Violin Performance and Acting

August 2, 2014 at 12:33 AM · Marcus Geduld (Artistic Director of Folding Chair Classical Theatre, NYC) pointed out in his “What Are Some of the Telltale Signs of a Bad Actor?” that 10 things should be avoided by a good actor. It has been suggested that the same applies to violin performance. They are:

1.Emotional armor: don’t be afraid of showing vulnerability. Good example: Bryan Cranston in "Breaking Bad".

2.Pushing: acting works better when actors pursue goals rather than try to emote.

3.Lack of confidence: an actor must be confidently vulnerable.

4.Discomfort with language.

5.Discomfort with your body.

6.Untrained voices.

7.Over-trained voices.

8.Pre-planning: The point of preparation is to make your mind as ready as possible to be unleashed rather than sticking to the plan no matter what happens.

9.Don't listen.

10.Don't warm up.

Finally, he said that good actor has one or more of these traits: smart, having great taste, sense of timing and a sense of humor, being collaborative, extremely hard-working, humble (not divas), generous, inventive, playful and adventurous.

True or fales: all these points are applicable to violin performence.

Replies (39)

August 7, 2014 at 09:34 PM · I have always been fascinated with actors and acting. One of the most eye-opening books I ever read was "An Actor Prepares" by Stanislawski. I have tried to establish the parallels between acting and playing the violin and have learned much through my exposure to acting classes. When an actor studies a role, he will look for the "back story" or else create one. The back story answers the question "What has this character done in the last month/year/ten years, that has led him to this moment?" How can we apply this to the act of playing music?

August 8, 2014 at 12:08 PM · 1. Always sign requests for autographs.

2. Get a good agent.

3. Keep your clothes on.



August 8, 2014 at 01:16 PM · Acting on the stage is said to be a different job from performing on screen (either film or TV).

On stage, you "act". On TV or film, you "behave".

Not much use waving your scroll up and down, grimacing the while, for a recording, IMHO. Behave.

August 8, 2014 at 02:53 PM · Of course, there is the question of the overlap of "acting" and stage demeanor when performing. It has always seemed to me that since Jascha Heifetz was so obsessive about meticulously preparing (even in mixing drinks for guests at his house), there is no reason to believe that he wasn't just as meticulous about his stage mannerisms. So, are we talking about "acting" when we talk about stage demeanor?

August 8, 2014 at 04:17 PM · "So, are we talking about "acting" when we talk about stage demeanor?"

The ultimate in self-control must be to be able to act in public in the way you want to without APPEARING to be pretending. There's a danger that body-language (not to mention playing deficiencies) might betray the violinist/performer's feelings of being ill-at-ease - especially if nervous. Even if you don't feel like it, one needs to LOOK natural, GENUINE, even, otherwise your audience will feel uncomfortable.

Those TV presenters and politicians have gotten this sort of thing down to a fine art.

August 8, 2014 at 04:28 PM · Bravo! Yes.

August 8, 2014 at 04:38 PM · The fundamental thing that an actor does is basically the same thing we do, which is to convey the meaning of the script as powerfully and vividly as possible using all the means at his disposal, tone of voice, pacing, movement, etc. Our primary means of expression is through the sounds we make on our instrument. Very secondarily our physical movements and facial expressions may help or hinder the communication.

If anybody here has not had the experience of sitting in on an acting class, I would recommend the experience highly. For me it was eye-opening to see the thoroughness, the dedication, the imagination, study, and hard work that actors devote to their task of communicating their message to the audience. Inspirational and thought provoking!

August 8, 2014 at 04:43 PM · We read excerpts from Stanislawski in drama class in high school, it was interesting stuff that is quite general about the technical craft that lies behind artistry and about how to basically come across as being balanced, poised, and confident. A lot of that seems relevant to violin performance, whether one wants to view stage presence as a form of acting or not.

August 8, 2014 at 08:43 PM · Many people compare violin playing to ice skating. Sadly, it's becoming more and more that way these days. I think the art of the violin and music performance in general is actually much more closely related to acting. That's how I see it, anyway.

Great topic, Yixi!

August 8, 2014 at 11:20 PM · "It has always seemed to me that since Jascha Heifetz was so obsessive about meticulously preparing (even in mixing drinks for guests at his house), there is no reason to believe that he wasn't just as meticulous about his stage mannerisms."

This reminds me of an anecdote told to me by a friend who was leading an orchestra and who had dinner with a famous soloist.

The soloist said (more or less) that he visited Heifetz in retirement and after a long discussion H offered him a drink, so he asked for whisky. H opened a drinks cabinet and there was a row of single malt whiskys. He reached behing and pulled out a bottle of cheaper belended whiskey!

"He wouldn't even give me the best whisky, the mean old B" he reportedly said!

August 8, 2014 at 11:33 PM · I think that if you want to perform successfully as a soloist there has to be an element of acting when you come on stage in front of an audience. What you are doing is projecting confidence and personality and this projection will affect your performance to the good. There will be fewer mistakes, and if there is an occasional one you'll ride through it confidently and it won't be noticed (as an orchestral player I've seen this actually happen with a soloist who had a brief memory lapse - nobody noticed except the conductor and a couple of first desks).

On the other hand, consider the opposite scenario - you come on stage visibly nervous and diffident, positively shrinking ... need I go on?

August 9, 2014 at 05:15 AM · Troll on, John.

August 9, 2014 at 03:42 PM · "I think the art of the violin and music performance in general is actually much more closely related to acting. "

Yes. Actors and fiddlers are both called "PLAYERS".

Both spend time delivering stuff written/composed in advance.

"emotion recollected in tranquillity"; otherwise, both come unstuck.

DON'T PANIC !!!!!!

August 11, 2014 at 05:59 PM · Wow, I thought this thread was a stillborn. Thank you John for bringing it back to life and for your quirky sense of humor! My summary does not do justice to Marcus Geduld’s article, which is a good reading.

I see all sorts of connections between acting and violin performance. For instance, the topic of pursue goals vs emote. A violinist emotes too much can be annoying (“acting" or pretending, as David and Sandy discussed). Geduld’s point is that even as an actor, you should pursue artistic/expressive goals rather than emoting. Whether or not to move the body or making facial expressions when playing is not a black and white issue. Obviously, violinists simply emote to get audience attention are not taking their performance seriously, but if a violinist, in an intense pursuit of her music goal, feels that it helps to let her body flow to maximize her music making, then this type of movement can be a sign of good performance. Yes, the body movement can be a distraction, but music-making can be a whole body experience and to confined the moment to only the hands may just be impossible for some.

For instance, one of my favorite string quartets Brentano Quartet's Haydn "Quinten" is just exquisite. Despite the fact that the players moved a lot, I don’t think they were emoting but rather it's an example of fantastic performance in pursuit of goals.

August 11, 2014 at 06:47 PM ·

And here is a good example of confidently vulnerable performance by Renee Fleming

August 12, 2014 at 07:13 PM · John, I just checked the video links. They are alive. Try again.

August 12, 2014 at 10:12 PM · I find I agree with Points Nos 1 to 8, and the succeeding reamarks. But I do find that musicians' stage demeanor often has fascinatingly little correlation with the actual tonal result, and is often distracting.

Does Vanessa Mae's playing benefit from the gyrations of her rather nice legs? Not sure!

Does Hilary Hahn's playing correspond to her exquisite features? Definitely!!

Was Heifetz a cold, aloof player? Definitely not!

Does Perlman's face express the same joy as his tone? Definitely!

But except for Ms Mae, non of the above are "acting!"

August 13, 2014 at 07:29 AM · Yixi

Your quartet example was interesting.

However, a well known quartet here in London had a second fiddle who threw herself into each and every other persons face all the time she was playing and apart from her playing being rather poor, this was distracting for the audience and the quartet, who were really rather good at times.

The good news is that she has gone and the replacement is a far better player who stays still and the quartet has gained in the end.

August 13, 2014 at 08:18 AM · I'm not sure Adrian, some are just better at hiding it, and think 'less is more'.

Untrained and Over-trained voices hits a note with me, and you can see this in all forms of music. I see the incredibly talented with poor technique to the overproduced musically student that has no soul. If most teachers were able to teach the fundamentals, and the concept of musicality, we would have a lot of great musicians out there. BTW the concept of musicality isn't listening to a recording or producing the students music.

9)Don't listen- I hate playing with musicians that have this habit. They will destroy the whole group.

August 13, 2014 at 09:29 AM · "Your quartet example was interesting."

Yes. Ensemble not quite clinical - second fiddle might have gotten bits better together with the first if she had looked - not necessarily eye-contact, but just directed her gaze that way more. First fiddle not entirely devoid of that common habit of playing sharp !!

" ... a well known quartet here in London had a second fiddle who threw herself into each and every other persons face all the time ..."

One of the things an orchestral hack has to learn is not to bow into the desk-partners face by swaying about, distracting him/her by tapping the foot, etcetera. As regards "ACTING THE PART" in an orchestra, the most important thing to do to keep your job, along with bringing a pencil and rubber, is to laugh at the conductor's jokes., even if you don't find them funny.

Latest news item is that yawning at the same time as someone can be a symptom of friendship. I did LOTS of companionable yawning whilst watching the clock in my BBC Orchestra and survived to draw a pension.

Something that seems to be missing in this thread is this :-

As I suggested already, both the actor and the violinist are tasked with the delivery of something written/composed in advance.

For the actor, his whole body is the medium. Gestures and facial expressions are part of the job; he/she represents a PERSON. For the fiddler, the INSTRUMENT is the medium; those grimaces and posturings to which we tend to be prone unless we take care to limit them are surperfluous distractions; we are reproducing SOUNDS.

However, one problem for fiddlers is that via various arm and finger joints, each of which is a pivot leading to circular movements, we have to get the bow going in a straight line. It's this, IMHO, that leads inadvertently to a lot of swaying about; intentional, necessary and well-intended actions leaking into other physical movements which are easily taken by an audience to be part of the emotional message.

August 13, 2014 at 07:33 PM · Ultimately, it's all about the music, not about what one looks like playing it.

Elvis Presley was once quoted as saying: "I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to." ***

You want to be a visual spectacle?....Join a rock band.

***That being said, I think Presley was really talented and had a wonderful voice for the kind of music he sang (which included, by the way, gospel).

August 13, 2014 at 08:12 PM · Peter says, “…,a well known quartet here in London had a second fiddle who threw herself into each and every other persons face all the time …

The good news is that she has gone and the replacement is a far better player who stays still and the quartet has gained in the end.”

Not sure if you are referring to the same quartet I have in mind (it starts with “B”). In any case, I get your point, but how do we know the true reason of a member of a well-established quartet's departure, unless we are closely working with them? Quartets are like married people in many ways and I suspect the departure would have come at a much earlier time than after the quartet has become well-known. But you may have some inside scoop.... Anyway, just my idle thoughts.

I agree with Sandy, I usually close my eyes and listen if I find the body movements of the players are too much, but I don't fault them for their mannerism if they can play.

August 13, 2014 at 08:32 PM · No comment!

August 13, 2014 at 09:48 PM · A couple of year ago I went to an interesting and enjoyable quartet recital in a Somerset church, given by 3rd year students from the RAM. Unusually, three of them played standing, the cellist remaining seated but on a small platform to bring his eye level up to that of the other players. I'm sure it was good for their playing and projection.

August 14, 2014 at 02:11 AM · "Ultimately, it's all about the music, not about what one looks like playing it."

I don't disagree, but the reality seems to be that what the listener hears can be very much influenced by what they're seeing.

I don't have the references for these but I've heard about more than one experiment where a pianist plays the same thing twice (in one case on a digital piano so that both times are definitely identical), one time with & one time without movement or facial expression. The audience usually thought that the one done with movement & expression was louder than the other.

August 14, 2014 at 09:49 AM · Very interesting, Christina C.

No harm in a little "Me,me,me" body language if it stops the minds of the members of the audience wandering !

I guess a soloist or conductor should cultivate a "stage presence" just as a person who walks on to a stage to make an important presentation (think Obama) would need to do. Wow, this guy/gal MEANS BUSINESS ! Some "acting", faking even, involved here if you're hung over or otherwise under the weather.

Orchestral fiddlers such as myself are expected to shamble on rather discreetly, if not actually apologetically, with the sort of demeanour of a humble waiter bringing the steak-knife to the table of a royal personage .....

Orchestral faking is confined to the digital enhancement of those tricky passages that no-one can really play. Thanks, modern composers !!

August 14, 2014 at 02:49 PM · @David "Orchestral faking is confined to the digital enhancement of those tricky passages that no-one can really play."

Anyone who plays modern music (that composed since WW2) will have been there and experienced those delights. Only this year a piece we played by a local composer finished with a couples of bars of G in alt - that's the one right at the dusty end of the fingerboard - to be played PP if you please, and there were only 6 of us. I've since heard a workshop recording by a professional ensemble and I'd swear that that G was enhanced (i.e. made suitably audible) by the good fellows on the sound desk.

August 14, 2014 at 03:39 PM · The digital enhancement to which I referred isn't simply the realm of those computer geeks engaged in "post-production" - players themselves have to fake'n'fumble with the digits of their own hands in an attempt at a plausible approximation to what appears on the page - near anough for us to "get away with it" !

Still, one shouldn't reveal too many trade secrets.

Faking by fiddlers has gone on since time immemorial. Lots of makers liked to drop us a hint as to what to do by writing "Fece" or "Fecit" on their labels. Stradivari was an artisan with no great academic pretensions, but we all know what he really meant when he wrote "Faciebat" on his.

August 14, 2014 at 04:49 PM · Hmm… I don't really think of it as "me me me!"… more like "this this this!". In my own experiences I've found that the more comfortable I have become with performing, the more I approach it as taking on a role… that of a performer. I also find that I tend to move more than I used to. The performer is the vehicle for the music. Expression and movement are just tools for conveying it.

August 14, 2014 at 05:03 PM · "… more like "this this this!""

Like a politician thumping the lectern, maybe, an auctioneer's gavel or Judge Judy's pen ??

Trouble is, so much of the extraneous movements the more extrovert players employ don't so much add emphasis as display the fiddler's exasperation at failing to get a grip !

Betraying signs of the technical struggle !

August 14, 2014 at 05:09 PM · Absolutely David!

The great players and many other outstanding performers are rock steady. Look at Milstein, Helfetz. Or Ricci playing the Pag Caprices on youtube -stunning playing aged about 65 and the only things that move are the fingers and the bow.

You can see the ones that struggle, they all move around! Some are even quite well known, surprisingly!

August 14, 2014 at 07:00 PM · I'm definitely not a fan of extraneous movements… don't even get me started on Lang Lang… can't watch him at all. Ironically enough, when I saw the Brentano 4tet in 2009 (also Haydn), I remember finding the cellist's movements distracting and I did question the necessity of them. What I'm referring to is more along the lines of freedom of movement that some players have and others do not….or even a given player has at certain times and not others depending on their comfort-level & confidence. It can and often does lend itself to the performance.

August 14, 2014 at 07:23 PM · Some movements are necessary in ensemble work, such as when a concertmaster might wag the scroll and hold things together - while the conductor dozes off, for example.

August 14, 2014 at 09:30 PM · In conductorless ensembles where the performance is directed by the concertmaster, or perhaps by a soloist, then exaggerated movements may well be necessary so that messages get across to the whole ensemble.

Then of course there are the finger gestures that the late James Brown would use in his band during a gig: the number of fingers held up indicated the number of tens of dollars that some unfortunate bandsman would be fined for goofing up a riff or playing a duff note. James Brown had a very disciplined band.

My cello teacher told me that when he played clarinet or sax in a dance band in the '30s a player who made his first mistake would be fined a guinea (that's a little over a pound sterling and a significant fraction of the average weekly wage); a second mistake and he'd be out. It was tough in those days.

August 15, 2014 at 07:05 PM · Have you been taking those pills again, John?

August 18, 2014 at 05:14 AM · Not a clue.

August 18, 2014 at 01:57 PM · I often get called Peter and the Wolf as my dog looks like a wolf. Come to think of it so does my wife! (Only joking, she's not bad looking at all!) (On a dark knight).

August 18, 2014 at 04:08 PM · "But I do find that musicians' stage demeanor often has fascinatingly little correlation with the actual tonal result"

Agreed. Unfortunately the same can't be said for audience perception

August 22, 2014 at 09:30 PM · One thing about being a good actor/violinist is to have great taste. What does this mean? As a starting point, I guess a violinist can’t spot strong emotions in the notes is like an actor is overacting because she doesn’t see the language itself is powerful enough to have an impact.

Lately I just started to work on Dvorak violin concerto. When I was playing some of the most moving 8th notes on the 2nd page, my teacher stopped me and told me not to think/do too much there because “the emotion is already in the notes” so just play it simply. She then demonstrated the first line of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto to further illustrate the point. Yes, it sounded so emotional when played simply but if she added additional emotion (with added vibrato and color from the bow), it sounds like gondolier.

I can feel the emotions in notes but I don't know when to do something about it and when not to. By doing something I don't mean acting. I hope you know what I mean.

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