The quote is actually from Joan Sutherland and refers to young singers - but I could not help but feel that it resonates for violinists. Sure there are many wonderful instrumentalists - but have we lost something of the ease, honesty and genuineness of the past golden eras in the ever increasing spiral to virtuoso technique?
I can't help but feel that she is right...
[here is the full quote: "Today the young singers do not develop a basic vocal technique. They don't know how to breathe and support and project the sound... It's so unrelaxed. There seems to be no repose, no feeling of ease, no feeling of continual line, of breathing and projecting the sound, and the excitement of singing and giving it to the public."]
Talent isn't based on being able to play the Bruch Concerto, but how one makes people feel when playing twinkle little star.
Talent, insecurity, nervousness etc... are also contagious and others around are affected by them.
I'm not put off when I hear a few mistakes in a recital, but yes, I do expect a reasonably high level of accuracy. What I really pay for, though, is to be enriched intellectually and carried off emotionally. And I agree with Lydia, to do that requires immense technical command.
I think that part of the 'learning virtuoso technique' involves eliminating personal differences. Indeed, it was mentioned on that post that went viral recently (the survey of 100 prodigies) that one child she was familiar with played beautifully before being sent to a top-level teacher. Once the child completed the training the music was accurate - and boring.
I also read recently a comment by an established star that you have to learn to fake emotions and 'it comes out just the same'. I suspect that is the real problem - emotional expression has become a 'learnable' commodity - no wonder every player sounds the same. There is a 'right' way to express.
In every field, it seems, in every time, one can find plenty of people expressing nostalgia for how things were better in the good old days. In music. In art. In sports (gymnastics fans are particularly bad about this). The truth is, every time has its own artists, its own stars, its own style.
For what it's worth, this has been known human nature since Biblical times. Ecclesiastes 7:10: Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
For it is not wise to ask such questions.
Freida - yes, but the problem is not that things are different - its exactly the opposite, that many people feel that things are all the same. In the 'good old days' you could close your eyes and recognize the violinist by their sound and way of expressing. And even better, think, 'I've never heard this one before'. Now you can recognize what can really be called a product: sort of the difference between holding bindfold 10 different vegetables or 10 cans of vegetables! Undeniably, the latter have an interesting shape but the former have character.
Mary - in my opinion, a great example of where the bible is IMO plain wrong. Your quote: "Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions" implies that we should not learn from history. If times were better in the old days - maybe we've lost something we need to get back. For example, our weather.
And its really relevant here since perhaps we should be pushing for a shift in performance away from technical perfection and towards emotional expression and connection. After all, soon computers will be able to simulate the perfect violin - should we then put down the wooden box for good?
Pity the poor violin teacher, who bears a responsibility to ensure the pupil (a) can place fingers in the right places for correct intonation, (b) learns to "count" and play in time, (c) learns the rudiments of music theory and (d) develops and can demonstrate a knowledge of the violin repertoire.
During this process a basic "junior hacksaw" bowing technique will suffice for many years !
These basic requirements are dictated by those examination syllabuses. You don't seem to need a fabulous sound to pass or gain a distinction - the main requirement seems to be to steer clear of the pitfalls that lead to the deduction of marks. A negative, defensive, approach !!
Some of the more athletic or gymnastic requirements for fine virtuoso playing can be neglected; delayed to a point at which remedial work becomes difficult if not impossible.
I think this is what that famous singer was hinting.
My point was not whether the Bible was right or wrong, my point was that since antiquity people have been nostalgic about how much better things were in the old days. You are taking part in an old tradition.
Incidentally, I don't agree with your OP. :-)
At the highest performance level, I cannot agree with the basic premise of this thread.
Pick a popular, non-orchestral work, like a sonata from Bach, something from Debussy or one of the Kreisler short pieces, and do an internet search of performances by current top performers. (My iTunes list is filled with comparisons of past and current performers.)
Then come back and tell me they all sound the same. To my ear, they don't. There are, sometimes dramatic, differences in tempo, articulation and coloring that set them apart from each other.
The challenges to creative freedom are extreme technical mastery of the violin and a highly developed sense of the psychology that drives a musical genre.
Keep in mind that frequently, the musical genre almost demands it be played with a certain overall style.
For example, I recently listened to some baroque pieces played by Szeryng and then by Milstein. The performances were more the "same" than they were "different", but each equally inspiring. From that one data point, I might conclude that past performers all sounded the same.
I see nothing about the past that would suggest freedom of creative expression was more commonplace then than it is now.
The violin is a difficult instrument. I'd speculate that most people never get past playing a scale with decent accuracy, simple expressive bowing, and a little believable staccato and vibrato thrown in. Even that is a major accomplishment and allows a professional to deliver an entertaining performance.
Who here wouldn't be ecstatic with just that level of playing? Yes, we will all sound the same: GOOD. Is that a bad thing? Or should one not perform until the technical brilliance of a Hahn or Ehnes is achieved?
IMO, the greatest players are great because they have achieved the technical mastery to express themselves as individuals.
I believe "virtuoso technique" means "great chops".
Elise, I strongly disagree that "learning virtuoso technique involves eliminating personal differences".
Having virtuoso technique (great chops) means being able to do the things on the box that you want to do, or even must do.
Has your own technique improved in the last, oh, five years? If so, was your own unique, individual musicality damaged by this improvement? Were you less able to express the musical feelings in your heart?
Or, if your technique has deteriorated over the last five years, has this erosion of playing ability somehow helped you express the musical feelings in your heart?
Just another way of looking at it...
I personally am in agreement in the comment that it is how you can play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to move your audience.
And that the olden time WAS better. There is a lot of show and not enough beautiful sound out there (again in my own opinion as a person who is more than willing to pay for performances that moves me).
And yes Elman's playing would probably get smacked down by many teachers. But sadly there are plenty "teachers" have no business teaching.
I love what you said,
"IMO, the greatest players are great because they have achieved the technical mastery to express themselves as individuals."
And I also love the comment that one can close one's eyes and hear the difference between the old timers.
Today's singers also focus too much of making a big sound.
Two comments. First, my daughter is studying the Preludio from the E major partita. We sat together and watched a few youtubes. We talked about the differences -- striking differences -- among the performances. You will hear these things if you actively listen for them, and it helps to have the score in your lap. One problem that I personally have is that this level of active listening requires my full attention -- I can't get nearly the same level of discernment when "listening" to music in my office while I'm working, for example.
My other comment is about Ray Chen. He's such an amazing violinist. I watched the video of his performance of the Franck Sonata for the Queen Elizabeth Competition, which of course he won. Thus obviously the panel preferred his Franck. But I also noted that Aaron Rosand has performed this piece, and quite differently! Chen's playing -- beautiful and perfectly accurate to my ear -- seemed a little too "standard" and "linear" to me, almost like an aggregate of existing recordings. Rosand's version is volcanic and utterly gorgeous. What's interesting to me is that Rosand was Chen's teacher. So that makes me wonder ... did Rosand help him prepare the Franck for the QE? If so, what did he say?
I strongly disagree that training technical mastery eliminates personal differences in sound.
However, I do think that the process of preparing to perform, especially competitively (but really in any condition of stress), can lead players to make choices for safety.
Safe choices are often less interesting choices. And careful preparation can lead to a performance that sounds overly cautious. Extreme levels of repetition with a goal of very high consistency can lead to sounding over-rehearsed.
Note that interpretive choices certainly change over time. Listen to the same performers' recordings done a decade or more apart. And they'll sound different live than they do on recordings.
Perhaps one of the benefits of being an amateur is that you have greater freedom to develop an individual style, without pressures from outside forces. Of course, you would need to do so thoughtfully and have a teacher that can support that, or at least not counteract it too much. I hope that a virtuosic technique can be worked on with an emphasis on lyricism and poetry. Often, it's the virtuosity that gets rewarded at the highest levels, so the flashiest, most extroverted playing is what bowls over an audience, but it's up to our own consciences to do right by what we are trying to express, and put the work in to be able to do that.
Musicians also have access to so much recorded material, and standards of teaching are high in many more places, so it's natural that fewer get to develop their style in the isolation of the past. There are still good musicians these days.
Freida - I took your post as a bit of a challenge - was I making this up and maybe just repeating stuff I keep reading? Or is it really true that the older masters had original sounds. So, if you will indulge me, I tried to compare some of the old with some of the not so old.
One concerto recorded by just about everyone is the Mendelssohn (#2). So here are utube links to each of the soloists that you mention - except Elman for whom there was none so I added a Bruch instead:
[You have to cut and paste, its too fiddly to create the click-links]
Elman is totally different from the others and reflects the pre-modern era. I love his playing but noone is allowed to do that anymore (as Lydia noted). What I found interesting was first that Venerov and Bell are not as different as I expected (allowing for the rather different quality in the recordings). They both play wonderfully - but too much 'storm und drang' for my taste. Whats also interesting is that Neveu sounds better to me than the usual lord-over-all Heifetz. There is more subtlety to her playing more space and relaxation, more sincere expression. er... maybe I just confirmed my agreement with Sutherland!
Its not so difficult to understand how Ginette beat David Oistrakh at the Henryk Wieniawski competition (1935). What a dreadful shame she died so young.
I think part of it is that among the older variation there is much less variation of sound from Bach to Beethoven to Brahms, and this greater consistency among time periods means that the difference between individuals can be more pronounced. It's Heifetz playing Mozart, whereas nowadays you have Mozart played by Gil Shaham.
I once heard a young soloist who was pure text book with some very challenging music. He later was judged best ever in an audition for a well known youth orchestra.
His music was totally uninspiring.
He must have been personally uninspired also. He gave it up.
Technique and all.
"I once heard a young soloist who was pure text book with some very challenging music. He later was judged best ever in an audition for a well known youth orchestra.
His music was totally uninspiring."
Orchestral playing is more like engineering than "ART". An orchestral hack is but a small cog in the machine; his/her individuality has to be suppressed so that the "Inspirational" ego of the almighty conductor can prevail.
Little wonder then that this young soloist was judged to be "best ever".
An orchestral fiddler who sways around all over the place, eyes ablaze with passion, can be a real pain to other section members; a veritable wrecking-ball.
....how to breathe!! Maybe the answer is in teaching our students just that. Recently I took up yoga and found to my surprise,even though I have remailned alive all these years, I had very little idea on how to breathe and how to control my breathe.During the class we may be asked to sound a mantra which surprisingly, even though these are not trained singers, comes out in tune with a rounded tone as the breathe is being expelled from within. If one is to connect with the 5 dimensional string theory mentioned in another post students should perhaps be encouraged to find the sound within the vortages of the vibrations produced by the bow on the string which could be compared to the breathe darwn in and expelled.There are many fantastic players with fabulous technique that do not go on to make an international career because they lack that one last element of drawing the emotional breathe out of the instrument.
David Beck's post makes me think of the intro to The Simpsons, where Lisa is playing in a non-conforming way. ;)
...and I just noticed, not a single violin on that band. So sad! :,(
Fox Mitchell has introduced TV to this thread.
We might ask ourselves why the diction of the actors in 40-year-old TV programmes is clear whereas those in more recent productions seem to mumble, almost to the point of inaudibility.
The ancient actors were trained for the stage, I guess. Taught to "project".
Intrusive so-called background music doesn't help.
There are still today actors and singers who can make the grade on the stage without being "miked up" but I imagine Joan Sutherland had to give masterclasses (or mistressclasses?) to some young ones who haven't gotten the knack yet ......maybe, never will. Beyond hope, maybe.
Project? Why bother with such things? I'm sure the autotune or someone in the sound department will adjust it so people will love my suave mumbles over the noise of the explosions on the background. ;)
But back on topic, I thought of the Simpsons intro because in that scene Lisa is playing expressively, nonconformingly, doing her thing, and she gets pointed out of the room by the conductor.
I had the chance to hear the lad at an audition. They gave him some music and prepared for the worse. He played it almost flawlessly! He then did something I will always remember. He shrugged his shoulders at the judges as if to say "do you have any better music?"
He has other main pursuits now.
Was he maybe angry in a quiet way? His Mother was an outstanding piano player and cut him zero slack.
Incidentally, I think one can learn technique but not "music".
I think you can absolutely learn "music" (interpretation, essentially).
You can become a better interpreter through listening -- not just to varied performances of the particular work that you're learning, but other compositions by the same composer, or that are otherwise related. You can understand the music better through analysis. Some works are easier to shape if you understand the background and the context, especially if there is a programmatic element to the piece.
There are also a ton of technical things that contribute to the way that the listener perceives a phrase -- vibrating through, proper intensity of vibrato, the speed of a shift, the follow-through of a bow-stroke, and a whole lot else.
You can be better at anything - but that does not make you convincing. I don't think you can ever 'learn' to be Jacqueline Dupre or Ginette Neveu or their equivalent. You can make your music less distasteful if its bad but real performance comes from having something to say and letting it out honestly.
At least that's what I believe - and the problem now is that the music halls are too filled with people who musicians that play flawlessly but without soul. For example, although Ivry Gitlis is lauded for his expression do you really think that a young Ivry would ever win a competition?
Current fashion is for the performer to place themselves in service to the composer's intentions, rather than the other way around. Gitlis, even for his generation, is pretty darn eccentric. We delicately call those kinds of interpretations "personal", and typically when that word is used, it is not really a compliment (although if it's sufficiently interesting it may carry grudging admiration).
Don't forget that Gitlis as you hear him now is an old man, too, far past his prime. In his earlier recordings, he has absolute technical command.
But look at someone like Nikolaj Znaider, for instance. His interpretations are rather old-fashioned in their romanticism (to me he sounds like a player of two or three generations back, not a young contemporary violinist). And he's had a much-lauded career, well-received by critics and audiences alike.
There's no doubt that there are some people who have incredible gifts, and music comes pouring out of them in near-flawless fashion. But I would disagree very strongly that technique and musicality stand in opposition.
Lydia "..... would disagree very strongly that technique and musicality stand in opposition."
So would I.
There might well be "Typewriter" pianists - the tuner got to the instrument before the player - but the beginning fiddler will never learn to pitch the notes or get a feeling for satisfactory bow contact without a certain innate musicality. IMHO !
I admit that I don't understand this assertion (which I have heard throughout my life) that halls are full of soulless automaton violinists. Who, specifically, is touring internationally that plays "soullessly"? There may be players whose interpretations I find uninspiring or distasteful, but "soulless" is a strong word. In fact, I can only think of one high-level violinist that I would truly describe as "soulless"--a fellow student at Meadowmount who played "Zigeunerweisen" with irreproachable technique but without a shred of expression. It was actually kind of impressive in its own right, as I had no idea a human being could possibly sound so robotic. The teacher giving the masterclass seemed flummoxed. Eventually he had a friend of hers go on stage and asked the student to gaze into her friend's eyes and play to her. It was a good idea, but it didn't do much, unfortunately.
IMHO I think that a lot of formal criticism is a disguise for envy.
I decided long ago that I was only an average player. Half the world was better and half was worse.
But I found that having fun with the instrument/music was very satisfying which I usually achieve because I don't know any better!
Sadly, I do not expect the debates to change much but maybe that is a healthy sign?
For me this is another example of the inherent romantic soul of human being. We like the old stuff, old times, old golden eras..always old is better,old instruments, old furniture, old pictures... I have no doubt that the great young and not so young artist of today are as good and as genuine as those of the past, but unfortunately we won't consider them legends until they die. And in my opinion I think that if we can make a clear dinstinction between an old master and some of today's is because basically today's standards and rules of " correct" playing are harder and leave less room for freedom. And I am not sure that being very personal is always the best thing when playing music, you could end up shading away the composer and the music. I love listenig to Szeryng,Milstein and many more, but honestly don't consider them superior to Vengerov, Mutter or Rachlin. Time will tell, but I am afraid we may not be here :)
There is a funny scene in Woody Allen's moovie "Midnight in Paris" that ilustrates very well my point, when the writer meets the girl in a party and she is telling him she wishes she'd been born 50 years earlier,in the "golden years" of writers, but he is telling her that she is wrong, that the true artist are living right now and she is just not appreciating them by thinking too much at the past times.
Is there a tendency for individuals to develop a default tempo for say the waltz to pick a more defined mode of music? Are there physiological factors involved?
I have been reading this thread and trying to understand what is this all about?
Then I went back to Elise's original post....
Well, the curse (and a blessing) of the singers and wind players, is that sound production is directly connected to their breathing. Attend a master vocal class and you will see how huge impact of proper breathing is.
Our curse (with no blessing!) is that there is no obvious connection between the two; one can hold one's breath and still move arms and fingers, for next 1-3 minutes. One can have chopped and shallow breathing - it will not affect the sound immediately, BUT it will affect the energy flow which, on stage and a bit more adrenaline may prove to be fatal. (not to the musician, but to music)
I once witnessed / participated in choir warm-up @ CAMMAC music camp and was very impressed by immediate results. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there are no such exercises for string players, not yet.
Body work is not part of musical training... and also other areas of expression, such as drama, dancing and mime. I believe that this is a big loss.
Just recently, after attending quite a few of Tafelmusik Baroque Master's masterclasses (they are free Elise), I have noticed a pattern among young participants; despite quite impressive biography and decent playing, almost none of them made any lasting impression on me. I found myself working really hard from the audience to reach them more than 1/2 way in music making / reception process. It is sad and frustrating to see how hard they have been working, but somehow missed the point. It was also interesting to see how different teachers approached the same challenge; some of them pointed that only once (politely), some of them tried to use a metaphor, bring visual or historical, some other methods... (except for breathing) but the progress was not audible in most of the cases.
Sometimes I ask myself if interpretative skills and expressiveness can be learned at all? At the end of the day, it may all narrow down to personality of the violinist, but, if that were the case, most of the great actors would not be so great!
IMHO, the golden era argument is a bit of a nostalgic generalization. I know that many of my current favorite performers are not "stiff", nor robotic in their performances. Indeed, the modern era feels to me a bit more relaxed to what we used to have in the early-late century. There's ton of musicianship and good taste nowadays, without resorting to pedantric playing. And this coming from someone who also loves the "golden era" violinists as well.
Many names come to mind about current performers who are anything but boring, and indeed kind of pay homage to an era long bygone-although in "current" fashion (whatever that may be.)
A comment above resonated with me-sometimes teachers are too quick to repress certain student choices because it may sound "old-fashioned", etc. This in turn affects how many people play, for better or worse. A teacher should thus be careful in passing as common knowledge what he/she thinks is "good taste"-maybe the student is doing something that he/she would not do in "good taste", but it's sounding amazing with said pupil? Let it fly , and see how it goes.
(If it's bad/inappropriate, it's bad; I just doubt everything that is a bit "loose"-for lack of better term-is as "old fashioned" as some may think. One should be careful about being too overzealous over the "right" interpretation of any work.)
My fairly straight-forward attitude to breathing when playing (as taught to me by my cello teacher all those years ago) is to breathe in just before I apply the bow to the string. This fills the lungs with air and stabilizes the torso for that all-important first note. Just as a weight-lifter will take a deep breath just before he commences the lift.
Breathing is also intimately connected with the phrasing (which is one reason why a violinist should listen a lot to Mozart operatic arias). Good breathing isn't the prerogative of only the good singer.
Good breathing enables good relaxation when playing. It is also a given that good posture is essential for effective breathing for a violinist - and other instrumentalists.
"Today the young singers do not develop a basic vocal technique. They don't know how to breathe and support and project the sound... It's so unrelaxed. There seems to be no repose, no feeling of ease, no feeling of continual line, of breathing and projecting the sound, and the excitement of singing and giving it to the public."
An arrogant and silly generalization.
"An arrogant and silly generalization."
Yes, Dr. Cole, probably uttered at the end of a long day listening to conservatoire students who had been given inadequate preparation by their early teachers !
As a fourth-year post-graduate student I had a lesson from a top Academy violin professor who made me all too aware that the basics of decent playing hadn't ever been explained to me during my mad scramble through the exam system. He was right - I spent a long time trying to rectify matters. I therefore have some painful understanding of the frustration Ms Sutherland must have felt.
However, to return to Elise's query as to whether or not we have lost something in some mythical quest for virtuosity, I'd merely observe that we know of those great fiddlers from the past from recordings. These are the folk who "made the grade"; the ones with lasting reputations. We don't hear the also-rans of old, whereas we get to listen to many of today who will be forgotten.
Please don't let changes in performance fashions blind us to the huge talents and accomplishments of the best players of today.
Trevor wrote: "My fairly straight-forward attitude to breathing when playing (as taught to me by my cello teacher all those years ago) is to breathe in just before I apply the bow to the string. This fills the lungs with air and stabilizes the torso for that all-important first note. Just as a weight-lifter will take a deep breath just before he commences the lift."
And I've been taught exactly the opposite: breath out! Breathing in tenses the body, as required by the weight-lifter - but we are not lifting weights, we are doing what must be one of the most subtle things a body can do - using hairs on the edge of a long stick to gently touch a taught string. One of the biggest problems is that initial contact - and breathing out calms the performance nerves.
Seems to work for me...
So, Elise would execute a GASP before playing a GASParo da Salo violin if she owned one.
In support of what I said about breathing, I have heard recordings where one can hear the player's intake of breath just before the note starts. These were studio recordings because it is only under those conditions that quiet sounds such as breathing and movement of fingers on the strings can be picked up.
Long time ago I was one of the participants of master class held by Igor Ozim. He asked me to change my bowing from down bow to up bow when I play the very fast run up to the fingerboard. The result is that your hands would almost meet at the end of the fingerboard and on the frog, instead of ending up far apart. It worked. His explanation was that natural movements of our arms are inward or outward, not sideways.
Now, I can assume that similar approach could be used for breathing. Some people (we call talented) figure this out on their own quite early on, while the rest of us have to be served this awareness.
There is more into this than meets an eye (or ear), and in essence it is very simple. Sometimes I have a hunch that learning violin is learning what not to do and letting the nature take its course.
I find that if I want to start a down-bow at the heel, I am more stable at the beginning of the stroke if I inhale first. Failure to inhale first results in the bow wobbling more.
For an up-bow starting at the point, it works best if I exhale first (the Elise gasp method) then breath in as the stroke proceeds.
That's the result of some experimentation this morning.
Something to do with subtle changes of posture, maybe ?
I was never aware of any connection between breathing and bowing during nearly 40 years as an orchestral player. So, thanks to violinist.com, I have learned something.
Of course one can never be sure whether some irrelevant and irrational psychological factor has come into play !
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October 27, 2015 at 03:17 AM · Virtuoso technique offers the player the full painter's box of tools to do whatever it is that they want.
I personally think that much of the sameness we hear in the playing of contemporary violinists originates in our notion of what is in good taste. Play like Elman or Kreisler or Huberman or Campoli today, for instance, and you would receive a rapid smackdown from your teacher, long before you ever played for an audience, jury, or critic.