February 23, 2010 at 11:11 PM ·

Although I first picked up a violin as a kid, I've only began serious study about 5 years ago. When I began my lessons I had a basic understanding of first and third position, but my intonation was mediocre at best, bowing was a disaster, my vibrato was practically non-existant, not to mention a host of other issues. I've worked very hard to overcome these issues; have develeoped a relatively keen ear, fixed my bowing & vibrato, and am well on my way to conquering (most of) the technical stuff. What I can't do, however, is achieve the sort of brilliant musicality I see/hear when my instructor plays, and when I watch videos of the pros. When I play, I sound like a student practicing, bottom line. I hear the music in my head, I know what I want it to sound like, only I just... can't get it to come out right. I don't really know how to explain this any better. I was wondering if anyone had any advice, or could share any experiences on crossing that very fine line between student and musician...

Replies (35)

February 24, 2010 at 01:39 AM ·

If you've got a basic technical grounding for a piece of music, start being adventorous with bow distribution, speed. Play a phrase without feeling like there is one correct way to do it and then try something that is completely different.. Let your ear and the tension and release of the harmony  be your guide.

February 24, 2010 at 04:15 AM ·


Drew Lecher has provided excellent technical detail on how to implement what John is talking about in his blogs over the last year.   I`m not going to find it for you though;)  You should read them all anyway....



February 24, 2010 at 04:36 PM ·

Playing musically is trully a physical skill.  We start off by imitating another violinist and then venturing into our own interpretations.  So begin there, pick just one melody from a piece you're working on and listen to a violinist you like.  Listen to how he/she shapes the musical line.  Then sing along with the recording, imitating their musical line.  Then just sing it without the recording.  Finally put it into action with your violin.  Do this repeatedly.

Secondly, pick an easy piece like twinkle twinkle and sing it using expressive dynamics.  Do something wild and crazy and unusual.  Sing it several different ways and then after each play it with your violin imitating your voice.

February 24, 2010 at 05:00 PM ·

When you are playing, don't accentuate your mistakes, if you make them. Minimize them.

When you are practicing, don't let the mistakes overcome the purpose of the practice.

February 24, 2010 at 05:08 PM ·


It's not easy explaining how to be musical in an internet forum, let alone an article or even a book. That's why people study for years. Every single thing we do contributes to musicality.


That being said, I can make 3 generalizations:

1. Musical expression is based on the shaping of phrases (musical ideas). Does the phrase have a beginning, middle (high point), and convincing ending? 

2. Many students don't sound musical because they have not learned to distribute their bows properly, usually getting stuck at one end or another, leading to......

3. ......false accents. Putting accents where they shouldn't be, such as at the end of a phrase, is similar to accenting the wrong syllables in language: people might understand you, but you won't sound like a native speaker.

February 24, 2010 at 10:50 PM ·


At the beginning, imitation is a perfectly valid method of learning ANY art. One could say the that child prodigies excel at imitation. After all, one must absorb a style and a sound, and that is always done by listening to others at first. Students who are unable to produce a beautiful tone often can't because they are unable to emulate. Naturally a 40-year-old musician shouldn't seek to imitate, but but initially it is part of the learning process. None of us become artists in a bubble.

And yes, triplets ARE annoying...


February 25, 2010 at 12:32 AM ·

Is imitation confined to just one artist?

Should one listen to many artists playing the same piece? Then maybe one would realise the vast scope of expression/musicality possible in the art of violin playing.

Buri. please provide the link to Drew's blog, I can't find it!

Play a few jigs, then you'll never have any problems with triplets. 


February 25, 2010 at 01:30 AM ·

One way to make progress is to memorize the piece that you are working on.  When your eyes are no longer focused on the sheet music, you can put more attention to the musicality of the piece using the techniques already mentioned.

February 25, 2010 at 03:06 AM ·


that`s a good point Mendy.  A while back I met the leader of the Milan Symph,  a great violnist called Angelo (I think;)  . He certainly played like an angel. We were talking about the best advice to give a young player and he said `That`s easy. learn your piece by heart.   Then you know its in your heart and played form the heart.`

(Bit of  heart attack perhaps?)




February 25, 2010 at 04:14 AM ·

I'm with Scott - bow distribution makes all the difference.  I have had two teachers who didn't talk about this at all, and my third teacher made me do it from the first lesson -  the piece was simple, from my Grade 3 exam, two quavers.  It never sounded like I wanted it to, and she says "what's the length of these notes?": 1/2 each.  "Are these 1/2 's equal?": yes. "So why don't you give them each the same amount of bow?" [well, it never occurred to me....]

The difference was immediate.  I had played the correct note, for the correct amount of time, but I had used more bow for the first and less for the second, and that gave exactly what Scott alluded to, and it made of my playing sound studentish.  We spend ages looking for perfect bow distribution. she reinforces the idea of perfect motion (you'll like that one, Buri) - if the same phrase/pattern is repeated, it must be able to be produced with exactly the same amount of bow each time.  As I said,previous teachers didn't cover this ground, and I think that some teachers don't treat is as an essential from day one. 

Also, what Mendy suggests.  This is easier when you have memorised, but if you can't do a whole piece, get a few bars that you like, under your belt.

Also, with intonation, I think that gradually sliding slightly south of the note or moving audibly just beyond the note when you shift, can also be a culprit. I notice when not at my best, I get to the note but I am audible in that last minute fine adjustment, it doesn't make you wince as such, but it is less convincing.

February 25, 2010 at 04:44 AM ·

I don't consider myself being an expert, but do let me share some of my $0.02.

Basically, you have to play like how you sing. When you sing, you'll forget about what you do, you only concentrate on what you hear. Same with the violin, concentrate on what you hear. I think has something to do with what Buri has mentioned, if you can learn the piece by heart, you're free from visual distraction and you can pay more attention to your sound.

I almost never been able to recall what I do if I don't pay attention to what I do. I can, however, play the same phrase with the same emotion everytime, because I have a very clear idea on how I sound, my hands will just follow automatically.

It's music afterall, you'll have to do according to what you hear, not what you do. You might have perfect bow distribution, perfect vibrato swing, perfect fingerings (that you pay so much attentions to them all), but they mean nothing until you pay attention to how they sound. To me, it's like workouts rather than music making...

February 25, 2010 at 01:40 PM ·

"Marina     Imitate another violinist?Oh ,I don`t like the sound of that.Do you think that`s wise? Do you sometimes make the little devils struggle, just  to see what happens? There is maybe too much on tap electronically . One thing I have noticed lately is the way triplets are brushed aside as if they are a bit of a nuisance.The loud ,soft contrast is a thing of the past in Pop music.Smother it all in too much vibrato and a dollop of Ketchup.    Lovely grub. It`s all there in the culture ( small c ).  So already there is plenty to run away from before we even start."

Eventhough you don't like the sound of it the truth is that this is how one initially learns.  By imitating.  That's how we learn to speak when we are toddlers, it is how we learn to speak other languages, and music of course is a language.  In fact musicians do this so much that some eventually fall into the danger of imitating for the duration of their careers.  It happens.  The point is to imitate until you've learned the physical mechanics of expression and then go on to use those physical tools to create your own interpretation. 

A phrase is comprised of dynamics, rhythmic distribution, and changes in tempo.  I agree that bow distribution is the single most important factor in achieving any of these.  Too many teachers get caught up in "play from the heart" when the heart has little to do with it if you don't know the mechanics of how to do a crescendo, how to slow down or increase your vibrato, or know which part of your bow will give you the sweetest piano.


February 25, 2010 at 03:21 PM ·

NOT listen & imitate? Before written music, and in the musics of many cultures up to current times, all music was a process of imitation. Even the originator of a given tune or style, however far back in history, built on something he or she had heard. That might have been sounds from nature like running water or birds' calls, but it was imitative. We are lucky to be able to draw on many sources & recombine sound in novel, creative ways, or 'recreate' musics, as in folks who strive to sound authentically medieval. Some players do become so individually creative & expressive that they play something "everybody knows",  which is thus by definition imitative, but we instantly recognize them by their sound.     

February 25, 2010 at 03:53 PM ·

Yes, learn by heart.

Sing the piece from memory.

Make articulation clearer/crunchier than you imagine, so that the listener (who does not have access to your inner ear) can grasp the phrase.

Scratch and noise can be your friends: they define your notes/phrases/lines like consonants separate vowels.

Exaggerate ever so slightly. Too much is hamming it up, not enough, and the listener won't get it.

Look after the ends of your notes, phrases and lines as much as their beginnings.

Control the whole note/phrase/line.

Play the piece how you would like to hear it. Concentrate on the sound.


February 26, 2010 at 03:23 PM ·

Imitation??? I experienced a funny thing as an old starter. I had never heard much violin and cetainly didn't hear and know any violinists. I come from a non-musical family.  For the first 2 years I played, I didn't listen and know the names of famous soloists so I guess I wasn't influenced by them.  Happilly for me, my (amateur but you know what I mean) trademarks I had then according to examinators, parents, audience etc are still those I have today.  Just that I learned technique and still have to learn much technique to always be more true to my style.  It was then no surprise that when I got aware of the "super star" violinists and violin masters, I sticked to those who had similar ideas but 100% better executed them!!!  I'm very very happy that I wasn't aware of all these jewels of violinists when I started as I never felt I copy anyone.  

But  I did 2 years of flute, an instrument in which you can progress much faster,  before trying the violin and had a really good flute teacher to point out musical things in flute, prone clarity and solid sound.  Flute is very expressive and high pitched as like violin. Perhaps you can tranfer musicality from an instrument to another???  Maybe working with a pitch stable instrument before violin helped? So perhaps I could say I was influenced by my flute musicality that I transfered to violin?

But usually, I agree people imitate famous violinists since day one because they were exposed to this previously or by the teacher's advice.  It can't harm since it's really impossible to play like someone else. Physically everyone is different. 

To respond to the original question, I agree with the learning by heart and try to find what do you like? What characteristics that you would like to have in your playing? And how to technically achieve them (ask to you teacher and search for these answers)

Good luck!



February 26, 2010 at 04:39 PM ·

There is a little more to sounding musical than doing what you feel. Most of us feel differently

from day to day and what one thinks is 'playing a phrase how we feel' is often dictated by limitations of technique such as bow control and left hand technique.

True musicianship comes from a synthesis of the conscious intellect and the unconscious emotional centre. Studying the harmony,  form and historical context of a work is be a good way to start. Try to find what the composer is expressing and how you can be a conduit to express that to your audience.

For example to play a Mozart concerto, learning the piece with a metronome and playing accurately is just the start. Read Leopold Mozart's book on violin playing, listen to the Operas, play the string quartets and find out why Mozart was such an admirer of JS Bach. 

As far as context is concerned, Mozart is in the transition between the Enlightenment where it was believed man's development was through rational thought and logic and not through divine

inspiration, and the Romantic era where the idea of the 'self' and individual expression emerged.

Hence a good musician will play Mozart differently from Tchaikovsky and know why.

February 27, 2010 at 07:00 AM ·

John Cadd: "Mostly this has been about learning music.Especially by very young players.That`s not really the topic is it?      Playing even bow lengths is almost the opposite."

I'm going to disagree, John.  Firstly, most of the discussion has been first hadn accounts of how an adult (younger/older) has approached developing musical playing, I didn't find it veered towards the very young player perspective. 

Second, 'playing even bow lengths' was not the entirety of the point, of indicating that skilled bow distribution is a part of playing of playing musically. this means in whatever proportion the interpretation demands of the bow distribution. The most advanced players need to make a commitment to how they will distibrute, and make sure it happens the way they plan, and test the results. 

I think you're confusing the development of an individual interpretation or style, with playing musically.  The former can happen using all the suggestions you've made, but no one's gonna wanna hear it unless it it sounds pleasing, and for that you need to develop the techniques of playing phrases and dynamics.

February 27, 2010 at 03:21 PM ·

 >We start off by imitating another violinist and then venturing into our own interpretations.  So begin there, pick just one melody from a piece you're working on and listen to a violinist you like.  Listen to how he/she shapes the musical line.  Then sing along with the recording, imitating their musical line.  Then just sing it without the recording.  Finally put it into action with your violin. 


I do this as a writer, as well, as I struggle to improve my my craft. (Yes, down to the "listening" to the musicality and the "singing." Words have to sing too.) 

And the "learn by heart" issue - ah, well put. So Zen, really, that phrase. So many levels to explore. Musicality, after all, resides in the heart. It just has a much softer voice; you really have to listen for it. And be very patient. And practice practice practice.

February 28, 2010 at 05:35 AM ·

Blood, sweat & tears.

February 28, 2010 at 03:32 PM ·

Perhaps Royce has part of the answer... there have always been lucky naturally talented musicians (some were quite naughty kids...) but those who always sounded the most musical (From Kreisler to Oistrakh as an example) are often those who had many challenges in their lives, harsh conditions etc.    Perhaps they know how to deliver this hope message better than anyone else...

But still they have to had the technique to materialize it.... ; )


February 28, 2010 at 04:53 PM ·

Alison, i'm in the same moment that you are. Looking for our  own sound...

If you love what you do and you're patient you'll find the answer by yourself. I really think that the answer is inside yourself. BE PATIENT AND KEEP LOOKING FOR. If you do just what other people says you'll never find something autentic (beacuse YOU never did it, your way could be diferent, interesting)

No one can speak in the name of BEAUTY.

best wishes,


February 28, 2010 at 09:06 PM ·

Anne-Marie is a dear friend of mine and she is tuned in to what I am saying!  Listen too her!!!

February 28, 2010 at 09:20 PM ·

Think like an engineer.  Experiment. What must you do to get what you want?  Acquire reading skills and read books like, "The Way They Play"  and the book by Drew lecher, a v.commie and master violinist here.  Look up Stephen Baravati (Buri) posts and blogs.  Dig for the gem stones in these materials! !  and consume yourself with studiful practice.  watch the masters on You tube.  ask accomplished violinists well thought out questions.  And love the chasing of the dream!

March 1, 2010 at 03:06 AM ·

Ah, there has been such a wonderful offering of good advice (and debate, apparently) here. I am sorry I didn't see much of this sooner. I guess the bottom line here is that there is no way to describe musicality, is there? Perhaps it is something you just "find" sooner or later... On the upside, the piece I am working on has been very-much memorized for weeks now, so I suppose that works to my advantage.

Anyway, someone asked me for a specific example, so hopefully this will help shed some light on what I am trying to accomplish. I am working on the Beethoven Romance in F. The part I am "disliking" most is on the second page, there is a run of repeated sixteenth notes for several measures (BCBCBC etc., leading into what is more or less an ascending chromatic scale). When I play this, it sounds like an exercise, honestly. I've played around with crescendos, and tempo but it always sounds so... forced. This is a good example of what I am trying to do overall, too. I either sound like a student practicing, or if not that, then a student trying make a step towards musicality but not quite getting there :)

March 1, 2010 at 09:37 AM ·

I wrote a thoughtful response to this thread, but it wouldn't load, and now it's lost.  This seems to happen to me on this website more often than I'm able to handle.

March 1, 2010 at 05:22 PM ·

i too think that it works like this... you get a piece, learn the notes (in the right order! ahaha)/rythm/technicals, then concentrate on expression. vibrato is v v important especially for the expression bit.

March 1, 2010 at 10:51 PM ·


when I am writing longer and more thoughtful things, I write it in Kwrite (notebook) and then copy-paste. I have also lost too many posts by not doing that.



March 2, 2010 at 04:13 PM ·

Emily, I have run into the same thing, losing my masterpiece, so what I do on any response but a note is bring up a wordpad or works or word window and type my response on that. Then highlight and copy it and paste it on this message menu hole, then save it to my computer files.   I have lost my planned posts so many times it is painful, also very discouraging also very easy to do.  One wrong keystroke is all it takes or the system just eats it.

Make a Posts folder and save your posts rough cuts in that.  I even manage to go back and copy and post  parts of such records on new questions on different sites.  I bet many of us do the same....

Laurie, love this site.  Great work and source of information and inspiration.


March 2, 2010 at 06:02 PM ·

John, I guess YouTube is a great resource for this kind of thing. I am sometimes worried about comparing this way since I still have a relatively difficult time determining which videos are the really "good" ones. I tried pairing together the notes in the repeated part, which I think did make it a bit more interesting, and separating the bows in the cromatic part definately sounds better. It's still not really what I want it to be, but it's a start. Thanks :)

March 3, 2010 at 04:00 AM ·


>I am working on the Beethoven Romance in F. The part I am "disliking" most is on the second page, there is a run of repeated sixteenth notes for several measures (BCBCBC etc., leading into what is more or less an ascending chromatic scale). When I play this, it sounds like an exercise, honestly. I've played around with crescendos, and tempo but it always sounds so... forced. This is a good example of what I am trying to do overall, too. I either sound like a student practicing, or if not that, then a student trying make a step towards musicality but not quite getting there :)


I think you are feeling a little lost here so I would like to suggest you appraoch the issue in a completely different way.  Forget the violin part.  Sit down at the piano and play the accompaniament over and over for those few bars.  Let the harmony and line of music take oyu where it wants to go.  Don`t go back to the violin until you can here this in your head from memory as it dictates itself to you.

Only then go back to the violin part and never play that unles you are actually hearing the background against which it is set and responding to that. 



March 4, 2010 at 06:16 PM ·

John, thanks, you have been so helpful on this. Yes, I have been using 223. I'll give 233 a try when I get home later today!

March 5, 2010 at 08:31 PM ·

 Hi John

Perhaps you could record a quick sample for us to hear?

May be very helpful for the younger players on the forum.

July 17, 2010 at 10:32 AM ·

 Here's a simplistic answer:


Don't be afraid.  


Learn to play with confidence, even when you don't have any.  Play with gusto, with bravura, no matter what your skill level.  Let that bow go!


As my greatest teacher once said:  "When you make mistakes, make them loudly."

July 17, 2010 at 11:31 AM ·

Allan, excellent advice. If I may add my two cents...

Exaggerate and don't be afraid fo the dramatic! ;o)

My hero, Gil Shaham, recorded "Romanza Andaluza" by Pablo de Sarasate. I have never tried to play it because of his recording! Every time I'd hear it I'd be like WOW that must be tough to play! Then, one day I found the sheet music online and I said, hey what the heck, and I downloaded it. It's not that hard to play. Gil just does a great job of romanticizing it. I wanna be just like him!

July 17, 2010 at 11:02 PM ·

Alison,  I notice your original post is quite old now, but I'll suggest something. There's been a lot of good advice from the room so far, and I'd like to try a slightly different suggestion. It's hard to know what you sound like without hearing you, but I'm guessing that what you play is technically passable but maybe lacks a bit of expression? I've recorded a little sample of something I wrote. Very simple and straightforward, played as one might play from a score with no markings. The second part of the recording is the same sample, but this time there are more dynamics, pushed-pulled timing (varying the notes that you accent, changing your bow pressure), and generally more swing and life in it. I hope this will help you a bit. Please excuse the boxy sound quality - the room is totally bare at the moment, with no sound deadening.

The whole piece is here :

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