Breathtaking, thrilling and flawless

August 24, 2009 at 08:07 PM ·

I was looking for an excuse to draw everybody's attention to this video, and I've realised that another discussion here provides me with one. The girl is Yu-na Kim, aged 19. Isn't it almost as though she is celebrating, enjoying, or even exulting, in the very fact that she is alive? Talk about making the most of yourself, of becoming all that you could be.

The other discussion has turned into one about whether you can improve your playing from technique books. It is here:

(I know I could have added this post as a reply to that other discussion, but I wanted this one to have its own headline.)

Here's the question: can reading a thousand books bring you to the point where you can perform like Yu-na Kim? Clearly and obviously not. As the commentator said, It was from the heart. You can't teach that. You can't make somebody do that. It comes from a special place.

But suppose you are at a different level of ice-skating from her, and there are obstacles you are up against which you don't seem to be able to get past, or which are a nuisance. Might scanning some books written by experienced coaches or performers, in addition to your sessions with your coach (especially if you do not have a coach) not give you some new ideas?

I've watched the video more than ten times now, over the last few days, and it remains as thrilling as it was the first time...


Replies (20)

August 24, 2009 at 09:35 PM ·

Really phantastic, thank you for posting this here! The commentator mentions another very true point: she had no doubt all the way through. No conscious interference. Pure flow. It dances her. Might have been a similar feeling Menuhin reported to have had when recording Paganini 1 with Monteux in 1934: he felt he could do what he wanted these 3 or 4 days - it would work. I think every musician has had at least a glimpse of it. Some get masters of their art, some not. No matter how much you work. It always comes as a present and nobody can be sure of it for the future. To be sure would be the opposite of true art in some way. You can only invite it. Who cares. What a beautiful girl.

August 25, 2009 at 12:36 AM ·


I reside in China, which filters all emails and VOIP, and has blocked access to virtually all foreign social networking and media sites (such as youtube).  So, a pity I cannot access the video.

IF anyone else uses the Opera browser (as I do), the video from youtube will be sitting in the Opera cache on your hard drive, in one or two files.  If you have also the VLC player, you can simply open the files for viewing by clicking on them.  

I shall be grateful to anyone who could send me the file(s).  Thank you.

BTW, Opera has a built-in lexicon, so anyone can spell check their messages while typing into this Vcom message box.


August 25, 2009 at 04:14 AM ·

Dear Simon, its great to have you contributing here. In answer to your question, if indeed it is an answer, I will quote you  from an article I still have that you wrote some 20 years ago (!) on "The English School of Violin Playing" which impressed me greatly at the time:  

"I think one reason for this [lack of technical facility in the UK] is that many string players and teachers do not realize how straightforward it is to develop technique. Artistry, musicality, expression, communication, and suchlight constitute a sort of 'dark continent' because they cannot easily be described and defined. They are therefore difficult to teach if they are not already present naturally in the form of talent. But the entire physical side of playing - the concrete reality of the hands and the bow and the string and how they work - is fully describable, and therefore teachable, from beginning to end....But in many teachers' (and players') minds, the 'dark continent' of the artistic side is somehow spread over to include the physical, mechanical side - as though it, too, were something that cannot be described and all success or failure were just because 'some people are lucky and can play, and other people find it more difficult.' " 

While I am not sure about the decorum of quoting you in a reply from something you wrote 20 years ago, and I am sure things have changed a lot in the UK since then, I think the point you made then is a good one.  

August 25, 2009 at 11:28 AM ·

That was a joy to watch. She must have practised so well that the graceful and artistic movements now come naturally. Thank you for posting this!

August 25, 2009 at 11:40 AM ·


I cannot find any words to describe that performance.  Leaves me speechless.

August 25, 2009 at 12:39 PM ·

Hi Martin,

While I am not sure about the decorum of quoting you in a reply from something you wrote 20 years ago, and I am sure things have changed a lot in the UK since then, I think the point you made then is a good one.

Thank you very much. I am most surprised to find you quoting this. The 'decorum' in doing so is just fine. But what about the decorum of my writing it in the first place?

This is from the very first piece I ever had published, in the European String Teachers Association journal, and reprinted later in the ASTA journal. It has remained a dark reference point for me ever since; it is at the back of my mind with every word I write to this day. Why? Because to my surprise I got into some trouble over it here in the UK.

I was so naive, because at the time I actually thought that the readers of that article in the UK would slap me on the back with hearty congratulations for having pointed out to them that the general standard of teaching and technique in the UK was...not very high.

Well, they didn't like it one bit. The simple fact is that if you make people feel good about themselves, they love you; if you make them feel bad about themselves or not proud of themselves and their own work, most of them...won't love you.

I first found out I was in trouble a couple of weeks after the piece was published. I had gone to a concert at St. John's, Smith Square in London. In the interval the cellist Christopher Bunting saw me and strode up to me, thrust out his huge, bear-like paw for me to shake, and said, Congratulations for a fine ESTA article. But I hope you've got your sand-bags out!'

I asked him what on earth that meant. 'Well,' he said, 'there's a lot of flak flying around about it, you know!'

There were many letters of complaint. So it was then that I learnt the important lesson: if you're going to write anything, never say anything negative. Always couch what you want to say in the positive.

As for things changing in the UK since then, well, they certainly have. There's no doubt about that. Everything's different today, so it's difficult to know where to start on that. Vastly higher standards in general? For sure, though more often brought about by the many good teachers and students coming into the UK from abroad. (There I go again. I'm going to get into trouble again.)

But I am always haunted by the comment made by the great German musicologist Hans Kellar, who said (in the 1970s) that the standard of violin playing over the last few decades had gone down, but the standard of mediocrity had risen tremendously. I've never managed to find how to disagree with that.

I would write exactly the same article today, except not specifically about 'the English school' . In fact, the passage you have quoted is included in something I have coming out next year.

And only three days ago I got an email from a violinist (who I don't know) who was talking about the sheer amount of information that is now readily available to all violin teachers. He said:

There is no longer any excuse for a teacher not to begin tackling any of their students` problems at the very least on the surface mechanical area. This is the minimum requirement of being a teacher as far as I am concerned, even before one gets into underlying difficulties of general misuse or psychology of the individual. Sadly, I think the majority of teachers don`t have a systematic understanding of mechanics or problem solving and it is the students who pay the price.

Twenty years ago? Three days ago? Has anything really changed?


PS Apologies for length. Can't seem to get posts short enough. Typing fast is not necessarily always a good thing. However, once term starts in a couple of weeks time...

August 25, 2009 at 06:03 PM ·

Wordy friend, good to have you here. :)

August 26, 2009 at 03:51 AM ·

Thanks Mr. Fischer, I wouldn't have liked to miss out on any of it, so just as well, I say.  Good to see you here.  :-)

August 26, 2009 at 06:06 AM ·

 I think Yu-Na is the most musical out of the current crop of skaters.  She also won gold at worlds last year and is favored for Olympic gold in Vancouver.  SHe is certainly a lovely skater and it is uplifting to watch her perform.  It wasn't aired in the US (it was on youtube and Korean tv), but she recently had a skating event in Korea, where America's Michelle Kwan skated for what may have been her final performances.  Michelle, to me, is still the perfect blend of artistry and technique.  Like Yu-na, she exudes joy for what she does.  I agree that their talent is inborn.... some skaters learn the technique but just can't seem to find that audience connection.  With violin... I do think that almost anyone can be musical to a certain extent.  But others are just born with the word "artist" stamped across their foreheads and that much you can't get from reading a book.

I don't know what it is, but skating is so fascinating to me!  I think it's that blend of technique and artistry that is similar to playing the violin that just draws me in.  It's nice to know other musicians share that same interest.

August 26, 2009 at 05:35 PM ·

 When it comes to “talent” people can too bias. We all have our favorites that can’t do no wrong, but in reality every musician has his/her blind spots, and ever teacher has theirs. I do find that too many teachers don’t have the correct sense of candor for teaching. Yes we hear of the odd horror story of the teacher that expects too much and wants everything perfect, but I find the other extreme far more prevalent. There are too many teachers out there that don’t have the ability or right personality to correct the basic mistakes. Teaching the violin is comparable to being an auto mechanic. You have to get in there and fix it, solve the problem, adjust, adapt and experiment. Do any thing, just don’t do nothing! Say nothing, Change nothing, because that’s not teaching. For example if you took your car in to get checked for a problem, and the guy looks at the car, kicks the tire and says “it’s fine, the problem will go away, that’s 40 dollars”. Two days later when your car breaks down on the highway, you’re going to see this guy and get your money back. But yet, a parent will sit in on a lesson, and through the entire lesson the student will play every note out of tune. Not once does the teacher correct or address the intonation problems, or correct the posture and technical problems causing the poor intonation. Nothing, but a “that’s good, let’s go on to the next piece”. Many parents may think this is normal. The child is having fun, she is enjoying the lessons. Is she learning anything? No, not really. If you want to pay some one to be you’re child’s friend and baby-sit them , fine, but if you want your child to learn some thing and enjoy the violin even more, then find, search and seek out the good teachers.


As for natural talent, I think if the right student finds the right teacher. That students potential will be very high .If that student goes to a teacher with poor teaching skills, that student may end up playing OK or even good But I would say he is self taught. I would even go as far as saying that it would be better if they taught themselves. Natural talent to me means-  a persons ability to self correct their own playing. A teacher can only bring a student so far, they have to do the rest themselves. And that’s talent. I find that if a teacher goes too far, and doesn’t allow/teach a student to be creative and imaginative with the music, and is “holding their hand “on every movement. That teacher is “over schooling” the student.


As for getting technical information out of a book, DVD or you tube .It is the best thing for musicians. Like I wrote earlier – every teacher has a blind spot. They’re not right on every topic and a musician needs other sources of information to get to their full potential.


This is how I am thinking today, tomorrow I may have a whole new perspective.


August 26, 2009 at 09:16 PM ·

I learned the violin through council-run music schools in the late 80s and 90s.

Looking back, I get the impression that only the better teachers had any real grasp of how to teach technique.

August 27, 2009 at 05:23 AM ·

A lot of the Galamian-descended teachers seem to fully embrace the idea that "you can't teach heart, you can't teach passion," even to the extreme of "you can't teach expression."

It's complete rubbish, and I couldn't disagree more with this concept.

See p. 7-8 of Galamian's "Principles of Violin Playing and Technique," some of the worst stuff I've ever read about teaching:

"Interpretation, in its best artistic sense, cannot be taught directly, because only a personal, creative approach is truly artistic..." Keep reading and we get to  "Broadly speaking, students may be divided into an 'active' and 'passive' category. The active students are those who have an innate urge of a creative imagination. They are the truly challenging ones and can be made to grow into genuine artists. The other type, the passive students, can do nothing on their own, nothing that has not been shown them by the teacher or another performer."

Sounds to me just like a big long justification for having no imagination whatsoever in teaching someone expression. Because like in language, expression must be learned, and in its higher forms, taught, before it can be used with imagination.

Certainly, a student needs technique in order to express anything. But teaching in a completely technique-based way, without ever acknowledging the need to tap into the student's passionate need to express something, is a complete copout. Even a student who has limited technique can be taught to connect that technique with expression, and in doing so, build their ability to express passion (and a good many other things) through music.

I think we systematically drum the music out of people, if we aren't careful, and if we speak only in terms of technique and never cultivate a student's ability to express. Remember the kid in the "Red Violin," who keeled over after metronome abuse? It's all too easy and convenient for a teacher to attribute his failure to teach expression to a deficiency in a student's imagination or creativity. Or even, perhaps it's a deficiency in the student's "heart?" Yes, some students have no heart, no passion. Do you suppose? Name a human who lacks these qualities!

There's my 2 cents, Simon. This from someone who does her Galamian scales every time she touches the fiddle.

August 27, 2009 at 05:23 AM ·

I guess I type quickly as well. :)

August 27, 2009 at 06:15 AM ·

 I do think people can be taught musicality and to become an artist... but when you're talking about being the absolute best in the world.... like a Michelle Kwan of ice skating.....  or a Menuhin or Oistrakh.... I think to be the absolute best, you do have to be born with an extra something.  You can still reach a high level with good training.... a very high level.... but can anyone in the world be taught to play as well as them, on a consistent basis?  It seems like in any field... when you're talking about someone who's going to be world-famous and one of the all-time greats in their field, there is some level of innate ability.

August 27, 2009 at 07:16 AM ·

Consider the explanations given in Daniel Coyle's "The Talent Code" in which deep practicing, motivation, and master teaching are the three pillars, if you will, that  "grow" talent. He opens the book describing a seemingly average student practicing and through her way of practicing makes the kind of progress and maturity in expressing  the piece of music she is practicing in five minutes what should normally take months. You may not agree with every statement in the book but it gives one food for thought and explains why certain places develop as so called "talent hotbeds" when in fact what's going on in those places can be identified and understood and replicated elsewhere and need not be the exclusive province of  the few.

  I agree with Laurie. You can teach interpretation. You can get students with imperfect techniques to be expressive and give something of themselves to the music and communicate that to a listening audience. I can think of a number of occasions when I've been more moved by a less than perfect technical performance played with passion and understanding than one in which all the right notes were played but nothing was done with them to shape them into music

 Also, the gestures we make with our eyes and face all have their source in the emotions we are feeling and these directly relate to our arm and hand movements as well. In a NOVA special some time ago, an experiment was done with a group of  native Australians watching a video of  a pianist playing classical music  without the sound turned up. They were asked to identify the moods of the music based on what they could observe about how the pianist was striking the keys. They correctly identified emotions of joy, sadness, anger, etc. So it would seem the movements of the body can be read and understood even by cultures seemingly very different from each other. If you teach a student how to tap into these gestures of emotional expression through movements they already make for those emotions you will discover that students regardless of age and level will begin to show the natural human potential for expression through their violin playing.

   Storytelling and singing with one's natural born instrument, the human voice, will also help develop the ability to express and interpret music. There will always be those few in every profession that seem to tap into these things most deeply with total conviction and integrity but at the very foundational level, human beings create meaning for things so it is natural that music-making will have meaning and can be taught because as a species we are predisposed to it.


August 27, 2009 at 01:29 PM ·

 Even if we could teach expression, should we? Will taught expression be real, from the heart? It’s acting, it’s not natural, and it’s not real. In my opinion emotion, interpretation and expression should be taught to be improvised, and then written out this way, but not every piece of course. As it is important to copy and learn from someone, or play a piece the way the composer intended, it is much more important that a musician learns and to be able to make a piece their own. Say if a teacher gave an advance student a piece of music with just the notes, no articulation, no volumes listed, nothing but notes and the basic timing. Send him home and say “make it your own. Be in charge of the phrasing and articulation”, you know, encourage them to believe in themselves. Wouldn’t this be better then trying to teach them something their not? Wouldn’t they learn more from this? Then having a teacher say “don’t play it like that, play it like this”. I would say that by over schooling a student, you may create the opposite reaction of your intent. A teacher needs to learn ways on how to get the emotion, and creativity out of a student, not teach them how to be creative and emotional.

August 27, 2009 at 02:18 PM ·

The things I am talking about are innate in all human beings. They simply have to be brought out.  For example, telling a student a story that fits the music can inspire them to make up their own story about the music. Drawing pictures that represent different parts of a story  for the music or making up a poem about the music helps get the creative juices flowing in a student. Jacqueline DuPre, the great cellist,  explains how her mother would do things like this when she was young and how important it was as an influence to her music making. Certainly, every teacher needs to draw that line between when their influence and guidance stifles creativity and self expression and when it fosters it. Like everything in life, it is an artful balance that needs to be found.



August 27, 2009 at 02:38 PM ·

Laurie, since we share a Galamian-trained teacher (smile), here's my 1 1/2 cents:

I think G was right about passive and active students.  I, or any competent teacher, can teach a passive student to play a piece decently, but I cannot teach that "innate urge", any more than I can force a student to love Mozart, Brahms, or Bartok, or even the violin.

I do think expression can be taught, up to a point.  Some teachers refer to this in a derogatory manner, "spoon feeding".  I refer to it as "teaching".   And yes, that is part of the job, and we should do it.  

But in the end, some animals are more the same than others.  Not all of us are Menuhin or Heifetz.  What the greats have, and have had, can't be taught.  Guided, yes.  Taught, no. 

I think other fields are the similar.  I could study math and engineering all day, with the best of intentions and teachers, but I would never be as good as my Rocket Scientist brother.  We all have our gifts...

Now, off to do my Galamian scales, E-Flat Minor today...

August 27, 2009 at 04:50 PM ·

Oh, that was lovely, just lovely to watch. Made my heart soar. (Of course, the lovely sound of the violin/piano brought further lyricism to the music that an orchestral recording of the same piece wouldn't have caught.)

Good art, fully actualized art, is such a wonderful thing. Reminds me how beautiful life can be.

August 28, 2009 at 07:22 PM ·

Yes, we should teach expression; it's communication, and communication is learned. We teach children phrases, expressions, inflection in language, then they have the tools for communication. We don't fear that the things say won't wind up being original because they have borrowed words or phrases or inflections from their environment!

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