Playing expressively

August 19, 2019, 6:57 AM · This isn’t a quest after a prescriptive way forward, more a curiosity about what those who might respond have experienced.

Did you have a turning point in your playing, before which you struggled to play expressively and after which you were able to play with “musicality”? Do you remember what changed?

(Was it that your technique became good enough to do what you wanted, or did you play technically well for a while before you unlocked your expressive abilities?) (Was it a change in your ability to perceive what you were doing when playing?) Don’t want to give too many suggestions! ;) Would love to hear your thoughts!

Replies (52)

August 19, 2019, 7:48 AM · I'm pretty sure I played expressively on my first attempt to do an open string. I have a lot of limitations but this is intrinsic.

IMO its not something you can learn (at least not in a convincing way) but something you are.

Edited: August 19, 2019, 1:29 PM · I am probably not a particularly expressive player, but when I have played music for an expressive reason I tried to express an appropriate human feeling such as love, loss, joy - etc. Or sometimes I try to have a story or scenario framing the entire piece or movement.

Based on my own feelings at those times in performance I was doing it. Based on feedback it has sometimes worked.

Since I first heard them some years ago I have felt Roy Sonne's ideas on playing violin expressively are outstanding:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC7HVyiBk9DUbALUBQIyNQ-A

August 19, 2019, 8:43 AM · Expression = technique
August 19, 2019, 9:37 AM · I disagree deeply with Elise.

I became a more expressive player after I began listening to a wide range of classical music on a daily basis, and listening to multiple violinists playing music I was learning. This gave me a notion of what the expected style for a given composer was, and what the range of interpretation was like on a given composition, and what was within the boundaries of good taste.

I became a more expressive player after I switched to a new teacher in late high school, who took the time to just verbally run through the ways to use the technical tools that I already had to shape a phrase. (For instance, I generally did phrase endings purely by lightening bow pressure at the end. He just illustrated changing sounding points at the end of a bow-stroke, vibrato effects to color the end of a note, etc. I could physically execute all those things already; I just needed the contextualization of how the technical elements combined to produce various effects.) For him, he emphasized that technique and expression are inextricably linked.

I became a more expressive player after spending some time with my current teacher, who thinks a lot about what audiences hear and want, and as a result, I've been learning to pay much more attention to a sense of line and continuity -- to focus on "big things" rather than trying to shape a lot of small things. (One of the things I find interesting about my current teacher is how differently his various students play. There's a commonality in continuity of the musical line, but otherwise every student has their own distinctively unique interpretation of the same pieces.)

Of course, we all have an element of personality that shapes what we do expressively. But the toolbox can absolutely be built.

August 19, 2019, 9:40 AM · I feel like there will always be a gap between what I want to do (in terms musical expression) and my ability to create it (technique).

As Elise said, this is intrinsic to making music and playing the violin.

I feel like a "good musician" (or artist of any kind) is always trying to narrow the gap between what one wants to accomplish and how one can do that. The infamous divine discontent.

As for innate musicality? I don't know, I've been called "musical" but at the time it felt like an insult and not a compliment. Like, "you are very musical and you play in tune" - what does that mean???

So maybe the short of it is precisely what Cotton says "expression = technique". Without technique, we cannot do as much.

August 19, 2019, 9:50 AM · Lydia - not speaking for Elise, but I interpreted what she said to mean that we have to have the drive to play the music a particular way. Which, for me, is informed by listening to a lot of music, thinking about the music, and feeling the music THEN applying the range of techniques that are in my toolbox (for me, my toolbox feels too limited still, but I am getting there!) to then create the music/sound that I desire (with, of course, input, redirection and guidance from my teacher) - as you stated so well.
August 19, 2019, 11:03 AM · Technique permits expression.

There!

August 19, 2019, 11:32 AM · Quite. If you go back and replay pieces that are now easy for you, you will play them more expressively. If you push your technique to its limit, your expressivity will suffer until you have mastered the new technical difficulty.
August 19, 2019, 1:00 PM · Technique is essential-no matter how "musical" a person is "naturally", without the means to express music without impediment, such "musicality" cannot be even proven (although sometimes one can pinpoint learning students who have advanced musical sensibilities.)

That said, listening to plenty of live and recorded musicians will help any violinist not necessarily to emulate, but learn what works for his/her technique and music best.

Technique alone is poor if it fails to develop conpletely. Mastering fluidity in thirds and fingered octaves-which is a perfectly fine endeavor, BTW-doesn't warrant that the performer will play a moving performance, whether it is Paganibi or Mozart.

August 19, 2019, 1:48 PM · I guess you can call it technique, or skill, or something else. For me the ability to play "with expression" came from simply "playing with" my violin trying to elicit tones and aural-colors that I had heard other violinists create. Over time I could, on demand, produce more and more subtleties of tone and color and from that came the ability to use those skills to communicate how I feel about a particular piece of music.

For me the process was anything but formal, it just evolved out of wanting a particular sound. For decades I used this when playing the melody or descant line in Episcopal church hymns.

August 19, 2019, 3:00 PM · Adalberto - not to hijack the thread, but what are "advanced musical sensibilities"? I've always wondered about this, and figure now is as good a time as any to ask.

Agree re: mastering techniques does not equate with giving a moving performance.

August 19, 2019, 4:41 PM · Ms. Pamela,

"Advanced" (for their level and age) ways to express musical ideas, even within the limits of their current, non-perfect technical level. Things a player seems to do "naturally", without coaching, that sound unusually "musical", and that are not common for their level.

Phrasing, good use of rubato, a "knack" for the music played-very subjective, to be sure, but you can find these in some students of any age. You can teach a student to play a beautiful phrase with good bow and LH technique, but some players need less coaching, and deal with it more or less more "naturally" than others.

As aforementioned, I believe this is helped by well-developed technique, exposure to great music playing, and now I must add, life (and musical) experience. For the latter, many famous-while-young virtuosos play "better" later in their lives, despite their much more publicized "prodigy" years. I am sure the opposite could happen just as well, but more often life itself feeds a player's "musicality".

Sorry for lacking clarity-ultimately, being "musical" is a very subjective thing.

August 19, 2019, 4:57 PM · It seems to me that one of the ways to translate "feeling" into "sound" is in the realm of a certain flexibility with rhythm, volume, vibrato, shift, bow movement, etc., in ways that seem so minor and quick that they almost go unnoticed.

In particular, the use of micro rubato's (the slightest hesitation or rushing of a note, not written in the score), or the slightest micro accents or faster or slower vibrato, etc., is what we find so often in great performances.

These expressive devices are so minimal and so quick that I believe one hear's them like one hears the subtleties in the voice of a great actor or actress.

Anyone agree?

Edited: August 19, 2019, 5:15 PM · Re: Playing Expressively

For me, the True to Truth has been eloquently stated here by Adrian Heath!!! He writes ~

"Technique permits Expression" There!

Bravissimo, Adrian Heath!!!! Jascha Heifetz, my Iconic Mentor, told the Seven (7) of us on our First Day of the Jascha Heifetz Violin Master Class, at USC's Institute for Special Music Studies, This ~

"Pupil's ~ There are No Shortcuts!"

It seems No one can question the Words of The Greatest Violinist of All Time, Jascha Heifetz, who utterly played The Talk & Spoke Little whilst Walking The Heifetz Walk/Run for 75 Years, Non Stop!!!!!

I know that even Heifetz felt frustration during his historic recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with our Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Walter Hendl conducting. But the True Full Saga is for my Book!

Musical best wishes to All and a 'Heifetz Hug' to Adrian Heath!!!

Elisabeth Matesky *

*https://youtu.be/M54U-P-Vs9g (JH Violin Master Class-Khachaturian, jh-7
Elisabeth Matesky) ^Russian version, Library of Master Performers^

*https://www.violinist.com/directory/bio.cfm?member=Milstein

Edited: August 19, 2019, 5:40 PM · To ~ Sander Marcus

Yes, Sander!! I wholeheartedly Agree, 1000%!! This is what separates The Big Guys apart from mere Mortal's!!! (Aka, Heifetz and Milstein & a touch of D. Oistrakh, & ??????? ) Another 5 Year online 'Top 10 Greatest Violinists of All Time, I, II, III, IV, V' over all those LinkedIn Years!!! Some Still trying to determine No. 2!! I say, Nathan Milstein, unquestionably, yet some think Francescatti?! Not me! But if any other it would be Fritz Kreisler, whom both Mister's Heifetz and Milstein revered and dearly loved . . .

I studied with both JH and NM for extended periods of time and can state their teaching reflected exactly all you just mentioned 'Sir' Sander Marcus ~

Bravo!!!!!!

Elisabeth Matesky / Chicago

August 19, 2019, 5:43 PM · I agree with AV, Roy Sonne has many examples of how to play expressively. I particularly like his tutorial for Dancla Air Varie No1.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv4QL5jUrAA&list=RDR0GaxnribKY&index=2

Edited: August 19, 2019, 8:07 PM · Another vote here for Roy Sonne's videos. He is a man of great wisdom.

I agree entirely with Lydia. Most of "expression" really is about applying one's technique toward developing a toolbox of expressive elements and learning to use them judiciously in one's playing.

Consider VST (virtual studio technology) for a moment. Basically what you get is a piece of software with controls that look like knobs that you can turn to introduce vibrato, portamento, and whatever different timbres the particular instrument will do. And insofar as the software model is accurate, how it sounds will only be as good as your ability to emulate what a master of that acoustic instrument would do in various musical contexts. I've never tried the VST of Josh Bell (Embertone), but I can imagine that it comes equipped with such a toolbox in addition to a basic tonal engine.

When I was a beginner at the age of 4, I was too fidgety to stay focused for an entire half-hour lesson, so my teacher would have me play my pieces, such as they were, and then he would spend the rest of the lesson playing his violin for me. I saw him do all kinds of things -- super intense vibrato, slides, harmonics, ponticello, the works. He prided himself on being a master of schmaltz because he viewed it as a reflection of his Hungarian heritage. I wanted to play like that -- with schmaltz, so I watched and listened very closely. He would sometimes show me how he did things in slow motion, like upbow staccato. Later on, when I heard pieces like Drdla Souvenir, or Tchaikovsky Melodie, or Saint-Saens IRC, or the solos from Scheherezade, I knew that the reason they sounded so familiar is because my teacher had played them for me many times over, even though I don't have specific memories thereof.

One of the first Suzuki quotes in "Every Child Can" is something like "talent is not inborn, it is learned" (not sure what it is exactly). And while I certainly can't explain why some children are able to rocket to amazing levels of skill in a short time while for others it's a miserable slog, I think there is some truth to this.

August 19, 2019, 8:32 PM · "Technique permits Expression". No doubt whatsoever - but it begs the question whether you have any emotion to express.

Imagine I said that anyone can be a great character actor - you just have to study acting technique. Would you believe it? Or that anyone can be a great artist - you just have to master technique. We would love to think that is true - and indeed, we went through an era where children were raised with this thinking but if it were so every technical whizz would also be a heart-melting performer.

You can believe this, its a point of view, but I do not.

August 19, 2019, 8:36 PM · Technique in and of itself cannot make expression. I've heard some very technical players play inexpressively and some very untechnical players play expressively. Technique has to serve expression, not the other way around. There has to be some concept in place as to what that expression might be when working on the technique to accomplish this. Having said that, I think that you don't need a vast amount of technique in order to be expressive.
Personally, I've always used the human voice as a guide.
August 19, 2019, 8:39 PM · I agree with Lydia. "Expressive" playing does not come by itself; it must be learned (though it presupposes I suppose some "raw talent").

One can learn it from a violin teacher but in my experience they often focus on technique so much that not much time is left for "musicality" (understandably, given the complexity of the technique). My third teacher mad a point of teaching me "musicality" and I learned a lot from him.

Where else can you learn about this stuff? I find that conductors are good sources for this sort of
wisdom. When in rehearsal pay attention, even if the conductor does not deal with your instrument. Observe how he/she works with the wind players, what tips he gives to the person at the kettle drums etc. You pick up a lot of stuff that way. Another source--even better--are chamber music coaches. They are focussed on the musical aspects and bring up technique only as required. Or go to youtube and listen to some master classes (not every master class master is a master teacher but you'll find those who are).

I also do not believe that "expression" is always a spontaneous phenomenon. It can be but for more complex classical pieces it requires some planning. Take the allemande from Bach's d-minor partita: You'll have to sit down and look at the piece and decide how you want to phrase it (or try it out violin in hand).

I would not say that expressions is technique. But any musical effect is brought out by some technical means.

Edited: August 19, 2019, 8:48 PM · I also think it's easy to overthink expression, overdo it or feel that it's something that you can analyze into components. If you wanted to tell somebody "I love you" with feeling, do you plan exactly your inflection? Your word emphasis? Your facial expression? Never. You just say it because you feel love!

August 19, 2019, 10:01 PM · I have to agree with Elise's first comment. I've always been able to play expressively, from the very first time I sang, messed around on a piano, or later when I played the violin/viola.

Yes, we can technically break down the components of what constitutes "expressive" playing, and tell a player *precisely* what to do on each note and in each phrase, as well as explaining *why* each thing is done. But for those small changes to come together into a cohesive whole, I think that's really tough for someone for whom expressive playing isn't inherent.

Even if I've played a piece 1000 times, I still feel some sort of emotion behind it. And interestingly, I feel more as I become more familiar with the piece. However, it's important to note that I'm latching onto the emotion built *into* the piece, and not putting my own personal feelings in the music. For example, if I'm upset, I'm not going to play an "angry" version of Mozart. Once I start playing, my emotional state changes into what I perceive the piece to be expressing. This is automatic; I don't think about it.

It's also interesting because in general life, I'm actually quite devoid of emotion. It's only once the music starts that I feel anything. And once again, what I'm feeling doesn't relate to my own life at all; it totally depends on the nature of the piece.

Better technique certainly allows you to more effectively express what you want to get across, but technique alone won't fully make for an expressive performance. We can make all these little changes that theoretically could form an "expressive" sounding performance when they're put together, but the glue that manages to make it all cohesive is that we feel something behind the notes. Without the glue, it can't be convincing! That's my belief, anyways.

But, if you are a person who doesn't feel anything when playing, you can still improve your sound. It's not like you're totally hopeless. Although I do wonder *why* someone would continue to pursue music if they truly feel nothing when playing. Just a fun challenge? A thought-inducing puzzle? If so, I do believe the music will come across as the sound of a carefully-planning puzzle being solved, and may be limited by that.

Edited: August 19, 2019, 11:33 PM · I think that I had a predisposition to play expressively from an early period in my studies. Part of it was a certain sense of timing that I heard in great players in recordings that I felt I could develop in my own way with certain phrasings. But it had to be developed, educated, matured and assured in many ways. Some pieces seemed to lend themselves more obviously to expressiveness: a case in point that I remember was performing the Meditation from Thais for the first time in 8th grade. And some other kinds of pieces seemed to take care of themselves, such as the motoric outer movements of Baroque concertos - or so I thought. In 9th grade I learned the Bach a minor concerto. At a certain point in playing the 1st mvt. for my teacher, he stopped me and said "You're playing it like a machine". I thought "Hmmm, I AM rather playing it like a machine! But I don't think Isaac Stern plays it much differently on my record - yet he doesn't sound like a machine." I went home and listened to the record again for the first time in a while and paid careful attention. Then I started to notice all sorts of subtleties that had eluded me before. That indeed was a turning point for me.


The issue of technique "vs." expressiveness has come up in different ways. To me, technique a bridge between what we feel about the music inside and what actually comes out of the f-holes. Carl Flesch divided technique into "technique in general" and "applied technique" and I think that is useful. In the first category we might include such aspects as how to hold and move the bow, how to do vibrato, etc., etc. But then we have a passage in say, a Beethoven sonata, a Sarasate piece and we feel that we are not quite bringing it to life the way we are feeling it. That's where things get more interesting. Subtle aspects of vibrato, using the bow and left hand in dynamics, bow distribution and bow speed - and a host of other things come into play. I liked some of the things that Sandy Marcus mentioned but the list is almost endless.

Can someone be taught to be "musical" or expressive? Not in the same way someone can be taught say, to hold and move the bow in a particular way. But someone can indeed be guided. So many things can be learned about phrasing, nuances agogics, period styles, etc. etc. But you can't teach someone to be sensitive, imaginative or to have that spark that makes the music come off the page and come to life the way a talented actor brings a script off the page and to life. Someone can have all the right musial education and guidance and all the technique in the world - and still end up sounding wooden or pedantic. The parts must all be there, technically and musically - a sense of overall interpretation, phrasings, nuances etc. But there is a whole that must transcend the sum of the parts for a performance to be convincing, satisfying and moving. Without that mysterious something, it will be a musical equivalent of a paint-by-numbers "painting".


As to ranking great violinists, I'm reminded of this cute story: A friend of David Oistrakh once asked him: "David, how would you rank yourself among the world's great violinists? Said he "I'd say I'm no.2" Came the inevitable follow-up: "Then who is no.1?" "Oh" said Oistrakh, "there are so many!"

Edited: August 20, 2019, 12:22 AM · I am usually too mentally busy while playing to also think about Trying to be expressive. I have always thought that the emotional reactions are the Audience's job. I still really don't know what the word "interpretation" means, but then, I am also a third-tier player.
The technical tool-box is needed; vibrato, portamento, bow-control.
In addition to listening to a variety of recordings for ideas, it also helps to hear what violinists from non-classical music cultures can do, like the Gypsy/Hungarian/Klezmer/East Europe group being a clue to 19th century romantic era style, or traditional Appalachian fiddling maybe being a survival of baroque practice.
I am very glad that I did Voice lessons in addition to Violin/Viola. It has its own technical problems of course, but there are less mechanical impediments between your mind and your sound. After a certain stage, you just need a mental image of how you want it to sound, then go for it....
Edited: August 20, 2019, 2:12 AM · This is utter nonsense, excepting Joel Quivey's professional on terra firma views re What is Required & his last few sentences, Thank God!, to over analyze Technique as if it were a Deamon!! I've Never read such odd ball comments as Elise Stanley questioning the Truth of a Musically Expressive Artist as Jascha Heifetz! Google the name, Jascha Heifetz, & fall in Love to discover emotion, dear lady . . .

And, to Raphael Klayman, your Story about David Oistrakh, 'tho' cute, was outdone by a Truthful & witty comment made by mentor, Jascha Heifetz, who upon being asked by Oistrakh, in Los Angeles, after making his Violin Recital Debut at The Shrine Auditorium, asked Mr. Heifetz what he had to
offer about his violin playing, to which Heifetz quipped, & loudly, "I Heard You!!!" A True Account ~

The obvious point here is artistic style, immense abilities to immerse one's self into the Story of the Music no matter what it may be - Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in e minor, or the Alban Berg Violin Concerto or Korngold, Waxman's Carmen Fantasy, Saint Saens 'Havanaise', The Dvorak Violin
Concerto, the Saint Saens' No. 3 in b minor, and Sheherazade of Rimsky Korsakov plus Strauss' 'Ein Heldenleben' the Sibelius Violin Concerto of Great Orchestral Concertmaster Solo's!!!

It is a professional given, one Must possess Concert Artist Olympic Level Technique which is years in acquiring & through much concert performance in vast amounts of Violin Concert repertoire ~ Artist's touring internationally, must 'carry' at least 6 major Violin Concerti pr Season, Concert Pieces as
Chausson's Poeme, Saint Saens' Introduction & Rondo Capriccioso, the Ravel Tzigane, plus at least 2 full Unaccompanied Bach Sonatas & Partita for Recital's on Tour & readied to perform in usually one rehearsal w/major & regional orchestras, & no one achieves "Concert Artist-hood" unless the physical violin mechanics = technique are resolved/mastered to withstand the physical rigours of concert touring around the globe, and The Big Issue of unquestionable musical identification/immersion into depths of Emotion's & in various Stylistic periods of Music as French musical 'Impressionism' = the velvet warmth of Gabriel Faure in his glorious Violin/Piano Sonatas, his 'Holy' Requiem which to perform needs much more from the inner spirit of an artist/s feeling the spiritual meanings of Faure's Outpouring's of Biblical Grief, Penance, Deliverance, Looking upward and the Depths of Loss so
achingly beautifully expressed in Faure's Final Movement of The Requiem, "In Paradisium" ... Tears weep in the poignant 'offering' of the 'Havanaise' of Saint Saens' in Heifetz's Heart poured into his Sound & beyond Loving innuendo, inflections of 'I Love You' recorded during his happiest years of marriage to first wife & Mother of two children ... And some Contributor's have dismissed human human-ness with misguided ideas that "Technique permits Expressiveness", taking this Truth as a cold classroom Violinistic Artistry 101 Text Book Course, & then speaking about 'Josh Bell's' newest something computer technological knob which can be turned to this or that to express??? Are you kidding??

The next shock will be a automaton clone that one presses a button & out comes the Prokofiev #1 Violin Concerto in D Major with that imitative digital computerised trying to sound as a violin sound Made (Not played) by a digital computer with a bunch of buttons called a keyboard like a digitalised typewriter & After those of us who have loved authentic violins & bows & Live authentic concert performances in London's Royal Festival Hall by The Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Karajan in Prokofiev V, with the usually reserved British audience surging forward on feet en masse toward the stage to just Touch Herbert von Karajan's coat tails for a Life Memory to Behold with All Humans in the RFH, dazed & taken to a stellar 'place' upon hearing the virtuosity & Grand Musical Portrayal of Prokofiev V in a way no one will ever imagine who wasn't 't fortunate enough to be there, + This's & That's currently being passed about here with no apparent regard for the extraordinary efforts by every Top Performing Artist & Beyond Description Great Orchestra Member of The Berlin, Vienna, Chicago, London & Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, on a 'discussion' of Musical Expression, thus far challenging what Sander Marcus hesitantly yet boldly went ahead to describe asking, 'Anyone Agree?' I am as depressed as H*ll, because The Future of Music & Violinistic Art along with Master Violins created by the likes of Stradivari, Guarneri, Amati, Guadganini, J.B. Vuillaume, Rocca, Panorma, + hosts of other remarkable Makers will sooner than later be duplicated by machines of programed machinists who have to inquire as to What is Technique, or need to see a beautiful looking imitation of a 300 yr
old authentic Antonio Stradivari, who state that Beauty doesn't have a thing to do with unique craftsmanship in Cremona ...

Good Grief, people ... Where is the humanity and Love of Music here???

Please Step Back and realise jabs at an in depth 4 & 1/2 Year Discussion among Pro's despite their differing opinions re JH, NM, Oistrakh, I. Stern, Grumiaux, Neveu, Szeryng, Kreisler or Francescatti + was greatly enjoyed, informative, involved, revelatory, and deeply respectful knowing How Much is required to reach great artistic heights without pettiness from any core contributor's. Sander Marcus deserves an apology from any who launched an unsure query of his contribution ...

If one hasn't achieved it, one hasn't any business criticizing those who have done it and in Spades for the long haul ~

Elisabeth Matesky / Chicago, London & Parts Further

*https://youtu.be/M54U-P-Vs9g (JH Violin M.C. - Khachaturian, JH-7, EM)
(Courtesy of Library of Master Performers ~ Russian version (c)JH, 1960's)

August 20, 2019, 6:43 AM · Well, you can have the view that expression is only from those that "possess Concert Artist Olympic Level Technique", or you can believe that expression is something inherent in all humans...
August 20, 2019, 6:58 AM · I'd go with... musical expression is a 'faculty' inherent in all humans, but one that requires development. It doesn't need "olympic level technique" or whatever, just technical comfort with the material you are playing....
August 20, 2019, 7:40 AM · Oh goodness. There have been so many discussions on this forum about whether true emotional feeling or "life experiences" are need to convey "feeling" in music.

If you don't have time to think about how much portamento to apply to a shift, how on earth are you going to have time to conjure up some "life experience" to inform your expressive decision-making?

No. Here's what we ALL do. We practice the shift, varying the portamento until it sounds like something where the "emotional content" will be believable to the audience and in view of what is customary in particular style of music we are playing, and then we do it a few times more until it's learnt. We all have different ideas of how it should be, so (presuming we have the necessary skill), we all do it a little differently. When you play Mozart you taper your phrases a certain way at the end. Why? Because that's what you do when you play Mozart!!

When you go to your teacher and your teacher says "too much portamento there," what's the adjustment? Changing the "life experience" you're thinking about then? No you just do it faster or slower or whatever. You turn a few of the knobs on the VST in your brain and hopefully your hands will respond.

For once I wish someone who exhibits such righteous indignation on this issue would annotate the score of their favorite concerto with the emotions they were feeling for every expressive element of a piece. Perhaps the Khatchaturian VC just to pick something randomly. First measure -- vibrato envelope -- cut my finger on a soup can when I was six. Second measure -- accent on the third note -- my date stepped on my sore toe while we were standing in line to see Doctor Zhivago. The whole concept is a complete joke. The only reason we get better at it as we get older and "more mature" is because our technique improves and we learn a general appreciation for subtlety.

August 20, 2019, 11:27 AM · A standard way of approaching improving musical expression is to sing then imitate on the instrument. This can be helpful, but I find a more direct and effective approach is to work on the individual techniques required for musical presentation.

In order to work on bow expression and dynamics, pick a single note to play(say F# for example in Meditation from Thais)and play the phrase using the correct bowings and rhythms imagining that you are playing the actual notes with full expression. You will find that you may struggle figuring out how to express yourself with such limited means, but that is the point: to pinpoint the actual technique you are using for musical expression.

After this, work on your vibrato expression. In order to create a seamless legato in your left hand with a constant vibrato, play each note in an identical rhythm (in this case perhaps quarter notes) in the following manner: play the first note twice, then slur the 2nd note into the third and so on. So: F#/F#D/DA/AD/DF#/F#B/BC#/C#D....ETC.
This exercise encourages a continuous vibrato.

Then work on vibrato speed and width variation. Using your favorite note F#, play the passage varying the intensity and width according to your personal taste. Again, you will have to try very hard to project your interpretation because you have limited your attention to vibrato speed and intensity.

There are other practice methods to develop the techniques of expression ; I hope these are helpful. In any case I believe that any fairly intelligent person can learn to play "musically."

August 20, 2019, 1:22 PM · Thank you Adalberto - that explanation works for me.
August 20, 2019, 2:29 PM · This has been an interesting discussion!

Bruce - thanks! How could you know I’m working on this piece at the moment, to perform on Friday. I will put your suggestions to good use!

I don’t understand the idea that musicality is simply intrinsic or predetermined. First of all, we are talking about western music. There are entire other systems, and the most musical among those of us who have been steeped in the western tradition would take some time to learn another musical language - some even have totally different interval systems. I personally would guess that those for whom expression is easier have simply learned it faster - perhaps were exposed at an earlier age and/or have strengths/gifts that allow one to pick things up intuitively. All the same - still a learned skill. But perhaps we are talking around each other a bit.

I especially appreciate hearing your experience, Lydia. It’s hopeful to know that we can learn to be more expressive in various ways, through various methods. It’s rather exciting! Thanks for sharing that!

I’m currently learning a lot of technical things, but of course with the hope and goal of it allowing me to express a wide variety of textures and sounds in service of the music. I’m finding also that, which each new thing I learn, I have to learn to apply it or think about it or imagine it while I play. Even though I was always “moved” by music, as far as I can remember, learning how to produce moving music with the tools of violin, bow, body...there’s a trick!

August 20, 2019, 3:52 PM · I once disappointed friends by saying that if I felt the same intense emotions as they did while listening, I should probably be unable to play!

The body, the mind, and the heart are not always equally present. Sometimes I just have to concentrate on making a beautiful sound; at other times there is a marvelous unity of purpose and feeling.

Yes, music moves me; I play it to move others; and I teach so that others can move other others!

August 20, 2019, 5:22 PM · I compose music and I play music. When I play music which I have composed myself I can be surprised that the music can evoke emotions which I didn't think of when composing it. If someone else plays it I can be surprised by new aspects which I didn't think of when composing it. It is really amazing.

Once one of my students played a piece of mine. She asked if she could play some trills here and there. The thought of making trills in that piece had never entered my mind. But she did it in a way that was so great. The trills added to the overall mood of the music and yet I don't play it with trills when I play it myself, it doesn't feel right for me to put trills in, but when my student played it with trills it felt exactly right.

Very interesting. I think it is because of the way she did it. She seems to have a flair for finding or feeling or understanding something which the music tells her, which probably means it is feels right because it comes from the music.

So that is an example of expression for the sake of the music, certainly not for the sake of technique. The technique, in this case an ability to make a trill, is the slave and the musical expression is the master. Technique in itself is not expression. Expression depends on what you do with your technique. The more technique you have in your bag the more possibilities you have in your playing.

Of course you don't need to add anything like trills in order to play with expression I just think that this example is a way of saying something about technique in relation to expression.

August 20, 2019, 6:20 PM · I'm sure there are as many different and valid perspectives on this as there are people, but I'll offer you mine.

Playing the violin can be a way to say and do things that one might not feel they can get away with any other way. No one wants to tolerate a grown adult throwing a tantrum in public, but put that into your playing and it'll be encouraged. Through your playing you have a unique opportunity to tell people your deepest and darkest secrets without compromising the secret itself.

August 20, 2019, 8:23 PM · The bridge between inner feeling/emotion of player, and to deliver it to the audiences, is to master "legato" bowing.
August 20, 2019, 8:33 PM · I started becoming a lot more expressive once I was out of school and taking lessons only intermittently - because I finally realized that is was all up to me. Once I realized that commitment to expression actually makes your technique grow not the other way around, it got better to. And lastly, when I realized that is makes performing so much more enjoyable and reliable - but the expressive work has to be done in the practice room. What has often done wonders for me (and continues to this day) is to play with others who are very expressive. It inspires me, it washes off on me, it makes me forget technique.
August 20, 2019, 10:14 PM · So I guess my rant didn't contain a concrete suggestion. My suggestion is to watch carefully how violinists execute their expressive moments. Try to mimic them with your violin. If you can only hear their sound, say, on a recording, then you've got to experiment with how to make the same thing happen with your own hands. Once you discover a new expressive element, tweak it. Play with it. Explore its boundaries. Revisit your existing expressive elements. Combine them. Have fun.
August 21, 2019, 1:50 AM · I have to agree with Elise, at least for certain people who are particularly sensitive to aesthetics, have an amazing ear for music and languages and have a deep well of inner emotionality, if that's a word. Half Hungarian, half Italian, I grew up listening basically to the Hungarian hour and heard a lot of Gypsy music. But I don't feel that it particularly influenced my style of playing at all. Everyone in my extended family had amazing ears (most of my paternal aunts and uncles learned to play piano completely by ear) and could sing beautifully, but they nor I I had never really listened to classical music either. When I first approached the violin with my bow, I "felt" the open string rather than tried to play it or stroke it. It was just a natural thing. I always felt like I was playing "feelings" rather than notes and I think my technique followed the desire to make a particular kind of tone or "sing" in a particular way on my instrument. I later found out I have perfect pitch, but aside from helping me and demanding me to play in tune, that didn't affect my playing expressivity. Technique was always second to expression in my playing. Like Elise, I felt like I could and should play expressively on an open string as much as in a piece. My teacher was big on exaggeration and would enthusiastically yell "More FIRE!" or some other exhortation for more passion, but I innately knew exactly what "more fire" meant. He coached while I played so I always produced results instantaneously. For me, at least, expressivity came naturally, as it did for Elise. It doesn't with everyone. In Pamela Frank's master classes, I've enjoyed the ingenuous methods she uses to elicit character and color from the students she teaches, so it seems that expressive playing doesn't come natural for everyone. I don't think of technique as an end in itslf, but only a vehicle by which to more effectively express music. Perhaps too much concentration on technique, or seeing it as a goal in itself, hampers expressive playing. I would think it most definitely would.
Edited: August 21, 2019, 2:21 AM · I have to comment on Raphael Klayman's expansive comments and agree with him as well. To say "technique PERMITS one to play expressively" is absolutely correct. But one has to have the innate capacity to feel emotion before one can appreciate the spectrum of emotions written in a piece of music. And, as Mr. Klayman wrote, it can be "guided," but I don't believe it can be taught any more than one can teach someone how to feel compassion or empathy. Playing, after all, is a reflection of our personalities, which are unique to each of us. So no matter how much one "immerses" himself or herself in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, some people will practice it for years and not play it expressively. As for technique, of course a violinist must use technical methods to manipulate bow pressure, speed and the like to achieve the expressive ends, but he or she must first FEEL where the music should go. Artists most definitely have disagreed on the fine points over centuries, but one must have an emotional understanding of musicality and phrasing and learn how to bring it out of the instrument in order to play expressively. That's why we study. To be "guided," as Mr. Klayman suggests. We've all heard technically accomplished violinists and other instrumentalists who play "coldly." After years of study and immersion in works, they can't change their personalities and haven't learned to fully express the music they're interpreting.
August 21, 2019, 7:04 AM · As a viola maker, from the point of view of the instrument, in order to play expressively you depend of the instrument dynamic range and capacity of creating colours.
August 21, 2019, 7:11 AM · To think one "has more emotion to express" than anyone else is a sad example of the human ego.
Edited: August 21, 2019, 8:28 AM · Has anyone considered that maybe some people (with full technique) are expressing their music fully, but others disagree with their interpretations? See, for example, Hilary Hahn or James Ehnes, whose playing has been characterized as "cold" or "robotic" by some, yet "thoughtful and sensitive" by others.

I agree with Anita. Expression can be learned (some people more quickly than others). Expression is also perceived. We've all heard classical musicians play jazz or bluegrass with inappropriate accents and miss the "feeling" of it. A lot of people in the genre panned Perlman's klezmer attempt back then. Does that mean he just wasn't born to be expressive?

August 21, 2019, 9:59 PM · No it probably just means he needed to listen more. Lots of people want to learn to play jazz on the piano. Then you ask them who they listen to, and basically they don't listen to anyone. They listen to pop radio. Well that's not going to work.
August 22, 2019, 1:25 AM · I think that was the point. :) Of course Perlman has the capacity to and in fact does most of the time play quite expressively, he just hadn’t “learned/absorbed/understood” how to be expressive in that musical contex (klezmer)...
August 22, 2019, 2:08 AM · Paul, while I disagree with your overall assessment of the necessity of real emotion behind music making, I think this is one of the funniest things I've read in a while:

"First measure -- vibrato envelope -- cut my finger on a soup can when I was six. Second measure -- accent on the third note -- my date stepped on my sore toe while we were standing in line to see Doctor Zhivago."

The soup can sentence makes me laugh every time I read it.

Edited: August 22, 2019, 12:21 PM · Erik, it's really a very interesting question, isn't it? Perhaps "feeling sad" while you're playing "Meditation" facilitates your mind processing certain expressive elements. Otherwise how does real emotion actually help? I mean, what's the mechanism? Ultimately your muscles have to move a certain way, and your brain, a highly refined biochemical computer, is directing them. Just because we don't understand the mechanism doesn't mean there isn't one.
August 22, 2019, 1:25 PM · So here's the thing: I think the big gap between the understanding of the people here largely comes down to the definition of "emotion." Emotions are rarely as simple as just "Sad" or "happy." They can be the feeling you get when reminiscing about the smell of a campfire. Or perhaps the intense terror that you recall as a child seeing something horrible. I personally use emotions as a sort of "macro" or heuristic for getting all of the physical movements in place.

Yes, a player can technically imitate all of the physical movements that I did without any of the emotion behind them, and if they're very good at imitating, then it will indeed be convincing. But it won't be original. They'll just be borrowing my physical movements. Plus, players that are *that* good at imitating are pretty rare.

Teaching so many people people is what convinced me of how necessary emotion is for the majority of players to become good. I have found that with students where all I can do is explain what they need to physically do, the music they produce always ends out disconnected and ambient. And with those same students, if I try saying "just play it like I do, then" (because clearly the emotional perspective wasn't working), they are not good at imitating, either. The best students I've ever had were able to "tap into" their emotions to make a piece of music cohesive. Now, perhaps once a player has performed a piece a billion times and they're sick of it, they no longer feel the original emotions that they utilized to learn the piece. But, the emotions are fossilized so the music still ends out being roughly the same. So the emotions were still at the original root of the music being heard, even if they're not being felt in real-time.

Just think of drawn art: many artists get their "inspiration" from a feeling or an experience. Then they try to draw that on the canvas. I think this is how many good pieces of art get created, rather than the artist just thinking "eh, maybe I'll draw something that looks cool today."

Or, perhaps they started drawing without emotion, and halfway through the drawing itself started to *make* them feel something. Then they utilize that feeling to finish the piece of art, and it ends out being great.

And after all, what are emotions except highly complex heuristics? They're not magic, or anything. They're just the brain's way of very quickly telling us information, particularly in relation to memory of past events. So there is indeed a mechanism. The mechanism IS the emotions. At least for me it is (I actually find it nearly impossible to play when I'm feeling nothing, unless I'm just writing in fingerings). And definitely for my most successful students. I've also seen kids who started off as very emotionally open who had great potential as musicians get ruined by parents who forced the kids to shut off their feelings, in relation to something or another. And once the feelings were gone, the incentive/ability to play/practice/perform the violin went away soon after.

Edited: August 22, 2019, 4:31 PM · Obvious differences between a computer and a human being are emotions and expressions. The computer plays back whatever was typed into a music program, but the computer is not emotional and does not care about expressions. When a human being plays the music he/she puts life into the music by playing it. Even if the musician is "cold" or mechanical/robotic it still is a live performance which means sparks of life are present.

Creative abilities are involved, you are creating something when you apply your playing techniques. It is not the technique itself but what you do with your technique or how you apply your technique that matters.

With a great bow technique you can form the sound in all kinds of ways. The way you form the sound can be different when you feel different, your great bow technical ability gives you a great palette of sound colours with which you can paint the music.

August 22, 2019, 8:51 PM · I prefer to think in terms of energy rather than emotion. When I say energy it doesn't really mean physically energetic performances but varying energies - different feelings. Other styles of music have terms like groove or vibe - you can't always say exactly what it is but you know it when you hear it - you know when you are moved. Classical music doesn't really have those expressions typically but the same applies. Sometimes these things are difficult to talk about but I would suggest that those of us who are teachers should constantly push a student to aspire to play with feeling, to connect to the audience in way that they resonate with that energy rather than serve the technique as the end in itself. Not all music is Programme music - describing some extra-musical narrative, and we don't always need to be actors in that sense but that is certainly one valid approach amongst others. I don't play so much classical music these days - mainly jazz - and I feel that for me at least the feeling and energy is a more in the moment thing and the energy isn't just about me and my expression - it's the whole energy of the band and everyone in the room, at least when it is working at its best.
I also think what kind of a person we are comes across in our playing when we reach a certain level. I always thought Perlman was a lovely person and that comes across in his playing. I don't really want to listen to somebody that's a jerk! Maybe that comes across! Has anybody experienced that? The personality aspect is just who we are and it not something we are trying to express consciously necessarily. In that sense it's more about who we are rather than stella technique.
August 26, 2019, 7:12 PM · The most important thing, as others have noted, is to listen to recordings and go to concerts and, as you mature, play with fine musicians.

Expression and technique are intertwined, in many ways the same thing, and they happen naturally as you learn and progress as a musician.

Vibrato, different sound colors, bow control for dynamics and different kinds of articulation -- they are all things you learn how to do over time.

But for inspiration, listen to recordings and go to recitals of professional musicians. For me seeing the Guarneri, and, later, Emerson quartets in their prime was inspiring. And don't just see musicians playing the instrument you're studying -- go to piano recitals and appreciate the phrasing and sound colors a fine pianist can make.

And try to see a truly world class player every once in a while. I had the good fortune recently of playing rehearsals and a concert with Ricardo Morales of the Philadelphia Orchestra -- one of the world's great clarinettists. Just 5 minutes of listening to Ricardo Morales playing Mozart will change your life.

Edited: September 1, 2019, 10:56 AM · A Word ~

Of course 'expression' is inherent in All Human Beings! No one said it wasn't ~ But, dear people, one cannot dismiss the utter need for fluid & advanced technique of both the left & right hands on the violin or any string cousins! The surer the technique - and Not a dirty word, the better chances
to express what is in one's heart & soul as well as musical imagination!!!!! And to quote a mighty brilliant 'guy' who invented The Theory of Relativity ~ "Imagination is Intelligence!" ~ Albert Einstein

I sensed grave anger & outward hostility by some on this Discussion which was uncalled for. Why are people so hostile to Heifetz? Listen on UTube to Saint Saens 'Havanaise' of Jascha Heifetz, over this Labor Day week end, to hear the great love in Heifetz's Heart which IS expressed due to Heifetz's masterful technique in Service of the person of Jascha Heifetz's heartfelt feelings ~ This might soften some hearts ...

*btw, Ricardo Morales is a Great Artist with a Heart of Gold ~ Philadelphia
is truly blessed to hear his artistry displayed every time he plays Clarinet ~

September 1, 2019, 10:55 AM · Any professional musician will tell you that there are plenty of pros that play beautifully but are jerks or otherwise terrible people in some way.

Look at William Preucil. The Suzuki Association seems to be having such consternation over him being the violinist in the latest set of violin recordings because they have a "beautiful music, beautiful heart" mantra and Preucil clearly illustrates there's no relationship between the two.

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email

Violinist.com is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music

Yamaha Violin Finder
Yamaha Violin Finder

Corilon Violins
Corilon Violins

Leila Josefowicz and the Los Angeles Philharmonic
Leila Josefowicz and the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition
Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop

Bobelock Cases

Fiddlerman.com

Fiddlershop

Los Angeles Violin Shop

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Potter Violins

Pro-Am Strings

Violin Lab

Wangbow Violin Bow Workshop

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of Violinist.com in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews.

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn

Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2
Violinist.com Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine

Subscribe