From notes to music

Edited: December 17, 2020, 8:46 PM · As I work on the two Reiding student concertos (Concerto in B Minor and a portion of the Concertino), my teacher tells me that I need to get past the notes and develop expression and feeling. I do get that, it's just hard to do that when all of my playing since March 10th has been isolated in my back room, or for my teacher over a Zoom connection, and I live alone. I've had one in-person lesson since March and am thankful to have had that one. Sadly this isn't the time to play around, or for, others. This will pass.

I've no problem with motivation, just trying to think through how to move from "lesson practice", from focusing on notes to the music that those notes inform. Curious to hear thoughts on this, of course everyone is different.

Replies (32)

Edited: December 17, 2020, 9:43 PM · The Rieding! (pronounced like "reading" in English, so the "i" comes first in a Germanic word, and Rieding was definitely German).

Nice piece. The first line sets the tone of the piece.

F#-B-F#-E-D-C#-B-F#-G etc.

What does this line say? Minor key -- so maybe some kind of dark emotion. Are you scolding someone? I see that G as kind of an emphasis point. That's where you're really scolding, and then the phrase can taper off. Then when you enter again with the A#, maybe you're asking a question.

These kinds of things may seem childish but they give you a platform for seeing how you want to phrase a line like that.

And I understand what you mean about motivation -- especially at these times -- but what your teaching is asking from you is really what playing the violin is supposed to be all about, so I would embrace it, and see how melodramatic you can make it, even at the expense of a flubbed note or a little bow scratch here and there. Your technical limit will advance with time to meet you where you are musically.

Once you're happy with how you're getting a short phrase to sound, then of course you need to link them together into a coherent picture. You start to look for the longer line. But be happy with Step 1 first.

When you are focusing on the music instead of the notes, and you give yourself permission to make an occasional technical mistake, you will relax more and the technical mistakes will actually subside on their own because you're less tense. Sounds crazy but it really works, at least at our level it does.

December 17, 2020, 10:06 PM · I don't use those concertos as a teacher so I'm not sure exactly what the difficulty level is but I love the Dancla Air Varies (op.89) as a way to teach expression, brilliance in playing, and singing through phrases be they lyrical or technical.

Edited: December 17, 2020, 10:27 PM · You know, Catherine, a lot of expression gets framed as this ineffable quality that emerges like a mist out of the recesses of the gem-like soul each player possesses, but really, a good place to start in trying to phrase meaningfully for someone figuring this out, is to make sure that you are playing the written dynamics and that you are really doing the indicated crescendos and diminuendos. And all of that is greatly helped by planning your bow distribution, so that when you have a crescendo, you start piano (start with less bow), and increase your bow usage across the phrase. A diminuendo needs to start loud enough that you have somewhere to diminuendo to, which means you are using more bow at the beginning and less later.

Also, it looks like you have some accented notes in this piece, so don't neglect to give those enough articulation and make them POP. Sometimes it takes players a while to "come out of their shell", because they think that really expressing something is going to be too much, but the opposite is needed. You have to make sure to sell the phrases across the room to your audience, or at least that was where I was coming from for a long time in my playing (I thought I was being "subtle" when really I wasn't phrasing convincingly). I think that most intermediate students tend to undersell their phrasing and come off as bashful players, and they think that what sounds obviously phrased under their ears also sounds that way for the audience, but it doesn't. Don't worry - eventually, your ears will catch up.

Hopefully this isn't like drinking through a fire hose, but if you don't know where to start, the dynamics are a good point of focus.

Edited: December 18, 2020, 1:47 AM · My teacher had the reverse problem with me as a child. I have always been pretty musical and immediately "got" my pieces, but was too sloppy/lazy in actually working on technique required to nail the notes cleanly. He always complained that I played "like a gypsy" :-) The last 15 years or so I have been working on technique to correct that (still on the amateur level of course). Catherine, what you may want to work on is just doing run-through of your piece, neglecting all technical difficulties, keep on playing (like a gypsy :-), keep the wave going, and try to express what you feel. You can alternate such run-throughs with technical work on getting passages clean.
December 18, 2020, 3:15 AM · Rieding B minor is a great Concerto for that, but with online lessons it will be hard.
December 18, 2020, 3:38 AM · I think your teacher is asking too much. Expression and feeling aren't things you can turn on and off or apply like paint. First the music has to excite some emotion, which can't be taken for granted when all you can hear is yourself.
Edited: December 18, 2020, 5:15 AM · Following on from Paul,
Lied, pronounced 'leet', means song.
Leid, pronounced 'light', means suffering.
Useful for Kreisler, lol! (Liebesleid)
Edited: December 18, 2020, 6:32 AM · Simple: listen to youtube. Listen to several good players and see what moves you. Don't even think of the notes when you play, think of what you are trying to say - eventually it becomes automatic.

Note that music is really an aural tradition not a written one. The notes on a page can teach you how to get some of it - but they can not make you play Mozart in a classical style or Brahms in a Romantic one for that you need to hear 'the rest of the story'. Thus, use your ears first!

IMO the way to practice expression is with a sequence of notes that has no intrinsic message and you don't have to think what comes next - a scale or an arpeggio, for example. Try to make them sound sad, happy, longing, loving etc etc. Its really fun.

Edited: December 18, 2020, 8:11 AM · This is all great advice, thank you! I think I fall in the "bashful" category that Christian describes. From what my teacher says I know my dynamics need attention. I CAN hear my dynamics, but apparently others can't so it's time to address that. I will think about the comments from all of you as I continue to work on these two pieces.

Elise, your suggestion on scales and arpeggios is a good one. I do a lot of other things with scales but hadn't thought of using them as a way to explore expression, thanks!

December 18, 2020, 8:52 AM · Wonderful discussion. As a (now retired) amateur, I just have one non-technical suggestion. Think of your playing as vocal, as singing, rather than as "playing." This may give you that aesthetic edge you seem to be looking for.
Just a thought.
Good luck.
Sandy
Edited: December 18, 2020, 9:02 AM · My daughter's previous cello teacher gave her students simple "expression" exercises. If you have a line that rises and falls in pitch, then make it rise and fall in volume to follow the pitch. Then, do exactly the opposite. Then, add a second rule -- make each phrase taper at the end no matter whether it's rising or falling. But also try the opposite -- make each phrase blast off like a ski-jumper at the end regardless of the pitch sense. If you have music that is organized into two- or three- or four-note slurs, then play each one as a crescendo. Then try playing each one as a decrescendo. Then alternate them. It's a game -- the teacher might ask for any combination next week, and you've got to be ready!

By the way, musical etudes can be practiced this way. If you're doing Rieding B Minor then you're entirely in first position, I believe. So maybe there are a few Wohlfahrt* etudes that could be practiced this way.

*Firefox dictionary wanted to change "Wohlfahrt" to "Worthless." Definitely not! Some of the best studies for a beginning-to-intermediate player! They get you moving your bow back and forth, and that's what you do when you play the violin.

I both agree and disagree with Steve. It's true that feelings are not something you turn on or off like a light switch. But I reject the underpinning presumption -- that you need feelings inside yourself at all to convey a sense of "feeling" or a "storyline" to the listener. The conveyance of "feelings" comes from how you organize your dynamics, your vibrato, the amount of grit in your tone, and if performing live, your ancillary facial expressions. So my suggestion is to just start working on that toolbox, and the individual, isolated phrases of the Rieding B Minor Concerto are perfectly fine for this kind of work.

The problem with YouTube videos is that it's hard to find a Book-2-level "student" concerto performed beautifully, with good expression. You might have to click through dozens of videos to find one that seems musical. I personally think Perlman's recording of this piece is not very helpful.

December 18, 2020, 8:57 AM · "Don't even think of the notes when you play, think of what you are trying to say"

Elise is right of course, but don't even think, sing it internally.

This is a classic musical interpretation problem, and there can be significant differences even among successful professional musicians. The extent to which musical notation is interpreted literally, and the manner in which they're interpreted changes, and has notably though not universally increased in modern times compared to the last century. For this, it can be instructive to follow the score while listening to historic recordings that you find appealing.

Edited: December 18, 2020, 9:23 AM · @Paul - Maybe "emotion" is putting it too strongly, but I believe there's a great difference between real expression and the kind that comes with observance of technical detail. Drdla's salon pieces are full of "expression" marks, but even to observe them all wouldn't necessarily result in an "expressive" performance! The simple feeling of enjoying a particular phrase, on the other hand, will automatically result in a degree of expression. I don't have any recollection of consciously trying to play with feeling or expression until one of my exam pieces was Brahms's Sonatensatz. Then I couldn't help myself.
Edited: December 18, 2020, 10:19 AM · It's been challenging to find a really good recording on YouTube for the Rieding Concerto in B Minor - as it's a student concerto there are, of course, lots of student recordings.

Paul, it is all in 1st position as written, but my teacher has me move to 3rd in several places. Better 3rd than 2nd, hah!

It's a little easier to find better recordings of the Rieding Concertino, but still most of them are students. We also aren't doing the entire piece, just the first several movements. It's more challenging than Concerto in B Minor...fun, but just outside of my current level which is a good thing.

December 18, 2020, 1:20 PM · Itzhak Perlman plays Rieding Violin Concerto in B minor op.35 (Concerto from childhood):

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

December 18, 2020, 3:58 PM · I also found this one Concerto in B minor, I like it even better than Perlman's

https://youtu.be/Cp_ZYmhUl4U

December 19, 2020, 3:23 AM · Yes it is lovely, but one thing I find frustrating about trying to find a version as well played as this is they use vibrato, which most people aren’t doing yet when they learn this piece, so it’s never a fair comparison with how you are going to sound.
And yes I also get frustrated with struggling with the notes and on playback it sounds like a dull monotone.
I remember being able to be expressive on the piano, and remind myself that the violin has even more potential, if I could just persist....
December 19, 2020, 3:41 AM · "they use vibrato, which most people aren’t doing yet when they learn this piece"

I learnt something new about this forum today!

Edited: December 19, 2020, 3:51 PM · I'm using vibrato for certain parts of this, as well as 3rd position - my vibrato isn't "pretty" yet but I'm using it at my teacher's direction. I think the link I posted of the Concerto is probably the best one I will find, and it's lovely. Eventually I hope my vibrato will be as effortless as hers is - but she's been playing much longer than I have.

For my practice this weekend on both Reiding pieces (only a small section of the Concertino) I'm trying to set aside the "bashful" tendency and really accentuate the FF and accents.

My teacher doesn't use etudes or studies, everything is taught through pieces - so some pieces take some time to learn...

December 19, 2020, 3:49 PM · Catherine,

The best recording was made by Itzhak Pearlman with the Julliard Orchestra for his CD "Music of my Youth."

The B-minor is a standard for all my students as they progress towards starting third position.

In order to translate the printed notes into "music" you must make it your own. Yes, there are printed dynamics but the degree to which you apply them is up to you.

Imagine that your local community orchestra has arranged to perform this concerto and asked you to play the solo. What do you want to tell the audience about how you feel about the piece? Where do you think it should shout, or whisper, where should you just simply "Wail" your joy or sob your sadness? The first movement is basic theme-and-variations so there is a lot of room for interpretation.

All of that simply means play it again, and again, and again,... while "playing" with the music and taking ownership for yourself.

The guarantee is that when you own the music inside yourself, it will be musical, and different, and yours. And that will bring you and your audience joy.

December 23, 2020, 6:21 PM · The comments helped, thank you! Obviously I didn't suddenly overcome this in one week, but my teacher was very pleased with my progress.

In these Covid-times, and living alone, it's really hard to get out of the "practicing" mindset into a performance mindset. My teacher joked (I think?) that perhaps I should post on YouTube - which made me laugh. It wouldn't give me what I actually need (playing with or in front of actual people).

Edited: December 24, 2020, 4:36 AM · greetings,
whatever technical work you do, you should always end a session with beginning to end performance, or at least a substantial chunk. while doing this, imagine yourself as your favorite violinist, standing on stage in a wonderful concert hall. vizulize yourself actually making the same kind of dramatic performance your idol would.
incidentally, there are too many players in the world trying to feel moved internally. this is nonsense. we are trying to evoke feeling in others which can actually feel a slight aloof and detached position to the player herself
December 24, 2020, 11:30 AM · Telling a student to play with more expression doesn't help, especially if they do not yet have the technical tools, vibrato, bow control, etc. Part of the problem is our notation system; as good as it is, it is dots widely separated by empty space. Sometimes telling a student to just "connect the dots" results in an immediate improvement. Or; imagine what a singer would do with this passage if you attached nonsense syllables to the notes, consonants on attacks, vowels on the sustain. When I did vocal lessons I would sometimes write a straight line from one note to the next, connecting the dots.
December 25, 2020, 3:55 AM · You are so right Joel.
Violin playing is a fixed set of variables that have no connection with we human’s emotional/psychological mores. So ,as you say, telling a student to play with more feeling is a waste of time. Rather students need to do things like singing a passage and then being asked what is the strongest or loudest part of the phrase. How did they get there and so on. Then discussion of the possible ways of achieving that effect using the extremely limited number of variable on the instrument . More or less bow, change of sound point, vibrato speed and so on. This is the only way students can become independently creative and involves the objective experimentation with what the instrument can do. Of course this also needs to be taught systematically. My feeling is the ubiquitous expression ‘play with more feeling7 is actually a major cause of tension and subsequent demoralization of students.
Cheers,
Buri
December 25, 2020, 3:51 PM · I could not agree more: "Play with more feeling" is a completely useless instruction--except to people who don't need it any more because they were taught properly. I would add this: Violin teachers are not the only source of help in this area. Many a conductor of an amateur orchestra is quite good at getting people to make progress. Or you can try and form a group (duo, trio, quartet) and work with a chamber music coach (for some reason chamber music teachers are called coaches). They specialize in making people play musically.

BTW: I do not say that "playing musically" is easy to teach but it seems to me that it is more amenable to remote teaching than complex technical issues like staccato or sautillé.

Edited: December 26, 2020, 8:10 PM · Greetings,
if your vibrato is not working as well as you want it yet then try working on all the passages with the violin held like a cello. Then transfer this relaxed vibrato the the violin held like we are supposed to. Apparently....
Although I have come to strongly believe in what I and others have posted about the general uselessness of -non advice content exhortation- I did see something very beautiful on youtube this morning.
Go to a video called ‘Ivry Gillis Likes What He hears.’. A young girl (10, 12 I don’t know!) is playing the last movement of the Mendelssohn concerto to a very ancient Gillis in a kind of ‘at home’ masterclass set up. This kid is really talented and she brought the piece polished to a level technically and musically that would satisfy probably 98% percent of teacher sand listeners. (Don’t you just love random numbers...?) Gillis does not teach her anything in the sense of explanation, fingering , philosophy or whatever. But by his simple gestures and the power of magnificence he shapes the girls playing in subtle ways that almost moved me to tears. I think she will remeber that as one of the greatest lessons of her life. It is a demonstration of the difference between a brilliant young talent of the modern age and an approach to the violin that grows organically out of the shape of the music itself. If she is smart enough, open enough (which I think she is) she will never again be satisfied with ordinary beauty and relentlessly search for the infinite possibilities of shape found within music of any kind.
That is pretty good teaching...
Cheers,
Buri
December 26, 2020, 8:57 PM · I will look up that video, it sounds wonderful.

Trying vibrato with the violin in cello position sounds like a nice way to get at this from another direction, thanks for the idea. I suspect the fact my fingers aren't straight isn't helping.

December 27, 2020, 1:32 AM · Greetings,
not straight? why dont you post a video of a few bars to see if anyone can give you some better ideas?
cheers
buri
December 27, 2020, 5:55 AM · I will post one if I can get a decent video later today. I'm learning vibrato so it's hard for me to tell if it's from tension, the arthritic fingers, or both (probably).
December 27, 2020, 6:52 AM · fantastic video, moved me to tears as well, the girl clearly seems to have had no trouble securing a fine job a few years later https://nyphil.org/about-us/artists/marie-rossano

her name is "Marié" and he cracks a joke about it at the end :-)

December 27, 2020, 3:06 PM · Greetings,
arthritic fingers are a tough break but don’t give up. The key point to vibrato is flexibility of the first joint near the finger tip. If that isn’t working nothing will. There is an exercise called ‘The Ricardo Exercise’ where you place the finger tips on the violin to the right of the fingerboard with the palm resting on the ribs. Then simply flatten and curve the finger tips one by one using gentle pressure. You can do this on the strings themselves too.
Things that will block your vibrato include:
1) No space between upper arm and arm pit. Think egg.
2) Gripping with left hand thumb. Especially when you are doing technical work, take. a lot of breaks and slide the thumb up and down the neck to ensure it is relaxed.
3) The thinking that vibrato is a constant pressure eon the string. In fact, in tandem with the flattening and bending of the fingertip the weight of the finger on the strin changes. As it goes back the string releases and as it goes forward it rolls the weight into the string. If you have. a chance, taker. a look at Simon Fischer’s book ‘warming up.’ Nathan Cole ha stone an excellent video demonstration of this stuff on youtube too.
Cheers,
Buri
December 27, 2020, 4:42 PM · Thanks Buri, that's helpful and will look up the references. I CAN vibrate with all 4 fingers, and my thumb is relaxed. My teacher tells me my hand is making a different movement with each finger - which raises his eyebrow over Zoom :)

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