Musical personality

May 16, 2019, 12:47 AM · Do we really play like some kind of reflection of our personalities and life experiences? Or do we have an artistic sensibility that is in some ways divorced from our "true selves"?

Personality probably plays into it some -- for instance, our personalities may determine to what degree we are prone to sentimental lingering in a musical passage. But does life experience really matter?

My question was triggered by Steve Jones, who wrote in the Himari Yoshimura thread, "Only mature players can bring a profound experience of life into their performances. Joy, despair, serenity, melancholy, passion, existential angst..."

Replies (64)

Edited: May 16, 2019, 1:36 AM · Thanks for picking this up Lydia. Of course I was partially tongue-in-cheek, but I do believe that such emotions as joy, despair etc will often find their way into our playing, even unintentionally. Personality undoubtedly comes into play, at least insofar as some players incline towards passionate expression while others are emotionally cool.

Any piece can be played in a number of ways, and one of the things I enjoy most about "practising" is exploring those ways in terms of an emotional mood or temperature which may change bar-by-bar. It's the understanding of such emotional moods that I believe can only come with life experience. I don't actually experience those emotions while playing, but I try my best to portray them. A case in point might be Massenet's Meditation, whose opening I feel should almost be played on one's knees!

May 16, 2019, 1:57 AM · Extreme example: A few years ago I heard a performance of Brahms' first string quartet. The performers were the voice leaders of a community orchestra, the three lower voices amateurs, CM an extremely young professional musician.

The performance was well prepared and surprisingly competent. Amateurs play Brahms all the time but to perform his music in a concert is an extreme challenge for them. So congratulations!

What marred this though was the musical inadequacy of the performance. The very young first violinist had obviously no relationship with this music. She was rushing the tempo, playing that awesome opening like a Kreutzer etude; she was taking the "intermezzo" too fast (in fairness: lots of people do that); she was using inappropriate rubato; I could go on and on: And I was wishing there would be a law making it illegal for below 50 year olds to perform Brahms in public. I think I'll launch a petition...

May 16, 2019, 4:23 AM · If we don't why would we listen to all those different soloists playing exactly the same notes? Clearly in an orchestra there is some adaption to the conductor and common needs - but even there I find each violinist is playing their own expression.

For me there is no point to music unless it is an expression, conscious and sub-conscious, of what I have to say and feel.

Edited: May 16, 2019, 6:43 AM · I agree with Elise and partly with Steve. But I would add that one can accomplish a lot of musical "expression" with a fairly basic toolbox of tricks. An engineer might call it a "platform technology." Repeating a lick? Play it softer and with more vibrato. When the line goes up, get louder, and vice versa. That kind of thing. Young kids can learn this, and eventually they can also be taught how to make them more subtle, to blend them together, and to do that increasingly subconsciously. This set of techniques develops in parallel with their physical technique. Eventually, if talented, industrious, and lucky, they become "mature" soloists for whom every recording will reflect a unique combination of these devices. When giving a performance, the toolbox may also include various facial expressions and body language. To the extent they do things similarly from performance to performance they have a musical personality. It might or might not be anything like the personality they would demonstrate at a cocktail party, but I suspect it's more likely the two are pretty well aligned.
Edited: May 16, 2019, 6:50 AM · I think the answer is obvious… we can't consistent play something we're not. Just like you'll know a person's inner state being calm / excited / agitated / depressed by the tiniest conversational nuances, the same could be heard through her musical language. Well, you can always pretend to be someone else but you will see a person clearly when she is free to interpret.

My favourite example… he is Li Chuanyun, Perlman's student, playing Schindler's List
https://youtu.be/G5F1Ji82kXo

May 16, 2019, 7:45 AM · "Only mature players can bring a profound experience of life into their performances. Joy, despair, serenity, melancholy, passion, existential angst..."

Absolutely, I channel all of my civil service experience into my music!

May 16, 2019, 8:11 AM · I agree with Paul that there is a "toolbox of tricks". But look at his example: When you repeat something there is no need to do it weaker each time. Maybe in your piece it is more effective the other way round: play louder to emphasize the fact that you repeat. The "tricks" need adapting to specific situations. Or if the repeated section contains a fermata, ritardando or other tempo modification: How do you play it the second time around? The audience already expects a fermata; how do you respond to that expectation? There is a range of options you can choose from.

I agree with Steve that figuring out how you want to present a piece (if only to a one person audience of yourself) is the most exciting part of practicing (I'd almost say the only exciting part). There are so many parameters that those tricks are only the beginning of the work. And these parameters are not independent of each other.

If I play a piece just for myself I also enjoy the option of changing my mind about it whenever I feel like it. For a performance, or even for a rehearsal in a chamber group one has to make up one's mind (ideally collectively) and stick with a version after that.

May 16, 2019, 8:14 AM · Really interesting question. I've been thinking about this a lot with my one kid, who is a major emoter on stage. Tons of energy and excitement, lots of passion for a kid his age. But if you met him in real life, he's somewhat quiet and doesn't display many of his emotions. (He's in that 8th grader "whatever" stage.) So which is his reality? I think that music may be the only place he feels comfortable expressing his complex emotions.
Edited: May 16, 2019, 8:33 AM · I remember it was discussed in an earlier thread, to what extent the emotional content of the music is genuinely "felt" by the performer. On that occasion it was agreed (by most I think) that musical performance is akin to acting. In order to convey a particular emotional state actors cannot literally and reliably experience that state themselves (or they'd go mad), but they must in some sense sympathize and act in a manner that communicates that emotion to the audience. In music Paul's "basic toolbox" makes a useful starting point but there's a great deal more to it in respect of attack and phrasing, aspects of playing that are hard if not impossible to express in words and therefore teach.

Another case in point: for me the most emotionally complex and expressive of all violin concertos is Edward Elgar's. The solo part represents a narrative, a journey through many states of mind, and an ideal performer must respond to every change. The opening phrase is marked "f nobilmente". What Elgar truly meant by that is open to debate but to play it like the Brahms is surely to miss the point egregiously.

Edited: May 16, 2019, 8:46 AM · I have known some awful people who play the violin beautifully. I agree that there is "acting" involved.
Edited: May 16, 2019, 9:21 AM · I think the skill is really evocation of emotion, rather emotional expression or emotional display. How else could you explain why a gifted child or adolescent soloist can elicit deep sorrow or joy that they have not experienced? There is something about their "musical personality," as Lydia puts it--a package of musical intelligence/understanding, taste, poise, and technique--that transcends their own personal experiences. I might suggest giftedness is really an uncanny ability to summon an experience of emotion/feeling/sensation from the listener.
May 16, 2019, 9:24 AM · I know many introverted musicians and actors but you wouldn't guess that based on their performances.

Experience is an important factor but it’s more about education and absorbing the musical idiom over time. You learn a lot about how to play Brahms from years of working with other musicians who are your coaches and colleagues. You also learn from past performances - what went well, what didn't work.

Jocelyn has a good point. And I think young people can experience deep emotions too. They may even feel them more intensely. If anything, some people play well despite their "life experiences" (which can really interrupt their practicing and concentration) rather than because of them.

A fun test for this question: compare the performances of well-known soloists when they were younger with their performances after they have presumably had some “life experience.”

Edited: May 16, 2019, 10:09 AM · I believe that, deep inside, every human, regardless of their character traits, can recognize and experience the same set of emotions. Of course the specific emotions one experiences more often than others depends on one's life experience. But quite soon, I would say around twelve years old or so, living a typical life will already have exposed you to most emotions in one degree or another. Now music is many things, but among other things it is a language that can carry, communicate emotions. So, I believe, regardless of one's character traits, if one is "musical", means, can understand this language, will be able to "read" or "hear" the emotions in the music. Then, we can also reproduce these emotions when playing the piece ourselves, on condition we have the required technique. I also think, by the way, that this "language" can be taught, and, like normal languages, it is easier taught to children. Sorry for the convoluted answer!
Edited: May 16, 2019, 6:38 PM · I don't think necessarily applies to what musicians play, but it might very well apply to what they like.

Can our musical preference say something about us?

May 16, 2019, 10:49 AM · Good question. Heifetz personality (as viewed in his master class) seemed pretty abrasive A type and his playing quite the contrary or was it?
Edited: May 24, 2019, 8:40 AM · For myself, I know how certain things in music make me feel. I did what I had to do to create those feelings in myself from the musical sound I made. That is "technique." I have done it when performing and if it evoked the visible response I was seeking from some of the audience I felt it was the "emotional" effect I was seeking and from then on I would continue to use the same "tricks." (In all honesty I'm now too old to be able to rely on my playing to do that any more.)

To me that is "emotional playing," but to my mind it is "acting," not playing emotionally. But to tell the truth it has made me feel the way it sounded when I did it but my emotions when playing it came from what I was hearing as much what I was feeling at the time - I'd already practiced that.

So when I played "Meditation" (for example) for a funeral/memorial or for a wedding the stage was already set before the fiddle came out of its case and the "tricks" were already pre-set for the occasion.

But one's "personality" or "emotional being" will determine how one does it and what it sounds like. And, yes, I believe "life experience" builds these traits.

That's how I have thought of it over past half century, and still do. Just wish I could still be sure I can do it when I want to.

May 16, 2019, 11:42 AM · "I think the answer is obvious… we can't consistent play something we're not. Just like you'll know a person's inner state being calm / excited / agitated / depressed by the tiniest conversational nuances, the same could be heard through her musical language."

I'd have to disagree. Music is an act. Those who are teachable can learn exactly the right modes of expression to fit with whatever style of music they're being taught. Mozart requires this, Brahms that.

Professional musicians and actors certainly DO NOT feel the music or part deeply every single time they get on stage. this is an unreasonable expectation, whether one is performing Shakespeare, Brahms, or Rap
5 nights a week. Especially if you've been doing this for decades. I often marvel at pop stars that have to get up on stage and summon huge energy and enthusiasm night after night, year after year. I know damn well that often they have to force themselves to do it, which is why drugs and alcohol are often so much a part of that world. Can you imagine having to do the same act in Vegas, night after night? I don't know how people like Celine Dion and other artists can do this without going nuts. I guess many do, though.

Summoning expression even when one is exhausted or preoccupied is simply part of the game. I'm not sure whether life experiences have anything to do with it. It may help with certain kinds of expression...or have no bearing on it. Indeed, for a career professional, life experience may actually sap musical expression.

The idea that a great artist must suffer or have a tortured personality to better express music? Not sure I buy it.

I think that, as Damian suggests, we tend to gravitate towards certain music from the beginning, depending on our personality.

Edited: May 16, 2019, 11:56 AM · I think how people play has more yo do with musicianship rather than personality.

As for children and their limited life experiences, IMHO, children playing like children should be celebrated.

Edited: May 16, 2019, 12:53 PM · What about actors who play the lead part in a theatrical play for an extended run of perhaps several weeks, and make each performance sound fresh each time? It's all down to years of experience and training in their acting technique, coupled with professionalism.
Edited: May 16, 2019, 1:22 PM · When I was a kid in NY, we had a professional actor neighbor who had a significant speaking part in the original run of "South Pacific" on Broadway. when he told us about it he had already been doing it 7 or 8 performances a week for 6 months. I'm sure he would have done it happily for the rest of his life (good money!).

How many times had Heifetz performed the Beethoven Violin Concerto when he thrilled me with it in 1950? To me it was certainly as fresh as it must have been at its first performance 144 years earlier, or Heifetz's first performance about 100 years after that.

May 16, 2019, 1:41 PM · "I don't believe a young child playing a difficult recipe is really conveying who they are. They are mostly conveying who the composer is."

...or what their teacher told them to convey.

Left to their own devices, most children (and adult students) will actually do very unmusical things (at least in the sense of what we've been taught): they'll goose phrase endings. Rush and drag. Accent notes that shouldn't be accented. Not slow down at a cadence. Chop off a note instead of taper it. Chose jarring fingerings or poor bowings.

Yes, there is a basic musical instinct, but it's always in a context of tradition. That's why, once you start examining things, it's actually quite difficult to tease out expression from tradition. I think much of what we call the talent of "musical expression" is actually a talent for imitation.

Another issue is that "good musical expression" depends on one's viewpoint. One of the my first musical memories was a reel-to-reel recording of Zuckerman playing the Mozart A-major concerto, which was very inspiring as a child. Fast forward decades later, and I'm yawning through his phoned-in performance o Bruch with my summer festival. I'm sure many in the audience felt it very passionate.

May 16, 2019, 2:58 PM · It's possible we can be called "curmudgeons" for not liking pop music anymore.
It's also possible we outgrew it...
Edited: May 16, 2019, 3:21 PM · I agree with Scott. It's precisely the "teachable" student who picks up the toolbox the fastest, whether the teacher is actually telling them "It's Mozart, taper your phrases" or whether they're clever enough to mimic pros performing Mozart, these are exactly the students everyone seems to want! A tiny child showing their "individuality" usually gets a pretty fair dressing-down.

Albrecht wrote, "I agree with Paul that there is a 'toolbox of tricks'. But look at his example: When you repeat something there is no need to do it weaker each time. Maybe in your piece it is more effective the other way round: play louder to emphasize the fact that you repeat. The 'tricks' need adapting to specific situations."

Well of course that's true! But when you are teaching a little child, you teach one thing at a time, right? And then you build on that. First you set a rule, then you explain later (sometimes a LOT later) when it can be broken. (Physical technique example: "straight bowing").

My younger daughter studies cello. She was shown by her teacher at quite a young age to take her piece and imagine always going up in dynamics with the rising line, and then to play it just the opposite way, to make the "mountains" soft and the "valleys" high. And then to imagine some combination of the two. That's one hell of a lot easier than asking a seven-year-old to go read Tolstoy and suffer several relationship failures so that she can translate "life experiences" and "feelings" into "musical expression." As the child grows and learns more sophisticated things, then longer-range (bigger picture) ideas like "telling a story" can be introduced, but the point is that they are underpinned by the techniques already in the "toolbox."

Even the most sophisticated cake is still made of the same primary ingredients.

Edited: May 16, 2019, 3:39 PM · By the way I loved the performance of Chuanyun Li in the Theme from Schindler's List. I didn't agree with many of his musical decisions (too many slip-slides for my taste) but I appreciated his willingness to go outside established boundaries by improvising quite freely. I'm inspired and even emboldened by seeing this! In fact I've started a new thread on it:

https://www.violinist.com/discussion/thread.cfm?page=2968

May 16, 2019, 4:17 PM · Scott Cole, I love all your comments here. So true, to my thinking.
May 16, 2019, 4:24 PM · I think the "Acting" in music is a way to get oneself to feel emotions that they weren't already feeling. To be able to conjure up the right feeling, internally, at will, is a powerful skill.


But probably more important is the life experience of the listener, and how they're feeling at that given moment. The interaction between the performer and listener is far more important than just the feelings of the performer.

This is why a parent can listen to their child play something badly but be far more impressed by that than they would be by the best violinist on stage. The interaction counts for a majority of the feelings.

And likewise, a good performer must use the energy they are receiving from their audience to allow their emotion to grow. Everyone knows that there are audiences that drain you, and audiences that energize you. When playing for an audience that refuses to reflect your emotions into a feedback loop, it is pointless for a performer to even bother trying to feel emotions, since they will be dissipated into the crowd and the performer will leave exhausted and disappointed.

Perhaps I'm the only one that has noticed this effect. When I play around people that have almost no musical appreciation, I feel drained and apathetic. When I play around good musicians, I feel that they can pick up on the subtleties of what I'm trying to portray, and I am able to produce a much better sound because I feel it's worthy to do so. And I leave energized.

This is also the reason people are generally very impressed when hearing me in person, and generally unimpressed when hearing me on video. When I'm playing for a camera, it simply feels contrived and robotic to express any emotion in a performance. And I'm not a good actor. So because I have nothing to reflect off of, my energy diminishes almost immediately. Somehow, I also suddenly become self conscious about my physical appearance, and my mind leaves the music. I need a good audience to play my best. Which, unfortunately, leads to strong inconsistencies in my performing ability.

May 16, 2019, 5:00 PM · "This is also the reason people are generally very impressed when hearing me in person, and generally unimpressed when hearing me on video."

You're lucky--1 out of 2 ain't bad. I don't impress people live OR on video.

May 16, 2019, 6:05 PM · "I have known some awful people who play the violin beautifully. I agree that there is "acting" involved."

I think that's very hard to do - I'd rather think that somewhere inside them is something beautiful.

May 16, 2019, 6:08 PM · Scott wrote: "Professional musicians and actors certainly DO NOT feel the music or part deeply every single time they get on stage. this is an unreasonable expectation, whether one is performing Shakespeare, Brahms, or Rap 5 nights a week."

For sure, any other thought is rather a romantic notion. But I would counter that if they are faking it, its because at one time they did feel it. Thus, the 'acting' is a sincere reproduction of their own emotions.

I would like to think that it is not easy to totally fake this. Certainly, when I listen I am very sensitive to total artifice.

May 17, 2019, 12:31 AM · One is naive to think that all the elaborate shenanigans soloists show on stage are anything other than acting or a charade.To think otherwise is as misguided as trying to tie specific pieces of music always to a specific life event or events in a composers' life.

In fact every single teacher I ever had tried to eliminate flamboyant gestures in me when I played for a lesson in their studio.

I don't even think one has to have had great life experiences or emotions as a performer to perform musically well. One does need to have had an extensive musical life and intuition built on that for the depths of emotion to seemingly come out that we listeners experience. Younger performers may not have that.

Edited: May 17, 2019, 1:47 AM · Hello Paul I saw your another thread btw I just wish to clarify I quoted Li Chuanyun's playing of the song not because I think it's not as good!! I think it's very touching. I was just trying to show that you can somehow see a person's personality through his playing
May 17, 2019, 2:21 AM · It came to me in a dream (well, at some point during the night) that the three umbrella factors informing musical excellence are nature, nurture and mature(-ity) - what we're born with, what we get taught and such wisdom as we acquire through experience. Musicality in its raw form may come with nature; what comes with experience is musical understanding. Have you ever heard a pre-teen play late Beethoven? Would you want to?
Edited: May 17, 2019, 6:55 AM · Probably I wouldn't want to hear a pre-teen play Beethoven. At least not his late piano sonatas. On the other hand lots of kids play the F major Romance. If you have a reasonable tone and vibrato, a child should be able to "interpret" this piece. (Here "interpret" means "follow the guidance of one's teacher on dynamics, rubato, and portamento," which will be the three main interpretive devices that the student uses.) But of course you meant that we wouldn't want to hear a pre-teen play something hard by Beethoven like one of his sonatas or his concerto. But that's why we have composers like Sarasate, isn't it? So that we can have things that are hard to play that don't require very much interpretive maturity.
May 17, 2019, 7:50 AM · I could hardly disagree more with the idea that one can always see a musician's personality through his/her playing. It's like thinking that an actor who expertly portrays a sympathetic character must be a good person inside, and we know that's not necessarily true.
Edited: May 17, 2019, 9:07 AM · Personality is more complex than "is someone good or evil?". I agree that that does not show in the production of an artist, otherwise Wagner's operas would have to be awfully bad. But there are aspects of personality that I think do show such as spontaneity vs. calculatedness or risk taking vs. risk avoiding.
May 17, 2019, 9:12 AM · I agree with Mary Ellen. How many artists (not only violinists of course, by any means) have melted our hearts with their "soulful" and "sensitive" performances and then, behind the scenes, they turn out to be some kind of wretched abuser? If the "@metoo" movement has taught us anything, it's that such external warning signs may be few to none.
May 17, 2019, 10:02 AM · "In fact every single teacher I ever had tried to eliminate flamboyant gestures in me when I played for a lesson in their studio."

Question: where does "emotion" and teacher influence intersect? Is the above because the teacher's teacher (or the teacher's teacher's teacher) tried to eliminate flamboyance?

May 17, 2019, 10:56 AM · I think Albrecht is on to something there.
May 17, 2019, 11:35 AM · "How many artists (not only violinists of course, by any means) have melted our hearts with their "soulful" and "sensitive" performances and then, behind the scenes, they turn out to be some kind of wretched abuser? If the "@metoo" movement has taught us anything, it's that such external warning signs may be few to none."
Do you aspire the notion that if something is bad in somebody, everything is bad? Life simply isn't Star Wars, these things are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it may be the case that people with the biggest societal problems may be that way because they are the most emotionally sensitive. If Hitler had been accepted into art school perhaps he would now be remembered as a significant painter. A lot of heinous character flaws only come out because of the way a person's life progressed. Picasso is the same - revolutionized our way of seeing and yet from all accounts he was no emotional role model.
May 17, 2019, 1:08 PM · It seems to me that I ought to speak up for musicians since several people have suggested that there are an awful lot of terrible people among impressive musical performers.

In my experience this is not true. I have had the luck of meeting quite a few musicians in my time and I found the vast majority very decent people indeed. My own profession is (was, to be precise) organic chemistry. If you want a set of mostly terrible people look at famous professors in organic chemistry. I don't know what it is about organic chemistry that produces this effect.

May 17, 2019, 1:17 PM · Successful, yet horrible, people exist in my profession, but not in the professions I idealize. :)
May 17, 2019, 1:26 PM · Haha, Jocelyn!

I feel eminently qualified to comment on the number of terrible people among impressive musicians since that is my profession. There certainly are some good people too, but there is no correlation between the quality of someone as a human being and that same person as a musician. None.

May 17, 2019, 1:35 PM · "In fact every single teacher I ever had tried to eliminate flamboyant gestures in me when I played for a lesson in their studio."

This is a terrible thing to do to a student, unless your gestures were contrived and huge to the point of getting in the way. Physical movement can be a very important aspect of some people's playing. Others might not need it as much, but some really do.

May 17, 2019, 6:04 PM · I won't adress each poster individually.

I agree there's acting by most, and that an excellent musician has an ample "musical expression toolbox" that is highly developed, and that he/she can use to convey "depth" of feeling, happiness, despair, good, or evil. But at the same time (and regardless of personality types) life's experiences can shape how we think and use said toolbox, so the "passionate" performer is able to use his/her toolbox in a more "special" (individual) way according to how the music speaks (or not) to them. So gifted artists will "always" be musical, whether they are nice or otherwise, but need some of life's experience's seasoning so their "good enough" toolbox can transmit a "higher level" of "emotion".

That said, a "moving" performer does so better by having an infallible technical equipment, so while one can be "musical" with less than perfect violinistic command, one should, in my strong opinion, avoid the false dichotomy of "technical vs musical", as if for some reasons both couldn't coexist. Technique allows the unfettered expression of musicality.

From what I have experienced listening to the more usual prodigies, their later, post-prodigy recordings are "better" to me. Their earlier recordings may sizzle, but are often devoid of some expression, even when all the phrasing and "right" musicality may be there. I understand this is to an extent subjective, but rarely will the 8-12 year old super virtuoso sound like a seasoned musician, even if the performances can be quite beautiful and musical.

Feel free to disagree of course. I think "life" helps music expression quite a lot (though not at the expense of good technique and the aforementioned "musical toolbox.")

Edited: May 17, 2019, 6:39 PM · I certainly didn't mean to imply that "there are an awful lot of terrible people among impressive musical performers." In fact I'm pretty damned sure I didn't imply that.

Adalberto wrote, "rarely will the 8-12 year old super virtuoso sound like a seasoned musician, even if the performances can be quite beautiful and musical." Probably folks who adjudicate competitions can hear the flaws in their intonation too.

My overall point is that there is a "technique" to expression -- a set of devices that one polishes and learns, over time, to merge into a unified "musicality." It's something one can be quite good at, and it's something that one can mold into a unique style -- a "musical personality." And unlike physical technique, which might max out, the "technique of musicality" can continue to improve throughout one's life, even compensating for a decrease in the former. But that's just getting better at something. I don't think it *necessarily* has anything to do with whether one has accumulated "life experiences" or not.

Edited: May 18, 2019, 2:49 AM · Bob Brozman is the man who represents the dark side (or try Lawrence Durrell if you're in the UK and have been in thrall to the recent televisation of Gerald's Corfu memoirs). I wouldn't worry too much about feminist reappraisals of Picasso - if you read Francoise Gilot's biography (their main source), you'll realise she was more than a little narcissistic and deluded, if not nuts, genuinely thinking she was a better artist than Picasso. I doubt very many feminists agree with her if you force their hand!
May 18, 2019, 4:13 AM · I am afraid this is a classical ad hominem, Groden (better: ad feminam) argument. To defend Picasso you will need to demonstrate what is wrong with Gilot's argument, not what is wrong with her.
May 18, 2019, 4:20 AM · Look, it is true that there is a technique to expression, or a set of tricks. But there is a technique to every art, say painting. And yet, looking at a Van Gogh (to pick a random example) you have to admit that nobody quite used the technique like him.

Actually I suspect that recording technology has tended to rather diminish personal traits in performers compared to pre-recording times though that can not be proved for obvious reasons.

May 18, 2019, 7:51 AM · To clarify, I never said there were an “awful lot” of terrible people among great musicians. I said that I had known some awful people who played beautifully.

Good and terrible people exist among musicians in basically the same proportions that they do in any other group of people. You cannot read somebody’s soul by hearing them play.

Edited: May 18, 2019, 10:30 AM · Your last sentence is definitely true, not just for musicians but also for those organic chemistry professors I was talking about. They are all brilliant in their field.
May 18, 2019, 3:42 PM · These discussions always remind me that it's human nature to crush anything beautiful into smaller and smaller pieces through over-analysis until they're no longer beautiful. Why is it necessary to believe that we're seeing peoples' souls to enjoy what we're hearing? It's best to talk about the music and the interpretation, rather than speculating on the depth of the person behind the instrument. Their music should speak for itself, and if it doesn't, then perhaps the question of depth has been answered.
May 18, 2019, 4:02 PM · Seems to me there are 4 sources of emotion:
1. What the composer felt or intended to convey.
2. What is actually in the music itself.
3. The feelings, capabilities, and intentions of the performer.
4. The reactions of the listener.
Parsing all these out seems an incredibly subtle piece of business.
(I was going to add a fifth source - the emotions of the critic - but I'm not so sure that critics have emotions other than anger, criticism, and jealousy. This last comment was intended as a joke, but I fear the critics will not take kindly to it. And that's even before any of them ever heard me play).
May 20, 2019, 10:31 AM · I think "feeling" is subjective. In most cases, when you hear a performer, you can, if you analyze, figure out what makes something effective. Phrases that are aimed to their resolution. Vibrato that highlights a chordal change and therefore the harmonic structure. Bowing patterns that bring out the rhythm. Etc.

What I hear in Jay Ungar is an improvisatory spontaneity. It's his own composition, after all, and this piece of music has been his calling card for nearly 40 years. He's almost certainly performed it more than 10,000 times, and quite possibly played it 10x that many times, experimenting with it. It's part of his soul.

The little girl has an unexpectedly nice tone for an 8-year-old on a fractional instrument. What makes her performance feel like it lacks the same spontaneity is substantially based on the timing, but also on a certain stiffness in the way she plays (which affects the directionality of her sound, et.al.).

Edited: May 20, 2019, 11:32 AM · Albrecht wrote, "My own profession is (was, to be precise) organic chemistry. If you want a set of mostly terrible people look at famous professors in organic chemistry. I don't know what it is about organic chemistry that produces this effect."

My own training likewise was in organic chemistry, and now I am a professor myself, although I mainly teach general, inorganic, and organometallic chemistry. From the inside, I don't see organic chemistry professors being any different from people in other fields.
r.

May 21, 2019, 7:48 AM · So my take on "musical personality:"

This means a mixture of creativity and commitment (which are different things), supported by the technical ability to implement both.

Commitment is performing like what you're doing has some emotional meaning for you, with more energy and passion. You can learn to fake it to an extent, but it's more powerful it if's real. A committed performance isn't necessarily any good. (Case in point: I saw Beethoven conducted by Theodor Currentzis last summer. It was awful. But he and the whole orchestra really committed to their appalling, misjudged interpretation.) But usually commitment elevates the quality of the performance.

Creativity is the ability to interpret the music in your own way. Generally, creativity relies on understanding something and then adding to that understanding with insights or inspiration from somewhere else, which might be totally outside the domain of whichever subject you're actually working in. It's all about unlocking parallel connections within the brain.

Both of these things can be taught, but only in the sense of teaching in a way that encourages a pupil to develop towards them. Teaching 'a correct interpretation' might well stifle them. It helps the pupil understand the music, and help them understand why some things might work and might not, and might provide food for though. But what you really want is for the pupil to come to their own judgements and give them the tools to do that.


May 21, 2019, 7:57 AM · So does life experience matter?

I think it probably helps - an older player will have a greater wealth of experiences to draw on with their creativity, seen and heard more performances, played the same piece more ways, experienced more emotions, been more places, seen more things.... so there is in a sense more raw material for creativity, particularly for nuance.

The risk is that they end up in a rut playing the same thing the same way as they always have done.

Edited: May 22, 2019, 4:28 AM · I don't really feel it's accurate to label an entire person as either 'good' or 'evil' (barring a few obvious exceptions), or to assume that playing expressively has to come from 'good' characteristics (either genuine or pretended by the performer).. there's a lot of really dark music that requires tapping into some not so nice emotions.

I agree that acting is usually involved (including being able to produce emotions within oneself while performing, that don't necessarily come naturally).

Edited: May 24, 2019, 6:41 AM · Here's how I've used my life experiences in my violin playing:

(1) Forgot my lunch -- How I phrase Bar 27-28 in the Bruch
(2) Failed grant applications -- Opening chords in D Minor Sarabande
(3) Broken shoelaces -- Slight rubato leading to the recap in Mozart 3
(4) etc.

Edited: May 24, 2019, 6:29 AM · No names.... there are two very famous players whose playing I can't stand. When I hear them, all I can hear is a jerk playing. Much after I formed this opinion, I learned that they were both total jerks. So I would start out by agreeing that the player's personality comes through. Then I fell in love with the playing of another musician, only to learn later that he was basically a manipulative sociopath who used everyone he knew. Everyone at the time (1950s-80s) marveled that he could be so insensitive yet play with such sensitivity, and the general consensus was that the musical sensitivity was just another form of skilled manipulation of others. So I guess it is possible to play differently than you act.
Edited: May 24, 2019, 9:30 AM · Excellent interpretive suggestions, Paul Deck!

May 24, 2019, 9:12 AM · @Paul - your life experiences don't seem to have been very inspiring or musically relevant. A large proportion of my life has been involved with music other than playing the violin. During this time I have had experiences (I call it "listening") that increased my musical understanding - for example how to characterise one composer's music as against another's. Don't these qualify as "life experiences"?
Edited: May 24, 2019, 12:00 PM · Steve, they might, but that's really not what people are talking about when they say that "life experiences" improve your interpretive powers. They're talking about watching your first child being born and your best friend falling into the Grand Canyon whilst taking a selfie, as these are the kinds of things that engender "strong emotions" such as "existential angst." My comment was intended to mock this notion by drawing a facetious correspondence between various "life experiences" and specific interpretive moments.
Edited: May 24, 2019, 12:50 PM · I'll have to check back - were people really saying that? I actually wasn't intending to imply any connection between musical expression and specific lifetime events, but lifetime experience in general.

Among the list of emotions Lydia quoted I was completely sincere in my assertion that joy, despair, serenity, melancholy and passion (to name but a few) are emotions that a performer can convey but only when he or she has had some experience of them, either directly or at secondhand ("existential angst" was of course MY facetious comment!). Since all musical expression is essentially an artificial construct of the listener in cahoots with the performer (I quite agree with Stravinsky that music expresses nothing entirely of itself), in addition to "real" life experiences the performer can learn and incorporate pretend-emotions from other art forms such as drama and of course opera.

May 24, 2019, 1:20 PM · That long list of emotional reactions;- that's the audience's job.
My job, as a player,- is to Provoke those emotions. I don't have time to enjoy them myself, too many technical details for that.
I have done the multi-performance long runs, same show every night, every week, every month... You deal with it by living in the moment, and remembering that for most of the audience, it is the only time they see it. Yes, a lot of things become automatic, but so what. There were several times, driving home at 2 AM, when I did not remember doing the show that night.

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