Personal interpretation? What's that?

March 7, 2009 at 8:20 AM



These two ideas have confused me SO much over my entire violin playing life!  How do you perform a truly personal interpretation of a piece?  How would you go about in creating it?  Bowings?  Fingerings?

I have had this dillema for quite some time now.  Ever since my sophomore year in high school, I have been pushed and told to discover my own interpretation.  From my orchestral professors to my private lesson teachers to my summer camp teachers!  The question do I do it?

Recently, I have begun the process of relearning the Sibelius Violin Concerto...and any thoughts of it being "easier" this time around were erased when my teacher one day asked to see my manuscript of the Sibelius.  She then put my personal edition of the Sibelius into her drawer (a locked drawer in her studio) and pulled out a fresh clean copy of the concerto.  She told me to forget my 11th grade interpretation and create a new one.

So at the following lesson, I brought the clean manuscript back (now etched with my own personal bowings, fingerings, and dynamic markings) and took on that challenege of performing it for her.  The actual process in filling out the sheet music took forever!  Almost three weeks!  Imagine my horror when my Professor proceeded to erase about half of my markings!

She claimed that some of the bowings were unmusical.  Some of the fingerings were absurd (while some of the fingerings were "cop-outs").

She proceeded in helping me understand the music of Sibelius.  My next assignment was to listen to his symphonies, chamber music, etc, and then to reapproach the violin concerto.

Well...all that did was confuse me even more!

My interpretation of the Sibelius models after several different violinists.  It's sort of a hybrid of different interpretations...a little mix of Wicks, Oistrakh, Heifetz, Hahn, Chang, and Gitlis.  I used to think it was the most perfect interpretation out there, but how am I supposed to feel confident with it when my very own Professor has me on the verge of a musical-identity crises?

I guess my question is...How do you go about creating your "own" interpretation of a piece?  What if the interpretation you think is perfect has already been established and recorded by another violinist?  For example, what if someong believes that Heifetz's interpretation is the ultimate and he adopts it as his own interpretation?  Is that not a personal interpretation?  To create your "own" interpretation, would that entail trying to be "different" by bringing somthing new to the table that no other violinist has?  Is that the definition of "personal interpretation," is it?

From Bob Annis
Posted on March 7, 2009 at 10:03 PM

First off, you have to understand that anything I might write on the subject id MY interpretation, not yours, so you'll still be on your own with the problem.

Your teacher wants you to develop your own interpretation of a piece; you respond indicating that your personal interp is an amalgam of several other violinists. "You" are not in there at all. I'd have to say that to begin the process, start with a clean sheet. Get ahold of a piece that you do not know, and DO NOT listen to anyone else's playing.

Begin playing it, and continue until you can play it from memory. This is the first step in making it yours. As you continue, you may find that there are any number of ways to play it. The verb "play" is important in this context; what you need to do is to play with it, varying this and that aspect according to your musical whim of the moment and your taste, whatever that may be at the time. And it will vary, and it should vary.

By and by you will come to an understanding of the internal complexities of the piece, and an understanding of how they can be toyed with to please and amuse your inner ear. Eventually you will have settled on an interpretation that you find most pleasing at that time in your life.

Then someone will criticise it; it is important that you remain firm in your belief in yourself, your playing, and your personal feel for the piece of music, else you will never be able to hold your ground. For better or worse, it is yours: you took it in, gave it life of sorts, imbued it with your convictions and abilities. Perahps, even probably, it could be improved upon. But so what? You have all the time that remains to you to work on it, if you wish, or to go on to something else. And in so doing you'll find that lessons will be learned that will work bidirectionally in time: your new work will transfornm your older work, yet the new will be informed by the old.

Remember the motto of the working press: "illegitimati non carborundam" (don't  let the bastards grind you down).

Whaddaya think? Anytrhing helpful there? 

From Bruce Patterson
Posted on March 7, 2009 at 11:30 PM

My feeling is that musical interpretation of a work this size must be based upon more than 'personal whim of the moment'.

One must have a clue as to the architecture of the piece, structurally and harmonically. Understand the lines, phrases and sections of a piece.. whether stated verbally or not. All parts have a function and ones interpretation must be based upon an understanding of what's going on in the music.

Sibelius Violin Concerto might not be the best place to begin the task of learning how to 'do a personal interpretation'. It seems to me as if some parts of you are far ahead of some other parts.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 1:55 AM

You already play "truly personal interpretations" and you did from the beginning.  The real question is how do you like them?  If you do want to change something, change it following your own "truly personal" ideas about how you'd prefer it to be.  That's it, basically.

Even if someone tries to copy someone else, it's still personal in the sense that that was his choice.  Not to mention the fact that you really can't copy someone; you'll still sound more like yourself than like them.


From Patrick Hu
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 6:56 AM

Bob: myself, I think my interpretation does incorporate a certain facet of "me" in it.  I have a certain playing style that is naturally, more or less, "aggressive," and I think that it comes out certainly in different spots of the concerto.  For interpretation sake, I have chosen to take what I like about certain violinists and incorporate them into my own performances.  For example, phrasing the second movement of the Sibelius (in the opening phrase) was a combination of listening to other violinists and thinking, "oh my that's beautiful" as well as "hmm, can we take that idea further?"  I don't think I've completely relied on the interpretations of other violinists to make up for the whole composition...there definitely is some of my quirks in there.  The overall ideas that I am inspired by happen to be from other violinists...does that mean that my interpretation isn't a "personal" one?

And your idea on taking a piece of music I have never heard/learned sounds interesting.  I'll try that...but how do you think I should go about in tackling the different warhorse concertos?  Honestly, I have established set interpretations for a lot of them having much performance experience...but my teacher has challeneged me to see if I can develop a more "mature" interpretation.  And she may be correct in the sense that, since the last time I performed the Sibelius, Beethoven or whatever, I have learned so much more in terms of playing and performing the can I incorporate that is the question (even though I still believe that my previous interpretations are "perfect")

Bruce:  Trust me, I have done a ton of research on the Sibelius violin concerto.  I've studied the conductor's score during highschool and here at Peabody as well in order to learn the different parts and melodies that were being established in the music.  I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I do believe that my background on the structure and harmonics of the piece is pretty's just difficult when trying to incorporate these ideas into setting up a "interpretation" of the piece.  I honestly think that what Oistrakh does in the first movement is, phrasing and structure wise, perfect.  He connects so well with the orchestra and has such a great grasp in terms of bring out different facets of the concerto that pertain not only to the soloist but the orchestra as well.  How do you suggest I go about in incorporating the (for a lack of a better word) research of the piece into my interpretation?

Jim:  That's the trouble I have been having these past few years.  Does a personal interpretation mean that whatever I feel is correct in terms of how a piece should be played is the only thing that matters?  Or does a personal interpretation stand for something that is different than all other interpretations and is unique to yourself?  It seems as though there have been thousands and thousands of different interpretations of these pieces...can't there be similarities among them?

From Bart Meijer
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 8:29 AM

Something my teacher said years ago helped me a lot.

"You will play as an individual. Your job is to respect the written score and the composer's intentions. Then an individual interpretation will come by itself."

Hope this helps you, too.


From Alexander Welch
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 9:13 AM

I was alarmed to read that Patrick's teacher considered some of his fingerings to be absurd. Fin gering is very individualistic and what is right for one performer is wrong for the other. If the fingering suits you and the physiology of your hand then it is right for YOU. I was told by my teacher, a very famous performer, that it is essential to remove the technical problems from the equations before setting out on the true interpretation of the work; the phrase was, 'remove yourself from the tyranny of the notes'! Learning a new work so it can be played fluently allows one to listen to the music and feel it. This is the way interpretative style develops--it is intangible, something peculiar to each of us. There is never a true interpretation. One which appeals to many is considered to be a 'good' interpretation. There are no hard and fast solutions, simply allow yourself to develop naturally  what you feel is right. That may legitimately be coloured by listening to performances of other violinists but try hard not to imitate.

From al ku
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 12:24 PM

"Fingering is very individualistic and what is right for one performer is wrong for the other."

"Learning a new work so it can be played fluently allows one to listen to the music and feel it."

alexander,  i agree with the above 2 statements by themselves, but if you put them together,  and if the goal is to play fluently (and more importantly, musically maturely), then only certain fingering works better if you put the 2 side by side, thus there exists the  fine line between being invididualistic and being improper.  and that applies to other issues like phrasing, etc.

as long as the teacher is a good one, one that the student finds inspiring overall,  the learning process  itself actually may not be that intuitive at times. i think that is the whole point of higher learning, to allow oneself to be vulnerable and exposed to new and different ways of thinking.

i think music interpretation at one moment in time depends essentially on the level of music understanding at that moment.  the teacher has the big pic in mind and the student may not, thus the confusion and question, something that makes education interesting.  an effective teacher is able to draw the student into the big pic as soon as possible, as convincingly as possible.  and the student is expected to demonstrate comparative thinking before arriving at credible individual style.

ps. the above is a general comment since i have no idea what really happened with patrick.

From Bruce Patterson
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 1:26 PM

If you have a concept or feeling of what various sections of the piece mean, or what their purpose is to the whole then further 'analysis' will certainly not help much. Numbers are only numbers if there is no musical context. Leave theory to the theory guys.

I don't remember who was advised (maybe Mozart?) to 'Listen to the best, but imitate no one'.

Perhaps your teacher is trying to stir things up a bit.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 1:51 PM

While I don't have any good advice on this topic, I wanted to say thank you for bringing it up, and for expressing it in such an honest, forthright manner.  I'm just going to keep reading and listening. 

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 5:53 PM

"Does a personal interpretation mean that whatever I feel is correct ..."

It means you write your own story.  Just don't write something like's on NBC prime time if you can help it.


From Patrick Hu
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 5:49 PM

Bart:  What a lovely quote.  It makes the job of the violinist much less complicated.  Actualizing this saying is a bit harder than saying it, though.    :)

Alexander:  I think I may have overly dramaticized my teacher's reaction to my fingerings.  She did say that it was "absurd," but she followed that up with "you don't have six know that right?"  And she was correct.  She showed me different possible fingerings for that passage and they both were more reliable technically and allowed a broader range of phrasing and lines to be carried out.  Alex, maybe you are right.  Maybe the best thing to do is to stop obsessing about "personal interpretation" and just simply play music straight from my heart.  Maybe this whole processes wasn't about "musical maturity" but for myself to let go of "set interpretations" and to just express the music with raw emotions straight from my soul.  After all, isn't that the point of performing music? 

Maybe I have listened to too many violinists and recordings of this piece to the point where it has hampered my ability to execute certain musical objectives from free will.  I can't help it though, because I love listening to different violinists and interpretations.  Maybe i need to find a way to differentiate between listening for pure musical enjoyment and listening for analyitcal purposes...(by the way, thank you for the encouraging post.  It made me think about personal interpretations and how it is all relative).

Al:  I completely agree with your statement on the fine line between being individualist and being improper.  I think that was what my teacher was trying to show me.  And for my sake, I do find my teacher completely inspiring.  She is an amazing performer and teacher and has the ability to make her students go absolutely obsessive with what she's trying to teach! 

Out of curiosity, because I know you have an extremely talented daughter, how do you find the process by which your daughter creates her "interpretation" of a piece to be?  I find performances of youngsters to be tremendously exciting and beautiful.  I think the emotions from a child are so innocent and pure that when it comes through in his or her violin playing, it can be one of the most rewarding experiences worth listening to.

Bruce:  I definitely do think she was trying to stir the pot up.  She obviously has a point with this excercise and I feel as though I have already begun with a sort of maturation.

Karen:  Thank you for the comment.  And although you have no "any good advice" to give to me, your comment has made me feel a lot better about myself!  I wrote this blog with the intentions to learn from the vCom commuity about their experiences with personal interpretations, but I also feel that there are a bunch of violinists out there with the same dillema as me.  So I am very glad that you found this worth reading!  I had doubts that I was just wasting my time writing this blog!       :)

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 7:01 PM

I'm not at your level at all but as far as I'm concerned with personal interpretation, I would say that your teacher had a weird attitude!  She gave you so much work. I do understand her idea but maybe she thinks you have just this to do?  I don't know if you study in music or not but it's very long and laborious to put fingerings and bowings on something.   In addition, I love to see a piece for the first time with my teacher even if I look awfully stupid while doing sight reading to avoid what you told: he or she undoes everything you took so much time to write and learn!  In general, you take a teacher that has more experience than yourself and that is competent so I always listen to my teacher for bowings and fingerings.  She has probably herself learned these bowings from her previous teachers and so on.  They have been tested many times.  Do never take an edition from a violinist that you don't trust either.   Yes, you can suggest things and if it is a logical choice, a good teacher will generally say yes. 

Another possible thing: an incompatibility between a teacher and a student.  Some teachers or students rely on "instinct" and personal experiences for fingerings, bowings, interpretation etc. They are more "free" to do anything.  Other teachers and students want something that is classical, typical, has been tested many times etc.  A student and teacher from an opposite type will not get along well.   Just as an example, If you are a fan of Russian violinists and a disciplined person, you would probably love to study with a typical russian teacher.  If you are more of a wild player, want a lot of freedom in bowings and fingerings and dance when you play, you will die with a russian teacher!

Another thing, I always think that you are free but have to remain faithful to the main ideas of the composer. As an example, if you want to play Mozart or worst, a Beethoven Romanze like one plays Schostakovich just to invent a new Mozart or Beethoven of your own, forget it!  Everyone would find it so weird and not a teacher, except a very stupid one could let his student do this!

As for copying player x, it's impossible. Maybe for a few bars but everyone is so different mentally and physically that it will never sound the same.  I'm a big fan of Oistrakh and he was so popular. He is often taken as the "modal" for x or x interpretation. Same thing with Heifetz.  I'm sure thousands of kids tried to copy or were advise to copy these two great masters. Do you seriously ever heard a player with the same, exactly the same sound as Heifetz and Oistrakh?  No, I never did!  There is always something that tells me that it is not them playing!  You can't hide long if you try to copy someone anyway! Sure you can find that you have a tendency to play certain things similar to x or x player but this is normal since we all play the same instrument and same pieces! You can think you have a great idea and someone else that you don't even know elswhere can happen to have a similar idea! 

very interesting blog!


From Bruce Berg
Posted on March 8, 2009 at 10:57 PM

A different approach to developing interpretation is to approach the music thinking about different technical elements which are used in creating musical effects. For instance, you could play through a passage thinking only about how you are varying your vibrato speed; then play through thinking only about dynamics and how you are using your bow to create them. Then perhaps think about bow distribution and how that will work to make the dynamics. Then, examine whether or not you are using the specific type of bow stroke that will make the passage most expressive. This list could go on and on. While thais approach may sound clinical and calculated, it is our technique or lack of which makes us sound expressive or not.

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 1:45 AM

Hi Patrick,

First, very good blog and thank you! Your teacher sounds a lot like mine: focusing on musicality, on fingerings and bowings to ensure they serve the music. I think this is an excellent sign of a good teacher.

Since I don’t have the technique to imitate Oistrakh or Heifetz, I have to focus on what works for me and this is how I deal with personal interpretation.  I would start with certain passage in a movement that speaks to me personally and loudly, let it be my ‘musical seedling’ to be worked from so it’ll grow.  What I mean by ‘speaks to me’ is that at some point of learning a specific piece, a clear and distinct notion would come to me saying that the passage must sound in a certain way, otherwise it means nothing to me.  How do I identify the certainty? For lack of better way of putting it, it has to come from the heart.  After listening, analyzing and practising, it always comes down to my heart, or the emotion that I would feel proper at the moment.   It is like after you’ve got to know someone for a period of time, you feel it’s right to open your heart to her and tell her something (that she is beautiful or that you like her, etc).  It doesn’t matter how many different ways other people could or have said this to her, but it is how you feel about it and how you intend it to sound that makes it distinctively yours.  You will be convincing if only you are convinced that this is what exactly you want to say it.  This is beyond intellect and analysis; this is not everything goes but there is no rules either. That’s the beauty of meaning.  Have fun!  ~ Yixi


From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 5:21 AM


although this is a deeply felt issue for all of us I don`t think it`s really that complicated.   I agree one hundred percent with Bruce`s comments.  In order to improve this kind of relntless analysis of every facet of one`sd playing i  would recommend spending a great deal of time reading and rereading Simon Fischer`s second book,  `Practice.`   This gives endles svaritons on how the factors such as vibrato vs bowing equal intenstiyt of expression and so forth.

But we also have to have a sense of how we want to use these things.  One can experiemnt a great deal but without an opinion of ones own it can be an exercis e in frustration.  This boils down to what is inside you. If you are a shallow person it will be shallow,  thoughtful it will be deeper and so on.   One must have some internal material to work with and it is not all about listenign to recordings.  Great literature and paintings can be a great resource,  espcially the latter.  The link between color and music can be a very profound stimulus for some people.   Assuming you are playing precisely what is on the page (that in itself constitutes an original interprtation when you consider the sloppiness/liberties so many players take)  then finding your voice may literally be a question of `finding your voice.`    As an old teacher of mine used to say- `If you want to know how to play soemthing ,  then sing it.`    I often feel we should take this a step further and actually take singing lessons.  For many people I think this would be a means of getting back in touch with our bodies and ourselves and stimulate our awarness of what we wish to express as a unique indivdual.

I also know from dozens of experiences with Alexander Technique both as client and observor that very often the way we misuse ourselves (assuming mind and body are the same thing) blocks the release of our indiduality and expressivness.  We then acquire certain tools which are at least technically expresisve and thes e serve us well for the rest of our lives although there is always a nagging feeling that we never really play with all the feeling and passion we are capable of.   The paradox of going through the experiebnce of reluinquishing the habitual patterns we feel are expressive is that we feel what we are doing is lacking in feeling.  This is because we are trying to create feelings within ourselves as we play which is a disaster. What one shoudl be trying to do is elicit the feelings in others.  That is one of the major errors of so many performers.  Do you really wnat to watch someone crying?

It`s for this reason I suggest that you might consider taking Alexander Lessons ;)   Its quite possible you have constructed an image of yourslef which you habitually use when you play that is not a reflection of your true nature or inner resources.   I know I have done this because when I am being worked on by an Alexander Teacher my sound makes a paradigm shift into a kind of playing that I had never previously associate d with myself.  Reaosn I wandered off on this tangent is you evaluated yourslef as an agressive and passionate player and actually wrote that here.  nothign wrong with that.  I am sure that is what you are but while meandering though this line of thought it occurs to me that your desire to be that very thing is actually taking away the abilty to allow those very attributes that really belong to you to come out.  Your focus is on end product and not on being who you are,  where you are at in the here and now.   Depending to such an extent is other recordings is also somewhat symptomatic of this.

Hope your not now as confused as I am.



From al ku
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 5:11 PM

patrick, first, disclaimer: i am just babbling. i have no idea about your situation and even if i do, you shouldn't be listening to me, hahaha.

just some basic observation...

classical musical people, to me, overall, live on the conservative side, on the subtle side.  that is, they strive for substance over glitter,   and when looking over a student,  the teachers tend to emphasize the process instead of the outcome.    whether you get there or not, it is mostly up to you and possibly secondary to them, but they want to show you the correct tools, the correct sequences and the correct way to think, and they want to confirm if the messages are delivered and received...

the teachers, looking at your great effort,  may challenge you and say: ok, can you break it apart and put it together again?  can you do it differently and show the reasoning this time?  in a way, the teachers may not be looking for a finite,  beautiful picture, but a functional, reliable fountain, one that bears some resemblance to the essence of their teaching, one that can continue to gush independently because the fundamentals are solid and in place.  

you people may have achieved a lot from years of hard work.  as much as the teachers appreciate your achievements up to now, in their eyes, you are at a different level (their vision is on how you look in 4 years) and something may be missing and need to be beefed up.  besides intonation, phrasing. etc, the basic stuff that everyone has paid attention to,  there may be deficiencies over lack of proper music exposure thus understanding,,,do you have the skills/perspectives to analyze a random score? how strong are they?  do you understand some scores deep enough to teach someone else since you have worked on them for years, or did you just go through the motion, more or less, patching holes and prettying them up? etc, etc, etc.  the difference between knowing something well and owning it,  something that is best learnt in the right environment which you are in.  and under the right pressure:)

you sound very enthusiastic and at the same time, flexible.  i think that is a great combo and i am sure you will get a lot out of your college experience, (as long as you do not try to apply that to frat binge parties:)

my kid is a little lazy parrot (i still adore her regardless:).  she has no idea and not much interest.  she needs to look up to you guys to start thinking!

From Yixi Zhang
Posted on March 9, 2009 at 6:10 PM

Very insightful observation, Al!

One thing just occurred to me: It’s always more helpful if the teacher specifically points out where one is doing that doesn’t work rather than just broadly suggesting a personal interpretation.  I’ve seen some technically very advanced students in master classes as well as in my teacher’s studio that they were so good at picking up all sorts of cool stuff quickly as soon as they hear them, but these little details, flashy as they may sound, don’t always add to the piece musically and might even cheapen the music. I’m not suggesting you are in this category but only mean to point out where the teachers can help the most: when these little copied (unfitting) interpretations are eliminated, what’s left is your good personal interpretation -- an idle thought.


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