Face expressions

April 18, 2020, 8:35 PM · With the quarantine, last times I found myself recording a lot of my practice sessions, and I found disgusting my face expressions and specially the tongue sticking out, this happens to me a lot while I concentrate, but for me now I hate it, it looks very bad. Do you know some way I can improve in that matter? Also, what do you think about it in general? It's that bad?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJu-ahQ7ZA8
Please ignore how bad is this one in tone quality, wasn't the best in tone and the technique but I think it's the most disgusting or exaggerated I could find.
Thanks a lot!

Replies (30)

April 18, 2020, 9:43 PM · Perhaps memorize the piece and then watch your self play in the mirror. Then restrain your self from making these faces, or change the expressions into smiles.
April 19, 2020, 6:33 AM · Try harder.
April 19, 2020, 6:59 AM · I've been intermittently trying for decades to stop my mouth gurning in response to the music. It's definitely related to intonation (the bad kind) and trying to apply expression, tends to go away when I'm on auto-pilot. I think it has something to do with the proximity of the violin, so that it effectively becomes an extension of my voice. It looks pretty similar to Santiago in fact, although without the tongue. A conductor did comment on it once, but I've grown to accept it.
April 19, 2020, 7:26 AM · I just watched your YouTube video and was the first one to like it out of 26 views. You have put in a lot of hard work and diligent practice to get to where you are and would not worry overly about your facial expressions but if you are unhappy with them then over time you can work on eliminating them. I see Perlman sometimes making similar facial movements and then there is always the famous Maxim Vengerov.
April 19, 2020, 8:41 AM · The homunculus is pretty difficult to re-arrange, although with much practice and concentration, you might work with it to get a little better control. The motor system for the hands and face are very tightly bound... you can test it easily: play a piece from memory while reading a book (not hard). Then try the same thing, but try to read out loud (near impossible, at least for me). There's only so much motor capacity available, and if the hands are using it up, random noise operates the face.

It's a common issue, even with great violinists: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZrn2etdjaI

Edited: April 19, 2020, 8:58 AM · Amputation and stroke are very effective ways of reorganizing your cortical homunculus. Less drastically, violinists have been claimed to have an enlarged area of the sensorimotor cortex representing the left hand, presumably thanks to years of practice. So too much playing may be the cause of the adjacent facial area becoming activated!
April 19, 2020, 9:23 AM · @Steve: If training "enlarges" the cortex, would that mean that handedness also plays into its size? If so, I wonder how that would affect the potential overlaps for left- vs. right-handed violinists.

@Santiago: Though your face movements do not look especially tense themselves, I would still try to look into something along the lines of Alexander technique lessons if it really bothers you that much. At our schools, they are part of the curriculum so it's a no-brainer. I understand that if they aren't they tend to be pricey, but it might be worth it, or just read into it for a start. Being more aware of the body leads to being in control of it, too.

April 19, 2020, 9:32 AM · @Benjamin. As far as I'm aware those studies of the early noughties haven't been repeated or elaborated and I really couldn't say how handedness might play into it, sorry.
Edited: April 19, 2020, 2:23 PM · You seemed a bit tense in that video, in the face, but also in the left hand, which was pretty noticeable in your vibrato. It's not something to freak out about, but something you can chip away at slowly during practice. I'm willing to bet that working on any bit of tension will start to release your face more and more, although it could just end up being a harmless tic.

I highly second the Alexander Technique recommendation, and other modalities that mindfully connect you to your body, like yoga or meditation, although even those can be done with tension too.

Most importantly, for now, you can work through this very carefully in your practice, by practicing slowly, and breaking your practice into small chunks like just a shift at a time, but focusing on any bits of tension. You may be doing a bit of this, but doing something really tense once is not undone by doing it relaxed once - You have to be disciplined about relaxed playing.

April 19, 2020, 1:18 PM · "inner homunculus":
Isn't that, by definition, redundant?
Unless there's another, smaller, homunculus inside the first one...
Edited: April 21, 2020, 8:16 PM · It is pretty hard to stop doing something you are not conscious of. Trying to keep your "tongue" on the palate is one advice that can work, especially during tense passages.

Tx Trevor for the typo observation, that one slipped through the auto spell checker, rather funny it was! :-)

April 19, 2020, 2:40 PM · Roger, looks like there was a typo in your response ;)
April 19, 2020, 8:47 PM · The simple answer is to practice with your mouth slightly open. In this way you will become aware of involuntary motions your mouth is making and make it possible to stop them somewhat.

Musical impulses from the brain tend to go to your mouth rather than to the hands because singing is the most natural way of musical expression.

Dr. Bruce Berg
Professor emeritus
Baylor University

April 19, 2020, 9:31 PM · Jeewon, I think your post was one of the best summaries on changing habits I’ve seen, absolutely spot on and thanks for sharing this for everyone.
April 19, 2020, 11:31 PM · Thanks a lot to all, specially to you, Jeewon! Your help is invaluable, i'm trying my best to get better on that field, and with this i think I'm making a improvement! Now i become more self-conscious and almost everything it happens to me i check it!
April 20, 2020, 1:19 AM · Don't you practice in front of the mirror? This is the first condition for the coach who is inside you. Today, even in the role of a mirror, you can use the camera of a smartphone or two smartphones, on both sides.
The movements of convulsive facial expressions (an external symptom of what is happening in the neck, shoulders and arms) you have learned with the same accuracy as playing movements: phrases are repeated and facial expressions are repeated with them. You can get rid of this by hard work with visual control, at first even without a tool and a bow, but maintaining accurate playing movements.
April 20, 2020, 2:13 AM · The example of Augustin Hadelich proves that facial contortions aren't necessarily symptoms of a deeper dysfunction that requires treatment. What you play like is more important than how you look
Edited: April 20, 2020, 8:43 AM · There is another approach to all this. Decide on a face that you can hold without consuming a lot of bandwidth to do it. Watch a few videos of the fiddler April Verch. She always has the same exact half-smile planted firmly on her face while she's playing. I have no way of asking her, and it would be a weird question to ask a stranger, but I have to wonder whether she does that just so that nobody is ever talking about her facial expressions while she's playing. She has figured out an entirely neutral "expression" that she can hold forever. Smart.
Edited: April 20, 2020, 11:25 AM · I'm convinced there's more underlying the perniciousness of facial contortions than tension or lack of moral fibre ("Try harder"!). Mapping of the human cortex is anything but a precise science and I suspect there could be considerable inter-individual variation in the degree and extent of overlap, regions that are distinct in some individuals tending to overlap in others. There's certainly some scope for plastic modulation of function, but only to a degree which is limited by the hard wiring of axons. Behavioural therapy (or "practice") may be beneficial to some extent, but we know it can also have the contrary effect since excessive repetitive movements can also give rise to persistent focal dystonias.

Another inter-individual difference which I think is widely acknowledged is the degree of independent control we have over our ring and pinky fingers. Maybe it's due to cortical overlap, maybe peripheral neuromuscular connectivity, but I can testify that it's just as hard to improve as facial contortions are to eradicate! And it isn't just the fingers of one hand that sometimes don't work independently; some individuals are incapable of totally dissociating the movements of the two hands ("mirror movements").

Don also made the point that it can be very hard to vocalise while playing the violin. The best I can manage is a kind of grunt which hopefully serves as a rehearsal mark. I'd be very interested to know how many readers can actually pronounce a sentence or even a word while playing?

Edited: April 20, 2020, 12:45 PM · I think you are practicing at least 4X faster than you should be, maybe more. And at that slower 1/4 speed (or slower!)you should have time to think of every aspect of what you are doing with your fingers, your bow, and your face. When you can play the piece perfectly at a snail's pace, face included, only then should you gradually speed up. Use a metronome for this.

Right now you're just tearing through it, without any intent at all, and that's what it looks and sounds like. Your fingers, bowing arm, and face are all competing for limited processing power, and each one loses. You need to be working at a speed you can handle perfectly, not diving in going faster than any part of your body can handle and hoping for the best. That is WHY you are stressed.

When you practice playing badly you learn to play bad, and that is how you will stay; when you practice playing well, no matter how slowly, you are learning to play well, then you can gradually speed that up until you achieve the speed you need.

Edited: April 21, 2020, 12:35 AM · @Jeewon - I'm not disputing the value of pedagogy (this time..), just trying to understand what's going on. You mention people who can sing and play violin at the same time, but aren't they surprisingly rare? What could be more natural than to harmonise with yourself? I can play and I can sing, but I can't play and sing even the same notes simultaneously. When I play, it seems all the control I normally have over my vocal apparatus goes into playing and my mouth does its own thing. Fortunately it doesn't make noises like Pablo Casals!

Some people certainly can do it. I like this guy
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CFbkVO5b2g0
but could it be significant that he's doing very different things with his voice and his hands? The same goes for guitar and piano of course where the physical separation probably makes it easier. The violin jammed up against your voice box effectively becomes your voice.

And it does link to what we were discussing last week. Vocal phrasing just comes naturally and so can violin phrasing if you let it.

April 21, 2020, 2:50 AM · What you look like when you're playing the violin doesn't really matter as long as you're not performing in public, up front on the stage.

Chances that you will ever do so should perhaps not be overrated, so why does it even matter if you make faces? Why don't you just enjoy the music you're trying to make?

April 21, 2020, 3:47 AM · Steve, any pianist playing polyphony can sing one of the voices and play the rest. If you want, you can start singing "Brother Jacob", accompanying yourself with a drone on an empty string, alternating between singing and playing the tune on violin. This is the very first stage in mastering the coordination between singing and playing.
April 21, 2020, 4:16 AM · My point is that it seems to be particularly hard for violinists but I'll get practising! Can anyone here talk at the same time as they're playing?
Edited: April 21, 2020, 7:07 AM · The problem of talking simultaneously with playing an instrument is related to the fact that each syllable pronounced is the result of a volitional motor impulse that spreads throughout the body (studies by pianist Ferrucho Busoni), which also relates to the rhythm and articulation of speech. In other words, a conversation during playing creates a collision of two volitional rhythmic impulses. On the other hand, we all know from childhood how to talk in any rhythm while walking in a rhythm unrelated to speech. There is a key point: since childhood. In other words: it is desirable to study different types of coordination as much as possible at the earliest age!
April 21, 2020, 9:06 AM · "In my experience with violin students trying to get suddenly serious about their studies, it's more often the case they don't actually want to do the hard work it requires. Once they accept the challenge, once they realize change is possible, progress is rapid."

Jeewon, I totally agree with you, here! At that point, a good teacher is invaluable. He/she should make sure to show the student the pathway of hard work and assuring him that when he follows it, he will reach good results.

When I look at my viola playing son, he is definitely the kind of person who isn't willing to do the hard work. So, it doesn't make sense to push him rapidly through lots of repertoire. I think, if he is only willing to invest just half an hour pratise time a day, it is still possible to do some good quality learning, during that time - this assures he is making progress in the right direction - just relatively slow progress.
Should he ever suddenly get professionally interested in the viola, he could at any time head off with more intense practising, still following the very same path. It is his choice.

I myself at high school age and still way too many teenagers nowadays don't have a teacher, though, who shows them the detailed path of progress. All I always heard was simply "Practise!" - well, I didn't really know how to, technically. I heard what was wrong, but didn't know how to work on it to fix it. That was frustrating, of course. It is hard to realize that change is possible, under such circumstances.

It is a great benefit to have forums such as this one, here, and also Youtube and other online ressources, nowadays, to search for solutions in case they aren't sufficiently provided by the teacher.

April 21, 2020, 9:21 AM · How do you look like, when you play after 100g of brandy? ))))
Edited: April 21, 2020, 2:17 PM ·

Second on keeping the Tongue touching the palate(roof of the mouth).

Tongue Posture:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eh9OqEd5z1k

Also, make multiple videos of yourself playing the same piece, to see if your habits are relative to a particular finger movement. Every time you use fourth finger, your tongue sticks out, for example.

I've had beginner violinist do this also on their first days.

Edited: April 22, 2020, 6:01 AM · BTW, walking with talk is an acquired type of coordination, which everyone can learn, but which not everyone retains until deep old age. For example, my late father at 90 could either have a conversation or walk, but not both at the same time.
April 29, 2020, 10:59 PM · My face is pretty amusing while playing difficult passages. Once while playing at a bluegrass open stage, I looked out into the audience and saw my wife sticking her tongue out at me. I took the hint and pulled mine back in.

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