Playing with Expression

Edited: December 26, 2021, 3:52 PM · I quote these two paragraphs from the latrest issue of the STRAD magazine. The original British spelling and punctuation are retained. I thought it might be of interest to others violinist.comers as well.

PLAYING WITH EXPRESSION
from “A Lesson in Performing Short Pieces” (the STRAD magazine, Dec. 2021. Pg. 66)
By cellist Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt

“Playing short pieces is a completely different art from playing sonatas or concertos. In a short piece you have to tell a story and develop a character within a few short minutes. My teacher Aldo Parisot used to compare this to painting in watercolour: with acrylic or oil you can correct your mistakes, but with watercolour you have only one chance to find the correct mixture of colour, water and brush speed. It is the same on the cello: you need to know how far to vibrate, what speed of bow to use. And where to bow on the string, to create each colour, emotion and character.
To be able to do this spontaneously on stage takes preparation, so practice how to create different emotions on your instrument for 15-30 minutes a day as part of your warm-up. To begin, find techniques that help you to evoke simple emotions such as “happy” and “sad”, then divide those up into desire, love, hope, excitement, hopelessness, depression, pain and so on. The flexibility and life in your sound comes from the bow, so practice without vibrato to enhance each effect. In general a faster vibrato and bow speed, towards the fingerboard, will give an airier, more intimate sound; a slower vibrato and bow speed, closer to the bridge, will be warmer and richer. For body and depth, sink the bow into the string, and move closer to the bridge for brightness. Experiment with vibrato amplitude, to change from warm and relaxed to emotionally intense. Find out how to create every colour and emotion that you want to portray, and how to move quickly between them.”

Replies (6)

December 26, 2021, 10:47 AM · Interesting to choose faster vibrato for lightness and slower for depth: I think we we often do the opposite by habit.
Edited: December 26, 2021, 1:22 PM · Very interesting issue, and it's good to see it approached so well.

However, I've always had 2 concerns about the aspect of visually expressing emotion while playing:
1. They always leave out mentioning any element of anger.
2. I find some of the more "visually emotional" performers to actually be distracting from the music. Just because they are obviously "feeling" emotions does not necessarily mean that the emotions are coming out of the violin in how it sounds at that moment.

Personally, I have always admired Zino Francescatti's stage persona and how and when he has small but meaningful physical expressions, and they don't detract from the music but do indeed add to the emotional expression in the performance. But his emotionality is there, even in very rapid passages. Somehow, they almost sing.

December 26, 2021, 1:29 PM · Sander - I agree with you completely.
Music is not a visual art despite what happens on-stage and off- at the "concerts' attended by masses.

I never watch(ed) performers unless trying to learn something for my own musical use - I always find something distracting about the "movers" when I'm there to listen to the sounds they make so I've been shutting my eyes at performances for decades. There are sometimes things to learn by watching - years ago I improved my decrescendos after watching a profession string quartet's bowing very carefully and emulating what I saw and heard there. Like garlic, a little can go a long way!

Now in my old age, with faded hearing (even electronically boosted) there is little benefit for me to attend a live concert compared to listening to a recorded performance - and driving to get there - and finding a place to park :-( --besides so many venue acoustics are not completely satisfying even for those with the best hearing.

December 26, 2021, 2:02 PM · I disagree with two statements:

1. All music is like water colors. What is gone is gone whatever the quality. It is just that in a long piece there is enough time for the audience to forget the details from the beginning... It resembles more a fresco (which is unforgiving just like water colors): In a church full of frescos you won't notice small mishaps; on water colors you will.

2. IMHO tone in itself does not convey emotion; I don't see a point in looking for a "happy" tone. It is changes (in tone, speed, rhythm, pitch, harmony etc., some supplied by the composer, others expected from the performer) that convey emotion. The timbre of people's speaking voices tells you nothing about their emotional state or their character, much as we are tempted to try to guess anyway.

December 26, 2021, 4:44 PM · I also seriously doubt that many (any?) instrumentalists - violinists, clarinettists, pianists or what have you - would think it possible to create sounds with specific emotional connotations, or that many (any?) listeners would be able to interpret those sounds correctly when divorced from the musical context. Schmidt doesn't even consider the influence of attack transients connected with the bow stroke as distinct from continuous qualities due to vibrato, bow velocity, pressure and position on the string. Remove the transients and it's hard even to tell a violin from a trumpet.
December 26, 2021, 9:07 PM · I think it is all good that the author of these two paragraphs is being criticized for the two paragraphs I have quoted, but it is only fair that I add that these were only the introduction to a two page text article that described applying these thoughts to 5 pages of cello scores of 3 specific well-known cello solo pieces: Faure's "Elegie," Elgar's "Salute d'Amour" and Saint-Saen's "The Swan," pieces that are also available in violin and viola clefs - so other clefs and keys.


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