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..."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Only mature players can bring a profound experience of life into their performances. Joy, despair, serenity, melancholy, passion, existential angst..."
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.
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.
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.
I have known some awful people who play the violin beautifully. I agree that there is "acting" involved.
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.
I know many introverted musicians and actors but you wouldn't guess that based on their performances.
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!
I don't think necessarily applies to what musicians play, but it might very well apply to what they like.
Good question. Heifetz personality (as viewed in his master class) seemed pretty abrasive A type and his playing quite the contrary or was it?
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.)
"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 think how people play has more yo do with musicianship rather than personality.
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.
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!).
"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."
It's possible we can be called "curmudgeons" for not liking pop music anymore.
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.
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:
Scott Cole, I love all your comments here. So true, to my thinking.
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.
"This is also the reason people are generally very impressed when hearing me in person, and generally unimpressed when hearing me on video."
"I have known some awful people who play the violin beautifully. I agree that there is "acting" involved."
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."
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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 think Albrecht is on to something there.
"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."
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.
Successful, yet horrible, people exist in my profession, but not in the professions I idealize. :)
"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 won't adress each poster individually.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Seems to me there are 4 sources of emotion:
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.
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."
So my take on "musical personality:"
So does life experience matter?
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.
Here's how I've used my life experiences in my violin playing:
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.
Excellent interpretive suggestions, Paul Deck!
@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"?
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.
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.
That long list of emotional reactions;- that's the audience's job.
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