Developing Our Encyclopedia of Sounds

June 30, 2019, 11:51 PM · We are creatures of habit, whether we like it or not. Violinists with one year of lessons and one hour a day of practice accumulate thousands of down bows and upbows, millions of whole steps, thousands of half-steps, and a few moments here and there in half position. Whether we know it or not, we have stored incredible amounts of sounds, dynamics, and colors in our minds for recognition and retrieval.

encyclopedia of sounds book

We have the power to make quick decisions as we change the direction of the bow. Will we listen to the prevailing sounds around us and match our bow’s weight and speed to the other musicians, or venture into indiscriminate accents and wayward dynamics?

Of course, few eight-year old children are conscious of this type of storage/retrieval taking place in their minds. That’s the problem with the mind: while it does most of the work of disseminating musical knowledge, it takes some fairly sophisticated conscious thought to get it organized and ready for performance. I remember a sixteen-year-old boy who studied with me a very short time, who couldn’t make anything fit on the violin. He had it all: raucous noise, out-of-tune intervals, tumultuous bow changes, etc. He kept saying “I know what I’m supposed to do,” and he did remember things other teachers had told him. However, he had a mental block against processing all that information into something more organic and musical. All of these things we do are supposed to fit with each other. That fitting and tailoring that we do with all the details we’re juggling is the beginning of the process of fitting with others.

Clarity and Simplicity – Not Sludge

All musical sounds, at least the kind that fit precisely within the jigsaw puzzle we call a symphony orchestra, are based on small kernels and increments. The beautiful tones we hear a great artist playing on the G string are mindful of the context they are part of. This musical world that tones reside in includes small degrees of tempo changes, alternative phrasing contours, dynamic changes, and slight volume changes dependent on whether the notes are prominent or accompanying.

Without limitations, the sounds we create can quickly exaggerate to the point of overtaking others. The most glaring example is the pianist/accompanist who’s barely aware of the violin soloist. The hard-edged phrasing of the pianist leaves no room for the violinist’s musical intent. I call it the Dali effect, and huge volume, massive articulation, and lots of indifference are the hallmarks. Like Salvador Dali’s misshapen grotesqueries, our sounds and phrases can bulge or shrink, and end up convulsing everything around it.

Finding Our Commonalities

The best musical education is listening to great performers and figuring out what they do right and comparing it to what we would have done in the same phrase. The end result is that we discard a bad habit, hear the artist take time in a place we wouldn’t have thought of, and get a taste of his or her thinking process. Finding the essence of a performer and his interpretation means much more than simply noticing what sets them apart; by noticing what the artists have in common, we can learn the most. Take Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Grumiaux, Heifetz with his sizzling rhythmic thrust and gorgeous, sweet sound:

...and Grumiaux with his noble, generous pulses that make room for his elegant, classical sound:

What they have in common is the patience to make sure each beat is complete and proportional. All of their transitions allow for ideas to dovetail from one to another.

Just Do It, No More, No Less

These skills of patiently playing within the beats are harder to learn than they would appear. The problem lies in allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the precise focus of Heifetz’s and Grumiaux’sl achievements. Music’s trappings include sensations and emotions that are perfect in their design and in their effect on us. The downsides of those benefits are our over-reactions to them. Heifetz’s precise velocity makes some of us rush, and Grumiaux’s warm, floating sound cause some to slow down. Instead, by understanding how their artistic ideas rest on a foundation of musically organic rules, those principles of common sense will gradually seep into our own playing.

Sound familiar? Our elementary school conductors told us over and over not to rush when we got louder. Those were wonderful words of advice, and their persistent voices did much to stem the tide of overdoing it. Unfortunately, music’s power to focus energy and feelings also unleashes rhythmic side-effects like a tidal wave.

The sounds of these two violinists are a gift to us, so that we can study their depth, their articulation, and how they change as phrases develop. It’s not enough to assume that perfection is born, not made. While that is partially true, it’s much more helpful to believe that Heifetz and Grumiaux worked and struggled to hear how music speaks to the performer and to the audience. By imagining their thought processes, we can become better at the most important job we have, which is to develop our own way of thinking and problem solving.


July 1, 2019 at 06:38 PM · Ponticello! Guitarists use it a lot, but violinists are afraid of it. Too different! But that doesn't dissuade Nigel Kennedy.

July 2, 2019 at 12:08 AM · Paul, what a wonderful example! I’ll listen for ponticello now.

July 2, 2019 at 02:41 AM · My memory tells me it was a recording of Kennedy performing live -- can't remember but it might have been Bach D Minor Giga or similar.

July 2, 2019 at 08:47 AM · Kennedy alternates normal / ponticello starting at around 3:50 in this recording of Kreisler's "Praeludium and Allegro":

July 2, 2019 at 03:58 PM · I am finally entering the waters of playing where I'm able to make more conscious choices about my sound production as it relates to musical ideas. It is fantastic, and quite motivating. Took a while to get here, and I still have a long ways to go, but I'm really excited about this new place.

July 2, 2019 at 07:21 PM · Speaking of Praeludium and Allegro, I consider the switching back and forth between open and fingered E to be one of the most striking contrasts in the piece, regardless of who's playing it.

July 3, 2019 at 12:17 AM · Pamela, It’s nice to be in a place where you can both accept and enjoy your sound, while adapting it spontaneously to the musicians around you. It’s better to do it yourself before someone sternly tells you to quiet down. Wind and brass players have a very good sense of balance. They can play multiple shades of dynamics, always knowing their relative prominence in the phrase. It’s never easy to alter the course of your playing, but you get better at it! Just as great composers have to think how their next phrase will help the music evolve, so we need to think what changes have to be made in our sound and dynamics.

July 3, 2019 at 12:56 PM · Yeah it might have been the P&A that I was thinking of. Bach ... Kreisler ... fast 16th notes. It's all the same. LOL

July 5, 2019 at 08:26 PM · Thank you for another thoughtful article. The following two sentences you wrote are both inspirational and aspirational: "What [these artists] have in common is the patience to make sure each beat is complete and proportional. All of their transitions allow for ideas to dovetail from one to another." Beautifully put and, oh, so true.

July 6, 2019 at 05:21 AM · Thank you, Diana. A beautiful phrase well laid out is the essence of time taken and time pushed forward. One of my favorite recordings is a young man playing hymns on his violin. The soulful, simple timbres of his phrasing reflect nature. Each note has its moment.

July 6, 2019 at 04:08 PM · Paul, Charlie, and Stephen, Thank you for sharing your interest in Nigel Kennedy and Praeludium and Allegro. Ivry Gitlis packs more nuance and change into every phrase than practically anyone else, and it invariable elicits a smile from us. I am amazed by how Anne Sophie Mutter and Vilde Frang bend phrases to their will and make it look easy. Vilde studied with Anne Sophie. I wish these lessons were available on YouTube.

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