Playing with emotion

October 26, 2011 at 04:09 PM ·

When I usually go watch videos of violinsts playing, most comments refer to the person playing ,"with emotion". What does this actually mean? I may sound stupid but is it just playing the way you feel or something else?

Replies (42)

October 26, 2011 at 06:28 PM ·

Playing with emotion means: making faces, exaggerate movements, grotesque dynamics, funny vibrato, not being in time, playing out of tune.... all that kind of stuff ;)

I think it is different to everybody what he feels while playing. Also some players may think of technique while the public thinks they are playing "with emotion", some will think of their grandma dying while the listener gets to see a nasty face and an out of tune g-minor arpeggio...

Ok, without joking now: I think a good way of discovering something like emotional playing with a good soul body connection is a natural good rhythm (like in speaking). Also "correct" and thoughtful phrasing can lead to a certain type of expressive speach.

Personally I don't feel, that someone has to exaggerate something in music so that it comes out the listener. I feel that if you have something to say you do it. Sometimes you reach the public sometimes not. But if you exaggerate you and the art you try to interpret become a caricature, wich is pathetic and funny.

October 26, 2011 at 08:47 PM ·

 It's a difficult concept for many people. Playing with emotion, to me, means crafting almost every note and then showing that to the listener through your performance (interpretation) of the music and maybe in your body language too.

There are infinite possibles when playing a note on the violin, and most of this work needs to be done before you perform - in other words work out how you feel about a piece, a passage, a bar, a note until it rings a bell with your emotions. Music played too straight is almost non-music and music without respect to the style or conventions will often be too wild. Where you draw the line is a case of taste, training, personal boundaries and for most, input from a teacher. You cannot "force" emotion into music by showing us how you feel without the instrument being the no.1 element. I see (sadly) a lot of players who who get the two aspects of performance mixed up; they show emotion through body language but reflect none in their notes, or the other way round. It's a fine art, that's why the great players are fine artists.

October 27, 2011 at 02:27 AM ·

Playing with emotion means playing a piece in such a way as to elicit a particular emotional response in the listener.  You may feel an emotion when you are playing a passage, but to what extent is this feeling conveyed?

You're lucky that actually the violin is an exquisitely expressive instrument.  Remember, that's why they took the frets out of the fingerboard!  Try THAT on the piano.

October 27, 2011 at 03:57 AM ·

I see playing with emotion as really embodying what the message of the piece is. That can be through bodily movement, or facial expressions, or simply just the exaggeration of dynamics and playing technique. It is definitely easier said than done. Sometimes the message is so distinct that one can over do it an sometimes the message is so subtle that one doesn't know how much expression or emotion to put into it and you under do it. I find that simply using the music as a guide--the actual notes not the dynamics though those are also important-- helps to express it a certain way. My teacher makes me practice playing scales in different expressive ways. He'll say play this scale in a romantic way or a scary way and even though it's just a scale the way you go about expressing that emotion will help in the way you would go about expressing it in an actual musical setting. 


October 27, 2011 at 04:32 AM ·

In order to play with emotion you must LOVE the violin. Young people who are forced to play and adults who play as a hobby are NEVER able to play with emotion.

October 27, 2011 at 07:02 AM ·

 Sorry mention that 'adults who play as a hobby are NEVER able to play with emotion'.

I can't help but to be 'stirred' a little by that and also I can't help but to think that you can't REALLY believe that, it must be a 'typo' or you didn't express yourself the way you meant to?

I am an adult learner, I started learning at age 37, many of us adults can't help we could not start as children, life is life....we are now in situations where we are not so 'blessed' to be able to dedicate hours on end every day to the violin.  I can only give 2 hours a day to the violin (I have to give 12 hours a day 6 days a week to work and I am a single mother too), to me the violin IS A HOBBY by definition and I have 'copied and pasted the definition of HOBBY below taken from wikipedia'.

I LOVE THE VIOLIN TIL DEATH DO US APART, but I can't help it that IT IS A HOBBY as I will never be able to do it as a profession even though I love it just as much as a professional does.

I think maybe you meant that those who do it as a  'blaze' 'pass the time' thing (ie I'll do it just because the grandchildren want me to?) or a 'challenge'?  A hobby to many is indeed a serious thing....

here is below the definition of hobby:




hobby horse is a wooden or wickerwork toy made to be ridden just like a real horse (which was sometimes called a "Hobby"). From this came the expression "to ride one's hobby-horse", meaning "to follow a favorite pastime", and in turn, hobby in the modern sense of recreation.[1][2][3]

Hobbies are practiced for interest and enjoyment, rather than financial reward. Examples include collecting, creative and artistic pursuits, making, tinkering, sports and adult education. Engaging in a hobby can lead to acquiring substantial skill, knowledge and experience. However, personal fulfillment is the aim. People enjoy participating in competitive hobbies such as athletics, hockey, tennis etc.

What are hobbies for some people are professions for others: a chef may enjoy playing computer games as a hobby, while a professional game tester might enjoy cooking. Generally speaking, the person who does something for fun, not remuneration, is called an amateur (or hobbyist), as distinct from a professional.

Amateur astronomers often make meaningful contributions to the profession. It is not entirely uncommon for a hobbyist to be the first to discover a celestial body or event.

In the United Kingdom, the pejorative noun anorak (similar to the Japanese "otaku", meaning a geek or enthusiast) is often applied to people who obsessively pursue a particular hobby that is otherwise considered boring, such as train spotting or stamp collecting.




PS (sorry went 'off topic') go back on play with emotion is 'I think' to bring the emotion of the piece that you play 'alive' through the music by a multitude of things such as dynamics, vibrato (or not), speed of bow, tilt of bow, soundpoint, pressure of bow and so on I think, many of these things you do consciously, but many you do 'unconsciously' by 'immersing yourself' in the music and it comes with experience and only as you know the music very well and as you become much more advanced in your instrument I think, and you can't do it with pieces that are too difficult for you to play....

You can listen to some violinists sometimes bringing the 'incorrect' emotions out of a piece I think....something that 'feels' wrong ? anyone noticed this at all??? 


October 27, 2011 at 07:36 AM ·

Watch her face at 5:20

I think basically playing with emotion means you're not just putting your fingers down and moving the bow to play notes, and not even just making musical line, but experiencing and communicating the meaning that you find in the music.  Now if only I could figure out how to do it....

October 27, 2011 at 08:39 AM ·

 Of course you can play with emotion if it is a hobby.  There is often only a very fine dividing line between professionals and amateurs if one is sufficiently advanced in the instrument anyway.

As for the comments about adults playing the violin as a  hobby and not being able to express emotion is absolutely nonsense.  The  bottom line is you have to fall in love with the instrument.  I'm an adult learner (nearly 50) and have been playing for three and a half years, but play four hours a day.  Be it four hours or less, one can still play with emotion.  I do think that once one is more comfortable with technique, it is much easier.

I'm a linguist and love languages. and do this professionally.  This does not mean that all professionals convey love of the subject.  They might just do it 'cos they have to.  

Furthermore, one can be technically correct in either area, but not necessarily convey emotion.

I think the two main factors are, apart from some technical knowledge of course, is to fall in love and also a certain character predisposition- passion and enthusiasm.  Some people appear to never have that, as their characters are reserved.  I don't know the answer to this one.  Enthusiasm helps emotion and enthusiasm means 'en theos' - in God.   Jesus came to give us life in abundance so if we really enjoy what we do and see violin learning as an amazing gift when so few get the opportunity, we cannot help but enthuse and convey this in our playing.

October 27, 2011 at 10:56 AM ·

try to see it like you learn to speak at the early age: First you have ONLY expression like crying und screaming, then sometimes you learn new emotions and more subtle ones. After 1 year o so (!) you actually learn your first words.

Learning the violin unfortunately is a vera head-heavy procedure for most of us. Many people do know how to put their fingers right in the positions but they don't know what the violin and bow is really able to express. To learn that you have to experiment with sliding, pizzicato, flageolett, bowpressure and contact point. Try to express basic emotions with that "sounds" like anger, joy or sadness. Do it for some minutes a day and learn to know your instrument really.When you play a piece your mind will open up to the possibilities of the violin besides from playing "clean"and "in tune"... listen to Ivry Gitlis ;)

October 27, 2011 at 11:50 AM ·

 as simon earlier said, it can be outward appearances that is exaggerated.

i think of  it as having something to say because the player has connected to the piece/passage, and say it in a way that is effectively communicated to the audience. and every player does it differently even if equally effectively.  to do that well takes intention as well as skillz.

to many people, though, it simply means to kick it up another notch with vibrato:)

October 27, 2011 at 01:03 PM ·

Some players seem to add to their pieces intuitively in a way that listeners would say, "How expressive: beautiful, soothing, scary, heroic." Others seem to need guidance, a building of expressive vocabulary, as it were. Teachers can say, "This music seems __________ to me, and here are some things I do to get that idea across to the listener."  Sue

October 27, 2011 at 01:15 PM ·

 I really do not like the idea that, adult learners or amateurs cannot express emotion through music.  After all the definition of amateur is playing for the love.  I think in order to play with emotion you must feel strongly about things, also as a violin player you should generally be a person who is able to express them self physically.  But, you must have complete control over all the technical requirements of the piece, and know the piece inside out so you can tell the story the way you want to (in the same way that an actor will be in control of his body and voice).  The more easily you can perform the techniques in any given piece the greater your freedom to open your mind to other things whilst playing.  Finally, once all this is said and done, there is the interpretation to consider.  I think many players play with emotion but we do not necessarily like what they have to say so we say they are not very musical.  Whether you research the composers life and thoughts surrounding the piece, listen to many great artists of the past, take your inspiration from nature or just do it your own way is all debatable.  But which-ever way you choose to play it, it must be done with conviction.  Thats my view on playing with emotion


Oh p.s. always make sure your studies are harder than than the pieces you play

October 27, 2011 at 01:59 PM ·

Music is an emotional art. A great piece of music (whether it's Caprice Basque or a Bach cantata) is great because it evokes a range of genuine emotions and takes the listener on an emotional journey. The most rank amateur violinist is as capable as the greatest virtuoso in being sensitive to, and recognizing, and experiencing that emotion.

The difference is in the abilities involved in expressing that emotion and projecting it to an audience. Those abilities include obvious ones (technique, style of playing, following the score, dynamics, rhythm, etc.) and those perhaps less easy to define (e.g., capturing the musical and spiritual essence of the music as a moment in time).

But I don't think that as a human organism, we are all that different. That's what makes music a universal language. Yehudi Menuhin once said, "I'd hate to think I'm not an amateur." And Pablo de Sarasate said, "For 37 years I've been practicing 14 hours a day, and now they call me a genius." And I'd like to think that all of us amateurs have had our transcendent moments, even if it was one phrase that we turned just right 20 years ago.


October 27, 2011 at 02:17 PM ·

I think Roy Sonne did a wonderful job introducing some basics of playing with emotion in his DVD of the Accolay A minor concerto ( ).

I think that if you follow that presentation and then listen to recordings of some great string players (not necessarily just violinists) you will learn some of the "tricks" of "playing with emotion." Personally, I find that the great cellist Emanuel Feuermann cannot be beaten in this regard. Listening to the music of some great singers can also enhance ways of learning this.

It's not so much the emotion you are putting into it as it is that which the listeners will extract from it. By hearing great musicians and then analyzing the various things they are doing you can improve your own "playing with emotion."

To me there are several steps in the process - probably more than I've listed below.

1. What does the music say: what scenario or story can I bring out of it?

2. What techniques (and where) help achieve the story telling (i.e tempo, tempo changes, rubato, variations in dynamics, portamento, bow speed and sounding point, etc.).

Once you've worked this out, try it and see if it results in playing with emotion. By the time you get to an actual performance, the "emotion" can achieved by purely mechanical means - but you are still free to feel what you want to say and hope the audience hears it too.


October 27, 2011 at 05:16 PM ·

 For me, since the word 'emotion' can a bit loaded with meanings (pejorative as well as positive) I prefer to try to play expressively, which includes all the positive comments made above, but eliminates the possibly negative things like (over-) gesticulation or facial contortions.  

Expressive playing exploits all the techniques we study {at every age ;^ ) } to make the music speak as fully and richly and 'truly' as it can through us.  Bowing, rhythm, intonation, vibrato, rubato, dynamics--all those go to expressive playing, independent of what a face may be doing.

October 27, 2011 at 07:01 PM · Marjory, you put that very well. It sounded like kurt sassmannshaus was speaking

October 27, 2011 at 07:19 PM · I really like Marjory's explanation. I also think the ability to effectively convey expression requires a very solid technique.

October 28, 2011 at 01:35 PM · Over the years, I have noticed a certain disconnect in my students regarding playing their instruments, and playing their instruments musically. Although technical accomplishment is an important factor in expressing oneself, I am coming to the conclusion that if you can't sing it, you can't feel it. Just the effort of incorporating with the human voice (however badly) what you are trying to elicit from a musical instrument is a real game changer, in my opinion.

October 29, 2011 at 12:20 AM · What's with the really difficult questions; What's talent,what's musicality, why is the sky blue. The answers may seem obviouse but they are really hard to answer well.

You know you can tell someone what a laugh is ,and you can teach them how to laugh , and when you get them to the punch line you tell them when to laugh , but will they get the joke?

It takes more than feel. It takes imagination,creativity and control of the instrument.

October 29, 2011 at 01:32 AM ·

October 29, 2011 at 01:25 PM · Just a thought, but if you're a teacher, try this with your students. Ask them to play a piece all the way through - from beginning to end - with no emotion whatsoever. Just the notes - no feeling. It's actually a paradoxical approach, and I'll bet they can't do it without injecting some emotion somewhere.

October 29, 2011 at 10:57 PM · Interestingly, in a masterclass I saw with Dang Thai Son he actually said that you should never sing a phrase aloud at a certain point. It was somewhat hard to hear him, but I think his logic was that you will ruin your conception of the music with the limitations of your voice so you should instead sing it in your head exactly as you want it to be heard and then reproduce that on your instrument (in his case, the piano)

Kind of strange as many teachers have made me (and countless other students) sing in the past...

October 29, 2011 at 11:08 PM · Hello Edward!

I think playing with emotion refers to the fact that first you know how to express yourself, and second, there is something there inside that you want to express.

As for technique, I think you minimally need to achieve a lavel that is somehow affecting your days, I mean, playing the violin affects your days.....

good luck:


October 31, 2011 at 09:52 AM · Yes, emotion in music is something quite difficult to pin down, though you certainly know when you hear it!

As Krisztian says, you only need enough technique to be able to express yourself - the idea stated by some posters that you need superlative control of the instrument seems to be a peculiarity of the more elitist kind of classical musician.

Even with art music, I don't think this argument holds. One of my happiest musical memories is of listening to the primary school symphony orchestra at my school ripping through their concerts with joyous verve and panache. The average grade level can't have been more than III or IV, but they sure were fun to listen to!

In the world beyond art music I feel that technique becomes even less of a factor, beyond a bare minimum. With the kind of music I play, we're looking for lift, drive, imagination, listening and interplay. Give me that and the odd bum note matters very little.

Where does it come from, this emotion? Well, a deep understanding of the idiom for sure. Most of the best musicians I know listen very carefully to good players. They understand the history and cultural context of what they are playing, and the way phrasing, dynamics and ornamentation should work. But I think that this foundation has to be combined with an ability to throw yourself into the performance - to let the music flow from some place beyond the merely technical and analytical. In my own playing I find there are moments when it just takes off, but as soon as I start congratulating myself or analysing what I'm doing it all falls to bits. So understand the style, analyse the piece, master the notes, but then just let go and allow it to flow...

October 31, 2011 at 10:11 AM ·

October 31, 2011 at 12:15 PM · "Even with art music, I don't think this argument holds. One of my happiest musical memories is of listening to the primary school symphony orchestra at my school ripping through their concerts with joyous verve and panache. The average grade level can't have been more than III or IV, but they sure were fun to listen to!"

there may be some value added services on the part of the listeners in that case. it is different from the topic, imo, which asks about the performer's emotional control and expression, not about the audience's reaction.

I also enjoy going to see my kid's school performance. their cuteness trumps all.

"Most of the best musicians I know listen very carefully to good players."

concur, that is why violin is so tough because it can deliver so much by the know-hows.

October 31, 2011 at 06:51 PM · Al

"there may be some value added services on the part of the listeners in that case. it is different from the topic, imo, which asks about the performer's emotional control and expression, not about the audience's reaction."

Are they not the same thing? Surely the idea is to communicate emotion. My point was that the kids were playing with uninhibited verve and enjoyment, and it was catching. I wasn't a proud parent - I was a cynical teenager - and they still got through to me!

Granted, we're not talking about self-indulgent emoting: you have to respect the meaning and idiom of the music you are playing. But within those limits, I do find that some players sound dry and technical, while others "rouse your heart till its beat skips time with the tapping of your toe" to quote an old song. And yes, in the end it's technical, by working with rhythm and attack and phrasing etc.

But how to get there? I know it sounds a little mystical, but at bottom I feel it's about opening yourself to the music and letting it flow through you. On those rare occasions when I play well, I find I'm surprising myself with what I come out with - it's certainly not a conscious process...

I think that's why I prefer Milstein to Heifetz - with Milstein it seems to be coming from the heart, while with Heifetz, despite his unmatched brilliance, it somehow seems too calculated.

October 31, 2011 at 09:08 PM · Nooooo, why is every one such a heifetz hater

October 31, 2011 at 09:13 PM · A hater? My goodness, where did that come from? I find Heifetz wonderful, while I find Milstein supreme...

October 31, 2011 at 09:37 PM · haha, so in addn to shoulder rest, e tuner, etc, we must put down love/no love for mr H!

hello Geoff, i actually do not think they are the same, that is, what the player does and projects vs what is received by the listener.

i thought the op was focusing on the former, the basic building block for communication for a violin student. i thought the short answer is to first get the basics down. if there is a crescendo, don't forget to play it:) if there is 4 and half beats, play 4 and half. if a note asks for a whole bow, don't skimp it, etc, etc, etc

beyond that, it is not that straight forward. some research to death the background of the piece and come across brilliantly, others do the same research and come across a piece of wood board.

what the receiver gets in the audience is way way beyond. not for the faint of heart:)

October 31, 2011 at 10:23 PM · Only meant in a light-hearted way, just hearing a lot of negativity towards my beloved heifetz lately and I may have o.d. on his sarasate recently

November 1, 2011 at 12:46 AM · I don't think the goal is to play with emotion so much as it is to find the meaning in what you are saying with your instrument, and to speak the phrases in a way to convey that meaning. The emotion is what the audience feels. And you may or may not feel it too, but the point is that you conveyed the meaning. It's a lot like acting or narrating.

November 10, 2011 at 01:26 PM · Jo Parker, I guess I did express that wrong. A hobbiest plays when they can find time and does not truely love the violin. They may think they do but they are only putting on a show either for themselves or others. The term "professional" discussion is argued in volumes and volumes among intellectuals and will not be solved here.

November 10, 2011 at 05:16 PM · As an adult beginning hobbyist- I am telling you if I did not LOVE the violin I would not struggle so hard to fit lessons and practice into a life already crammed with full-time (non-music) career, housework, family commitments etc!

And while I am waaaay too early in my violin studies to be able to EXPRESS that love it most definitely is there.

November 10, 2011 at 05:23 PM · IMHO, a 'hobbyist' plays for no other reason than because they love it. Of course everyone's experience is different so really all one can do is speak for themselves on the subject, the rest is speculation.

I also think that loving the instrument is a different topic than playing with emotion. Different folks different strokes, I suppose.

November 14, 2011 at 09:03 AM · Have you seen Buri's excellent comment on this subject in another discussion thread:

Personally I think it's spot on.

Best wishes,


November 14, 2011 at 10:23 AM · John wrote: Can a teacher expect results by just saying "Play expressively"? Can a teacher teach how to do that ?

I think what the teacher can to is to PERMIT you to play expressively. Most students have reservations abotu expressing theselves - the notion that you are not supposed to. What great teachers do is help remove those social layers to give you permission to be yourself. Beyond that example isa great thing - but you should get that from listening to a wide variety of players. And also from much further afield, not only other great players but from music and nature, indeed all sounds.

Perhaps a real violin artist is one that can apply their whole aural and emotional experience to their playing. Least I'd like to define it that way myself.

November 14, 2011 at 06:15 PM · For John Cadd

I only know about French, Italian, Spanish and German, although I only did German for two years at school, but am fairly fluent in the other three.

They are romance languages so that says it all. I love all three and each one for me suits different moods. I like French if I'm feeling romantic, Spanish if I have my rough, lazy edge and Italian if I'm feeling excitable and passionate! Overall, I have a slight preference for Italian which is great for music. I'm from the north of England but live near London.

I'm nearly 50 and took up the violin three and a half years ago. I've always liked travelling and have played around the world in terms of folk fiddle (from home of course). I have a folk fiddle book for most countries as well as playing classical music.

I tend to play most expressively when I play eastern and middle eastern music as well the countries I have visited. My favourite is Bosnian and it is quite yearny. I also connect with it as it's one of the first places I visited with my husband before the war broke out. I like playing fun Cajun music as I've also been to New Orleans. I love Klezmer as it's not too far removed from Bosnian. I also love playing Latin American (Andean) music as I did a Christian mission trip to Peru and it reminds me of the sights and sounds of the country.......a kind of armchair travelling! I'm a Christian so love playing and singing to Christian music so I think I play these kinds of music most expressively. I've not explored the sounds of other languages, although I do like Arabic. I haven't time as I'm trying to make up for lost time, with the violin and all the other instruments I can't help dabbling with. I also love trying out indigenous instruments.

I have to say I love them all, but the violin for me is the most intellectual, expressive, sensual, spiritual etc. etc. and nothing quite compares.

Can't remember your other question as I don't know how to flick back onto the page, but I hope this helps. Music and language are so related and as one person once put it.........'both are about a love affair with sound'.

November 14, 2011 at 07:59 PM · "A violin should be played with love, or not at all." - Joseph Wechsberg

November 18, 2011 at 11:16 PM · John

"Can you point to a favourite language for expressive sounds?"

That would be Scots Gaelic, no contest. As a lowland Scot I hardly speak a word, but it sounds like music, even if it's just the weather forecast on the BBC Alba channel. I've travelled a good deal, and have experienced nothing else that sounds so melodious.

And in the hands of someone like the incomparable Karen Matheson singing a big song like Crucán Na bPáiste (Burial Place of the Children) it's a rare musical treat. By the way the backing band here is something special - many of the very best Scots and American trad musicians...

November 20, 2011 at 02:25 AM · John

Ah - Fado. If you want emotion in music, watch this YouTube clip

I mean seriously, watch it!

I happened to catch it as it was broadcast, and we simply turned off the TV and sat in stunned silence. I think I can say without exaggeration that this is the most powerful vocal performance I've ever experienced. I think any musician can learn from such consummate artistry and stagecraft.

As for Billy, I always claim that the world owes his career to me! Years ago, when he was just starting out, I was climbing the steep concrete staircase to the old Traverse Theater during the Edinburgh Festival. An apparition emerged from the bar in a state of high inebriation, sporting a purple beard, a black silk hareem suit and gold Turkish slippers with curled up toes. At the top of the stairs he tripped on his curly toes and came crashing down head-first, to be caught by yours truly. I set him back on his feet and he tottered off into the Grassmarket. The rest is history...

November 20, 2011 at 03:19 AM · Yes, crafting each note/phrase/line...

Timing/quality of sound/modulation of pitch...

Intensity and variability of vibrato...


But pulling faces and vogueing? (remember that?) Never.

And don't make the mistake of thinking that the player feels the same thing as the listener.

When I first practised with a particular musician I had tears streaming down my face at every rehearsal. But it wasn't the music that did it - it was the very idea that I should be playing with the man who was my hero when I was a teenager.

Another time, when I wept on stage while playing,

it was because a dear friend had died recently, and I was still raw.

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