What makes a performance sound professional?

February 14, 2017 at 07:07 AM · What makes a performance sound professional? Does this impression of professionalism change when it's a violinist (or other musician) listening, versus joe average non-musician in the audience?

I've been led to ponder this question because, as part of my performance preparation, I've been listening to not just commercial recordings of what I'm working on, but also watching a lot of YouTube videos of the piece being played by students -- pre-conservatory kids, undergrad and grad-level performance recitals, and no-name pros (some of whom are performers -- mostly orchestra musicians -- but some who are mostly educators and such).

These performances exist within a broad band of technical and musical accomplishment. None of them are immaculate and compelling in the way that we're accustomed to hearing on recording, or even live from top-tier soloists, though. It's hard to decide what constitutes a professional performance -- especially when the pros in question aren't even playing with the same level of technical accomplishment as more gifted pre-conservatory students. Yet by dint of the fact that they are pros, what they are doing is presumably by definition professional performance.

I know that I currently sound like an amateur, for instance, but I'm hard-pressed to say exactly what causes that. Too many unpolished edges and unpredictability under performance conditions, perhaps.

Replies (46)

February 14, 2017 at 02:15 PM · Probably a more appropriate question is what makes a performance NOT sound professional. I think it is all those tiny little imperfections that take a lifetime to perfect -- things like forgetting to vibrate, notes slightly out of tune, not so smooth bow changes, noticeable shifts and string crossings, the list goes on. For these technical issues, I think opinions are fairly universal; either a string crossing is clean or it isn't.

Once you get all that technical stuff out of the way, you get into interpretation issues which are not as universal and much more subjective. That's why we all have our favorite performers, or maybe a favorite performer for a particular piece. As an analogy, you can have a perfectly executed lasagna, but if you are not a pasta person, you probably won't appreciate it. Music, just like food, comes down to personal preference.

February 14, 2017 at 03:51 PM · I also think it is the technical perfection. Near-perfect intonation, controlled bowing with full sound, articulation, clarity, and never seemingly being in trouble, always seemingly having a lot of time. This level is achieved by those who reach the level of participating in the big violin competitions.

Connecting to another thread where someone said that playing Twinkle perfectly is insanely hard. Indeed Lydia, can you play Twinkle, record it, listen to it and conclude "YES here I sound like a pro"? I would suppose the answer is yes, but it is not totally obvious and depends on how critical you are (from what I understand you are very critical, which is great). But if the answer is yes then the question becomes for which pieces can you do that before it breaks.

February 14, 2017 at 04:04 PM · It's fascinating that everyone is gravitating towards what is effectively technical perfection.

But tons of pros graduate each year who do not play perfectly. All it takes is listening to master's graduation recitals on YouTube to illustrate that. Or if you go to local concerts (i.e., not featuring top-tier orchestras), especially those that feature local soloists, you will likely hear quite nice playing that is nevertheless imperfect.

February 14, 2017 at 04:15 PM · I think it has less to do with how it actually sounds and more to do with credentials, geography, and age ( to an extent ). Of course, top soloists are in another league. I think that we assume that, once someone has a master's degree, they must be some kind of pro. What qualifies as top notch classical playing in Cairo is not the same as in Berlin. We assume that comfortable orchestra players who have gotten comfortable, and lost their chops after several decades are still worthy of the same praise. On the flip side, pretty much no one would dare send a great Julliard pre-college student to audition for the Buffalo Philharmonic. I think we use our ears to make these judgements less than we'd like to think. I would like to see a blind listening experiment done.

February 14, 2017 at 04:29 PM · In the orchestra world, to my mind, the difference between a high-end semi-pro orchestra and a fully professional orch. is the quality of the players in the second half of the viola and second violin sections; rhythmic accuracy, fine tuning, and volume. Equipment makes a difference. If you add up the $ value of the instruments in the string sections of a pro. orch. it will be a huge investment, maybe 10 times the $ value of an amateur orch. jq

February 14, 2017 at 04:44 PM · A professional is one who can fulfill the requirements of a paid job. Sometimes that is literally to fill an empty chair. By asking what makes one sound professional, I assume we're talking about a certain quality of music making, which on the one hand involves the requirements of the job. On the other hand, as the job becomes more complex, less definable, what is professional transcends our ability to describe what that is exactly, except in the most banal way.

February 14, 2017 at 04:47 PM · As the question is about performance "sound professional", I'll take a look at this idea first.

If the professional sound is by definition,"by dint of the fact that they are pros, what they are doing is presumably by definition professional performance", then we have a simple answer but it's neither interesting nor meaningful.

If by "professional" we mean someone does it for pay, then we can probably all agree that not all professional violinist sound equal and some sound more "unprofessional" than some amateurs.

When it comes to "sound", assuming we are talking about sound perceived by listeners, my answer is it depends on who the listeners are. To other violinists, you'll get the most critical ears and will set the bars as high as the finest recordings. To the "joe average non-musician in the audience", well, a lot of non-violin stuff probably is just as important as the violin playing itself. If the audience is your friends and family, you know they'll think you are an amazing violinist no matter how many "WTF" moments you've got. Recently I played some improvised tunes at song circle among some Jewish friends and their families. Let me tell you, I didn't know what I was doing and I am no way near your level of proficiency, but I was asked if I was professional by a few people, and some even told me that I sound just as good as so and so (the name of one of the top local professional players). Apparently, "You can play notes so high!" is one of the things impressed her. Of course, I took a grain of salt what people say in such circumstance, but I also like to believe they really meant what they said.

So, I tend to think that there is no such a thing as professional sounding performance, rather it's merely a shorthand referring to some really good performance based on very uncertain criteria. It'll be very interesting if we could do a double blind test to disprove my theory.

Edit: just saw Jeewon's post. I wish I can write and think like you do, Jeewon.

February 14, 2017 at 04:49 PM · Two musicians who I respect as performers told me that sounding "professional" comes primarily from experience. This involves working with other players, conductors, singers, and even dancers who have something personal to say and have the technical knowhow to project their ideas to an audience.

Just two examples:

One of my friends joined the Houston Symphony when Leopold Stokowski was its conductor. Under Stokowski, he learned how to play repeats artistically. And, he learned a lot from Stokowski about creatively using instrumental color.

Another friend became a member of a major opera orchestra where she learned a lot about dramatic phrasing and making the music breath by listening to the singers.

Attending master classes is good way to distinguish the difference between a talented student and the commanding sound and expressive rhythm and phrasing that comes from experienced professional.

February 14, 2017 at 04:59 PM · Yixi, you always make me think twice about everything. You make me think more like you :)

February 14, 2017 at 05:06 PM · Haha! That's very funny:D

February 14, 2017 at 06:13 PM · While technical perfection tends to sound "professional", it is noteworthy that many very young kids that can theoretically play mostly anything often do not sound "professional" (to be fair, it also happens at older ages-even adults-but seems to be more common in very young players.) Therefore for me it also requires a commitment to having one's own voice heard while keeping true to the score, in addition to any technical requirements. These talented players often haven't found their own voice or are otherwise contrived by strong traditions or conventions that make them play a bit too carefully.

Of course, one strong element of this "professional" performance is being able to play in public as beautifully if not more so than in the practice or rehearsal room, unfazed by any audience, utterly concentrated on the musical message.

As always, technical perfection is paramount, but hardly the only "professional" factor-how many insipid performances have we heard by many highly proficient players? Those sound "solid", but not "professional" to my ears.

The good thing is we can always strive for perfection and perpetual improvement-therefore, finding ourselves short of a so-called "professional" level of playing is a step in the right direction.

Do agree that many true professionals don't sound so great, and that some amateurs may actually do better, though I believe the thread mostly addresses a very artistic, high performance level that is not that common.

February 14, 2017 at 06:50 PM · But I'm not above the banal, I am the banal, so...

Pros, though they can be egotists and completely insecure in their lives, when they work on their art, they're capable of complete projection into their art (whether that be practice of it, performance, teaching, communicating.)

When delving into their art, there's no self-conscious sheepishness or doubt (who am I to offer this? what will they think? what if I'm not good enough? what if I'm wrong.)

That makes them capable of a kind of focus and attention beyond the average learner; they can stay in the zone longer and deeper than the non-pro.

That makes them put themselves out there, so they can be tested, succeed/fail/be ignored, and still keep coming back for more to refine their skills. This is where the student-minded (vs. pro-minded student) fail. They put all their hopes, dreams, self-respect, dignity into one basket, one performance. And if it doesn't go as they'd envisioned, they're crushed, or at least they have a set-back.

The pro-minded know that performance is a process, a relationship (to their art, to their audience.) Preparation for an important performance takes years. After they've brushed up their rep, since learning it years, if not decades ago, they test it out; they put on house concerts (I turned pages for Ray Chen at such a house concert before he took his sonata program on the road, an international tour which was preparation for a recording,) local concerts (when Shlomo Mintz was making his latest comeback, he performed with the Ontario Philharmonic--who? whut?--exactly,) concerts in bigger cities, then the majors. For touring artists, most of their repertoire was learnt as young artists in their pre-teens and teens when they went through a similar process of polishing their performances through master-classes, summer camps, smaller and larger concerts, competitions, etc., and by which time they'd already performed in 100s of masterclasses and studenty, and not-so-studenty recitals.

So the pro-sound is not a fixed entity, a product, but a fluid, always developing process. Everyone has good and bad nights. But do something enough, and the more likely you are to be able to show your best.

You might say I'm skirting the question, and you're probably right.

Edit: I do not in any way, shape or form, suggest Lydia is student-minded as I defined it. Quite the contrary, I think she does everything her busy life will allow to prepare well for her performances, and I don't know how she prepares the way she does on such limited time! Well, I do know from her 'how to practice efficiently' blog post, something I am decidedly not doing right now in preparation for a couple of upcoming New Music chamber concerts. I have only admiration for her all around!

February 14, 2017 at 07:35 PM · The cold desperation of needing to put food on the table... The quiet dread of never working again...

I kid, I kid=)

I think what makes a consummate professional (which I think is what you're interested in, as otherwise we're just talking about someone who gets paid only, which is not an interesting answer as Yixi said and I joked about), is someone who puts themselves in the audience's shoes and uses all of their tools and abilities to create the most enjoyment possible. From everything I've read, that's how Heifetz (now, everyone take a shot of liquor! 1...2...3...drink!) seemed to approach performance--make the audience happy about having come to hear you play. My teacher, who studied with Erick Friedman, also emphasizes this.

Even if we don't have technical perfection, once you can play as well as you, Lydia, I think paying a high level of attention to playing beautiful music, even with the occasional slip of technique, is going to make the audience happiest about the performance. As professionals always need to think ahead to building or maintaining their reputation and winning their next gig (soloists especially) so they can continue to be paid and be a professional, I think that's the answer to your question: make the audience as happy as you can, and devote your efforts to making the planned performance as enjoyable as it can be. At a certain point, intonation and flawless string crossings, for example, are not what's going to move the needle the most towards complete enjoyment; it's going to be instead forming a compelling vision of what you're trying to convey with the music (and this vision should be something that moves your soul), and then devoting every effort to realizing that moving vision through the music. That will make the audience happy they heard you play, and probably want to hear you play again, and maybe even want to pay to do so.

So, what do you know, my joke was kind of on point after all;)

February 14, 2017 at 07:59 PM · For me, I think the "professional" sound is one of fluidity and musical continuity. It sounds planned, not accidental. This does not require technical perfection per se, but it has a certain element of sounding convincing, which is some combination of a strong sense of pulse, a sense of direction, and technical organization.

My teacher has a theory that what people like to hear is consistency -- a consistent grab on their attention that leads them along the work. Lose the sense of direction and you lose the audience.

February 14, 2017 at 08:08 PM · That's what my quartet coach, the late Lorand Fenyves, used to say, "conveence me." The best we got from him over 3 years was, "sso, it eez posseeble!"

Is 'planned' the right word? Deliberate maybe? Most teachers ask for us to sound spontaneous. But I take your meaning.

February 14, 2017 at 09:24 PM · Jeewon makes me think. A lot.

Now I get what Lydia is asking, I think.

There's a saying, what is chic? Chic is that which someone we think is chic considering to be chic.

So Lydia, this is what you are really asking? Pro performance must be understood by those who you believe to play like a pro? This is a very high standard and may be a moving one too.

February 14, 2017 at 09:41 PM · What I'm really asking, I think, is, "What does an audience see/hear/feel that makes them instinctively feel that this is a pro playing, versus a student or an amateur?"

It is not purely technical perfection.

February 14, 2017 at 10:55 PM · I have to wonder, what makes "Professional" better? We live in a time when recordings are the standard by which we judge musical performance and those recordings are usually heavily edited. While the recordings all sound great do they communicate the emotions of the musician?

I look for the musician to communicate that they have taken ownership of the music and play it with feeling. Miss a note, poor crossing, noisy shift,... those are technical details that simply don't matter if the musician owns the music they are playing.

I guess if there is a professional sound, it is the one of cashing the check paid for playing the music.

February 14, 2017 at 11:29 PM · Lydia, I don't think such hypothetical audience exist, and I'm sure deep down you know that too :) As someone goes to concerts regularly and know a lot of concert goers over the years, I don't think audience tend to think this way, "Is this a pro performance or not?". If you tell them that this is a famous player, even he is not at his top form and didn't do such a great job, many audience members would still say "Wow! Amazing! I'm so lucky to hear her/him!" The old lady told me that I was as good as some "big fish" in town is a regular concert goer, a mother of two amateur musicians. I saw her in nearly every concert I went, including international string quartet competitions held every 3 years in Banff. People love live performance and they listen in ways we violinists don't always understand. This makes it so interesting and challenging. I'm serving as a board member of one of the finest string quartets in Canada for a few years now. One of the toughest questions is what audience want so much that they keep coming back.

February 14, 2017 at 11:35 PM · Gary used the phrase "They have something personal to say."

Could this be a large part of it? Knowing what you want to say in the music, and having the chops and both the technical and emotional presence of mind to communicate it in the moment of performance. This probably encompasses the sense of direction and technical organization that Lydia was talking about. There would be a sliding scale here; the ones who are able to do that most fully and consistently are the "pros" but all of us can reach closer at our various levels of accomplishment...

February 15, 2017 at 01:59 AM · In the last 3 decades of his career, Yehudi Menuhin who performed to the end was technically imperfect. But he always sounded professional to me. I thought his imperfections brought a lot of humanity to violin playing.

February 15, 2017 at 02:49 AM · I think that the visual presentation is important as well. There was an experiment done where laymen were presented with silent footage of an international piano competition. They were always accurately able to guess the winner.

February 15, 2017 at 04:01 AM · For me, it is: The control that allows what the ear hears to be perfectly expressed (in both hands) while maintaining the individual touch of the musician.

This explains the non-professional sound of younger indiviuals who need eexperience in theie own voice while playing, as well as mechanical players that have not been nourished with enough emotional content in regards to their connection to the music they are supposed to be "playing".

This does, of course, mean that slips are allowed as part of the natural extension that is error/complete immersion into the music (which shuts off the "I sound wrong" part of the brain). :)

It is interesting that the better the player gets, the more often and easy it becomes to drift away into the music being played (from once in my first year of playing, to almost constantly in my current approaching 3rd year).

February 15, 2017 at 10:37 AM · by the way, Nate's most recent video made me realize an extremely important element is of course the vibrato. I think this is one of the main qualities of high-level playing, the continuous but varying vibrato. only what Lydia is calling "professional" can really do this. as an amateur you can work your whole life on improving your vibrato. remarkable only Smiley mentioned vibrato so far in this thread.

February 15, 2017 at 12:35 PM · Erik Friedman once wrote that he became a student of Heifetz in large part because he wanted to learn to make his vibrato reflect what he was expressing through his bow.

February 15, 2017 at 03:09 PM · I think what makes one sound "impressive" is more suitable for the topic?

It means it make a strong impression on you, the music connects you, moved you, touches you. Technically perfect doesn't always touch listeners soul.

I think the real thing that sets those performance apart from being sounded like amateurs, is that the player and the violin became one, where the player able to express his/her emotions and thoughts through the instrument, that's backed by superior techniques.

Have a sound in your head, and try to do it on your instrument. That'll create a starting point where it'll lead to many questions for ourself to answer. But in the end, it probably takes a real talent to create (a sound/passage), process (figure out how to do it), and analyze (listen carefully to oneself), all at the same time, at a very efficient level. When one is able to do all that efficiently, it almost seem that the violin has become an extension of the player.

February 15, 2017 at 03:33 PM · I think vibrato is 75% of it.

February 15, 2017 at 03:39 PM · Laurie's blog abiut the re-started Grammy performance points toward the relative role of technical 'perfection.' Part of being a professional is being able to go on through whatever technical flub occurs. Even less-developed players can sound professional to the degree they make music even when their technique lets them down.

This is particularly true, ime, with older performers whose bodies are beginning to fail (true for athletes as well as musicians) but it applies to younger 'learning' musicians as well. Carrying the music, regardless of the holes in the container...that is professional, and listeners will hear--and can relax into-- that.

February 15, 2017 at 04:39 PM · I've been thinking about this a lot. For me, it's when I'm unaware of technique at all and can become immersed in the musical story. This goes for performances of all sorts--solo, chamber, orchestral. And my own standard might lie somewhere between that of the average audience member and that of a professional musician. For my ears, the typical community orchestra doesn't pull it off, but I'm sure that's not the case for all the audience members shelling out $30 for tickets. Then there's another layer of professional, the superior ensemble. Watching the St Lawrence Quartet a couple of weekends ago, I was amazed by the degree to which they'd synchronized their vibrato, bowing styles, etc. They were one organism. You see this with the really good orchestras as well. I remember hearing the entire Philly string section adapt as one body to a slightly flat oboe. So I guess maybe the other quality is response to the inevitable errors. When watching solo violinists who are really good (professional or student) the thing that I really notice is the fluidity of their bow arm--the way in which it's sometimes hard to figure out what bowing they are doing because the changes are imperceptible--unless they are meant to be perceived. I watched a video recently of my summer camp roommate playing Barber with a summer festival orchestra. I haven't seen her play since 1990 but I immediately recognized her unique tone and way of using the bow. Hard to explain. The thing is, she had that going at age 15, too.

February 16, 2017 at 05:12 PM · "I think vibrato is 75% of it."

But surely, whether you love or hate or are indifferent to period playing, you can hear the difference between a more or less accomplished performer (the opposite of recognizing something great in a late Menuhin performance, wherein the left hand is still flawless.)

Keeping in mind the variability in perception by various individuals, there is something to what Yixi is talking about, a recognition of something complete, a preformed idea of a good performance. We can tell that something is polished but uninspired. Even if we disagree with the sentiment of a musical thought, we can recognize its creativity. We can recognize musicality even if it's unpolished, or underdeveloped, as in this video Yixi linked in Smiley's thread:

That is how selective teachers choose gifted students.

So what is it that we recognize? Or how? (Am I just restating Lydia's question?)

February 17, 2017 at 06:07 PM · I wonder if pros have more of an opportunity to cultivate their performing. We've all probably had moments were we've had rehearsals or less formal playing, where we know we played really nice. Of course, it's hard to be truly honest with yourself, or to even get an accurate picture, but a pro plays in halls a lot, and will learn to adjust to the varying acoustics and different factors, and stay relaxed, whereas performing for someone like me is a bigger deal, and I tighten-up, and my intonation becomes less consistent, my right hand less reliable, and my vibrato less fluid.

While the pros may have a better sound, intonation etc as a baseline, they have also put more time into cultivating their performances. It can be sort of interesting to hear yourself and realize that all the emotion you were feeling was for you, but wasn't getting out to your audience, and that certain things have to seem exaggerated under your ear to really come through to others.

Pros just seem to have ease when they play. I just went to see an orchestra where the soloist clearly had chops, but just wasn't at that level. The music seemed a little more strained than it should be, and you could just sense that while all the notes were there, more or less, the ease wasn't, and that there was a little tension underlying a lot of the shifting and such things, to where it broke up the phrasing and sound.

February 17, 2017 at 06:33 PM · I also went to see a live performance of a virtuosic soloist recently. This violinist has always been nearly flawless when playing some big pieces such as Beethoven and Brahms concerti. To my great surprise, this time there were certain tricky passages consistently muddy and rushed, which could be a sign of lack of chops for this particular piece and/or have not learned the piece properly the first time. Would nomusicians notice this? Most likely not. My point is, while pros are qualitatively different in their overall playing, they can also make the similar type of mistakes from time to time amateurs routinely make.

February 17, 2017 at 07:16 PM · Many soloists have off nights, too. They're sick, tired, jetlagged, distracted by nonmusical life problems, dealing with an obstinate older instrument having a temperamental evening...

February 17, 2017 at 07:19 PM · I've also noticed repeat performances of people I've really liked, where the quality varied a little bit. Some days are off days and other days, a performer might feel particularly inspired.

On the other hand, I've heard Sonnenberg and Josefowicz play live, and I just can't understand how people can listen to them, and I've sworn off ever seeing them. I could say that maybe those were off-days, but I think the way they play is fundamentally at odds with how I think of music. But even for those big names, the way the play seemed more intentional than for someone that seems to have problems with their playing that they can't control - At least in the case of some really pressed sound, it seemed to be something they didn't care about or think was a problem.

Then there was hearing Zukerman - I've never heard such a glorious sound come out of a violin - It was really astounding. But it was the most by-the-books, uninteresting performance I've been to. So you can have all the abilities of a professional, and the sound, and still not say anything interesting (But I can't speak for the rest of the audience).

I think pros have the sort of luxury of not really caring in certain ways, that can still sound like a substantial technique, but that for people at a lower level, any care they haven't taken sounds like a lack of technique or consistency. The pros I've heard suck have sucked in a very consistent manner (And in a way that can maybe be chalked up to 'different strokes'). Though, I would still go back to hear Zukerman, even if only for his tone.

February 17, 2017 at 08:27 PM · I think the vibrato is a definite factor! My husband was surfing youtube performances with the kids a while back, and I won't name names but you can guess some of the ones we ran across. It struck me that several who were obviously good violinists in many ways just sounded "off" to me, and on closer listening it was, at least in large part, the vibrato. Not "yes or no" as in Lydia's mention of period playing, but speed and shape and variety.

February 17, 2017 at 10:38 PM · It's true, perhaps circling back to Smiley's original post, that any part of technique which remains irregular, or random will sound off. But given a certain competence, I think the pro sound has largely to do with control over the bow (kind of like a singer's breath control, which includes control over the inhale as well as the exhale.) That's what I've always been taught, and having been challenged by everyone's comments I'm more convinced of it now.

There's the obvious example of period performers who express almost completely with the bow. But we also have artists like Hilary Hahn or Kreisler, who have fairly uniform vibratos (also bow colours,) and yet are able to express a complete range of emotions, albeit differently from a supreme colourist like Vengerov or Shumsky. No matter how varied and expressive the left hand, without the framework of the bow, what I think Lydia means by planning, the expression will fall flat. Without the bow lending it's true intention to the left hand, the vibrato has no meaning. If you look at certain internet violin gurus talk about a romantic sound they will show you a display of fast, wide vibrato, and apart from sounding maudlin, there is no meaningful sentiment conveyed, romantic or otherwise. That doesn't mean we will apprehend a completely polished performance if the left hand is inconsistent, but as with Kraggerud's young duo partner, we can still recognize the musicality and expression in her bowing; you can see the expression in the way she moves her bow. Even if the bow arm is somewhat irregular (as with Menuhin's later performances) with good planning, the greater meaning comes through.

As I think about how to wrap up my 'bow speed' notes on Smiley's thread, it's becoming clearer to me that expression is primarily tied to control over bow speed and distribution (setting aside all the bowing pyrotechnics for now, none of which is very expressive anyways) whether on long spun notes or over a series of short notes, or a mixture. Another way of thinking of that is in terms of the other variables. You mustn't let sound point or pressure keep you from controlling bow speed. How you manage the speed gives you a sense of motion and repose, a sense of direction; how you plan the various lengths of various notes gives shape to fragments and phrases, sentences, which strung together, and delivered with variety and conviction, like a great orator, draws you into the meaning of the piece.

The bow arm is our lungs and diaphragm, the strings and left hand, our voice box, the fiddle and room we play in, merely resonators. Without control over the sound streaming from our bows, without breath, all you have left is a kind of vocal fry.

February 18, 2017 at 12:19 AM · Ah, the bow arm! That's how I was taught by my current teacher -- colour, sound,emotions are all coming from the bow. She can tell immediately as soon as I draw a note when I forgot this:"No, not vibrato! Sing with your bow!" Another line is:"Vibrato is makeup. Please use it tastefully."

In China when I was first learning the violin, it was all about LH technique. So it's still a daily struggle for me after all these years. Most of the time, what I thought was a LH issue is RH issue and rarely the other way around. I'm afraid this deeprooted habit will probably be the last one to go.

February 18, 2017 at 01:28 AM · I haven't read every response that came before this one, so I might be repeating information. But here are my thoughts:

Violinists tend to be engineers, in my experience. We wish to analyze and pick apart the physical aspects of playing, and truthfully, we all need to start this way. Of course we need a good sense of the mechanics involved with the instrument in order to play anything.

But fully understanding the mechanics can only bring us to a high level of amateur playing.

In my opinion, the "finish" to this product, the thing that makes our playing more than simply the sum of its parts, is emotion. The deeper the better, whether it's pain or joy. It's my belief that the part of the brain involved with feeling allows us to assemble the various "tools" we've accumulated through years of playing in ways that we simply couldn't do through purely rational, concrete thought.

It's also my belief that even the most outwardly stoic professionals have an entire river of feeling rushing through them internally when performing. In many ways I think their stoicism allows them to focus that energy and feeling and project it in a more refined way through their instrument. Others, of course, show more emotion when playing and that adds a different color to their performance. But both are experiencing that river of feeling, of depth, inside of them.

Just try to remember this: your violin is a gun that uses feelings as ammo. Technical errors make your gun less accurate, but not entirely useless. At the end of the day, though, a gun without ammo does nothing. Even a perfect gun has no power without bullets.

Also, non-metaphorically-speaking, if you want a good tool to help open up your sound, emotion, and tie it all together, you probably need to physically move more when you play. Sway side to side. The difference in my sound (and the sound of my students) when I physically move more is extremely palpable. It simply works as a cue to get me to stop tightening up and hiding my vulnerabilities. Then I can feel emotion as I play, and I've got the ammo back in my gun.

Specific to your playing, technique-wise, I think you would benefit from making your G and D strings more accessible by tilting your violin more when playing on those strings. This may involve a different setup in terms of chinrest, shoulder rest, etc... Your A and E always sound significantly more musical than the D+G, and it appears to be caused by lack of tilting to make those strings more accessible.

Actually, I really just think your setup needs to be more based around freedom of movement in general. Have you ever tried switching to just a minimalist shoulder sponge as opposed to the rigid rest you currently use?

February 18, 2017 at 03:07 AM · Who are the last two paragraphs of your response addressed to, Erik?

February 18, 2017 at 10:29 AM · Lydia, the entire post was addressed to you.

February 18, 2017 at 12:57 PM · Thanks, Erik.

This is somewhat of a digression, but:

I actually switched from more tilt to basically holding the violin flat at the suggestion of a teacher, some years ago. She was a minimal-shoulder-rest advocate, but her advocacy was due to it being easier to keep the instrument flat rather than tilted. :-)

I've gone through phases of more-versus-less-rest in the past. I've played restless, with a sponge, with a cloth, and with a number of different rest types. I'm currently using a Korfker and like it. I don't find that it overly limits the ability of the violin to move on demand.

The D+G vs. A+E question is an interesting one, though, especially how much equipment influences sound. I got this violin about two years ago, liking its overall quality despite feeling that the tone was darker than I'm normally inclined to prefer in violins. Since I've had it, it's been getting progressively brighter, with the previously-weaker upper strings actually sounding better than the lower ones. Part of the response difference may be the fact that the A and E are now both steel (Warchal's Avantgarde and Amber, respectively), and I haven't quite found the right lower strings. A few days before the Lark Ascending performance I posted on the other thread (which I'm assuming is what you're referring to), i switched from Passiones to Tziganes on the lower two strings, which is requiring that I make some modifications for the different response, though. The instrument feels different on the lower strings than it does on the upper ones.

Given the relatively placid nature of the work, I'm probably moving less than usual, though, as I think about it.

Back on topic:

I'm not sure if the violinists that I admire most -- Hahn and Milstein, for living and past respectively -- are rivers-of-emotion types beneath their outward stoicism. I think they bring a thoughtful, intellectual bent to their playing. Hahn especially knows how to craft a line (which also gives her a gift for bringing sense to even the weirdest contemporary works). Both clearly evolved their interpretations over time, but are highly consistent at any given time. Broadly, some players tend to be more spontaneous than others, and there can be a sense of assured professionalism regardless of spontaneity (or improvisation, for that matter), but I'm not convinced that spontaneity is necessary being swept away by emotion per se.

February 19, 2017 at 06:55 AM · Regarding tilt, it's not that I feel you have an issue getting your fingers to the G and D, but rather that you don't have the same fluidity in shifting around on those strings as you would on the A and E. Of course, getting the SAME fluidity is impossible, but I believe one can get close. I think flat-violin advocates have particularly flexible elbows and shoulders so they may think that's best for everyone else, too. My theory on it is that if you can play the bach chaconne with relative ease, then the violin has enough tilt. If not, something needs to change. Otherwise there will be an irregularity in quality across the range of the violin, and this can add up, with other factors, to a less-than-professional sound. The tilt shouldn't be fixed though; there should be the OPTION of tilting.

Hahn is outwardly stoic but I presume she is internally excited to some extent when playing. It's hard to say, but that's the impression I get. I imagine her playing would get really boring if she wasn't excited by it. Professionalism alone can only go so far when putting on a good performance.

I had youtubed your name to get a couple of performances, which are the ones I'm referring to. I think one was polonaise and the other was the Schnittke suite. I haven't had a chance to listen to the Lark Ascending.

Also, another question would be: what makes you think your sound isn't professional? Are you basing this off of how you sound under your ear when playing, or based off of the recording of your performances? Because honestly, when violin isn't recorded perfectly, it sounds pretty bad no matter the quality of the playing.

February 19, 2017 at 07:47 AM · Hahn stoic?

February 19, 2017 at 08:38 AM · In my experience, and projecting what it must be like for touring artists, a professional performance happens despite internal feelings and thoughts: boredom, fatigue, hunger, annoyance, distraction, sorrow, nothing or positive emotions too. There maybe some feelings about the music itself, they may even coincide with a great performance, but with a pro you can't tell the difference from the outside looking in.

I think what a consummate pro experiences more often than less accomplished performers is what sports psychologists call being in the zone, or flow state, where you acheive a kind of hyperconsciousness; you lose a sense of self-consciousness, but become hyper aware of your context--you're not really out of body, but rather you embody the music, or the game, or the task at hand, "become the ball" but also all the possibilities attached to the ball; you see and experience the whole score at once, and know your exact movement through it, but not in 'real' time, in your own time. It's as if you extend your consciousness from self to the whole of what you're doing. When you emote, you become hyper aware of your feelings and nothing else, you withdraw into the self, which may or may not coincide with an effective communication of the emotional content of the music.

February 19, 2017 at 06:48 PM · Erik, I don't think that I presently play with the fluidity, precision, and control of a pro.

I can't say that I really feel a left-hand difference between the G/D/A/E, at least not until the top-most positions of the G string. I agree with the option for tilt, by the way; my shoulder-rest allows for enough of a degree of it, I think. I can play three-part chords without a roll, though I've never really thought about that in relationship to the tilt degree of the instrument.

February 19, 2017 at 08:16 PM · Jeewon, I think I understand the state of hyperconsciousness you were talking about. I had such moments in grad school when during some discussions in a seminar or during question period after giving a presentation in a small group. All of a sudden, I felt like being in a different space, there is no me or even my words, and everyone seem to be synchronizing with meaning. Then there's meaningful silence followed by smiles and congratulations. If only I could experience this in violin performance!

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