More Passion in my Violin Playing

June 15, 2009 at 01:15 AM ·

I've been told that my violin playing technique is good and clean, but lacks interest and passion. How do I develop more passion in my playing? Is passion a matter of dynamics, phrasing, and more vibrato? What else? Please check out my violin videos:

Replies (64)

June 15, 2009 at 01:24 AM ·

Who told you this Sean?

June 15, 2009 at 02:39 AM ·

I would start by reading Oliver Steiner's recent post and listening to his excellent lecture:  The Speaking Voice and the Violin.

June 15, 2009 at 10:31 AM ·

This is the video you want to watch.

June 15, 2009 at 12:00 PM ·

WOW, what a terrific video.  I think it proves that music is played in the head more than the fingers.  If you get it in the brain, the fingers will follow.  One of my old teachers used to yell at me "HEAR it don't just PLAY it".  I was never able to figure out what she was getting at.  NOW I undertstand what she meant.  I showed her the video and she jumped up, clapped her hands and screamed ... YES YES.  That's it exactly!

June 15, 2009 at 12:10 PM ·

Perlman and Gitlis said very similar things (however Gitlis speak french in the video, basically he said he'd spend hours imagining the sound).

But it's not as straight forward as the Stern masterclass video I posted, that always inspire everytime I watch. ;-)

June 15, 2009 at 12:28 PM ·

Firstly, the Canon and Jesu certainly are not examples to show one's passion anyway...nice, but just regimented tunes. Now the Salut d'amour could.

yes, of course it is a matter of tone, dynamics, phrasing and vibrato; but not in the "text book" sense, I'm afraid. Passion cannot be learned from a book. Sometimes it can seep from ethnicity and a certain nationalistic "something"...The Irish,  Slavs, and Jews have it in their bones.... It comes down to life and living it; experiencing it...there's much to be said for the phrase "age and wisdom" you age, the entire idea of passionate playing will make sense...but it cannot be taught

June 15, 2009 at 12:43 PM ·

i think some folks are born more animated and others less so.  some train to be more animated and others to be less so.  i am not sure where sean falls in those subgroups.

joyce asked... who told you so...:)   i did once, in an email to sean, as far as i can remember.  so the word is official:)

what i am curious about is what sean thinks of his own playing in terms of "interest" and "passion".  i think "interest" may be hard to define but being passionate in playing can usually be seen or more importantly,  felt or heard. 

however, it is one thing where sean agrees with the observations made by some of the others and is eager to find solutions to the issues.   it is another if sean does not feel he is NOT "interested" or "passionate" in his playing. 

at least with my kids...they themselves have to be interested and passionate with making the changes, or else.

kudos to sean for bringing his playing for everyone to critic--it takes a lot of courage.  i think his sound has a beautiful quality.   

to me, performing art should aim to be both effective and affective.

June 15, 2009 at 02:38 PM ·

joyce????? LOL.

I almost asked what Sean felt about his playing also.  I would like to ask, "Sean, pick a song that you have played and tell us what were your feelings at that moment?  What emotions?  Then, after listening to the play back what are you hearing?

June 15, 2009 at 02:42 PM ·

The Stern excerpt is an interesting example, but might seem limited to a song that has a meaning imposed by its text.

I think Roy Sonne's DVD of the Accolay Concerto gives a wonderful example of how to add "emotional content and meaning" to a piece of music. He adds a scenario or story that the player can use to give a non-music reason for various interesting musical effects.

One is not limited to using the same scenario every time one plays a particular piece. But it is interesting to observe that once you add a scenario to your thoughts about a segment of music, next the technical things you do to achieve that scenario in sound become the key element to your subsequent playing of it. In subsequent "performances" you can easily embelsh your basic techniques to add details to the "story."

It can be lots of fun, and people who have to hear you will appreciate it (as long as you are still playing in tune).


June 15, 2009 at 02:53 PM ·

Youtube.....Issac Stern....."I Have a Little Secret". (20 years after From Mao to Mozart).

June 15, 2009 at 03:35 PM ·

I agree that it cannot be learned from a book, but disagree about the ethnicity thing with the bones. If you grow up immersed in a certain musical culture, then you pick up the typical phrasings, dynamics, modulation, ..., like you learn your mother tongue; that's all, no genetics involved here.  And like you can learn a second language really well if you're talented and spend a lot of time in the country, same thing with the music I guess.

Think about the girl student in the first video above, titled "Isaac Stern".  Stern plays the piece twice to show her the difference.  He plays a very sad piece very emotionally, but is overall smiling and joking in this session.  Obviously this is not about controlling your true emotions and then showing it magically "somehow" on the violin, but instead he has absolute control about the dynamics of every tone, and knows exactly what he's doing, so well that he can actually demonstrate the difference.  The student: singing works better for her than on the violin. So it's not a matter of lack of emotions on her side, or lack of technical ability on the instrument, but that she does it only subconsciously in her singing (mother tongue) and has not spent time on planning which dynamics/agogics to apply to make it sound sad on the violin (second language).  After she hears him play it, she can copy it, like learning the correct pronounciation of a new word in a second language.  She copies expression, not emotions, because there aren't any involved here.

In your videos on youtube, I saw very good intonation and rhythm combined with a nearly complete lack of dynamics I may say.  It seems to me that you want to play every note at the same volume, which will certainly convey a quite technical and emotionless impression, no matter what you really feel inside about the music, and may have caused this criticism from your audience.  So coming back to your initial question, I may suggest listening to parts of good recordings closely particularly about the dynamics they apply.  Analyze, how do they correlate dynamics with phrasing, pitch, speed, vibrato?  Then focus on your technique regarding dynamics and bowing expression.  Learn to copy first, then think about how to vary the expression to your personal style.  Have you ever tried Mazas etudes?

June 15, 2009 at 03:52 PM ·

 One thing that may help is the understanding of applying bow pressure with the index finger instead of not concentrating on any particular finger and/or using the hand and/or arm for weight and pressure. What happens to some players is that when increasing volume they also naturally increase bow speed, making the music sound rushed and forced. Also when timing is changed, lets say from ¼ notes to 1/8 notes, the bow speed will increase way to much on the 1/8 notes, also making the music sound forced. Focusing on the index finger to apply pressure for volume control isolates the two movements(speed /pressure), so it’s easier to control bow speed, thus a more natural/emotional sound can be produced. Your bow speed is fine, but there are no or little bow pressure variables. Practice whole notes from tip to frog, start light then get louder, remember to use your index finger for the volume and keep the bow speed the same. Change it up, start loud to soft or soft loud then soft again etc….Eventually this control will be added to your music.

June 15, 2009 at 04:47 PM ·

I posted the video after listening to all of Sean's playing. It reminds me of the youtube video immediately after hearing them. Indeed, he exhibit a steady intonation and bowing with a nice tone too, but lack of not just dynamics, also tone color changes, as well as phrasing.  When a phrase is finished, the sound should end and cut off and next phrase will come in (just like singing, you need to breath according to the phrasing). While dynamics are more apparent to the audiences of what is "lacking", it's the detailed phrasing and tone color changes make all the differences.

There're probably many people commented about very good violinist making the violin "sing", and the reason is straight forward - the violinist is trying to "sing" with the violin as like the player is singing with his/her own voice!

Frankly, I'm a very bad singer with muffled and thin voice, I'll never satisfy with the way I sing. But I want to let people hear the music deep inside me - I borrow my violin's voice to deliver the music to the audiences.

June 15, 2009 at 05:09 PM ·

"In music one must think with the heart and feel with the brain." - George Szell

June 15, 2009 at 05:26 PM ·

Excellent post, Michael.  The genetic implications bugged me as well. 

June 15, 2009 at 06:41 PM ·

Hi, I'm not a teacher so will not tell what to do except dynamic that we all forget as students!   Congratulations because you have something not many have, in general, your intonation is really good!!!  There is something to do!  (You don't sound like a tin can like some students who lack "seriously" intonation and are not even aware they do... )



June 15, 2009 at 06:53 PM ·


June 15, 2009 at 07:00 PM ·

Royce, my bad:),,,you are so Joyful that my neurons misfired.

now, even though we often see students play better right after some hints from the teachers, i would like to bring up another component, that is, the possibility that that girl chinese student had played under a lot of pressure and anxiety so her best take might not be that  first one even if she was able to play to herself at home the way stern had directed.  she played "safe" or timid under the pressure.    i can imagine, for some v.comers, they will play differently if they know they play for youtube vs self viewing.  pressure, man.

i have seen many students in music or sports exhibiting this butterfly in the stomach moment under the gun.  it is human nature,,,not to rock the boat too hard. understand that it was possibly the very first time in her life (that was 1979) that she came in close contact, face to face, on stage with no prior intro, with an adult western person, who, probably told to her by the party cadres, was like a god in violin back then, but incidentally, also a capitalist:).  ironically, this same girl eventually grew up to be a business women, not a violin pro.  ha!


June 15, 2009 at 07:15 PM ·

No sweat Al! ;)

     I know that in studio class, I can be so focussed on getting the right notes, and correct bowing that dynamics, crecendos, etc., go out the window!  And I try to over compensate by lot's of body movement..... and the teacher call me on it, "Why are you moving around so much???"  Talk about embarassed!  Oh well, stories for the grandkids!  At least my 8 year old viola player Camerine finds some solace that if it happens to a grown up then it's not neccessarily so bad when he does it!  Live and learn.

June 16, 2009 at 03:26 AM ·

I don't get all the speculations about the chinese girl and Stern.

Even if the girl could play better, doesn't mean Stern has taught it wrong. Even if Stern is joking around when playing sad song, doesn't mean what he did is not serious..

It's like you watch a movie nowadays. Are you so concern about how good the actor acts, how good the 3D graphic was done, how good/real the background was done, OR you're enjoying the story of the movie? ;-)

There're hidden messages in the masterclass video. Apart from the obvious, since Michael brought up that the girl might not be able to translate her singing into her playing immediately, because "she's not yet been able to play the violin as like part of her body". So, you have to "play the violin as if it's like one part of your body".

Fortunately, Sean is able to control his violin and play with solid tone and beautiful posture. It's time to get some input of musicality, and translate them on the violin. Unlike how you can learn instrument visually, listening, and written material, music can only be learned by ear.

June 16, 2009 at 04:29 AM ·

casey, i am not a big fan of looking at things from one angle.  as i stated in my "speculation",  it is very likely that the girl was nervous, thus the level of play on her first try.  others can explain it as not being able to play violin as an extension of the body.  could be, but i beg to offer other "speculations".  more often than not, failure to perform is multi-factorial.  could be 30% tech, 30% cognitive, and 40% mental, for instance.   if we address the first two and account for the 60%, as a whole, it still fails.   you asked if stern was wrong in teaching the way he did .  well, that is not a point made by me unless you are raising a new one.  china in 1979, in case you are not aware, was in a period of transition.   you can call that speculation.  i call that the historical perspective based on which that clip was filmed.   here is one more speculation:  the last thing on stern's mind was flying to china to teach violin!

you brought up "movies nowadays".  somehow i cannot associate movies nowadays with stories.  or do they pick the worst in flight movies for travellers?

and back to sean, i am not sure if people here are sure if sean's issues are based in tech/cognitive/mental aspect/s.   presented with symptoms, possible solutions have been offered without a precise diagnosis.  

June 16, 2009 at 05:31 AM ·

al - I wasn't intended to look things at a single angle, the point I'm trying to make is that sometime when you make a step backward, you see the whole picture.

Basically I agree with your analyzation of the girl, but IMHO it's pointless to do so. We don't know how much the girl prepared, how good she is when she's playing alone, how much experiences she has playing in front of so many people. Even if you want to take all that into accounts, I believe she couldn't sing as good as she can be during the masterclass, on top of that, it's basically an impromptu, much worse than a prepared performance, even doing so on the mother tongue.

Above all, it's not what the video is trying to deliver. She can sing so naturally right away without much preparation, which is a lot different than what she played the first time. On the other hand, I'm not bothered to know if what Sean uploaded on youtube were his best performance, I just provide a solution based on his videos.

And we lead to the same conclusion: possible solutions have been offered without a precise diagnosis.

PS: No comments on the flight movies, perhaps they didn't pick the good ones due to the licensing fees. ;-)

June 16, 2009 at 06:06 AM ·

Interesting thread, this.  Lots of good information.

I would disagree with Casey's statement  "music can only be learned by ear" - I think this is the technique allowing musical expression thing again.  and Technique is taught.  I listen closely, and there are bits of things being played that I love and get so excited in anticipation (while I love all of Sarasate's Carmen Fantasy for instance, theres aabout 4 bars that I LOVE played by Perlman), however, without being taught about technique, I would not have understood that the phrasing/dynamics/sound quality Perlman chose were what made those 4 bars so much more special than the same 4 bars played by everyone else I've heard. I am only beginning to grasp putting feeling into the music - I mean I was never a robotron, but I didn't actually PLAY what I thought I was playing in terms of sound quality.  My teacher has steadfastly refused to allow me to progress whenever she can hear I have potential to make the bits I'm working on more musical, and I thank her so much for that.  

As far as helping Sean, I dunno.  I think that becoming more passionate in your playing - so that other people can hear the excitement and momentum or the wistfulness or sorrow in the music, is about developing the techniques that allow that to be expressed.  Its not about how the piece 'makes you feel'  (for me, at least) I reckon that if I was a half decent player, then my Mediation from Thais (see my previous blog) should sound fantastic and those that love that piece should love how I make them appreciate it when I play it.  It makes me feel the nothingness of of golden syrup in hot water, but I doubt that's how I should be playing it!

June 16, 2009 at 02:06 PM ·


You have a great core sound, and your intonation is very solid. You seem very comfortable with your setup as well. I see you have some variety in your vibrato. You move the bow away from and toward the bridge also.

It seems like the bow moves at the same speed - this can be good but probably not all the time. You might consider starting the bow at different spots, away from the frog or tip. You can decide where you want the bow to move faster or slower based upon how you want to phrase the different pieces.

Thanks for putting yourself out there. I don't know if I'm ready to do that but bravo to you for doing so.


June 16, 2009 at 07:10 PM ·


It looks as if one set of qualities -- good, solid violin playing -- is getting in the way of another: free musical expression. I' ve been there, probably still am, so this thread has been very useful for me.

Two things have helped me in the past:

1. making up text to the melodies I'm playing. For instance, to the first line of Salut d'amour, one could sing "Darling, I love you; will you dance with me?" and model the rhythm, dynamics and so on on that sentence.

2. Barry Greene's book The Inner Game of Music. It goes into considerable detail concerning this type of difficulty and suggests lots of exercises to deal with it.

Hope this helps,


(edit: it should be "Darling, I love you. Will you marry me?" That does not scan as well, but Edward Elgar wrote the piece for his future wife).

June 16, 2009 at 02:17 PM ·

Any suggestions of songs Sean could work with?  As was mentioned the peices he has presented are usualy played pretty much just straight up.  What about a piece that stresses feeling, passion, etc., that would be in the league of his capabilities?

June 16, 2009 at 05:04 PM ·

How about the opposite? What would happen if he played a "piece" that inherently has no emotion, and played it like it's the most beautiful melody in the world? (I was thinking of a simple C-Major scale)

June 16, 2009 at 05:12 PM · Any violin solos by Fritz Kreisler are great to add passion to your playing. Pirastro's Passione strings are always great too! No, but seriously, any thing such as Leibensleid (spelling?) by Kreisler is great to add emotion to violin playing. Leibensleid helped me a lot!!!

June 16, 2009 at 05:14 PM ·

Thank you for all your help. I will soon have new videos up for you to comment on, improving dynamics, tone color and phrasing.

June 16, 2009 at 05:14 PM ·

Sandy's got a good point though.  I heard someone play a one octave scale once that had so much feeling it was just gorgeous, so it has been done.

June 17, 2009 at 12:21 AM ·

Sean, as a fellow violin student I thank you for putting yourself up on stage for examination by the forum members.  I am not at your skill level, you play very cleanly, but your videos are good learning tools.  Fellow musicians say, you must hear the music in your head before you can play it...until now I assumed that meant merely hearing the pitches and correct intervals.  Now I see it's so much more than that.

My teacher will play a minor scale and it is so beautiful musically.  Then I chop out the same scale and she smiles behind clenched teeth I'm sure.

This is a great topic especially with demonstration videos. 


June 17, 2009 at 02:06 AM ·

Consider yourself lucky to have progressed so far on an instrument that begs for passion.

I was formerly a trumpet player with an SO.  Big deal, you say.  Well, trumpet is not exactly easy either, and is much more difficult to play and sound well with "passion".  But it can be done.

There are inter alia 2 keys to this. 

1/ You must have total, perfect control over your instrument.  Perlman said for the average violinist this can take 90 years.

2/ You must remove all hesitation from your mind and soul.  Passion is about freedom.  Do not play as you think others have taught you to play: do not ask yourself, how did my teacher tell me to play this?  Free yourself from what you are and play to what you wish to become. Put your life energy into your violin, and show people you are the master, of the instrument and the music.

Sander's suggestion is valid: take even the simplest notes, and turn them into notes of beauty.  Gigli said to sing every note as if it were your last: the same can be said for all instruments.

good luck!

June 17, 2009 at 05:49 AM ·

Sean, you have my respect of posting more of your playings to get more learnings. Most of the time members seeking for advices and helps but never put on an mp3 or video, so folks here can't help much.

Ok, take the Czardas for example:

1. Rhythmically, it's pretty random at some places. Even though the first part it's an expressive part, you still need to have the "pulse" in the music. I'd play the fast parts at a more constant rhythm. It's easy to get lost when playing alone as all the time you're playing melody, but don't have a harmony and rhythm backings. For me, when I'm playing, I actually imagining I'm playing with pianist or ensemble or in a band.

2. Related to above, to create pulse and rhythmically interesting, you can't play all the notes with the same tone and same volume. Accent some, and lessen some, but not randomly. Imagine you're telling a story to young childrens, if you don't have dynamics (including speed, not just loud/soft/accent), they'll fall asleep.

3. Phrasing. Just like when you're talking to someone, you need to breath and prepare for the next phrase. You can help by breathing physically, some violinist do breath on every phrase, as like they're singing. Depends on the phrase, you have to do different things like diminuendo or accent or cut off or whispering soft on the last note of the phrase. You just have to imagine you're talking or singing.

One more thing, all of the 3 things above are closely related. To do one of them, you need other aspects to support.

By the way, I really love the way your bow dig into the strings, the tone is beautiful, just make it more colorful (which has nothing to do with your monochrome videos).

PS: By the time I wrote this, I'm listening to the fiddle tune in D, I can feel the "party time" thingy inside the music, I feel like dancing! It exhibit all the aspects I mentioned above, I like your playing very much on this! ;-) (upon checking your biography, looks like you play in celtic bands often, perhaps that's why you can play fiddle tunes so well!)

PS 2: All of your videos had the sound compressed heavily. and will also destroy the dynamics. Perhaps you did some, but due to the compression, they all sound the same. Maybe you would like to try some other recording devices?

June 17, 2009 at 02:50 PM ·

oops, double post

June 17, 2009 at 06:06 PM ·

First of all, it definitely bears repeating that it's great that you've put your playing out there. Good for you for having the guts to do so. And you play really well and have a lot of great qualities.

That said, I'd still say play around a little with your bow speed. Your bow speed does vary, but it could be in a broader variety of ways.

A quarter note can be played with a whole bow, a half bow, a quarter bow, or staccato, with very little bow at all - if the music calls for it.  Every quarter note within a phrase can be played in a very different way.

It seems to me like you're willing to change up how you're playing a particular value of note, but only from phrase to phrase. Try changing it up within a particular phrase.

Just as an exercise, on the Hungarian dance, try using 20x more bow on the first note than the 2nd. (even though the value of the first note is only 3x longer than the 2nd). Then do it the other way around. Try also playing with the bow really really close to the bridge with a short amount of bow. Try it with as much vibrato as you can make. Try it with the bow away from the bridge. Try it with no vibrato at all.

Then decide what you think sounds best just for the first phrase.

June 17, 2009 at 07:56 PM ·

There is the "passion" (or whatever) that one feels inside.
And then, there is the "passion" (or whatever) that one projects to others.
One can have feelings inside, but that may not be what projects to an audience.
Obtaining the passion inside is one challenge; projecting that to an audience is perhaps a different challenge.
This is an issue in every performing art (and I would include not only playing a musical instrument and singing, but also acting, public speaking, even teaching).
If you can figure out how to do this and how to teach it to others, you will never be out of a job.
But the idea is that separating this problem into two components (feeling it and projecting it) may help you to figure out a solution that works for you.

June 17, 2009 at 08:11 PM ·

IMHO, it seems to me that "passion" (feelings) are never a problem. Everyone has them - it's just a matter of getting them to project. In rare cases someone as young as 7 has already figured out how to make them project, e.g. a young Yehudi Menuhin.

June 17, 2009 at 09:37 PM ·

"Free yourself from what you are and play to what you wish to become." Wow, this is the thing about violin playing!   Of course, one can not express this without technique...  but when the technique is there and so solid, it is suppose that everything settles in place and works almost (I say almost because it isn't really this) like magic.   We all hope to succed this and in a regular basis!   The biggest challenge in music is to make it beautiful and meaningful... Good luck!


June 17, 2009 at 09:58 PM ·

 I daresay that your playing does not lack passion. I can absolutely see the passion in your face as you play. Also, I think anyone who plays and loves to do it plays with passion. I would say that you could vary that character of your playing considerably to bring your playing to the next level. On first glance, if you were one of my students, I'd tell you to do the following:

1. Grab your metronome and practice every piece with it every day. Being absolutely rhythmically secure and having a pulse that you are in control of (and not the other way around) is one of the first ways to get an idea of the structure of the piece, and the first clue to the character. Know exactly where you are in terms of beats all the time.

2. Pick a piece and play it in 5 different (contrasting) characters. Even if (and most times especially if) the character is totally inappropriate for the piece. It's very important to be able to not be stuck in one interpretation that you can't break free from, so try something that's totally the opposite end of the spectrum (play the Pachelbel violently, or the Elgar aggressively). Record yourself and see if you can notice a difference

3. Dare to be imperfect. It's difficult to have character if you're afraid to miss a note or play something out of tune. We must risk error in both technique (missing a note) and in character (playing something in the "wrong" style... whatever that means) to reach excellence in both areas.

June 17, 2009 at 10:15 PM ·


>1. Grab your metronome and practice every piece with it every day. Being absolutely rhythmically secure and having a pulse that you are in control of (and not the other way around) is one of the first ways to get an idea of the structure of the piece, and the first clue to the character. Know exactly where you are in terms of beats all the time.

Tommy,  I used to think this way and I belive it has some merit but on the whole I am no longer convinced it does what it appears to do as well as one might think.  I am not so sure that working with an external cue doesn`t actually have the effect of weakening our own internal pulse in theb long run.  Of course it is excellent for showing us where we are simply playing erratically and not paying attention.

But to be in contorl of the pulse,  and the subdivisions of the pulse,  and (incredibly importnat) knowing where you are in terms of the beat requires workign at the internal clock we all possess to a far greater extent. That is why Mr Haslop`s ideas on counting alouyd as one playes,  even if initially one is not actually playing with a regualr pulse,  (this comes later) are so significant.  Actually they are not his original idea at all. I have come across other veyr succssful teacher swho use this approach especially in piano playing. 

It might also be good for Sean because at the moment i think he is overfocused o this issue of playing with passion whereas ,  as has been notes he clealry is more passionate than his playign tends to suggest.  



June 18, 2009 at 03:30 AM ·

Let me share this as a pianist rather than as a violinist (I play both, but started the violin pretty late).

I've played the piano since I was a small little kid (4 years old), but hadn't been able to express myself out on the piano until when I reached ABRSM Grade 8 - it's exactly where I began to listen to soloist recordings and many of them inspired me a lot, the tone, detailed phrasing and the pulse. Then I began to listen to what I play, and eventually when I'm playing my brain will subconciously "tuned" to what I play rather than how I play.

Then I entered music college and started to cross over to contemporary playing (jazz, pop, etc). Due to being a full time music student, I'm hearing music everyday, all day long. I heard bad playings, good playings, inspirational playings, robotic playings. So I started to opened up my ear further, and listen to everything I play in details. At last I found out, it's the will to let my audiences listen to my music deep inside my heart, that motivated me to practice until I hear what I want from the piano.

So yes, it does need practices and techniques to be able to play what you want. And listening to a lot of good players or recordings help a lot too. In the end, when you get inspired, you'll be moved, then you'll want more from you what you hear from your own playing.

June 18, 2009 at 01:19 PM ·

i second the suggestion that sean may want to use more playing with the metronome,  to develop that sense of inner pulse that some of your listeners already possess.  at times it seems to me that sean may have rushed a little in between phrases without catching a breather, as if he can't wait to get into the next phrase (being too passionate about the music?).  within a set time frame, in between phrases, may want to think of the junction dictated by a comma, a semi-colon, a full stop, a question mark, an exclamation mark, or what have you. 

i think if sean can sing to his own taped playing, this issue should be obvious.   or, pretend that sean is about to teach the singing version to an audience, how would sean demonstrate, how does he emphasize or exaggerate certain parts to bring out the spirit of the music?  after all, aren't musicians in sales of musical ideas?

as an outsider to classical music, when i hear someone plays, it is usually a product of "average", meaning, at certain level, high or low or in between, intonation and musicality go hand in hand at similar levels.   in sean's case, i am surprised to see that imo his intonation is way superior to the musicality  or expression counterpart.  how does something like this go unaddressed for so long? 

to me it is perhaps just a matter of time and more and better exposure to finer things.  open one's heart and ears.  dare to be wild and crazy for a change. be uncomfortable here and there to experiment and experience.   imagine holding a puppy, let down the guard and melt into the fun and joy. dare to deviate from (sean's) great posture and form and get down to it.  nice to be a gentleman, but be able to act like a devil when called for.

i find a lot of focus and sincerity in sean's playing.  on that, i also find a lot sincerity in young v.comer brian hong's playing, but with an appropriate level of expression, without being showy or pompus. may want to check out his youtube clips.

here is a vengerov masterclass where he was trying to nail a particular issue on feeling,,,to the point that some of the cows have long gone home.  it can be frustrating as one can see...

ps.  since i am yet  too clear about my earlier question, which i take as quite important, that how sean thinks of his own playing instead of listening to others' opinion, take the above post as another adventure of mine:)

June 18, 2009 at 04:44 PM ·

I believe Vengerov was also scratching his head trying to describe what he's doing. Most of the time he (and many fine violinists) were doing all of them subconciously, they don't think about what they're doing, all they have in their head, will translate it on the violin without any delay.

It actually took me many years to actually figure out about this too. On the piano, one fine day, I just sat down at start improvising. All was a sudden I start to listen to what I play, and command the piano subconciously what I have in my head. I've already acquired this so I find it's not difficult to do it on the violin - acquiring good intonation and precise bowing were much, much more difficult!

June 18, 2009 at 05:14 PM ·

i have a different read on that.  i think vengerov knew exactly what he was describing, (not trying to describe).  he could be doing it subconsciously, but he was able to repeatedly, tiredlessly and consciously demonstrate on his own violin what he had meant, with vivid analogies, and then handed it  in a platter to her,,, 

but he failed to ask... can you play your next try differently from your last 3?

June 18, 2009 at 05:30 PM ·

al - you're right, I was trying to say that he's taking all the effort of describing what he's doing ("scratching his head" is not an appropriate one).

Perhaps Sean would want to voice out some opinions on the advices?

June 18, 2009 at 05:52 PM ·

Being able to detach yourself from concentrating on playing, and being able to listen to yourself as an outside observer is a critical step. Once you do this, you can think of how you'd like the piece to sound, and the player will make it so.

Not well described, but as close as I can get in words for a process that happens in the inarticulate parts of the player.

"She asked me if I knew the answer; well, I knew, but I could not say".

June 23, 2009 at 05:49 AM ·

I am just taking one sample of your playing as an example, the one in which you play part of the first movement of Mozart's 3rd violin concerto. The playing is clean with good intonation and a solid tone. One thing  I  would suggest to help put more passion in your playing is a concept and understanding of how the notes you are playing relate to each other and tell a story or depict a mood or emotion that seems to fit their melodic contour and rhythm as well as, when heard with orchestra or piano, the harmonic elements. For example, the opening, with its dramatic chord and gradual descent down the G major arpeggio reminds me of an actor who has lept on stage announcing "here I am" or "c'est moi!" and as he settles in and the audience gets used to his arrival and presence on stage the surprise element wears off, so the pitch descent can be mirrored by a tapering in the dynamics and the energy. There is a fast turn and the pitch ascends just before the lowest notes of this phrase are heard at the end as if the actor smiles at us knowing he has another surprise in store.

This little story that is intended to fit the gestures of the music is a way of accessing the imagination and listening to the sounds of the music and making one notice how rhythms, pitches, general melodic direction, fast patterns and slow patterns remind us of personality traits, moods, emotions, an image or story of some kind that can help us play the music with greater variety and interest.

  Technically speaking, you'd push with the greatest speed on the opening chord and gradually slow your bow speed down as the pitch levels descend to reduce the energy. You might briefly highlight certain notes on the way down as being more important and therefore having more bow used on those notes compared with others so they stand out more strongly, or vibrate on them more intensely,  but to describe what to do with bow and where to add or lessen the vibrato, and how close to the bridge to play or not, and any other number of technical details would take up so much verbal explanation and require such patience to control each factor that one might risk attempting to shape the music in too clinical and analytical a way. While you may find it interesting to experiment with different bow speeds, contact points, and weight, and trying passages on different strings in different positions for a different color or sound, I generally find it  more interesting and enjoyable to learn to sing, or half sing, one's intentions in shaping the phrase. If the music were looked at from the gestures of which it is made and you could relate those gestures to words or verbal expressions I think you could unlock more of the emotion in the piece and portray the character of each part of the phrase with greater passion and conviction.

If one becomes too preoccupied with the absolute steadiness of beat, or the perfection of intonation, or keeping the bow straight,  or holding the violin in one particular way consistently, it becomes a little like making one's breathing and heart beat synchronized to a ticking clock and one's speech patterns too regular and monotone or guarding the pacing of one's walking so it is always the same. Just as someone who is excited in their conversation with another talks freely and raises and lowers the voice or talks faster or slower depending on what meaning the words have as one is talking, or in reaction to something someone else has said,  and how important a particular idea or thought being expressed is,  so the music is  like a conversation too. The gestures you might make in your music if you were to half-sing or say them as if they were words that had a meaning to you might unlock more expression in your playing.  Try relating the idea of jumping on stage announcing your grand entrance boldly "Here I am!" followed by an immodest but not quite as loud  " Am I not dashing and handsome to behold", followed by saying , less loudly, "well, I  think so even if you hold your delight at seeing me"  to the final "ok, very well I'll settle down" The energy levels of these four statements go from boldest and loudest to most meek. In a general structural way,  you are creating a hierarchy of energy and therefore bow movement that will help shape the phrase. You are relating the meaning of the words and their delivery  to the shape of Mozart's notes.

  This is not the only approach to getting more expression in the music but it is a way to relate sound and the energy of the delivery behind it  to language and the meaning words have that inspire you to speak more or less passionately about any particular subject. In music we are trying to show direction, tension and release, conflict and resolution, activity and the lessening of activity. If your voice shows this in conversation, your bow as the main expressive tool in your violin playing, can potentially show this in the sound it elicits from your violin.

 I hope this makes some sense.



June 23, 2009 at 09:21 PM ·

Hi Sean,

Here's the latest video of my son. (His name is Jesse and he's at the bottom of the videos) 

I would say his intonation is still lacking in places (but getting better) and I wouldn't necessarily say he plays with passion; rather, I would call him an agressive player, which I enjoy, but does have limitations.  (He's also a train wreck waiting to happen in this piece but thankfully, it never happened.) LOL

 I put this link in this thread because I think there are a lot of different ways to play and my very uneducated opinion is that limiting a description to just passionate or unpassionate doesn't necessarily cover all the bases.  I would think one could describe playing the violin in a whole bunch of ways and that really good players know how to vary their style of playing (I don't think my son knows how to do this yet because he's mostly just agressive).

I think your playing is lovely and clean and enjoyable to listen to and you obviously have very good training.  I'm glad you shared and encourage you to keep sharing!

June 23, 2009 at 10:30 PM ·


Rebecca,  what a greta pont you made!  (I think I`ll leave those typos in....)

How would you like your loved one being passionate all the time.  `Darling,  I cooked your favorite  baked beans on toast with a rose on top again.  Let me massage your feet before you eat.  When I watch you chewing those beans it makes me want to stick my tongue in your ear like this and....` 

Life is about contrast or we would not be able to value or appreciate -anything-



June 24, 2009 at 02:30 AM ·

Rebecca - I love your son's playing very very much, too. He might not have perfect sync between left hand and rigth hand, perfect intonations, perfect tone, but he's playing with all sorts of dynamics, accents, phrasings, etc, that's why people would enjoy it. Passionate or not, he's definitely speaking out what he has deep inside his heart.. I guess must have listening to great players all the time!

Of course, he need some fine tunings on the playing (who doesn't??), however most of the time when you concentrate on one thing (musicality) it's difficult to accomplish another one (technique etc etc) at the same time. Nevertheless, congratulations to your son for being able to play wonderfully!

June 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM ·


You typos add contrast-never change them. :-)  I was thinking of lots of adjectives to describe violin playing types (your graphic illustration was a good start. LOL):  lively, light, somber, bright, intense, passionate, smooth, technically brilliant, aggressive, and the list goes on.  I was listening to Hilary Hahn's Barber and Meyers and she seems to do it all.

Casey, you are very kind.  My son and I love to laugh at his mistakes and appreciate that his teacher puts the videos online. :-)  His teacher actually told him to stop trying to imitate great players and develop a style of his own.  We did listen to a version of the Prokofiev by Steven Staryk, which I think helped.  Yes, works in progress are we all. :-)


June 25, 2009 at 05:52 AM ·

It's a common problem when young players trying to imitate great players, but I think influences are as important too. When your son's musicality become more mature I'm sure he'll develop his own, especially when he get tired of playing the same way over and over again. ;-)

June 30, 2009 at 04:03 PM ·

A thought has been nagging me from the moment I read your post. I  believe it will not stop until I write it down here.

"It is not about being passionate while playing. That passion only gets in the way of the music. One wants to be transparent, so that the music will find its way to the audience through you."

so there.

June 30, 2009 at 08:00 PM ·

 exactly.  You may leave the temple.

July 3, 2009 at 05:34 AM · Sean, I may be young but maybe I can shed some light and advice to help you. I believe passion is something you cannot learn its something you find. Why do you play? what makes you strive to be a better player? And when you find this out and you have such a drive it transfers to your playing. When you play its time for you to show the audience who you are"if that makes sense" its your chance to connect with them . Its ur vibrato, your movement, expression and will. So I advise you to ask yourself why do I play? And if you can answer that let that drive you and hopefully you'll soon after find passion(:

July 4, 2009 at 09:38 AM ·

Hi Sean,

Great playing. I agree about a lot of the previous comments, and have a couple more to make that I'm not sure have been mentioned.

When you are playing the livelier pieces, you often slow the music down in order to ensure that you play all the notes correctly and cleanly. The result is, in my opinion, that it looses excitement. If I were you, I'd make a general rule that the pulse is the boss, and your bow and left hand have to keep with it at all costs, even if initially it will be messy, uncoordinated etc. Brahms Hungarian Dance No. 5 would be a good one to try this on.

When playing the slower ones, such as the Ave Maria, you need to work on the bow changes, because at the moment they are breaking the phrase up a little bit. Try to get the intensity in the sound when you change your bow.


July 5, 2009 at 07:04 AM ·

 I say the number one thing that you need to do to become musical is to listen to music. Listen to as much good classical music as you can, as many great violinists, like Heifetz. Music comes from the soul, and it's not just sound. Music is really communication, and therefore you can't just say the words- you have to mean them. Listening to music will do two good things for you- one, it will give you an idea of how good players stretch and color their playing, and two, hopefully you will learn to internalize music so much that when you play it, it comes from your heart.

Besides that, you should experiment on the violin. Improvise. Don't be afraid to sound bad, or to screech or make weird noises. The better you know your instrument, the more musically you will be able to play.

July 5, 2009 at 01:18 PM ·


I believe you play beautifully, your skill is wonderful and text book.  You lack by a great degree of personal expression.  I will say this honestly your skills amazing as they might be, do not give me goose bumps or a chill down my spine.  It has been a cardinal rule in my choir to tell if we are ready to compete that we have someone listen.  Goose bumps/chill down the spine we're good to go.  One song we had a particular problem with for the guys in "My Luv's Like a Red Red Rose" was the lack of engulfing warmth, velvety texture, and how the sound should grow and expand until it feels as if it should burst out of you.  It took about a month and half for them to get it but the reason they got that texture in the sound was because they had to relate to the song.  "My Luv's Like a Red Red Rose" is a love song, and the boys had to do imaging and fantasizing in order to connect and once they connected the change was HUGE!  We got 100/100 from an adjudicator simply for the song, and when we had the small workshop, the adjudicator started us but let us conduct ourselves without eye contact and just feeling the music.  That performance was better than ever.  I know I was talking about my choir, but I have a point.  I mean to say that in order to gain passion, you need to connect to the song, open up to your violin, and let your emotional and spiritual self be overcome and overflow with the music and the message you want to convey.  In order to have passion when you play you must enjoy the music and yourself more.  In Japanese the word music "ongaku" is written with two characters; "sound" and "fun".

I hope this helps.

July 6, 2009 at 07:50 PM ·

Sean, first off, I applaud you for being so open about your playing, posting the videos and seeking advice.  One thing you should take pride in, is that you have some very good technique when it comes to fingering and bow control.  Your intonation is very good, your notes are very clear, and the tone is full and rich.  As far as passion is concerned, I feel that "passion" is a very big word in that, one should not mix "passion" up with "emotion" or "expression".  I believe you are passionate about your playing - you obviously love playing and you love music, otherwise you wouldn't be posting this topic here!  But the question is, how are you expressing your feeling toward the music?  What are you thinking about when you're playing?  Are you trying to tell a story when you play?  Do you try to evoke some kind of emotion in your audience when you play?

I find that expressing "passion" is not just about having big dynamics or intense vibrato. Sure, those factors do help, wherever appropriate.  But it's also about phrasing, rhythm (or "groove") and communication (to the listener) too.  I find that in a lot of the clips you recorded, there's a bit of an issue with phrasing and rhythm.  I blieve a lot has been said about these 2 items above already, so I'll just briefly say, 1) you need to breathe a bit more between phrases, but within a phrase, try to think of a long continuous line; 2) rhythm - need a steady pulse; not to say that you can't speed up or slow down in the middle of a phrase, but it has to make musical sense.  Also, watch some of the long notes at the end of phrases - you tend to cut them short sometimes, which adds to the phrasing issues.

When trying to communicate your feelings to your audience, sometimes I find having a mental image helps.  Often this imagery comes easily based on the title of the piece or the words (if it has lyrics) but sometimes you have to be creative and think of something based on the music itself - I once told one of my young students who was playing one of the Minuet's from Suzuki book 2, to think of a couple, elegantly dressed, waltzing across the dance floor of a beautiful grand ballroom.  I could see her starting to relax a bit, moving her body slightly as if she's the girl floating across the dance floor!  Even though it wasn't like night-and-day, I did start hearing a better pulse, and more emotions.  Another example is when she was playing Gavotte by Gossec.  I asked her what she would imagine when playing that piece, and she said "a little mouse getting chased by a cat"!  Well, that worked for her!

Another way of training yourself to express more passion or emotions, is to listen to and play some tango pieces.  They are perhaps some of the most passionate pieces of music around.  Listen to some Astor Piazzolla, or Carlos Gardel (he's the one who wrote Por Una Cabeza - the tango used in "Scent of a Woman").  I have a clip of a Piazzolla's Libertango played by Yo-Yo Ma with an ensemble here:

I am a fan of Joshua Bell, I find him one of the more expressive violinists around, and when I need some inspiration, sometimes I would go listen his "Ladies in Lavender" theme:

Anyway, that's my two cents!  Good luck and keep making beautiful music!

July 6, 2009 at 08:05 PM ·

Alex, what a great idea! 

Tango is all about passion, and it often almost completely ignores rhythmn to make its point. I used to dance both salsa and argentine tango, and one thing I found is that you have to have good rhythm to dance salsa, but you almost don't need it in order to dance tango.

While eliminating rhythm is not necessarily a great goal for playing classical music, having one component of playing removed (in this case rhythm) can be helpful for focusing on other areas.

July 6, 2009 at 08:25 PM ·

Terry, I don't know if this makes sense but I think you're mixing up "tempo" with "rhythm" .... I believe Tango music still has an incredible sense of rhythm.  The tempo may vary, but there's still a strong sense of rhythm.  It's like when you listen to some modern musicians play soul or jazz or blues music - they have a perfectly steady tempo but lacks rhythm or groove, i.e. you hear a constant beat but you don't feel like tapping your foot to it.  And then there're some musicians who play those same pieces with a great groove, and you can't help bopping your head or tapping your foot to it! 

July 6, 2009 at 09:37 PM ·


I know what you mean. And I felt the same way at first too. But it seems to me that you can bend the tempo in tango any which way you like and it ends up sounding...better! And, the people I saw who danced the most horrible salsa due to a lack of rhythm could walk across the floor and dance tango no problem. Perhaps the lack of rhythm held them back in some ways, but at least initially, not so much.

Here's an argentine tango. I can't really identify where the rhythmn is. If you can, please let me know what I'm missing:

And here's a salsa dance. The rhythmn is clear here:

So perhaps I am mistaken, but that's certainly the way I saw it. And I'm not trying to suggest in any way that anyone here has good or bad rhythm either, just that tango is not demanding in that respect.


July 6, 2009 at 10:12 PM ·

Wow, amazing dancing!  (Both videos.)  And I love the ensemble playing the tango.  I see what you mean - there's a lot of movement in the tempo, but at the end of the day, it's still 4/4 time.  There's a lot of synchopation for sure, as well as anticipated strong beats (i.e. the strong beat falls on beat 2 or 4, rather than 1 or 3).  Maybe that's what throwing you off.  I had to listen to the section between 01:05 - 01:30 a few times to catch the "1".  Try and listen to the chord changes or the bass line.  Despite varying rhythmic patterns, the chord progression still stays pretty consistent in tango. 

July 6, 2009 at 10:57 PM ·

Glad you liked the dancing. In case anyone is wondering - no, I don't dance anywhere close to this well. :) And I haven't danced in several years. Although taking Alexander Technique has not only helped my violin, but also what little dancing I do. Yep, it helps for just about everything.

Yes, agree about the chords and synchopation. And it does take a careful listen sometimes to find where the 1 is.


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