Playing with 'feeling'

October 1, 2013 at 03:05 PM · At my violin lesson last night, my teacher told me to "play with feeling", and "feel the music". As an adult beginner, my mind is FULL of what I need to be doing(relax the hand, play on the tips of my fingers, dont play the "narp", good bow grip, read the music, (insert sight reading stress right here) read ahead, play in time...oh the list is endless!)Anyway, she had my forget everything for the minute and close my eyes, hear the first line in my head and play it, and I sort of "felt it", I mean it sounded better then usual, but how do I incorporate this into my playing all the time? I dont want to play like a robot, I want to make people want to dance to my music. Any help/suggestions would be awesome. Thank you :)

Replies (30)

October 1, 2013 at 04:12 PM · Patty:

I'm an amateur, but I've studied violin and played since I was a kid (a long, long, long time ago). I think that the problem you pose has been a major challenge for every violinist who has ever lived - from Paganini down to me. Perhaps it is THE ultimate challenge for any performing artist. I think you'll get a lot of great advice on this website. But, ultimately, there's no quick fix; I think you've got to search for your own unique answer.

Best wishes on your journey.



October 1, 2013 at 04:28 PM · Easy.

A few hundreds, and then thousands of hours of playing/practicing and it will become second nature.

Or so I hear...

(fellow adult beginner here as well, although my "Twinkle" is beginning to acquire a soulful depth that rouses the least it has moved some to tears)

October 1, 2013 at 04:42 PM · This will probably sound like a broken record but, just practice more! When you become more familiar with a piece, the less you have to think about. Eventually you should be able to memorize most of the song. Iron out all the major problems first; bowing, fingering, INTONATION, etc then work on the more advance things, clean string crossings, dynamics, etc. when you get all these things down, then you will be more free to play expressively. Also some songs are easier to feel than others. There might be some you dont ever really get the feeling of at all too!

October 1, 2013 at 05:01 PM · Some great philosopher of the violin, I forget which, made the profound statement, ONE THING AT A TIME.' It was never more relevant than in this discussion. You can have a block of time, 5 or 10 or 15 minutes, for intonation, another block for tone quality, another for accuracy of bowings and fingerings, another for rhythm, and another for musical expression. And then you have yet another for putting it all together.

What percentage of your practice time do you devote to developing your musical artistry? If it's 0% or 1%, you're missing the boat. IMHO opinion it should be between 25% and 50%. Never forget why you're playing the violin in the first place.

October 1, 2013 at 05:15 PM ·

Practice improvising articulations. Practice playing a piece at three different speeds and three different styles. If you are not able to do the above then play at a slower speed.

October 1, 2013 at 06:09 PM · Well, even some of the "top" violin players today do not play with feeling.... making emotional impact on the audience is the ultimate goal of music making, yet only a few achieve this.

No amount of practicing will be the only solution to this challenge. Mastering "technique" will help to some extent, but other aspects of being musician (and a human being), such as: life events, people you meet and feel about, food you eat, the landscape you see, visual arts you enjoy, books you read, movies you have seen. etc, etc.... will all contribute to your emotional expression. (Sometimes I think that mime and acting lessons should be mandatory for all musicians. )

You can also approach this challenge from listener's point of view: which musician has made an impression on you? How? Why? Was it about body language, facial expression? Was it in their sound?

Some people are naturally more expressive, with or without their musical instrument. For the rest of us.... it is a lifetime challenge.

October 1, 2013 at 08:47 PM · I think the OP was asking just *how* you play with feeling. No amount of frowning, swaying, and thinking about that teddy bear you lost as a child, can change the sound by itself. You have actually to do something different when you play the notes. What though?

The teacher should say: Use rubato here -- delay this phrase, catch up just at the end here, then speed ahead there. Also, get softer as you are getting behind, then louder as you race to catch up. But delay that very last note just to trick the listener and make them feel joyful release when it finally comes... Kind of like holding off a sneeze until you finally go for it... (ahem!) Throw in a bit of staccato here, even though the music doesn't say it, just to break things up. Obviously I'm making this up, but you know what I mean. Each instrument plays the same basic pitches, but has its own idiosyncratic ways of embellishing, and in particular here each has its own arsenal of techniques to express feeling. A few of them will be crudely indicated in the written music.

I saw a show on tv a while back where a famous pianist (Barenboim?) was giving a masterclass in China. He had some dude out the front playing some difficult piece with formidable technique. "No, no, more *feeling*!" The poor guy was worked up into a sweat and a frenzy, and finally, "Yes!, Yes!!" Well, I'm sorry, it was all in their heads. If you'd played all the different versions to listeners with no video, they would not be able to tell the one with the most feeling.

The teacher should drill you on the syntax of feeling, rather than just say "play with feeling!" and let you flounder.

October 1, 2013 at 09:30 PM · What Michael said. It sounds robotic written like that, but I am convinced that intil this sort of drilled imitation has been taught, the player can't know the possibility. This goes back to simon fisher's recent blog - the technique to play expressively can and must be taught. 'With feeling' is not a violin technique.

October 1, 2013 at 11:00 PM · Hi, I would say (and I repeat what many teachers tell...) to start by listening to various recordings of your peice by several artists. If your peice is not played by them, find a similar one even if it's harder.

Inspiration rarely come on its own overnight... especially in the beginning.

Very quickly, (I think) you will stick with only a few artists which you really like their interpretation of your peice. Chose these favorite ones and try to analyse what they do. Usually, musicality and feeling has a logical explanation.

Maybe they accentuate certain notes, maybe they do a crescendo at bar X or Y, maybe they connect their notes very well together (sort of like Stretching the phrases), maybe they play a certain note very shortly, maybe they put much energy in each note, maybe they do amazing slides and glissandos to connect certain notes, maybe they vary their vibrato speed and pressure, maybe they hold their violin a certain way, maybe they come from X school of teaching, maybe they use that type of bow or strings, maybe they move or not when they play etc.

Musicality and feeling has a lot to do with

a) the sound

b) the phrasing

c) and the technical aspects behind these two...

And while, talented and experienced artists have an inborn talent to feel and materialize great ideas, much of it is analysed and reproduced.

Many great teachers have similar sounding students or some common trademarks between their students even if each one is different of course. Something in all this has to be taught...

Anyway, when you have a list of things you like from X, Y and Z artist in your peice, even if you do not know exactly how to name it, you can discuss it with your teacher and your teacher will know better how you can acheive these technically.

Of course, you won't play 100% like them... (not many could!) it's never actually possible to copy anyone because they play so many times better than us and because we do not have their body and mind... But still, I find it's amazing what even an amateur can do and learn to bring themselves closer to that ideal sound and aspects they like in violin playing.

Eric Friedman once said, everyone thinks great artists are absoluntly unique and that they bring new ideas. But he continues, in fact, they might have new ideas, but they follow a very clear lineage of those before and were not inspired randomly. One cannot underestimate this.

That means that, since much of the violin is learned, even us amateurs can pick up an interesting part of this knowledge over years. People do not expect perfection from amateurs, they expect to be entertained and have a good time... How lucky are we to be able to do this :)

Good luck!


October 2, 2013 at 12:09 AM · Patty said:

Anyway, she had my forget everything for the minute and close my eyes, hear the first line in my head and play it, and I sort of "felt it", I mean it sounded better then usual, but how do I incorporate this into my playing all the time?

That's great! You've broken through into new territory if only for a moment. Now you can keep using the same strategy, again and again with different parts of the piece, or with different pieces. And then see if you can build upon it by finding some similar strategies that are productive in the same way.

October 2, 2013 at 12:37 AM · Everyone says practice--and they are right. But LISTENING to others play, and considering what they do to produce the 'feelings' they offer is equally important.

What's the point of learning how to make a gradual crescendo, if you don't have any idea what to do with it? Same with different types of attack, slides, vibrato, variations in bow speed/pressure--all those (technical) things your teacher is teaching you how to do. The more you listen to others, the easier it becomes to present the 'language' of feeling yourself.

October 2, 2013 at 12:39 AM · Thank you all for your valued input! I knew I would get the best answers here :) You have all given me lots to think about, and I appreciate each and every one of your responses.

October 2, 2013 at 01:24 AM · Also, as you get more familiar with playing, you will not have to think so much about basic technique, as you described you are doing now; it will eventually become more automatic (of course by that time you will be grappling with new issues). But your mind will be freer (and your hands more cooperative) to incorporate more interpretation into your playing. It is an ongoing struggle, as others have said. But the good news is that this is something that you can work on away from your violin. Think about the music you are learning, and imagine different ways of playing it (dynamics, articulation, phrase beginnings and endings, etc). Then try them out with your violin.

October 2, 2013 at 07:36 AM · Patty, your question resonates so much with me!

When I began lessons with my current teacher, he was always telling me to put in emotion, concentrate on the dynamics, stop sounding so timid & boring. But as soon as I tried to do any of that, I 'crashed'. I needed to concentrate entirely on the notes I was playing & keeping my bow straight.

This has been a bone of contention between me & Fiddle Guru. I still maintain that you have to give priority to technique & accuracy, and after that, the feeling will find its way in naturally.

As the poet Alexander Poet puts it, true ease in numbers (versifying) comes from 'art, not chance - as those move freely who've been *taught to dance*!'

I taught English for many years. Creative writing must be creative, or it's nothing - but knowing about words, meanings, spellings, increasing your vocabulary, recognising figures of speech and so on, this all helps produce writing that is truly imaginative & individual, rather than just 'letting it all hang out', which is trite & run of the mill. Everyone has imagination - I strongly believe that - but teaching craftsmanship will develop the imagination so much more.

However, it is true that completely mechanical playing is joyless. Listening to your practice pieces played by masters is a great way to let the melody into your heart & bones, and then the right emphases & emotions will leach into your playing, even at a fairly early stage.

We all have feeling for music in there. I have noticed that I just know how a Scottish air works in terms of emotion and accent - I have Scottish blood - and my husband, with Irish blood, knows so much better than me how to 'swing' the rhythm of an Irish jig & inject that devil-may-care feeling.

This has been my experience: as I've gained more knowledge and confidence, I've been able to hear emotion in pieces, pick it up, respond to it, and put it quite naturally into my own playing.

Naturally, I have a long way to go...

October 2, 2013 at 11:01 AM · I feel like that lesson on Monday, opened up a whole new thing for me. I never really thought about playing with emotion or feeling, just tried to remember to do all the things I am supposed to be doing. I am not sure if any of you have felt this way, but during a lesson like this, and you have an ephithany and your whole world is changed. I open my case, and look at my violin, and think WHOA, there is so much more to this, then I even thought, and that is pretty freakin cool!

October 2, 2013 at 12:23 PM · Patty, perhaps obviout but it hasn't been said here explicitly yet, I think: practice challenging technical material, but perform only music that is easy for you, so that you can put all your feeling in your playing. Many teachers let students perform works that are great for them for technical training but not great for performance to a public. So I guess the message is, work a lot on technique, so that you can start putting feeling in more and more pieces of music. But, the level of the music you perform will always need to lag behind significantly in terms of technique in comparison with the stuff you are working on purely technically. That said, Simon Fischer in one of his books ("The Violin Lesson", greatly recommended by the way) says that even practicing challenging technical material works better when you try to play and interpret it as music from the outset. But I guess that is easier said than done. He gives an example in his book about an advanced student who stumbles on a virtuosic piece by Sarasate, then urges her to think musically, then suddenly she is able to play the technical passages much better. But to me that sounded a bit too good to be true.

October 2, 2013 at 02:14 PM · Feelings

October 3, 2013 at 04:01 PM · LOL, Seraphim! (now I have that damn song in my head)

October 10, 2013 at 01:42 PM · Connect your bow to your feelings. It's one thing to "feel" the music inside you and a completely different thing for those feelings to be projected in your playing. One of my coaches once said "Don't just FEEL dolce, you have to do something!"

So, if you want to make a crescendo, for example, start out using small amounts of bow at the tip and gradually use more bow as you travel to the frog for a louder and more powerful sound.

Identify the phrase, what you want the phrase to mean, how you want to shape it, and then identify what you have to do with your bow to make that sound happen.

Hope that helps!

October 15, 2013 at 11:39 AM · Lots of good advice here!

May I add the sheer pleasure in making a few, well shaped sounds: open strings, slurred notes...

On picking up the fiddle, spend a few minutes on tone, rather than music.

Pluck a string and try to get the same resonance in a bowed note.

Try awakening the right hand by lifting each finger in turn.

No straight lines, just very flat curves.

Soften all the joints, imagine sound and gesture, and let the shapes invade the hands and limbs.

Then we just may be in a state to make music with the notes?

October 20, 2013 at 06:21 AM · It is necessary to either understand theory or have an intrinsic and natural way of knowing what moments have higher tension, release, special colors, melodrama, stoicism, etc

Listen to music a lot.

It truly is a second language, and the more you listen and practice, the more eloquent you become. I feel I can speak better musically the verbally sometimes, but I am inseparable from my headphones and myriad recordings. Live it, breathe it, but...

Do not let it be the definition of you. Well-rounded lifestyles bring experience to the table, which often times translates as unique feeling. No one is you you, and when proficient, what you say when you play is truly unique.

Also, completely seperate yourself from everything except the sound and what you plan to do with it. Do not think about technique onstage- instead practice it and trust it will be there. Think only about communicating in the language of the piece and how you are also making it your own.

The more you relate to it (by listening, studying, appreciating) the more you can indulge.

I love these topics!

October 20, 2013 at 08:08 PM · I agree with Claire, especially for a beginner who has not yet developed vibrato and portamento skills, the feeling is in your right hand.

But the OP asked how to express feeling when there is so much other stuff to deal with technically. The answer it so work on developing feeling on your easier pieces that you have technically conquered.

October 20, 2013 at 08:15 PM · To follow Ryan's comment "Listen to Music"

I was just "blown away", by Monteverde's Vespers of 1610, conducted by Helmut Rilling, with orchestra, chouses, soloists with the Bach Cantorum Stuttgart (on TV). Can anything compare to such great music? This past week I was amazed at a 1961 recording of the Bruch Scottish Fantasy with Heifetz as soloist. I had wondered if anything could be better? Yes, feeling and expression can be important, no matter what level of playing. From Helmut Rilling - "Music should never be comfortable ----. It should startle people and reach deep down inside them, forcing them to reflect." Charles

October 21, 2013 at 03:30 PM · I was unable to find out how one might obtain a dvd recording of the Helmuth Rilling Stuttgart production of Monteverdi Vespers of 1610. If anyone knows, please post on this site. A Latvian complete production is available on the internet, no cost. Google Monteverdi Vespers 1610 you tube - and you can have more than 1 1/2 hours of marvelous music, with period instruments, from Riga, Latvia. Enjoy. Charles

October 21, 2013 at 10:07 PM · Yes! Paul has hit the nail on the head: To really develop your expression, you must work on pieces that are technically accessible to you. It is very hard to feel free when you are still struggling with the notes!

October 22, 2013 at 12:22 PM · Thank you so much for the great responses!! I have been watching a ton of videos on you tube, I am going back to some of my old pieces that I have memorized and trying to play with more dynamics and it is starting to sound a little better. I also just ordered a book "tThe art of bowing practice : the expressive bow technique" by Robert Gerle,. hopefully with all this new knowledge this will help :)

October 22, 2013 at 12:56 PM · Sometimes it's quite hard to recognize what exactly makes the notes spring to life. At least for me it is very helpful to look at my teacher playing and paying attention to the bowing. I even ask my teacher to exaggerate so that I can hear very well what my teacher actually does.

>my mind is full of all the things I am trying to remember to do correctly

You should be able to play the piece without focusing on all of the things, I only focus on the bowing (because that is where the music will come to life, the left hand won't change) and put the rest of the things to the back of my mind. Of course, my left hand gets a tighter grip over time, and my posture is not that good, but over time you will be able to manage all of that at the same time and just focus on the one thing you are improving at the moment.

>my mind is FULL of what I need to be doing

I know what you mean: Sometimes it's good to forget about it just for a few minutes, to relax your bow hand and just concentrate on the sound you produce. The sound was much better because you relaxed.

>how do I incorporate this into my playing all the time?

Practice more slowly - this will give you more time to focus on everything. A lot of improvement can come from relaxing the bow arm and hand, thus stopping every few minutes and shaking the hand for a second helps you to not be too tense.

Furthermore I also agree strongly with Ryan Fox:

>knowing what moments have higher tension, release, special colors, melodrama, stoicism, etc

You might discover this by singing the notes. I hope this helps, I am still a beginner myself.

October 23, 2013 at 02:08 AM · Terrific discussion. Kudos to Patty for initiating it.

Many students deal with situations like Patty's - hungering for greater expression, yet the art of musical expression is boundless, so it's hard to know how to proceed.

I've learned that students do well when they can target their expressive investigations in particular areas - say, dynamics, as Patty mentions.

In my teaching, I've identified 7 Essentials of Artistic Interpretation. Follow the link for a summary, which I hope Patty and others will find useful.

October 23, 2013 at 05:04 AM · AT the risk of sounding cynical, I think we adults also have to learn to learn like a kid. All well for those on the site who learnt as kids to talk about doing stuff with the bow according where the music rises and falls, but i think that happens for them much more effortlessly becasue they have learnt to imitate when they were still kids.

If you watch the kids who play well, they incorporate a lot of dynamics and bow work into their playing, and it appears that they are playing 'with feeling'. But more importantly what they have learned very effectively at such a young age is how to imitate - we hear them do it in their speech using inflection perfectly on a question or exclamation.

I don't think it hurts to have a capable player play a piece with THEIR feeling and expression, and just do what is necessary to imitate that, get the feeling yourself of what it feels like to make that happen. Have that player player do the same to create a different feeling, imitate again.

I know that I feel the music - in my head - and assume that it will come out in the bow - it is always [still] a surprise to me that the dynamics and phrases have to so exaggerated to be heard by a listener. I consider myself a musical person, if there is such a thing, but I certainly do not always play 'musically' because of this.

October 23, 2013 at 07:59 AM · I am an adult beginner myself and i totally understand where you are coming from. To cut the long story short, playing with expression needs to be learned, then practised. It does not just come about when you feel the music. Feeling the music is a pre-requisite, but feeling the music does not automatically translate to the music you are playing.

It took me half a year to get the concept of practising playing with emotion and it takes a lot of planning, not just pick up the violin, imagine the music and play. You need to think about sounding points, bow speed, bow pressure, bow distribution, up or down bow, sometimes even which finger to use on the left hand and the depth of vibrato. It is a lot of things to work out and you cannot be adding these to a piece where you are struggling to get the notes and intonation right.

The hardest part to this, for me, was transcending the thought that i need to get every note perfect. Technical issues you can fix later in technical practices, but once you over-focus your mind on the technical issues while ignoring everything else, you are practising to play like a robot. The saying that the music will come when you get the technique is simply not true. Both need to work hand in hand. And remember, technique exists to serve the music.

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