What is your opinion on this change?

January 2, 2009 at 05:52 AM ·

When I compare videos of the old master to today's bright stars, one thing is becoming more and more obvious to my eyes: the role of movement, expressive movement, while playing. The legends of the past, Heifetz, Oistrakh, Horowitz, Rubinstein, etc. share something common between themselves that is different than what Bell, Vengerov, Lang-Lang share between them. That is the role of expressive movement. Artur Rubinstein and maybe Jascha Heifetz probably best exemplify the contrast I'm trying to point out between how players today play. Then there are lesser extremes of this such as in Milstein and Menuhin compared to Hahn and Fischer, but I still see quite opposite countenances between the two generations

Did I miss the declaration of the official movement liberation? When was it? What was the cause? I'd like you to share your opinions and experiences

Replies (26)

January 2, 2009 at 08:27 AM ·

You present a question that has been considered here before, and is well presented by examples in your post. I believe it is often a question of personal preference in performance as to the amount of bodily movement is used by any particular artist. Movement can convey an extra "message" to the music, which, in all logically and physical sense, the playing should convey alone. Certain necessary movement is required, but should be avoided to the point of ostination.

I always believe that hearing the artist is more important than seeing the artist. When one hears a recording, one really does not know how much movement is going on. Since the advent of motion pictures (and particularly, Hollywood), the image of the violinist has always been one of flourishes and rolling eyes, sometimes to the point of comedy. They were also told to smile for the camera....and it shows.  I am of an opinion that much of the physical movement done by many early performers was purely theatrical and considered tasteful for the time. It was pure unadulterated marketing at it's best. Violinists were considered "ladykillers". It is considered artistic is some schools of playing and bad taste in others, respectively. One looks back and sees the necessity of such showmanship today, and we enjoy it as history. 

The Baroque and Early Classical players would have thought it very distasteful, and even obscene. Paganini was the pioneer of the "musical showman" and was known well for the manner in which he could convey passion, anger, tenderness and other emotions with his cadaverous physical appearance and countanance. It was possibly these qualities, and not necessarly his playing, whom some say was not that pleasing to hear at times, that secured his fame. His reputation played a big part in his commercial success as well, and artists after him, even today in all styles of music, carry on this tradition. People enjoy visuals.


January 2, 2009 at 10:15 AM ·

Ok...just to be clear, we're talking about the masters of the past moving LESS than the masters of today?  Because Hahn and Fischer don't move much...Rubenstein and Heifetz don't move at all really. 

Well, anyway.  I think a lot of the movement of the past was very practical compared to now.  Watching Milstein he seems to raise the violin when he has mad stuff on the lower strings (though he holds the violin pretty low and loosly, always blows me away) and also if there's a very expressive passage.  It looks to me like Menuhin does some of this as well.   Kogan seems to change the angle of his violin to make strong attacks easier on all the strings.  Oistrakh and Rubinstein...I think they shake their heads like that to show off how relaxed they are.  Part of this I think is probably made necessary and possible due to the lack of shoulder rests and part probably was due to the expectations of the time. 

Now most of the movement seems to be from the legs or the waist.  Midori bends and pivots at the waist quite a lot in the live performances I've seen her in and I saw Renaud Capuçon bend over almost backwards at a live performance once (scared me really).  Hillary Hahn sways a little sometimes but I think the greatest swayer I've ever seen is Joshua Bell.  He was leading an orchestra without a conductor and he not only swayed but also was bouncing up and down about twice in each phrase (he moved less in the recital I saw him in so some of this was probably an attempt to lead that many people).  The last category of movement that doesn't apply to violinists would be the young Yo-yo Ma/Lang Lang style throwing the head back while sweating (does the sweat get in their eyes?).  I don't even think Ma does this anymore actually because I've only ever seen it in a video of when he was much younger (I think it was the dvorak concerto...). 

This I definitely think is some weird fad now where musicians think it's expressive to move that way.  I know when I was younger....certain teachers at workshops and camps I went to told me to sway left with the up bow and right with the down bow (what does that accomplish?) so clearly it's entrenched itselves into the minds of many musicians.  Personally I think it's insulting to trained dancers to think that that sort of movement is expressive but if that's what is needed to sell to the general public I hope that the soloists will go on doing it! 

Of course if a movement is actually a result of a musician's passion (I feel like this may be the case with many of Midori's movements) that is cool, but I get a strong feeling of showmanship from many modern soloists. 

January 2, 2009 at 02:07 PM ·

I've said this before when this topic came up, but here it is again, so I'll say it again. I may be just a lowly amateur, but I am an avid listener (and I probably belong more in the audience than on the stage).

Certainly, there are some minor gestures and movements that are reflexive, but in general I like the Heifetz approach. I don't like expressive movements and grimaces, even if they're genuine, spontaneous, and heartfelt. To me, they're a distraction from the music. And, in addition, if a violinist is going to spend so much energy and movement emoting, I can't see how it can help their control over their violin playing.

If I want to see people emote and not pay so much attention to the music itself, I'll go see the performers jumping around with all that phony emoting at a rock concert. In fact, it would take my mind off of the rock music (which is fine with me). Or I'll go see a movie, where actors are paid to emote.

Happy New Year,

January 2, 2009 at 03:14 PM ·

Just to clarify, I know movement among today's players and even among performers here has been addressed several times, but I want to specifically look at the differences between the two generations we've had in the 20th century, which I don't think has ever been addressed by itself. Thanks for your responses so far

January 2, 2009 at 03:26 PM ·

Hi, Christopher: I'm not sure it's a "generation" thing. Remember, the way most people viewed a violinist in the past was from the 10th row back in an auditorium (where you can't really see the subtelties of movement and facial expression) or just heard them on recordings. With the advent of video tapes, DVDs, and internet, we can see every little muscle movement. Maybe many of the violinists of the past weren't as stock still as you think. Ysaye, for example, was supposedly a real visual "ham" on the stage (especially when he wasn't playing well). And, as has been pointed out, there are many contemporary violinists who follow the Heifetz et.al. model and don't move that much.
Happy New Year.

January 2, 2009 at 04:41 PM ·

For me, seeing movement which is extraneous to the playing is a real turn off.   It conveys a phony attempt at compensating for lack of expression in the playing and/or a struggle with the instrument. Neither of these is a good thing!  It's an unfortunate fad that will, many hope, die out soon.


When Joseph Galamba writes: "I know when I was younger....certain teachers at workshops and camps I went to told me to sway left with the up bow and right with the down bow (what does that accomplish?) so clearly it's entrenched itselves into the minds of many musicians."  I think it is a matter of degree---Heifetz moves more than anybody else in the sense that movements, such as Mr. Galamba describes, are free to move on Heifetz........but they are small.  They are not the phony or struggling movements, but neither is he rigid--quite the opposite.  In conclusion, I believe that we want to distinguish, not between two kinds of movement (rigidly still & excessive), but amongst three kinds: 

1. Rigid, unresponsive, no recoil.--No.

2. Large, phony and struggling. - No.

3. Beautifully coordinated, free of stiffness, free of phony stage gestures. - The ideal, as exemplified by JH!

January 2, 2009 at 04:48 PM ·


Nobody else here practices the violin in front of a mirror, imitating Elvis? :-)

January 2, 2009 at 05:05 PM ·

Elvis?  No.

Hendrix?  Yes.  Particularly the behind the head thing or, on really bad days, the violin immolation technique. :)


January 2, 2009 at 05:16 PM ·

Hendrix totally.  But playing double stop harmonics with your teeth is nearly impossible.

January 2, 2009 at 05:18 PM ·

But Elvis made a fortune doing that.

January 2, 2009 at 05:29 PM ·

I especially like their renditions -
(Presley) Jailhouse Bach
(Hendrix) The Narc Ascending

January 2, 2009 at 05:38 PM ·

A little moonwalking, and an occasional "wardrobe malfunction" could do wonders for attendance.  ;-)

Speaking of Hendrix, how about smashing the violin to pieces on stage after the performance, or lighting it on fire? 

Isn't Paganini reputed to have cut the upper strings during a performance to add to the drama?

January 2, 2009 at 06:15 PM ·

"violin immolation technique" = fancypants technical term for "lighting it on fire" ;)

As for wardrobe malfunctions, I think it might work better for some than others. :)


January 2, 2009 at 06:35 PM ·

"Reflex." Good word! \

I know that I seem to have certain nerve links that cause certain muscles in my face to link to certain actions of my hands. Therefore, when I play, there are certain efforts of my hands that cause me to move some facial muscles. I've noticed that Itzhak Perlman makes certain facial distortions when he plays certain kinds of things, but he seems to cover them with an effort that may include clenching his teeth or a forced smile (how can I know for sure?).

Then there are the larger body motions that I make - a sort of flourish with my bow arm at the end of certain kinds or phrases (a sort of follow-through, like a golf shot).

Then, there are the things I have learned I have to do to avoid negative nerve/muscle reactions to certain kinds of technical things, for example - I get a nerve tightness in my neck (when playing cello) if I have certain kinds of up-bow ricochette passages - so I have to make certain extra motions at the endx of thed passage to avoid the accumulated effects of doing it multiple times in a particular piece (like the Rondo of the Boccherini C-major quintet, 1st cello part - or the cello solo based thereon).

I only bring up all these personal idiosyncrasies because I suspect that many of the idiosyncratic motions we see in famous virtuosos may have similar bases. I know that if I try to submerge my strangeness, it takes an effort that detracts from my concentration on the music.

Clayton Haslop, who studied with Milstein for 3 years describes some of those motions as part of the process of playing without a shoulder rest or undue chin/jaw pressure. Certainly being able to move the fiddle around when you are playing it can be a real advantage.

Thus, I think only with input from those players, would we really know what is going on.



January 2, 2009 at 07:00 PM ·

Joseph, it accomplishes the illusion that you have an endless amount of bow -- particularly if you have trouble reaching the tip as I do.  I wouldn't expect it to work for everyone, though.

January 2, 2009 at 10:57 PM ·

Regarding Jascha Heifetz's stage demeanor, I have always thought that he was such a perfectionist in everything he did, that he gave so much attention to every detail of his interpretations, that he must have planned out and meticulously practiced his stage demeanor as well. And to the extent that this is true, he undoubtedly geared his stage presence to his vision of the highest level of professionalism. And I think that this includes an avoidance of theatrical sentimentality for its own sake.

You can see in the closeup videos of him that in his facial expressions and body movements that there are moments when he is feeling something inside and that he's about to break out in a facial expression, but he suppresses it. I believe he's a great model for how to perform a musical instrument and have the focus on the music. Well done, Jascha.


January 2, 2009 at 09:51 PM ·

 I prefer a quiet demeanor. Movement that is integral to one's technique is fine but swaying, throwing one's head, bending the knees or hips are all vulgar and tasteless gestures.


It disturbed me recently to watch a performance of the Berlin Phil. Everyone was leaning and swaying to their own muse. The oboist looked like a snake charmer. We all know that the snake responds to the movements not to the music. Are we snakes that they are trying to hypnotize?

January 2, 2009 at 10:05 PM ·

I believe that the accepted norms of behavior for concert artists are very much a generational phenomenon. Heifetz, Horowitz and Toscanini set the style for their generation and the one that followed. Their guiding principle was a rejection of the romantic excesses of the previous generation. If we look back still further to the great artists of the nineteenth Century the norms of musical performance were very different and so were the norms of behavior during performance. If we read the descriptions of performances by Liszt, Paganini, Von Bulow, Wagner, Anton Rubinstein, we read of a physical demonstrativeness and theatricality far exceeding the norms of today. Is there a clear right and wrong? Or is it just the style of the moment?

January 3, 2009 at 04:00 PM ·

Roy Sonne asks: "Is there a clear right and wrong? Or is it just the style of the moment?"

Of course there is a clear right and wrong!! - Honesty is right and phoniness is wrong.  Graceful is right and struggling is wrong.  In the presence of great music, dignity is right and an undignified and disrespectful atmosphere is wrong. 

Roy Sonne writes: "If we read the descriptions of performances by Liszt, Paganini, Von Bulow, Wagner, Anton Rubinstein, we read of a physical demonstrativeness and theatricality far exceeding the norms of today."

Just as a person of moral values lives not according to some norm, but rather according to what he believes is right behavior, so we, who have musical values, should live according to what we believe is right behavior.  Therefore, in determining our behavior we do not look to see what is the norm in a certain place or time, rather we seek to do what is right.

January 2, 2009 at 11:08 PM ·

I would like to see Pete Townsend of The Who handle a violin!

Christopher- What is my opinion on this change?- In two words! It Sucks!......... thank you for allowing me to voice my unbiased opinion.

January 3, 2009 at 03:33 AM ·

"We all know that the snake responds to the movements not to the music."

Actually, neither of the two, the snake responds to the air flow coming out of the flute. 

January 3, 2009 at 04:23 AM ·

Benjamin perhaps

January 3, 2009 at 06:19 AM ·

Well, I am not an expert on snakes, but I recall a documentary I have seen many many years ago where the myth of snake charming was exposed by way of experiments, one of which involved a plexiglass screen between the charmer and the snake, another which involved blowing air over the snake's head. I remember that the conclusion had been that it was the air flow that charmed the snake.

January 3, 2009 at 11:30 AM ·

Huh, is that what the swaying does?  I know that some shorter people I've met lean left with their upper bodies during a down bow to create a greater distance for bowing (like http://www.violinistinbalance.nl/img/bowarm1.jpg).  I've also seem some smaller women from the CSO and NYPhil in recitals simply bow crooked at the very tip and they were able to produce a good tone with pressure and contact point.  The movement I was told to do is opposite that which I can't see working the same way. 

Anyway, the women who told me to do this were definitely thinking it was an expressive, not technical, movement.  The only movements I make are cuing, pushing the violin, changing the angle of my head, and in rehearsal grimacing at my mistakes and turning to the pianist to go "wait...where are we?" with my eyes.  If I was locking my knees I think the swaying might have been a reasonable "lesser of two evils" way of dealing with it, but this wasn't the case either (my legs used to shake when I did that) so I think it was just the introduction of a bad habit that she thought looked good.  I also used to walk while playing the violin, but my mother told me that in the smaller rooms it made the violin sound weird to move like that so I schooled my feet to stay still and worked to eliminate any excessive rotation from the waist.  Hillary Hahn became something of a model of good stage movement for me after that so I really admire her stillness and also the simple expressive movements (like when she stretches up like somebody yanked her hair from heaven or something)

Does anybody think walking or rotating the violin affects the projection or do they think the sound comes close enough to uniformly out all sides of the box that it doesn't make a difference?

Oh, and have people noticed how the bassists often rock their heads to the beat and cellists tend to sway with their bowings ALL TOGETHER as a section? Sometimes if they're all doing it it really freaks me out.....To me this is the same as tapping the feet but somehow it doesn't seem to be as frowned on as tapping is...

January 3, 2009 at 02:02 PM ·

There are movements that some violinists make that appear to help with controlling nerves and yet other violinists seem not to need to do them at all. A number of violinists bend their knees to avoid locking them but it is possible to bend the knees and still be stiff elsewhere. One teacher advocated bending the knees and pushing down into the heels and toes of the feet to check the flow of adrenalin until one felt calm enough to stand without applying any pressure downwards into the feet. Some people sway to show the arc of the musical line- this is common with flutists. The leaning to the right starting a slow moving up bow and then shifting the weight to the left as one approaches the frog and then moving the opposite way as one starts the downbow does help many to feel the bow can be held longer and having your left hand in a high position while playing  towards the frog puts the two hands closer to each other as if in an embrace and creates a sense of greater security in the high positions. This often works to the advantage of shaping a phrase if the climactic notes are the highest and you are making a crescendo towards the frog. Some people show small but noticable movements in the face, in particular the eyebrows and the eyes themselves,  which convey the degree of intensity or the mood of the music. I've mentioned this before in a previous post, but Jascha Heifetz during the video performance of his playing the Bach Chaconne, raises his eyebrows at a certain moment as, what appears to me to be, a reaction to the sublime chord change Bach wrote at that moment in the music. He seemed genuinely moved by what he heard. Kyung Wha Chung conveys a great deal of emotion in the face while maintaing a wonderful upright posture. Gil Shaham smiles giving the impression he loves playing the music he plays and is enjoying his collaboration with his colleagues. Milstein conveys a very relaxed but focused gaze, a very straightforward and completely uneffected, economical approach. I recently saw Stefan Jaciw performing the Beethoven concerto with his eyes closed most of the time. He gave the impression of concentrating on expressing every note with all his heart but without any histrionics. He seemed to move toward the audience as if communicating to each person individually. I think most players do these things without calculating them. It is true that some of the more famous players before us today have what seem to be exaggerated movements when compared to the great violinists of the past. Perhaps, as singers in an opera, they are acting to try to add to the communication in the music but if the expression of the music cannot be heard in the actual sound they produce, then it would seem those movements are not serving the music. However, if a performer moves and the movement matches the sound and mood being expressed then it is serving its purpose even if someone else, playing the same piece,  might move differently or not much at all.

January 4, 2009 at 01:35 PM ·

I have been taught that you lose 90% of your energy when you move while playing (the unnecessary parts) and that thus, you force like heck!  The resault is obvious to my ears in general!


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