Is suitability of character important in choosing a violin sonata?

June 8, 2019, 10:49 PM · Hi guys,

I'm selecting a full violin sonata for a local violin competition, and am undecided whether to choose Brahms' Violin Sonata No. 3 or one of the Beethoven Sonatas. My violin teacher believes that my character is not really suitable for the former, which is rather dark and complex, and thus proposed that I learn one of Beethoven's sonatas instead. Despite that, I really feel for the Brahms, having wanted to play it for quite a while now.

So, coming to the main question: how important is one's innate "character" in selecting a violin sonata, or any of my competition repertoire?

Thanks a lot!

Replies (10)

June 8, 2019, 11:09 PM · Could it be she is thinking about the compatibility you have when playing with partners and your ability to "converse" the harmonies?

The 3rd Brahms Sonata is, at intermediate violin levels, a complete nightmare to put together with the pianist.

But to answer your question, I think innate character plays some role, but at intermediate levels, I think maybe it is less suitability of character, but more suitability of "temperament".

Also, I think canonically a few of the Beethoven violin sonatas are far easier than the 3 Brahms Sonatas from a technical and ensemble perspective, but someone who has taught them before can probably correct me.

It is like playing team sports in a way. At the highest levels, anyone can do anything, but at lower levels, your own "personality" will leak through. Take soccer for example. At highest levels, most wide midfielders can pull double duty as attacking wingers and do so very successfully. At lower levels, this is certainly not the case, believe me from experience :)

June 8, 2019, 11:34 PM · I'm not a believer in the mystical relationship between personal temperament and the way we play music, personally.

That said, we all have technical strengths and weaknesses. Those strengths and weaknesses make some repertoire more challenging than other repertoire. If you have trouble controlling a varied vibrato, for instance, you are more likely to struggle with a work that demands a lot of fine-grained control of tone color. If you aren't great at producing a robust sound, you will struggle more in repertoire that demands a certain muscularity. If you are a bit of a tentative player because you lack the confidence to be bolder, you probably won't do great in a piece that requires convincing dramatic changes. Etc.

June 9, 2019, 7:12 AM · I think Lydia's points are good. The question I would ask is which one can you play best with an accompanist. You may need to try a Beethoven and a Brahms out with a pianist to see which one seems to work best for you. Since it is a competition, I would always suggest whichever one is easier and you can play with the most confidence. To me, that is the test rather than which one best suits your temperament/character.
June 9, 2019, 7:36 AM · I guess I disagree with the above: by character I think your teacher is referring to your musical strengths: the expression that comes easiest to you. Perhaps what s/he is saying is that the musical line is evident even when you sight read Beethoven but is confused with the Brahms.

The simple way to test this is to record yourself playing a bit of both and then listen - I suspect you will not need an outside opinion, the answer will be self-evident.

It really depends on whether, for this event, you want to paddle upstream or downstream ;)

June 9, 2019, 10:15 AM · I think for almost all violinists, certain pieces are a better match to their assets than others. For example, if you can play very clear and crisp, you will shine on pieces that require that skill, like Mozart and Haydn. If you are great at shaping, emoting, and so forth, you might shine on pieces that are later Romantic. If your left hand can play crazy well, you might shine on show pieces. I'm guessing this is what your teacher means by character. For a competition, I think it is probably best to show off your assets; however, away from competitions, you would do better to practice those that don't in order to increase your vocabulary of assets!
June 9, 2019, 10:54 AM · My thought on competitions: If you think a win is extremely probable and choice of repertoire would impact whether you are 1st, 2nd, or 3rd, then choose the repertoire for best advantage.

If a win is more of a lucky shot, play the piece that you most want to learn.

June 10, 2019, 1:07 AM · I don't know what character or personality is needed to play the Brahms, but the technical tools needed are a good vibrato and controlled shifts using the portamento, expressive slides.
Actors have a similar decision to make when choosing their roles:
1) "Be yourself" look for characters that are you, and spend your career being type-cast. 2) Pretend to be someone else, the method actor, which can be morally hazardous when playing the villain. 3) classically trained (British system), "Pretend to be an actor" Use your technical skills to create the illusion of being someone else
June 10, 2019, 2:00 PM · I suppose it depends on the motivations for entering the competition.

Is the priority simply winning? Or is it a good reason for pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in order to grow musically?

I would chose winning as a priority if I needed a job. But I might, as a teacher, advocate for using the competition as an opportunity to push the student out of their comfort zone. It really depends on the student and their level and motivations. The motivations of a HS student and teacher may be very different than those of someone about to graduate from a conservatory and needing a competition win in order to jump-start a career.

We don't know the situation because Joel has no information on his profile. However, I'll just say that a fully-trained musician should be able to present a credible interpretation of any type of mood or character.
Sometimes we can pick our repertoire, and sometimes we can't.

June 13, 2019, 11:06 AM · Thanks everyone for your valuable pieces of the advice!
June 13, 2019, 11:12 AM · @Scott I fully agree that a professional musician should be versatile enough to adapt to a wide variety of works.

To give some context, I am a high school student most likely not planning to pursue a professional career in music, so I guess my motivation in joining the competition mentioned is mord to push myself out of my comfort zone to grow musically -- a win is more of a lucky shot, as Lydia mentioned

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