Expressiveness 101

April 12, 2008 at 12:49 AM · I am an adult beginner of 2 and a half years, just finishing Suzuki book 3. I am working on Humoresque and shifting (yea!)for some of the passages into 3rd position. A parent who heard my solo (in our group class) was very complementary but suggested that I just needed a little more expressiveness to make it better. ( I am just trying to remember the bowings, keep the bow straight, keep the tone solid, play the notes in tune, trying to not get nervous and get the shaky-bow, etc.) In my mind, I am nicely expressive for my level, so I took it with a grain of salt, knowing that she was being very encouraging and not critical. However, since my private lesson is not until next week (and I can query my teacher about this), I am wondering: what tools can a beginner/intermediate player use to become more aware of expressiveness? Do I vizualize a scene or color for each section? (That would work with Humoresque...) Do I hold some notes just a bit longer, or give them more accents? Work on my vibrato exercises? (I am guessing that's a yes...) What do you think of when you are trying to make your music sound more expressive? How do you put the emotion into the music more deeply as a relative beginner with limited skills?

Replies (20)

April 12, 2008 at 02:20 AM · I'm a beginner myself (much shorter than you), just 3 months. I do have some piano experience, that may help you. What I do is try to feel the music, the most basic is to really use dynamics. Boy, this is hard to describe. I also like to visualize a picture for a particular piece. I can't play spring on the violin, but when I'm playing the piano part, I would imagine myself running freely in a big open garden, a very sweet scene.. I don't know if this helps at all...

April 12, 2008 at 03:06 AM · Expressiveness is the ability to take music beyond the mechanical and technical, from a listener's point of view.

A few ways you can accomplish this affect from a technical perspective is use of dynamics (make p VERY p and F very F, vibrato at least on "important" notes, smoothe shifts and appropriate use of accents in the bowing. Some "technical" interpretation can also be applied such as a glissando type of a shift (dragging the shifting finger up to the final note so that you hear the shift), or additions of grace notes or ornaments (this really depends on the piece you are playing). Solid bowing techniques also help alot.

From a non-technical perspective, some things to consider are "stage presence" (fluid not static movement, facial expressions that aren't the "tounge sticking out of the mouth thinking hard" types, etc...), presenting an ease of playing (it should appear "easy" to a listener, not strained).

As far as emoting is concerned, I relate different pieces to a story. Is it sad, happy, skipping, dance-like? However, as a beginner, I wouldn't overly worry on this aspect. However, relating a piece of music to a basic emotion helps alot.

April 12, 2008 at 05:25 PM · Good advices above. Technique is the key to achieve what you want to achieve. You may find the following threads interesting:

Stern’s advice is also very effective: always sing the piece as musically as you can first. This gives you an idea how you want this song to sound and try then transfer these musical ideas to your violin.

April 12, 2008 at 07:02 AM · Greetings,

yes the bottom line is singing. But it also goe shand in hand with a few technical exericses . A very good one is to play a passage only on what is called soundpoint 5 , the point on the stirng nearest the fingerboard. Do this a few times until you you have the best possible sound . Now move into lane four, one step clioser to the bridge and repeat a few times. Notice that you need to paly just a little slower perhaps or more bow weight if you are keeping bow speed the same etc. Experiment. Move to lane three and repeat. Then lane wo. Right next to the bridge in lane one the bow will have to move really slowly and the tempo will be really to produce a good sound. Nowplay the passa eas normal.

Another idea is to work in microcosm. That is take a short, musicla fragment and imagine how it would sound played by the greatest violinist in the world in a concert hall. ow -perform - that fragment. I mean really perform it as though you were Milstein in the Carnegie Hall. Do it again and again till you are sure \those four notes are the most briloant solo of all time. Then do another chunk in the same way and os on.



April 12, 2008 at 06:35 PM · Maybe the parent was just talking about fluidity, which simply takes many, many perfect repetitions. Your repetitions need to include any dynamics, articulations, etc., every single time, exactly the way you want them. You don't put emotion into the music, you put notes, articulations, dynamics, tone, etc., etc. Emotion is -- maybe -- what you get out of it, if you get it right and it all comes together with some ease and grace.

April 12, 2008 at 06:59 PM · Book 3 isn't a beginner :) You could try giving a little more attention (I know, I know, it's all being used) to starting and especially ending phrases. Read a sentence out loud to yourself completely flatly, then read it again to get your point across, and notice that there is a natural high point and then a falling-away at the conclusion. Many musical phrases work like that, too. Sue

April 12, 2008 at 08:16 PM · I could try to explain what I want to say, but you'd better just read this book:

Casals and the Art of Interpretation

by David Blum

I totally recommend it to anyone! I know Casals was a cellist and all that, but he was a musician, and all the chapters in this book focus on what Casals believed made music.

April 14, 2008 at 01:27 AM · Thank you all (and Sue, big thanks for formally graduating me to non-beginner land...yea!). There are so many good bits of advice, and I know my teacher will applaud Buri's suggestion of taking it little bits at a time. (and SLOW DOWN...she tells me! I have hot-shot kids who can play fast and in tune and not think about it at all! I just cannot do that!) I think it's interesting to "be" somebody else when I play; I play much differently when I am a being famous violinist and not "me." It does take some focus on the present to lose the self-consciousness, but I keep trying. I do need to pay attention to facial expressions...I notice that top notch players really lose themselves in the piece, and don't show stressful tension. Anyhow, my recital is in May, and I get to play in front of about 100 people in a nice hall with a great accompianist, and I am terrified and excited at the same time (what's the worst that will happen? nothing! I'll probably be playing after a cute little 1st grader who won't be nervous at all!) I just want to do my very best,because this feels like the first "real" piece I have played in a recital. Anyhow, thanks everyone for your advice! Erica

April 14, 2008 at 04:11 AM · Greetings,

Erica, if this is your first real recital then you might find it helpful to do the following:

1) Play your piec eover and over to every single person you have met in the last ten years.

2) Make sure you have been in the venue and stood on the stage. There is nothing worse than going out into an unfamiliar hall. It makes a huge differnece to avoid this shock.



April 14, 2008 at 09:21 AM · Can I suggest not trying to get overly expressive, especially if this is the first real recital. Practise thinking about how you'll make a strong sound even though the bow will be aching to jump into the stratosphere.

In my own case, my teacher is aiming for me to achieve a consistently strong sound, since I spent the best part of a two years terrified that I would sound crappy and so therefor pretty much did. In my recent recital piece which was all 4 movements of Handel V, I went off to practise thinking I had to get more soft/loud contrast between movements and so was really struggling - it sounded uneven and weak. Teacher advice - keep the sound strong, later we'll shape it, but first you've got to get it.

So even though I did a bit of work in performing with a bit more on one soundpoint or another, my focus was to get good sound all the way through, and that made the performance so much better than it would have been if I was trying to be too expressive.

April 14, 2008 at 09:37 AM · Oh and I agree with every one else's advice too, of course.

Especially what Sue said about finishing phrases. thinking about the words that made up the sentences that make up the paragraph, and making sure the rests go in the right place - that is something that can be considered and attempted by any level of player and it makes the listening experience so much more pleasing.

April 14, 2008 at 04:53 PM · There are a number of 'master class sessions' available as video's on the Internet. Search your favorite for examples from Perlman, and excellent set from Jorge Bolet (piano). You'll get an idea of the kind of thought that goes into an 'interpretation'.

When I reached a point of fair competence in my teens, my teacher instructed me to take a few minutes at the end of a practice session and 'play without concern for the techniques, but on your own style and sense of the music'.

Watch the video of Perlman playing Klezmer music. See how much fun he's having just letting things happen.

Your point about focusing on the elementary technical issues is quite key, in my opinion. It is a pre-requisite that these things become more familiar (one might say automatic), so that you can refocus on expression. At the elementary stages, tempo, dynamics and perhaps general phrase grouping is about as much as you should focus upon until a particular piece is quite familiar to you. My point is that expressive interpretation is a separate study, independent of the basics, and you don't want to spread your concentration too thin.

The observation that you should introduce more expressiveness may be correct, but that doesn't necessarily translate into "right now on that particular piece". This works into a more unified study as you gain confidence in the basics.

April 14, 2008 at 07:38 PM · Just keep loving your music. Listen and love it. OH, and some big applause coming to you from my direction for performing. It's not easy, and it sounds like you did a great job. You played some beautiful music, and that is a good thing to do.

April 15, 2008 at 01:46 AM · Group lesson today with practice solo again...played a little thin (too close to bridge at first...noted it and stopped it...) and then, I am pleased to report: YES! I stayed in the moment and played it the way I heard it in my head. I think I just DECIDED to play the piece instead of worrying about it! I even played so the pianist waited for me instead of rushing her like I often do! It was also my best effort in intonation-land. My teacher's suggestion was now to soften the opening section with a lighter sound (we discussed a specific bow stroke to use), and then give more contrast with a stronger bow on the other sections. I appreciate everyone's input...I have been reading on this site for some time, but this was my first post, and it's just wonderful to hear all the responses! I have about a month until the recital so I'll have plenty of time to play in the hall (it'a a great recital hall with steep seats and the sound is great...FUN!)

May 18, 2008 at 12:54 AM · Mission accomplished! Played my piece in the recital, good intonation, stayed in the moment, and thankfully my hands did not shake. (My legs shook like jello, but I ignored them.) I even remembered to take bow, and smile! Time for a nap. E.

May 18, 2008 at 05:50 PM · Wow.

May 19, 2008 at 06:33 AM · Congrats, Erica on a great recital!

May 20, 2008 at 02:40 AM · Congratulations Erica!!

May 20, 2008 at 01:43 PM · Congratulations, Erica. What a great series of comments you've gotten here. Sounds like they were really helpful.

For future reference, I'd just echo one idea, and that is to listen to recordings of several different violinists, and listen ONLY for they ways in which they are expressive. I think you'll find that all of the great ones are, but in different ways that are unique to each one.

The idea is not to copy them, but to be inspired to find your own voice by listening to the voices of others.

And I wouldn't do this by watching videos. The visual can be a distraction. It's all in the sound; focus on the sound.


May 21, 2008 at 01:05 PM · Thanks videos for learning. My teacher gave me some really great advise also, and that was (when learning a new piece) to pause before each phrase, and take time to play each phrase cleanly. Then I can string them together. They are like beads on a necklace I guess! I listen to a lot of wonderful recordings (I really like Arthur Grumiaux...just beautiful and elegant).

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