What makes playing "emotional?"

April 13, 2021, 5:50 AM · I've become very interested in how people process emotions, both by listening to and making music. I'm curious what people define as "emotional playing" when there aren't any words. Is it the techniques used to express emotion such as tempo changes and good use of dynamics? Is it bow articulations? Is it the facial expressions or body language of the performer? Is it the release of emotions the performer experiences while playing? What are your thoughts?

Replies (59)

April 13, 2021, 7:55 AM · It's a complex number of factors built in to the music, the phrasing, articulation, changing of vibrato, changing the sound during the notes (I forget the term for this), etc.
April 13, 2021, 8:41 AM · How much you buck and sway while you play.
If your hair isn't flying then you're just not feeling the music hard enough.
April 13, 2021, 9:00 AM · There are plenty of recordings that are ‘emotional’ without any visual cues. Usually, it is managing to create the impression of the human voice that makes it happen. Menuhin sounding like a Judy Garland from some exotic Eastern land, for example.
April 13, 2021, 9:04 AM · I believe that cultural abitudes are important too.
Edited: April 13, 2021, 9:11 AM · There are many examples of performers who convey emotions in the sound of the performance (even rapid passages), yet who at the same time do not make theatrical faces or exaggerated body movements. My personal favorite is in this regard is Zino Francescatti.

Even in the most rapid passages, his playing has a vocal quality that is emotionally expressive in-the-moment. He does not play with distracting body movements or facial expressions. And yet his modest stage presence projects intense concentration and inner emotion.

Edited: April 13, 2021, 9:44 AM · As Ann has implied, the violinist develops a set of entirely technical tools that are applied, largely according to a canon of accepted conventions, to convey emotional content. The extent to which one is successful concatenating them in some logical way throughout the duration of a piece is called violin artistry.

If your "life experience" helps you remember to do these things, so much the better. (Girlfriend broke up with me when I was 17 years old --> slight rubato during bar 163 of the second movement of the Mendelssohn VC, etc.) But said "life experience" is wholly unnecessary, as we often hear small children that can play with "maturity beyond their years." They've only been better at listening, learning from their professors, understanding the canon, and applying their technique to the task at hand. It also explains why Heifetz could blow us away with the emotional content of his playing when, in reality, his persona (at least his public one) was as cold as ice.

Yes, you can hear "emotion" on an audio recording. But why do we go to recitals then? Why is the performance so much more powerful on stage? Does Yo-Yo Ma really sound better from the fourth row of the mezzanine than he does playing into $50,000 worth of recording equipment in a professional studio with a brilliant engineer at the console? Probably not, but you'll also miss out on seeing him tilt his head back and close his eyes.

April 13, 2021, 10:07 AM · Watching a violist who sways and grimaces, and closing one's eyes is the real test. Can we still hear what we see?
April 13, 2021, 10:11 AM · Try the opposite some time. Turn off the sound (or put your fingers in your ears) and just watch the performer. It's an interesting experience.
April 13, 2021, 11:06 AM · Let us be not so cynical. The emotional response to a certain music performance should indeed be not tied to theatrics, either live or recorded. It depends on the individual, life experiences, and the artist's affinity with the music being able to be conveyed to a particular audience member. Even the violinist could be able to emotionally move himself/herself as he/she plays; not all grimaces and seemingly extraneous movements are staged/fake, entirely designed to give the false impression of "passion" or "musicality" (though of course not all must be genuine as well.)

Finally, some player's musical tools (technical devices, style, and phrasing choices) may resonate more with a certain individual than another. A player that moves a lot and is very facially expressive may come as utterly cold to someone else, while a more "composed" performer with little to no physical movements may be able to move someone to tears given the piece of music and its performance speaking to that individual's heart.

In short, some people move, some can be distracting, some "too quiet", but it is perfectly fine to allow oneself to fully enjoy a given musical message uniquely given by this or that artist of any age.

I love technique mastery, as it allows the unfettered musical message to be much more easily conveyed, but disagree with some that youth/experience is irrelevant. Nothing wrong with being young-I still listen to many talented young artists' recordings. But age and life experiences will change even the most talented young performer-ideally I would rather listen to a piece of music performed by a 54 year old virtuoso than to his/her own rendition when he/she was 14 years old. Even the most talented young virtuoso has some "musical growing" to do, no matter how musically mature he/she already is at a tender age, or how expertly refined the technique may be.

April 13, 2021, 1:33 PM · vibrato, glissando/portamenteau shifts, rubato, accents, bending the pitch just the right amount in the right direction, spun-tone quality sound, good equipment.
Emotional reaction is the audience's job. Emotion in the performer can sometimes be a negative distraction.
April 13, 2021, 1:41 PM · Emotion is expressed in change and contrast.
April 13, 2021, 2:09 PM · Adalberto mentioned "life experiences." How does one incorporate "life experiences" into one's playing? This is the kind of warm-and-fuzzy thing that people say all the time because it sounds like it should be true (i.e., we want it to be true), but if you scratch the surface you find out there's nothing there.

When we hear a performer and they're giving us a profoundly emotional experience, are they really thinking about the time they cut their thumb on a can of tomatoes? I don't think so.

So if you say "life experiences" are important, then my question is to know by what mechanism they should be incorporated.

April 13, 2021, 2:37 PM · Perfect timing between a crying facial expression, and a happy face, can certainly be helpful, even if the performer doesn't take it to the level of jumping up and down to express the happy times. ;-)
April 13, 2021, 2:48 PM · Paul, if you think cutting your thumb on a can of tomatoes is a profound life experience, don't bother trying to incorporate them.

One example that comes to mind is Meditation from Thais. The woman is a courtesan in the beginning of the opera, then she's in anguish in a chapel, praying for direction, feeling tormented, and has a major conversion experience, and ends up going off to be a nun.

This may not sound like a good course to many today, but anyone with a similar sense of trouble, that's resolved peacefully by a sudden insight may be able to play Meditation more truly to the opera than someone who's deep night of the soul consisted of a cut thumb.

Another piece that comes to mind is the Chaconne- my first teacher said Bach was raging at God in many parts of it, and to play them that way. Probably helps if you know what that means from life experience.

April 13, 2021, 2:49 PM · Adalberto wrote: 'I would rather listen to a piece of music performed by a 54 year old virtuoso than to his/her own rendition when he/she was 14 years old.'

I think this is often true, but also sometimes not. A lot of my favorite compositions are actually the pieces which composers wrote in their youth, such as Strauss' violin sonata, piano sonata, Mendelssohn string symphonies, and Beethoven string trios. I speculate that while there is more life experience in the composer's older years, there could be more naivety, sincerity and honesty in their younger years. The same could very well apply to musicians.

Now 2 points, first the dry one.

What often makes me feel emotion when listening to a performance is the music itself. I've listened to countless student butcherings of the Tchaikovsky concerto, and my heart still races at the end of the piece every single time. The same applies poor performances of any piece I consider to be outstanding, and there are a lot of them (pieces I mean). Now if the piece is not outstanding, then it is definitely up to the performer to convey emotion through convincing use and awareness of their own technical abilities.

My second point is that as a performer, the music itself (often the raw harmony too) makes me feel certain emotions that of course cannot be adequately expressed in words. In fact they are so inexplicable that they could either be a combination of emotions, or a hypothetical event which combines many emotions. We don't have to know what this hypothetical event is, and for me that is the beauty of non-vocal music.

April 13, 2021, 2:59 PM · Mr. Deck

I fear you may not understand because our personality types may be very different, and we see the world through different lens. Of course all personality types can be accomplished, highly musical artists, so that is not what I am addressing. You may just not understand what I mean.

If you experience deep personal loss (for instance) you may perform certain works with the musical tools you currently have in ways someone else does not. This may or not be conveyed to the audience, but the musician knows, and it fuels the whole of the performance. A happy go lucky 12 year old prodigy may have the same or *better* tools, but not the complex emotional reaction to use them in the same manner an older person *may* (as of course, being older does not warrant that a performer must be more "musical", and indeed many younger players can be more expressive-I am talking more in a theoretical, all-things-being-equal, same performer young vs same performer as a mature person.)

Be well. No need to agree, as usual.

Also agree a modicum of physical expression is fair, as long as it's not distracting. That said, many modern players are very physically expressive, and many do not appear to be distracted. I can notice, but tend towards ignoring it and focusing more on the music itself.

April 13, 2021, 3:33 PM · Mr. Dong,

I agree for the most part in that regard. I love many composers' earlier, youthful works as well.

I am however speaking more about performers themselves. Some do not change much, but others do play even "better" as they get older, even if the technique may not be as flashy. Older is not always better to be sure. But there's more "life experience" put on to the music. It is very subjective, as someone may prefer the "brilliant" teen years of a prodigy, even if he/she has grown a lot as an adult artist.

Mendelssohn's output is unique in that his music had great depth even as a young prodigy pianist-composer. Although he worked hard, he also appeared to have a good life (for what we know, and until the death of his beloved sister), yet still produced music of profound pathos. Did not get to grow as old as he should have, sadly.

Edited: April 13, 2021, 4:05 PM · I agree with both Paul and Adalberto..
We will play some passages with a special colour if they awaken remembered atmospheres and sensations. On the other hand we can allow our playing, such as it is, to be taken over by the music itself.

But what about the times when the magic fails, for external (or internal) reasons?. We still have to instill the response in the listener. This where we must "translate" our remembered impressions and reactions into well practiced modulations of tone and time. On those days we are perhaps artisans rather than artists?

April 13, 2021, 4:27 PM · Greetings?
One of my pet peeves is the abundance of videos of incredibly talented young players on YouTube who are described as prodigies. In my book a project he is a child who plays with both the talent and emotional maturity that we have come to expect from a seasoned adult. According to this definition properties are very few and far between. Menuhin was a classic example, and the inexplicable profoundly mature nature of his playing at such a young age caused him to be regarded as a God by many people. Since I am having a pet peeve day, I would also add one of the worst mistakes violinists make is trying to play emotionally. what we are really trying to do is evoke emotions in another person and this can actually feel like a curiously detached and cold experience to the player if they are not used to it. Nathan Millstein famously responded to the question what are you thinking about when you play with the comment I try not to get in the way of the music.
on the other hand, a certain violin teacher who shall be nameless once said to me that she accepted a lot of overseas students from Japan. Usually she had to wait about six months for them to get a boyfriend or girlfriend and have their heart broken so that their emotional side caught up with their technical ability. It’s kind of a nasty story, but, especially given that particular time, there was a lot of truth in it.
Cheers,
Buri
April 13, 2021, 6:32 PM · I agree with Paul. Well said. If I ever get to Blacksburg VA, let's grab a beer.
Edited: April 13, 2021, 8:14 PM · Tom wrote, "One example that comes to mind is Meditation from Thais. The woman ... ends up going off to be a nun."

I wonder how many performances of this piece we've heard -- that have utterly captivated us -- by violinists who either don't know this or don't care.

And of course cutting one's thumb on a can of tomatoes won't be a sufficient emotional context for a whole piece. But perhaps it could work if you need an "angry accent" here or there. If you buy into in the "life experiences" concept, then surely you would want to make use of even the more banal among them and thereby establish a diverse emotional palette.

I suspect the main way that young people learn how to "play with feeling" is by listening to (and imitating) the devices exploited by professional violinists in their recordings, and accepting the advice of their teachers, which often includes demonstrations (played or sung) for how a certain phrase should go. And as Buri notes, some youngsters are better at assimilating the emotional canon than others. Eventually, as James has suggested, they can just read it in the music itself, perhaps experimenting in the practice room with a few different options to see what works.

April 13, 2021, 8:20 PM · I was going to say: It's a rare player who plays Thais like a religious conversion, which is what this scene is in the opera It is far more common to play it with romantic sensuality.

As for age leading to more emotional interpretations, I think there are plenty of examples to the contrary. For instance, you listen to the young Milstein, his interpretations are much more "passionate". His classical restraint grows with age.

I think "emotion" tends to be associated with some clear musical direction, along with contrasts.

April 13, 2021, 9:27 PM · It helps to be a real skinflint if you're going to play Beethoven's Rage Over a Lost Penny .

Lord only knows how we should prepare to sing Mozart's Leck mich im Arsch, but I probably wouldn't 'go method' for that one.

Edited: April 13, 2021, 10:26 PM · What about the newer "Boris Johnson Is a Lying S*it" by Ben Comeau?
Edited: April 13, 2021, 10:46 PM · I would assume that in order to properly interpret that one, it would help to be mercilessly bullied at some British boarding school by groups of tousle-haired moppets doing their best Winston Churchill impressions, as they beat you with their cricket bats.

Although at this point after Brexit, I'm sure the whole of the empire has been properly emotionally trained in the proper interpretation; but you could probably just listen to a bunch of Pink Floyd if you were in a pinch and your concert was coming up soon.

April 14, 2021, 3:23 AM · "Playing with feeling"-an easily ridiculed phrase by many it would seem-can be easily learned by the budding young virtuoso. Using these learned musical tools into becoming "playing with feeling+" (with something else that is not mere theatrics to "demonstrate" feelings) takes more experience. Life is generally not long enough at 12.

Sadly, Milstein's solo Bach is not "in taste" nowadays for either of his two recordings, but I always liked his second iteration better. Many people if not most like his first version more, but we all see and listen to things differently. I do not hate either version, and can easily enjoy them both today (also, to be fair, none of them are youthful recordings.)

A performer's music may become "less passionate" at 58, but perhaps better overall. Sometimes they adapted to their times a bit, or even started a new "modernist" trend themselves. It may have less obvious "passionate" music tools but be filled with other more subtle musical contrasts.

My apologies to Mr. Buri regarding the prodigy term. There are indeed not as many today-there are not that many Heifetz and Menuhin players. I am sure fans of some young players may disagree (it's fine, I love artists of any age myself.) My interpretation of "prodigy" is thus more loose than trying to compare them with Menuhin's lofty standard, and I did not mean to offend (I know lots of little kids are called that nowadays, true or not.)

While the story about the broken-hearted ladies is a bit crass and not highly accurate I am sure (and what about men violinists?!), life's happiness and sorrows does affect the performer's use of his/her musical tools, even if he/she may claim the contrary, or to not stand "in the way of the music". Indeed one should not destroy a work to satisfy a false sense of "passionate musicianship", but every player puts his/her own say/stamp on the music he/she plays, some more subtly than others.

If you cannot play a work well, no matter how "experienced" you are, you cannot express what you otherwise would. But at a high level, all of those players can theoretically do "anything", and thus individuality matters, which is necessarily shaped by upbringing, musical backgrounds, hand shapes, bowing and fingering preferences, and the "much dreaded"-in this discussion at least-"life experiences".

My apologies to all of those who will undoubtedly disagree. Be well.

April 14, 2021, 4:00 AM · Adalberto,
I wasn’t offended by anything you said. It is just that there are an increasing number of videos on YouTube these days of moderately talented young violinist which are being labelled as ‘listen to this prodigy.’ One then has to waste time checking it out just in case... This I suppose, is the downside of the Internet.
Warmest Regards,
Buri
Edited: April 14, 2021, 5:16 AM · Sorry, but the OP's question is multi-levelled (anthropological? psychological? ethnomusicological?), and most of my answers would offend.

If you need instruction on how to express emotion, then you haven't got what it takes. If it's in you, it will find its way out. If it isn't, you can't fake it.

Whenever I use the word "emoting" I mean "looking as though you didn't eat enough fiber yesterday."

I used to hate Hadelich until I heard him on the radio playing Bach. It's not just his injuries that make the visuals dreadful - it's also his idiotic habit of putting all his body weight over his left leg. And add whatever "emoting" he does. Standing on his left leg may be in him, but I don't want to see it. And if you stand on your left leg in imitation, then you deserve to fall over.

You have to imagine singing something. That is the limit of permissible "emoting", no matter what instrument you play. And if you are not singing, you don't even need that much "emoting". If a singer doesn't do it because they can't, they therefore don't need it. If you are doing something a singer couldn't do while singing it, you are doing too much.

Visuals are for Jack Benny.

Here's some Sokolov. If you emote more than him, then take some frigging ex-lax.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlvNKc5pYrk

I'm sure I've misunderstood the OP's question.

April 14, 2021, 6:22 AM · "I used to hate Hadelich until I heard him on the radio playing Bach. It's not just his injuries that make the visuals dreadful"

That's a rather crude comment, but unfortunately this attitude is very much present in the public.

Hadelich's life experience undoubtedly empowers him to give such excellent performances and interpretations. They are very carefully measured.

Edited: April 14, 2021, 7:02 AM · My words were injudicious and lacked the right emphasis. "I hate watching him, but the problem is his emoting and stance, rather than his injuries" would have been better. No, still doesn't work. Better still if I had been talking of someone else. I don't hate watching Michael Cleveland.
Edited: April 14, 2021, 7:15 AM · I'm not exactly easy on the eyes either, LOL. My audience needs eyeshades as well as ear plugs. Gordon, you seem rather fuzzy but less abstract than Paul.

J I, Yes, I would say the numerous misfortunes I have experienced have in the long run been good for me.

April 14, 2021, 9:18 AM · Gordon, it is what it is, I guess!

Ann, tough times make tough people even tougher, I'm glad you're able to see the positive side.


Edited: April 15, 2021, 9:02 AM · To put it another way, if Hadelich had no mannerisms, I'd have no problem watching him.

Other violinists just have affectations because they have been taught to emote.
Chambers' Dictionary: "Emote, v.i. show or express exaggerated emotion."

April 14, 2021, 11:19 AM · J I, It's good because I'm in a staredown with death. So far I'm winning but death hasn't looked away.
April 15, 2021, 7:48 AM · Did you mean emotional or emotive?
Edited: April 15, 2021, 9:41 AM · "If it's in you, it will find its way out. If it isn't, you can't fake it."

That's where I disagree. I think most of what we hear from the top violinists is basically faking it.

Hadelich was mentioned here (but, curiously, not Pine), as someone whose experience of severe injury "must" have changed, and necessarily for the better (so many assumptions!) the sensuality of his violin-playing. Hadelich said, "I appreciate what is happening in my life more. I really try to enjoy every moment. It made me realize how important music was to me." Very likely that generalized zeal for life has translated into his violin-playing. My guess, however, is that he makes every effort NOT to think about what actually happened to him.

Hadelich suffered his injuries at the age of 15, so it might not be too useful to compare recordings from before and after, if even it is possible. Likewise Rachel Pine was only 21 years old when she had her accident, and as far as I can tell she made only one recording before that. I don't find her recordings any more compelling than those of other soloists.

Should we not also assume that neither Ray Chen nor Hilary Hahn can possibly fathom the emotional depths of the romantic literature just because they (as far as I can tell from reading their online biographies) have not suffered dire personal calamities?

Perhaps conservatory applications should include a question: "List your top five personal tragedies so that we can evaluate whether you are likely to be equipped to deliver emotionally convincing performances."

And to be truthful, I have a family joke with my daughters that they're at a serious disadvantage writing their college-application essays because their parents aren't drug addicts or cancer patients or impoverished/homeless or incarcerated or dead. But of course they know they have the blessing of good luck because none of those awful things have happened to us or to them, and that they have enjoyed a significant and entirely unfair advantage over those who have so suffered -- an advantage that eventually needs to be paid back to society through philanthropy and good works.

It just occurred to me that it would be useful to have a set of tiny emoji rubber-stamps or stickers to mark our parts. I want one that shows a can of tomatoes.

Edited: April 15, 2021, 10:02 AM · @Paul "Hadelich was mentioned here (but, curiously, not Pine)"

That's because I had heard Hadelich on the radio that day, but not Pine. Besides, I barely know of her, and know nothing of her accident.

Edited: April 15, 2021, 10:05 AM · @Ann "Gordon, you seem rather fuzzy"

I didn't notice this remark before. Unless you are talking about my avatar (lol), I'm fuzzy because most of my dislike was aimed in the past at those classical guitarists and pianists who frown and pout and nod their head and shake their head and so, although I have seen and know the problem exists in violinists, I'm not sure exactly where.

Don't pout or you'll look silly!

Really, this is what the chicken and egg thread should be about. Emotion results in facial expressions, but that doesn't mean facial expressions result in emotion.

April 15, 2021, 10:04 AM · Sure, but why the long face?
Edited: April 15, 2021, 10:26 AM · Mr. Deck,

Happy experiences also shape our lives. It is not only tragedy that help musicians mature. The more internal stories the player has, the more it can communicate. Technique is not all, even if it is the most essential tool to convey any musical message. We really do not know the joys and sorrows of every player (nor should we, quite frankly, as it's their private life.)

Falling in (or out of) love, having a child, sniffing flower fields, looking at the moon while reminiscing of the past, can inspire musicians to rethink the way they played the Brahms at as a promising 12 year old. At 18 it can be very different, then even more at 38. Just because we cannot know what happens in their lives does not mean life must so insipid and strictly "result oriented." Surely many do fake their performances as "professional actors" would, but violin performance is not the same as acting in a movie. I know that many of these players care and express more just beyond getting a paycheck concert to concert. Their feelings matter, even if we cannot see what is inspiring them to interpret the works they play the way they do.

I guess that it would be impossible to change your mind, since it is also not possible to know what is in the players' minds. But if you believe some of the few interviews available, and take into consideration your own musical growth, at least you would be open to the possibility of "life experiences" shaping the interpretation of any given work. It is at the very least possible that many players' performances as older musicians changed not because technique became faulty (although that has happened), but because they now see the work in a different light (though of course, perhaps someone can prefer the older performance/recording more.) This different way of seeing things may be inspired by further scholarship, curiosity, but also allowing the music to speak to themselves in a different way.

However, I see no way to convince you without evidence, which can hardly be obtained from people we do not personally know. And even if we knew them and they told us what they think, we may not believe them regardless, thinking it is all a musical act. I have chosen to believe experience matters from what I can listen to in the playing of others, and the way music speaks to even myself as I have aged.

Have a safe and lovely day.

April 15, 2021, 10:38 AM · Music is music, not necessarily anything more than that.
Yehudi Menuhin spent his childhood as the filling in a love sandwich.
Didn't mean his violin playing was empty.
Either there is less emotion in music than you think, or Menuhin faked it.
Discuss (lol)
April 15, 2021, 11:10 AM · Yes, Gordon, I was referring to your little portrait there.
Edited: April 15, 2021, 6:04 PM · The OP's question was "What makes playing emotional?"

I think the intent was to ask "What does a performer do to elicit an emotional response from listeners?"
In my opinion when performers intend certain emotional messages from their performance they do it by using a studied application of their technical skill.

Gordon wrote that perhaps "Menuhin faked it." Well, why not. Actors fake it all the time (one of my granddaughters is an actor and she easily assumes alternate personalities and accents, etc. It's her "bread and butter." I think musicians do it that way too. I have done it too! (Or at least I tried to!)

For me, any musician who practices gymnastics as part of the performance forces me to listen with my eyes closed - it is usually nothing but a distraction.

I recall a recital by the adult Sarah Chang - she had this cute little way of kicking up her long skirt - cute the first time maybe the second, then you wait for her to do it again, then you wait to see if she can get by without doing it - then you finally listen to the rest of the piece with your eyes closed - and the rest of the concert too.

I also recall 20 or 25 years ago, the first time I saw Christian Tetzlaff on TV - the A&E (Arts and Entertainment network, when it really had arts and entertainment) - I think it was Sunday mornings. I was very impressed with his playing and his demeanor. Fast forward to more recent times when his performances have looked more like a gymnastic workout. Is that emotion?

In my opinion, for musicians (at least classical musicians) to transmit "emotion" to audiences they must do it entirely through sound. Anything that distracts the audience from that will distract them from the transfer of emotion by the musical performance itself.

Actually, in the past half-century or so, the only time I watch a concert with my eyes open has been because I wanted to learn something technical from the performer that might apply to my own playing - or because I had a relative on the stage.

April 15, 2021, 6:06 PM · Mr. Victor,

I find Ms. Chang tame compared to others, sudden stage kicks notwithstanding. I agree that the music should speak for itself as well, and most body movements "should" be part of the music. I have nothing against her or Mr. Tetzlaff as they are fine artists-I just tend to ignore the "visual noise" (as you do, though with my eyes open) and focus on the playing.

A particularly well known, good violinist plays as if someone had an invisible collar and leash placed on the neck of this artist, and was pulling this invisible leash all the time towards the front row. Horribly distracting, and I fail to see how it could be related to the music. In my opinion, perhaps they are trying to "one up" each other, to have enough individual "showmanship" onstage. I do respect them all and wish they did not play to the audience that needs these kinds of stage feedbacks. As I mentioned before, a few move a lot and make tons of gestures, but the music is not as exciting.

Has nothing to do with old-school vs new-a very few modern players still do not make that much of a dance onstage. Each to their own, and enjoy your favorite artists, whether they dance, are being magically pulled, or have a complete poker face as they play.

Edited: April 15, 2021, 7:44 PM · One of the complaints I keep hearing in this forum is that everyone sounds the same these days, whereas violinists of the mid-20th century played with more individual character. If emotive playing originates from life experiences, should we conclude that the latter have likewise been homogenized?
Edited: April 15, 2021, 8:59 PM · Everyone studied violin with Bron, but they all had completely different ecstatic dance teachers.

If you want a violinist who will give you seasickness, go watch Robert McDuffie. If someone plays well, I just close my eyes, and I recommend that the fussy among you do the same. I can't really get a barometer on McDuffie's playing, because he plays a lot of Phillip Glass, so the dance moves are probably there to keep the audience from falling asleep (or maybe to keep him from falling asleep). The only time I fixate on the interpretive dance moves is when the playing is crappy, or it's Phillip Glass or John Adams or some advanced torture device.

Honestly, I think the topic of people's stage moves and their dancing has been done to death, that the people that fixate on it are objectively wrong and silly, and I wish we could leave this can't-hear-the-forest-for-the-trees topic dead in the dust where it deserves to be.

If you go see someone play and their playing is sucky and they pull all kinds of faces to try and show you how deep they are (Isserlis), then by all means clown them out. If someone's complete lack of musical taste is mirrored on their face (Vengerov, Sonnenberg), then have at it! But if the playing is good, and you lack the ability to close your eyes, then boo-hoo to you.

It's as if people had their eyes pried open a la Clockwork Orange...

April 15, 2021, 9:07 PM · Mr. Deck,

You are going to extremes in attempting to prove your point. What you stated has no bearing on this discussion, and was likely stated to agitate, rather than making us "think". It is not all so black and white, old vs new, emotion vs thought. Feelings should be tempered with intelligence, and the rational mind should always take into consideration the unlimited possibilities granted by emotions.

Response is not warranted, as it is another (long) discussion of its own, but suffice it to say that Vengerov and Repin are very different musicians that do not sound alike (whether you appreciate or dislike one over the other, or both.) It is not good for discussion to make this a my favorite modern violinists vs my favorite classic violinists, or to make us fight among ourselves for such trivial issues.

As a lover of both modern and older performers, frankly, I do not see the point. People have always had a range of life experiences, whether it was during the times of Mozart, or right now.

"Experience doesn't matter" may be your stance, but it is not worth going to such lengths. If you are convinced it's hogwash, there's nothing more to be done. The above at least did not convince me of the error of my thoughts.

My apologies for disagreeing with you, and perhaps for appearing combative, as I am not even upset. Best wishes to you and your family; hope all is well.

April 15, 2021, 9:24 PM · Mr. Lesniak,

I do not mind the dance if the music is good, though it can often be distracting if you focus on it rather than the music. I do not need to close my eyes, as I have been accustomed to players' stage movements, and rather than expecting them all to move as little as Heifetz did, I *expect* a sort of individual dance move or unique quirk. Some I dislike a lot, but for most, I have grown a high tolerance for all sort of movements, especially if the music itself is excellent.

However, I suppose closing eyes is a fine solution if stage movements bother you as an audience. I am however often interested in what the player is doing with his/her violin and bow (in addition to the music, and even if it's not so much to my liking-a fastidious, nerdy approach of sorts), so I like to watch at all times, even the most distracting types of violinists.

Thanks for the humor provided above.

April 15, 2021, 9:31 PM · Paul D, Hadelich was injured 22 years ago and after that amount of time it fades into the past along with everything else. I had a life changing illness that lasted 10 years and basically set the course of the rest of my life but it also had faded into the past by about 10 years later. You do adjust and it isn't a matter of trying to forget. Life does go on.
Edited: April 15, 2021, 10:04 PM · Perhaps the question should not be *whether* life experiences are needed or useful in establishing a basis for emotive musical interpretation, but HOW they are incorporated and utilized. By what mechanism does that happen? Perhaps it's my scientific training getting in the way, but often I am skeptical of a phenomenon simply because I cannot see how it works. (If the phenomenon is too complex for me to understand directly, such as subatomic particle physics, I need to know at least that there is a rational basis understood by those with the same basic philosophy of skepticism and better math skills.)

Ann, I'm glad your illness did not take you away from us.

April 15, 2021, 9:56 PM · Paul, Thank you, now I'm facing another one and realize that the purpose of the first time was to prepare me for this. I am amazingly at peace and content. I probably won't die but it will be lifechanging.

I am interested in emotions and how they work (or misfire so often) probably because I'm a touch Aspie-ish. Having an IQ 4 SD above the mean doesn't help either (especially for a woman).

I'm grateful that I have a teacher who not only focuses on technique but can talk about the emotions evoked by a piece of music.

Edited: April 15, 2021, 10:45 PM · "By what mechanism does that happen?"

I'm not sure "life experience" has to be different from the mere passage of time, which includes time spent in lessons, practicing, going to concerts, and getting used to performing in front of people. That's not faking it. Given how much some people hate practicing, to have done 10,000 hours of it should count as a pretty unusual life experience.

Edited: April 16, 2021, 4:01 AM · Someone has probably said it by now, but it's people who are emotional, not music or playing. Saying "emotional music" is shorthand for saying "music that makes a person feel emotion".
The person can be an audience member, but also it can be the musician.
"emotional playing" is ambiguous - it can either be playing that makes a hearer feel emotion, or it may be playing by a player in whom the music or the act of playing has created emotion.

Different hearers will experience different emotions. Same goes for reading - I experience little emotion when reading, unless there's something momentous or written with particular verve. But I once had a tutor who had been head of English at a university and she experienced full emotional response to everything she read, which included every Victorian pot-boiler in the British Library. I couldn't answer for her.

In the case of music, I don't even know if I can answer for myself.
I don't experience any emotion other than annoyance at Philip Glass: others apparently do.
Emotions, I suppose come from endorphins, adrenalin, other chemicals.
Ultimately different things make different people's endorphins flow in different quantities.
Some project their fear or euphoria onto gods, others onto art. That's how open-minded atheists can appreciate religious art. Rapture can come from chemical flow, and it can come from huge belief paradigm shifts (I don't have a full knowledge of cognitive dissonance vocab, but it's Road to Damascus stuff), which is probably also a chemical flow.

Fight, flight, respite. Da capo.

Maybe this doesn't answer the question, but it asks it in a different way, which may be profitable.

There's also dancing. Dancing does nothing for me (doing it - I like watching modern ballet if the choreography is good), for others dancing is their life. Is the OP's question answerable if it is asked of dancing instead of violin playing? If not, then it's just one of those intangibles.

April 16, 2021, 8:16 AM · Hello all! OP here :) I appreciate hearing everyone's thoughts on this topic - it was intentionally broad simply because I think the topic is somewhat intangible. I think the immense amount of recorded music and video'd performances available to modern day instrumentalists has a huge effect on how we perform and interpret emotion from music or performances. That being said, I am still intensely curious about how audiences perceive emotion from performers and how performers seek to transit emotions to the audience (which I realize are two different but related topics). I am also curious to know what people consider to be "emotional music," as that is also an incredibly broad topic with so much being informed by each person's individual preferences. Happy to start this in a new thread or keep this conversation going here.
April 16, 2021, 8:44 AM · Not only intangible but verbally inexpressible I'd say. I keep trying but nothing sensible comes out.
April 16, 2021, 9:08 AM · Paul, I was thinking about the homogenization of life experiencres. That is exactly what is happening with mass exposure to media such as TV and movies and internet which generally express the LCD of human existence.
Edited: April 16, 2021, 10:15 AM · Ann, I think there's something to that. Violinists today can listen to dozens of good recordings of the Brahms VC. Heifetz couldn't because there weren't that many. One might say that originality was thrust upon him.
April 16, 2021, 11:33 AM · Hey Mr. Valle-Rivera, I appreciate your always-thoughtful expression here. I guess I was hankering for some ranting, so I'm glad you found the humor in it.
April 17, 2021, 5:04 AM · Paul, yes we are rather "spoiled". But I imagine Heifetz heard many fellow students practicing and master-classing at a very high level.

And Ann, I have several discs of the Brahms, and each one offers a different pleasure (over and above the music itself!)


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