Modern Playing- so fresh and so clean. Is that a good thing?

August 31, 2009 at 12:49 PM ·

I found this discussion recently and somewhere in one of the responses somewhat noted:

"it seems to me there is a frightening and growing pattern among these players that clean is more important than interesting."

I know that most players back in the day players were celebrated for their distinct sound.  I also seem to recall reading somewhere that it was when Heifetz came around focus on cleaner shifts became the norm in violin study, with somewhat of a loss of distinct sound?

So- would you prefer developing a more unique sound, which could possibly mean less clean, or would you prefer to be "cleaner"?

Lemme know :)

Replies (33)

August 31, 2009 at 02:46 PM ·

I watched some of the performances videos of Heifetz's last concert, he definitely didn't play all the notes to perfections and there're some note slipped, weird tone, squeaking bow respond. That really added a lot of charm to it, but I couldn't help to think something like "woah Heifetz would also make some mistakes eh, he's not some kind of God after all", to be honest (no offense, and I still love his playing nonetheless).

In contrast, Vengerov seems to merge the "modern clean playing" with the "charm and interesting old school playing" together beautifully. To my ears it sounds like many of the modern players didn't want to dig into the instrument and explore the possibilites afterall.

But in the end, it's still the matter of personal preference I'm supposed.

PS: Do I even talking something relevant?

August 31, 2009 at 05:59 PM ·

I'm not sure what  your source is for better shifting coming into existence when Heifetz 's playing began making the rounds, because there were many accomplished violinists whose shifting you could not fault that were playing at that time, and the basic principles of left hand technique have not changed much. One thing that was different though  was a change in the use of vibrato, including, using it while doing portamenti. This enlivened the tone and once Heifetz, Kreisler, and Elman's richer more vibrant sound was disseminated, the old school of quivering or using vibrato minimally fell by the way side.

 In terms of clean playing, I think all great artists strived for technically polished playing and, if one plays in a relaxed manner, free of pain and undue tension, the chances are much higher that the playing will approach technical perfection.

It's  also important to remember that players in the early part of the twentieth century made their recordings in one take so there was no heavy editing like there is now.

 Some violinists had peculiar bowing styles. Those styles worked for them, at least for a time, but perhaps a case could be made that these ways of playing were less reliable as they aged.

 Today's violinists gravitate more to the Franco-Belgian bow hold than the older Russian bow hold we saw more predominately in the earlier half of the twentieth century. Some people would make a case for that bow hold and certain bowing principles (how one bends the fingers and wrist follow- through from up bow to down bow bow changes) as producing a cleaner, richer, but non-scratchy sound at the frog. Others would say that the use of a wider arm vibrato and this particular way of bowing create a more even, less varied tonal palette.

   I don't think playing cleanly necessarily means that one will be less interesting musically. There are more people in the world than ever and there are more violinists from more countries than ever. With our rapid means of  communication today, more information is shared and digested and therefore, it is not surprising that there are more players who play at a higher technical level than ever before. True artistry and deepest communication still remain rare. This is the province of  the individual who knows his or her craft so well that they are free to release all that is in their heart and soul with no obstacles or inhibitions.


September 1, 2009 at 03:37 AM ·

I prefer to hear more little buzz or scratches but to hear a confident and soulful player (some said this of Oistrakh.)   definitivly technique should serve sound... I quite of agree with this article and I feel it much in pieces like Mozart. Mozart steels requires a little energy to be appealing to my ear. A perfect Mozart but alway pp and with little bows to be so so sure to play clean is not interesting for me as a listener.  When the playing becomes too narrow in order to play the most accurately possible I HATE it. But I respect so much anyone who is courageous ennough to play whatever their way of playing.  (sometimes I hate very much something that I know I couldn't do better or couldn't do it at all!!! But my ear is better than my body!!! Can't help it)


September 1, 2009 at 03:50 AM ·


Casy, just curious. When you say `video of Heifetz` last cocnert` which video are you referring to?   His actuall last cocnert is on CD only I think.  



September 1, 2009 at 07:43 PM ·

I guess what I remember reading that there has been less and less frequent use of portamento since Heifetz.  Unless you're Joshua Bell :)

September 1, 2009 at 09:21 PM ·

I'm with Anne-Marie.  I have CDs of Du Pre & Ma playing Dvorak Cello Concerto and I like Jacqueline's better.  With all due respect to Yo Yo Ma, his version is so clean it's almost sterile for me.

September 1, 2009 at 09:38 PM ·

So clean means.... shifts...?  no roughness, no edge to the sound?

September 1, 2009 at 11:21 PM ·


the word `clean` began to be applied to performances in the last part of the 20c who began increasingly to eschew shifting (as in audible slides,  portamento). Perlman`s wonderful riposte to students who said they `prefer clean players` was `I suppose singers are dirty then?`



September 1, 2009 at 10:45 PM ·

By clean playing I do not mean not making noticable shifts or slides. In fact, especially in Romantic era music, it would be unthinkable to avoid the use of portamenti since it is so very much associated with that era. The modern quality of Heifetz, for example, in using the portamenti is that he vibrated as part of the process so the slides do not sound as scoopy and swoopy, for lack of a better term, as those violinists who used them at the turn of the 20th century without vibrato. 

   As for Jacqueline DuPre, she played with more portamenti than most of today's cellists- she used it to telling effect! Royce you would probably enjoy the film of her playing the Elgar concerto- such sensitvitiy she put into the piece and her glissandi and portamenti were so heart-rending, full of the deepest feeling in the music.

   It is true that when one deliberately avoids the sound of portamenti it can create a sterile effect on Romantic era music. It is a matter of taste and perhaps in reaction to what was heard towards the end of the 19th century, the style changed in the 20th century to reflect less grand portamenti. The use of portamenti is only one aspect of expressive playing though. Far more crucial is how the bow is used. The variety of shadings and color from the bow combined with a unique  vibrato are at the heart of one's individual artistic voice on the violin.

     The choice of when to slide or use portamenti and when not to even in a piece where portamenti are expected and encouraged often separates a great artist from a lesser one.  For example, Nathan Milstein's playing is often characterized as being patrician for his  judicious use of portamenti but it is certainly not at all lacking in powerful emotional expression. His playing is very clean in the best sense of the word. The notes are extremely well articulated and his  bowing  even in passages where one might expect and accept a fair amount of roughness such as the doublestop passages in the first movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto which employ fifths high up on the the violin,  displays the greatest  ease and sophistication yet lacks no sense of emotional drive and  vigor.

    David Oistrakh played also with great cleanliness in his bowing yet produced a very full and lustrous tone lacking nothing in power and resonance. Again, we have here an artist of great individuality who did not overstate the use of portamenti but used them beauytifully when he did and played with great intelligence and heart.

    Perhaps what happens is that players get it into their mind that they shouldn't slide whjen in fact, the problem is not the idea of sliding but really when to slide and how to slide so you achieve the emotional effect you feel deep inside. It is an art and cannot just be slapped on to a group of notes. The timing is a crucial factor and the choice to allow an intermediary tone to be heard or not also characterizes the portamento. The recordings of the  greatest artists are wonderful teachers in this respect - Kreisler is a prime example. A piece like his Liebesleid would be unthinkable without the use of his style of portamento.






September 1, 2009 at 11:01 PM ·

 To Stephen Brivati

The last video recording of Heifetz is his recital and Max Bruch Scottish Fantasy with the French National Opera orchestra at the Champs Elisees Theatre in Paris. It was In the late 70s.



September 1, 2009 at 11:23 PM ·


ah video.  Thanks.   You probably know that Heifetz had a completely off night for him that night and was chagrined that a recording was actually made ;)



September 2, 2009 at 02:28 AM ·

I wish people would quit framing the discussion in these terms of "clean vs. interesting." Scratchy bowstrokes and missed notes, though they happen to the best of us, are not artistic elements nor are they particularly expressive. Technical mastery should be a prerequisite--should be assumed as a given--before any musician steps out on stage to perform, anything less is disrespectful to the audience, the composer and the performer him/herself. Some of the discussions here on this topic seem to converge on the peculiar dictum that a musician who plays with and/or strives for flawless technique is *necessarily* somehow disregarding and falling short of Great Art.

All of that said, I DO wish people would be a little more imaginative when it comes to the old warhorses. (Beginning of the first theme of the first movement of Tchaikovsky VC. A-F#. Why must EVERYONE slide?) It's a kind of intellectual laziness--they've always heard it that way and see no need to ever question whether or not it actually sounds good or fits the character or whether or not they actually want to do it in the first place.

And as for "competition playing"--I recall many a discussion with my teacher this summer that began with me doing something mildly unorthodox (or sometimes barking mad) and him cautioning me "ok, but don't do that in a competitition, the jury is just looking for reasons to eliminate people!" (Cheers, E.) Well I would just like to say that I wait eagerly for the day when the contestants of some big and influential competition all unexpectedly start throwing their own individual interpretations and artistic statements at the startled panel of judges, some probably more tastefully and effectively than others, but to such an extent that the jury will end up forced to eliminate those unhappy souls who have nothing WHATSOEVER to say with their music, rather than our current situation which seems to be quite the other way around.

September 2, 2009 at 02:54 AM ·

Mara hits on many interesting points. One should want to play clearly and with the best technique you can and that does not mean that you have to sacrifice making real music with real emotional power and depth of expression. And she's right about not always playing a well known piece the same way just because a tradition of doing certain things a certain way  has developed overtime.

 As an example of a refreshing interpretation in terms of rhythmic subtlety and  shifting and portamenti in not always the expected places listen to Milstein's recording of the Tchaikovsky concerto with Abbado conducting made  when  Milstein was in his seventies. No scratch in the most difficult places yet exuberant, lively, confident playing- and  no slide from the A to F# Mara was talking about.

  A violinist who was a competition winner and didn't play safely "within bounds" or based on accepted traditions is Barnabas Kelemen-  fantastic imagination- very original interpretations of Sarasate Zigeunerweisen and other pieces- great violinist!


September 2, 2009 at 03:52 AM ·

Hey, Mara. Did you graduate from Oberlin already? I saw that you're in NY now.

September 2, 2009 at 07:44 PM ·

I appreciate all your opinions, guys! Anybody else?

September 2, 2009 at 08:28 PM ·

I do must confess, that even I look forwards to being able to play so pure, and clean like Yo-Yo Ma, and another is Madori!  To be that tecnically perfect...... Sometimes I like a peice played that clean and other times I don't.  I love Jannis Joplin's whisky voice singing the blues!  But there are other songs and genres that it wouldn't sound good.

September 2, 2009 at 08:48 PM ·

There's a book called "Performing Music in the Age of Recording" that you might enjoy reading. It traces the evolution of performance practice over the last century.

When considering the role of portamenti in quartet playing of the past, that is to highlight voice-leading, we might have to an extent thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

So I'd like to make the point that if you are thinking of employing lots of portamenti in the context of a string group, don't overlook the fact that a portamento on one part draws huge attention to it, so while it might seem a nice idea to add some expression to an individual line, it's a good idea to stand back and look at the global context and how that 's going to affect the harmonic emphasis and voice-leading.

Personally I like no vibrato at all on a slow portamento spanning a small interval, but my idea here might be thinking of it more as a compositional element related to more recent music. The pitch change makes it already stand out.



September 3, 2009 at 06:16 AM ·

One meaning that some people attach to the word "clean" is playing without portamenti.  This strikes me as nothing less than absurd, and I believe that Itzhak Perlman saw it that way when he said: "Do you mean that singers are dirty?".

Another context in which I've heard the term "clean" used is the bean counting context, i.e. listening to a performance to count wrong notes.  Certainly, an out of tune note or displeasing noise makes the performance somewhat less than what it could be. However, the effect of this blemish upon the performance lies in the context of this one note amongst the hundreds or thousands of other notes in the performance. The artistic impact of this blemish upon the performance might be more or less, and it might be relatively inconsequential.  It may be that, in one particular performance, the failure to do a really gorgeous portamento is more of an artistic loss than the failure to play the 82nd of 2,000 notes.


September 3, 2009 at 09:42 AM ·


As you can see,  Oliver rarely reads my posts,  but I read his.  Not surprising. His are better;)



September 3, 2009 at 12:51 PM ·

I find it more interesting if there is some evidence that the recording was not made by a machine. I feel the same about violins. Persians felt the same about their carpets. This is a modern attitude, where we expect our violins to look as though they were made in a plastic telephone factory, and our recordings to have been generated by the violin equivalent of a player piano. To my ears, there are some spectacular failures among modern violinists because the CD-buying public is unable recognize artistic playing and reward that, but they can recognize the lack of errors. This is not to say that perfection is bad, but when it becomes the prime consideration of an unsophisticated public, it squeezes out art, and that is bad.

For me, part of the appreciation of listening to music is being able to see the person behind the music. When all I can see is a soulless machine, flat and perfect, I don't find the same enjoyment. I've been polling players recently on who their favorite violinists are, and why. Usually they mention things like being able to lead you through a piece as if on a trip, or having a great overall conception of a piece--both difficult concepts that I confess my understanding is not sophisticated enough to get. They never mention perfection, and they also almost never mention any of the modern crowd of note-perfect players.

"Materialism coarsens and petrifies everything, making everything vulgar, and every truth false."
--Henri Frederic Amiel

September 3, 2009 at 01:05 PM ·


This is interesting.  Recordings are tricky.  Hilary Hahn said somewhere in an interview (I hope that I don't misquote) something to the extent that in the old days the microphones captured the sound differently than it does today.  Maybe that has something to do with it.  The other thing too is the million edits to satisfy critics who expect a perfect performance.  Many of the older artists (Heifetz was one especially) disliked this because they thought that it destroyed the continuity of the line.  Also, people often forget that CD's are not a continuous sound but made of pixels of sound (unlike tape and the resulting vinyl records).  Though most people are told that the difference cannot be heard, I have always found that not to be true when I compare the original 33rpms or 78rpms to the CD remakes.  Something of the warmth and intensity seems to have gotten lost in the CD processing that was their in the original (a fantastic comparison is the recording of the Brahms Double Concerto with Oistrakh/Rostropovitch/Szell).

You know, there have been so many changes in our art (synthetic strings, shoulder rests, etc., etc.) that comparing is quite difficult.  Also, recordings and live are now two very different things. There is a host right now of fantastic players with a technical standard beyond imagination and communication to boot - think Vengerov, Repin, Ehnes, Zimmerman, etc. (I wish I could list them all) so I find it hard to say that clean and communicative can't be on stage at the same time.

I think that the limitation does not come from clean per say, but from the exaggerated expectation of perfection (especially from critics, mediocre conductors and wannabes, not regular audience members) that players think they must fulfill in order to get gigs and make a living.  This is somehow transmitted into players expecting that from themselves who will do anything not to feel the constant hurt of crap being said every time they are on stage where they want to give everything of themselves to those in the audience.  The audience takes it, and many of their peers reject it.  Funny, huh...  Maybe something to think about as people crap on artists (even on this site...) who standard of playing they cannot even hope to achieve.  On many levels, you have created that about which you are complaining.

September 3, 2009 at 01:34 PM ·

Hi, Interesting!!! Could it also be because in the elder days each students had more attention and it was a little less (no 1, no 2 no3 next...)  to not say "commercial".   Maybe I am completely wrong here!!! More attention not only = good technical knowledge but also more time to think about music, interesting interpretations etc etc etc


September 3, 2009 at 01:39 PM ·

Bravo, Christian (and everyone else).

In today's world, everyone is a professional critic of almost anything. Thanks to the Internet, anyone's opinion has almost equal exposure to that of the great music critics of the past, whose reviews were read by a fraction of a fraction of the number of people who today stumble across anyone willing to put their opinion on the Internet.

I think it is the rare violinist (not only violinist, but anyone in almost any profession) who can surmount the demands for perfection in a combination of technical excellence, attention to detail, minimization of mistakes, consistency of interpretation with what is expected, genuineness and ability to project genuine emotionality, and individuality of inner vision. To do all this with courage and confidence, and at the same time not to be inhibited by the constant barbs of the critics, is a real accomplishment.

September 3, 2009 at 07:12 PM ·

 Buri wrote: "As you can see,  Oliver rarely reads my posts,  but I read his."  

I most eagerly read your posts, and was in fact referencing your earlier post when repeating the Perlman quote in mine. (Though I ought to have indicated the reference by writing: "As Buri said earlier,")  :)

Michael Darnton wrote: "For me, part of the appreciation of listening to music is being able to see the person behind the music."

A wonderful point.  There is a Hassidic story in which the Baal Shem Tov (a founder of the Hassidic movement within Judaism) reported that he heard "all the sins of the violinist" when he heard a violinist playing at an inn.  

When I listen to Kreisler I feel that his violin is a truth machine which makes hearing his playing something like having a great human being as a friend. When I was a child I felt that the reason I enjoyed Heifetz's playing more than my own was that he was a better person than I.  I thought - if only my soul possessed the kindness and goodness that I heard in Heifetz's playing, my own playing would please me as much as his!  I no longer hold this childhood view, yet I have never completely abandoned it.  I still think that the violin is a truth machine. Sometimes this looking deeply into the soul of the violinist seems to reveal a horrifying emptiness. When this happens one might wish that the player had a less accomplished technique, so the listener would be spared from the horror. Sometimes there is great beauty revealed.

The person, as a social human being, may or may not match up to the distillation of goodness in the performance.  So if somebody plays like an angel and behaves like a jerk, I still hold to my view of the truth machine. --I'll say that the noble soul heard through the violin is the real person, but he hasn't yet learned to reveal himself through his social behavior: he reveals it only through his violin behavior.

September 3, 2009 at 08:04 PM ·

The basic feeling I get from a lot of you guys is that you prefer a performer with soul, and you abhor a master technician who might leave you feeling empty. 


And yes, Hilary Hahn said that on her DVD, Hilary Hahn, a Portrait.

September 3, 2009 at 08:43 PM ·

If the question is whether I would choose music or machine, it's music every time for me. Without the music, don't you think the whole thing is kind of meaningless?

September 3, 2009 at 10:19 PM ·

Yes, of course!  Music all the time... but I think people are concerned that there are indeed "machines" out there. 

September 3, 2009 at 10:46 PM ·

I believe that there are players who believe that they are doing more than being a machine, yet are failing to do that.  I don't expect that a single one of them would recognize that they have placed perfection over art. Who would be capable of seeing himself that way? People don't understand what they don't understand, mostly.

September 4, 2009 at 12:51 AM ·

Michael Divino wrote: "The basic feeling I get from a lot of you guys is that you prefer a performer with soul, and you abhor a master technician who might leave you feeling empty. "

I agree with what you say, but would rather word it:  I prefer a master technician with soul!! Without technique the soul is the player's private secret. One needs technique to convey the expressive content to others. Technique does not oppose the expression; it enables it. 

September 4, 2009 at 12:58 AM ·

But it does not guarantee it.

September 4, 2009 at 01:06 AM ·

Oliver, I must say I agree!

September 4, 2009 at 01:24 AM ·

 Michael Darnton wrote: "But it (high technical level) does not guarantee it (soul stirring performance)."

That's for sure!

September 4, 2009 at 02:40 AM ·

I have a question to ask as part of this thread. Do you think the same thing has happened to singing and piano playing also? Has their been a trend towards "cleaner" playing  and in the process sacrificing real communication and individuality? Is this a societal issue- that in the effort to imitate the perfection of recordings we have unconsciously pursued technique separated from music making which as Oliver Steiner has pointed out is meant to serve the music and enable musical expression. If so, is it the fault of teachers who have trained their students to think this way? Is it the fault of conductors who have attempted to eliminate imprecise ensemble and weed out those whose rhythmic sense and individual sound cannot conform or blend  with the whole? Is  this something self imposed by all musicians because to survive one has to measure up to a standard below which one will not get employed?  For those players who do communicate in an individual way through a superlative technique that serves their ends, have some of them perhaps achieved a kind of idiosyncratic individuality  in order to distinguish themselves from other world renowned players? Do some of these players, despite their individuality, seem to have calculated their interpretation?

Why was it possible in the first half of the century to have such obvious differences in violin sound? Is it the uniqueness of the impulse vibrato as  one of the main components as Stephen Redrobe describes in his video or was it something else or in addition-  was there a greater acceptance  and appreciation of the uniqueness of different approaches and sounds by the musicians themselves? When did this change? Was it after WWII that more uniformity in violin sound was insisted upon because of the dominance of a particular school of bowing or way of holding the bow?  Are those teachers who came from  a tradition that accepted and fostered variety and individualism "guilty" of changing  their focus such that the next generation of players ended up less individualistic and varied? Or did the students of these teachers make this change on their own  because of some larger force at work influencing them in the competition for a career?

 And finally, if you feel we've lost something precious and valuable from the past,  how  would you suggest we get back what we've lost? 

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