Ear's the Thing - Lessons from Robert Mann's Inspired Playing

January 12, 2018, 10:44 AM · Some of the best violin lessons can be found for free on Amazon Prime. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw Speak the Music, the documentary about Robert Mann, being offered along side the usual comedy and action films. He was the founding violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, a position he held for over 50 years. Mann died on New Year's Day, at the age of 97.

Watching Mann play when he was older, I think in his mid-70’s, I noticed an unconventional bow hold in which his knuckles were raised quite high and the fingers would squeeze together. His hand looked cramped, and very different from the Franco-Belgian bow hold he usually assumed. His naturally spaced fingers, normally relaxed and flexible, became transformed into what looked like a claw, and yet were still perfectly functional.

Even though his early videos, when he was in his 40’s, showed a more perfect-looking bow hold, I thought that how he looked was less relevant than how he balanced his thoughts and observations. His musical foundation guided his playing from on high.

Robert Mann
Robert Mann.

What is this thing we call by many names: talent, ear, natural ability, musical instinct?

As I absorbed Mann’s essence in this marvelous film, I was thinking about things that weren’t visible to the eye. What rose above the hand’s inevitable cramping and other earthly concerns were his amazing ear and musical lifeblood, this vital and life-giving force. How can we harness this source, which guides our hands and controls our rhythm? How can we develop that which guides our finger to the right pitch, even when our wrist is cramped and crooked?

When Mann reflected on his musical inspirations as a boy, he shared a remarkable insight. "What was musical inside of me was not known to my consciousness." Each of us has this musical force that defines us and casts its DNA on the technical exercises we practice every day.

Perhaps the most important thing to develop is our musical foundation. If we don’t, the cracks will forever seek dominance.

How the Ear Paves the Way

When I think of someone having a good ear, it means more than just playing in tune. It includes:

  1. Rhythm which takes into account other people playing. There’s nothing wrong with performing in a grand manner, but if it becomes a mannerism, you’ll have trouble fitting into a group.
  2. Matching the general sound of those around you. While our reflexes are fast when it comes to moving the bow on the strings, we need a "manager" in our head that precedes every part of the phrase. Otherwise, those fast reflexes, which generally serve us so well, become too fast. We should develop the part of our thinking that notices the shape of the music and the general energy level before moving the bow. That’s the logical thing to do.
  3. Knowing what the fabric of the sound should feel like. The general way tone production is described lends itself to bad habits. For instance, just saying that the index finger should apply pressure for more sound will often induce scratching and tension. It’s not the fault of the words. It’s how the student interprets them. If he or she has a more developed ear, the resulting sound will be velvety and smooth.

Start With How We Hear the Printed Page

Opening up our creative reservoir is sometimes as simple as hearing something that is obvious, but has never been stated. Twenty-five years ago I ran across a word which alerted me to a skill that I had never developed. "Audiation" describes the ability to look at printed music and hear it my head, even before I play it. Coined by Edwin Gordon in 1975, he suggested that "audiation is to music as thought is to language."

Why this was such a breakthrough sheds light on the connection we make between our ears and our actual playing. When you’re young, it's easy to overlook that there’s a disconnect between the two things. But here’s the thing: just paying attention to the purity of the ear makes it easier to directly connect to the playing. Musical biofeedback describes the process we aspire to, in which many of the pitfalls of playing can be avoided when the ear provides a safe harbor and a reliable source to follow.

Shifting Paradigms

When you talk to poker or bridge players, they’ll refer to some of their more talented colleagues as having good "card sense." This is a catch-all phrase which describes having a sharp mind, figuring out probabilities and a good memory for knowing which cards have been played.

It’s interesting how we reduce complex abilities of the brain by describing them with simple sayings. If the words over-simplify, like describing spiccato as just waving your wrist, then it will impede progress. However, if a new insight penetrates the status quo, then better results will be obvious. When it comes to streamlining the bow arm and its many duties, or creating a long phrase with forethought, we look for new parts of ourselves that we didn’t know existed.

Robert Mann held a position in the musical world that will forever be a source of inspiration. He could set a template for the rest of the Juilliard Quartet in which each person was able to express the music fully and expand the depth of sound and phrasing. What Mann heard inside, he could verbalize, share and perform. Most of us can do one, maybe two, but not all three. But every day, we have the ability and the potential to experience them all.

You might also like:


January 13, 2018 at 03:09 PM · What a very interesting article, as someone who is multi instumental , " though master of none " i hasten to add , i play by ear , years ago my violin tutor told me , my ear was priceless , which came as a big surprise to me , as i thought everyone had this natural ability , later in life , " iam now 74 yrs old , i decided " there are no rules in music , my hero is stefan grappelli, i play , blues &jazz on violin , wave by bow furiously , and if it feels right , "i do it "! .

January 13, 2018 at 03:50 PM · Thank you for highlighting this film. I really enjoyed it. It seems clear to me that Mann had some arthritis in later life and that was why he (1) held the bow differently and (2) used a violin with fine tuners on the tailpiece. His masterclass observations and critiques seemed harsh to my wife, but I cannot think of any other way to promulgate enlightened chamber music performance. And his enthusiasm when some young people got it right - that was wonderful.

January 13, 2018 at 04:16 PM · Thank you, Paul Stein, for another article that nourishes my own Spirit of the Music.

You opened with a key question:

"What rose above the hand’s inevitable cramping and other earthly concerns were his amazing ear and musical lifeblood, this vital and life-giving force. How can we harness this source, which guides our hands and controls our rhythm? How can we develop that which guides our finger to the right pitch, even when our wrist is cramped and crooked?"

My own wrists and hands are not (yet) cramped and crooked and arthritic, but it is likely a good teacher will suggest changes in my self-taught technique. And yet I already experience just a little of the answer that the rest of your article describes.

Trying to learn a Handel or Corelli sonata, sometimes (not always) as I climb into higher positions I find my fingers go to the right places on the 3 lower strings when consciously I have only had "time" to calculate finger position on the E string (the highest note in the phrase, the reason I had to climb the fingerboard). After playing the passage, sometimes I'll stop and take it apart to check my work and find that sometimes my fingers were indeed right! WOW!! Because actually checking it takes me some time calculating where the finger position should be and verifying it by sounding the same note in first position where I am already confident. It reminds me of a concept I first read in a book called "Philosophy in the Flesh," in which the authors assert that most cognition is not conscious. Pretty close to what you quote Mann as saying about "what was musical inside of me."

The "good ear" you describe --which expands into sensing the rhythm and "energy level" and "fabric of the sound" in your own playing and how it matches that of the other players in your ensemble-- also describes why playing music is a form of meditation and can have such spiritual healing power. By clearing the mind of all thoughts (distractions) and ego, and focusing all energy on becoming one with the sound as heard and created simultaneously, it's not just the fingers that start to find their rightful place but also the whole soul.

January 13, 2018 at 06:27 PM · Another great article! And the film was wonderful! (I previously tried to purchase it and it's quite expensive. Thanks to you, I found it on Amazon Prime!) Most of us do think that "having a good ear" is equal to "playing in tune." Thanks for illustrating that it is so much more than that! And your point about the "fabric of the sound" was particularly relevant. I think we all aspire to tone that is "velvety and smooth"!

January 14, 2018 at 12:44 AM · Will, you really hit the nail on the head when you wrote about being at one with the sound as heard and created simultaneously. There is nothing more organic than when two parts of yourself work together in sync. I think it takes a lot of skill to do this. While using and trusting your ear sounds easy, it's more complicated than it seems.

And congratulations on your fingers going to the right places as they jump to 3rd position. You must have done your homework on the subject of measuring the fingerboard. Maybe you don't have to check your results anymore. (That's what the ear's for!!) The proof is in the pudding. If it sounds in tune and feels in tune, it's in tune!!

January 14, 2018 at 06:38 AM · 76-99, I appreciate your reference to sound quality. There are so many ways to get a sound that is velvety and smooth. Both Itzhak Perlman and Gideon Kremer get it, but in radically different ways. Just because Kremer doesn't wear his heart on his sleeve like Perlman, he still gets every possible nuance. We learn in music how to turn our technique into emotional dividends.

January 14, 2018 at 04:53 PM · 81-126, I respect your confidence built on many years of experience. You put into words very well the idea of not letting restrictions and doubts weigh you down. When you say "I do it" , "wave my bow furiously", and "there are no rules in music", you're illustrating three good components of talent-

1. confidence and lack of self-consciousness

2. Lead the with the bow, and with a powerful bow

3. Someone else's rule will only work on specific occasions. Make up your own rules instead. Let other people know what works for you. You may have thought of a universal truth.

January 15, 2018 at 12:15 AM · Andrew, I had mentioned Robert Mann's bow arm as seen in parts of the documentary "Speak the Music". It looked like the hand was rising up substantially around the knuckles. I pointed that out to demonstrate that talent will make more important elements rise to the occasion. Phrasing, dynamics, etc are certainly more important than the bow hold. My own hand has often felt the knuckles and fingers constrict and cramp a little,sometimes a lot.

I'm bringing this up again because you suggested that Mann had arthritis. That had occurred to me, and I would appreciate if someone who knew him could shed light on that.

January 15, 2018 at 07:52 PM · The comment about Mann not knowing "what was musical" inside him until later in life was so interesting. I'm wondering if you find, as a teacher, that you can tell what your younger students may have inside them in terms of an "ear for music" and how early you can detect it.

January 16, 2018 at 06:52 AM · 76-99, You bring up one of the most interesting aspects of teaching, the discovery of little talents that grow into big talents.A child may develop a beautiful vibrato early on, and it may even blend well with the bow sound. If the teacher gives the proper encouragement, it will grow beyond just the talent phase, and become fully embedded in the playing.

January 16, 2018 at 04:39 PM · This discussion of whether Mann had arthritis has taken a few twists and turns. I think it's safe to assume that there is no foundation for it. After doing a little research, I observed a video of him leading the quartet when he was 60. His bow hold looked cramped, but he played beautifully. He wouldn't have been able to play so well, or at all, if he had arthritis. He continued playing with the quartet until he was 76. When he was urged to retire because of intonation issues, he joked that he'd always had trouble with intonation.

January 18, 2018 at 03:47 PM · Re: Paul Stein's Tribute to the now late Robert Mann ~

It was wonderful of Paul Stein to honour the now late Robert Mann, a great musician & Founder /Leader of the Juilliard String Quartet, upon his passing and along with so many other's, I wish to thank him for this loving article ~

At another time, I would like to address the subject (a huge one!) of Paul Stein's words re 'the way he looked ...', in another discussion about the Bow and its vital role in attaining great violin playing and, in turn, musical insights/ colour, scent of perfume & abilities to play all 4 strings with smooth beauty and elegance of sound as passed on to me by my mentor, Nathan Milstein, of over 3 & 1/2 years study, privately, at his Chester Square home in London.

In a word at a more appropriate time, I would like to shed some thoughts on a statement of Mr. Stein re Robert Mann's bowing, "Even early videos in his 40's, although showing a more perfect-looking bow hold, I thought that 'how he looked was less relevant' to how he balanced his thoughts and observations ..." It is in this regard that as the first private concert artist-pupil of Nathan Milstein - the acknowledged Master of Bowing and possibly only peer of Jascha Heifetz, I would like to share Milstein's ideas & a perspective on bowing gained only through my years of intense private study with Mr. Milstein, vis a vie those six words regarding 'how he looked was less relevant' ... "

Presently, the Tribute to Robert Mann has center stage as is certainly deserved, & along with countless other's, offer golden compliments & gratitude to Paul Stein for a splendid Salute to a "Force in Music" - that of the late & unique Violinist, Robert Mann ~ May he rest in Peace in God's Musical Garden ...

Respectfully with sympathies to the Family of Robert Mann ~

Elisabeth Matesky

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra
Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Anne Cole Violin Maker
Anne Cole Violin Maker

Violinist.com Shopping Guide
Violinist.com Shopping Guide

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop



Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine