Feeling the Music

Edited: October 11, 2017, 10:04 AM · As a Carnatic South Indian violinist, I know that the emotion and feel behind the piece is very important when performing, and I know that is the case with Western music as well.

I also teach and I know that many people can nail the technique, hit all the right notes, and get everything right, but sometimes it is quite robotic when they play.

What is the best way to transfer/achieve that feeling and emotion? (when teaching, how do you teach it to a student)? When does one achieve it? Also, how important is feeling the music (sometimes an artist may feel the music and get lost into it on stage, but may not be able to get the audience involved at all)? Please share your thoughts! Thank you!

Replies (34)

October 11, 2017, 10:03 AM · My suggestion is to try things and see how your audiences respond. Then you will know not only that you "felt something" but, more importantly, that they did. As a performer, that includes the visual part of what you do.
Edited: October 11, 2017, 10:25 AM · I believe that applying "feeling" to a musical performance is a matter of learning the techniques that transmit that feeling.

Sometimes attaching a story or scenario to the entire piece (or movements of it) can help the performer transmit the feel of that story to the audience. Other times, perhaps, you just want to express the feeling in certain phrases - so you have to decide what those feelings are and experiment with ways to transmit them.

This would be easier to teach to adults than children since adults have experienced a wider range of emotion to draw from, but even children could draw from stories they know or experiences they have had.

I like to recommend Roy Sonne's video for studying the Accolay violin concerto to work on this way of translated feeling into scenario into music. If you play for listeners a lot you can work on different techniques and gimics to see what reactions you get. Years ago when I was playing Christmas cello solos "around town" I loved getting tears from old ladies when I played the Schubert Ave Maria as a love song (at least the way I felt it when playing) - when their hankies came out and dabbed their eyes I knew it was working.

October 11, 2017, 11:16 AM · We are a bit like actors who try to induce the feelings in the listener rather than necessarily feel them at the time. Except for those special moments when everything comes together...
October 11, 2017, 11:34 AM · There are different takes on this topic.
Vengerov for once tries to tell a story to the music. He wants his students to think of those stories and the linked emotions.
Others like Perlman want students to play the same phrase with different emotions in mind.
My view is, that there are two major things to accomplish. The musical understanding to have fitting (I will not write the right, as I think this is rather oversimplified) emotions occuring. The capability to dig into the music.
The other part is the possiblity to transmit those fealings in a way others can hear it. This is mainly the technical possibility to alter the sound as you wish.

October 11, 2017, 12:37 PM · This is definitely one of the biggest challenges in teaching.

What level of playing are the students at, in question?

October 11, 2017, 1:29 PM · They are actually quite advanced in terms of technique and repertoire, but they sound very robotic
October 11, 2017, 1:30 PM · Also Adrian,

That is precisely what I am saying. However, whenever I perform, if I induce the listeners to feel, but I don't necessarily feel, then I just am very unsatisfied with the performance.

Edited: October 11, 2017, 4:06 PM · As Marc and other have already expressed, there is a big gap between feeling the music and expressing it in such a way that is effectively conveyed to the audience. It's the latter that is more complex, as it require not only clear concept and understanding of the piece played, it also requires the proper means to express them. For instance, I've noticed some advanced players who clear are paying good attention to the dynamic markings of a piece, but when asked what they think these marking means musically, beyond being soft or loud, they often give you a blank look. Telling stories like what Vengerov tends to do in masterclasses is only one of the many ways to express. It is also helpful to know the basics about the composer's life, when the piece was written, for whom it was written, etc.

I also suspect that an advanced student is unlikely to be entirely robotic when play a complex piece, say a concerto. (Most often the case that when it comes to fast scale or arpeggio runs or technically challenging passage, we play like etudes. This is how we practice these bits most.) If the musical moment does take place, let the student know and see if this musical moment can be extended further and further into the entire piece.

October 11, 2017, 4:39 PM · Can you be more specific about how advanced they are? Like perhaps a piece they're working on?
October 11, 2017, 5:15 PM · With really advanced students, it is quite possible that they've had a teacher(S) inject so much of their own feelings, that they can't find their own in the music anymore.
October 11, 2017, 5:22 PM · Lieschen, you mean they are traumatized by their emotional teacher(s) in the past? Based on your profile picture, I figure you are a soap-maker, yes? I made soap when I was feeling in need of emotional support too. And I play with a lot of feelings when waiting for a good batch to saponify ;)
October 11, 2017, 6:36 PM · It must come down to the desire and understanding to be an artist. If an accomplished pianist can stir emotions by pushing a bunch of keys....
October 12, 2017, 8:23 AM · No, not necessarily traumatized, but perhaps some students have had teachers who have wanted their students to sound just like them, inhibiting emotional expression. I am not a soap maker. I have never made soap. I just saw this soap at the supermarket and thought it looked pretty, so I snapped a picture.
October 12, 2017, 9:39 AM · With great music the feeling is endemic and shouldn't need to be consciously expressed by the player as long as she or he follows the composer's instructions. But in addition to that, remember that every note, every phrase and every movement have a beginning, a middle and an end.
October 12, 2017, 9:12 PM · I think it's about personal/emotional development - it's a rare young person who can do it.
October 12, 2017, 11:42 PM · I can't really offer good advice without knowing the situation of the specific student. Advancement, age, and disposition would be useful.
October 13, 2017, 6:14 AM · Sorry for the delay in response. I cannot talk about advancement, because the style of music is Carnatic South Indian music, so the pieces we play are quite different; however, I can say that they are good concert performers between the ages of 15-20.
October 13, 2017, 6:16 AM · Yixi, Marc, and Andrew

I completely understand what you are saying. It is definitely one thing to be able to feel the music yourself, and another thing to be able to transfer it effectively to the audience. My only question is doesn't feeling get lost the second you start to make "conscious" efforts to transmit that feeling to the audience. When you stop playing for yourself, rather play for the audience?

October 13, 2017, 8:19 AM · That chimes with my previous point. An actor doesn't "feel" the emotions of a character, neither does the audience. The one is transmitting an intellectualized emotion, while the others are experiencing and hopefully enjoying an imagined one. Who would want to participate (on either side of the curtain) if they actually "felt" that emotion? I believe the same applies to music where what is required isn't "feeling" but "musicality", whatever that means.
Edited: October 13, 2017, 12:24 PM · In the past I've performed the same music for weddings and for funerals/memorials. I play it with different emotions for each situation - but I have worked out the way to do that ahead of time: how to end phrases, how to subdivide certain beats, where & how to use portamento and how to use "expressive intonation."

Obviously if I am performing for the "celebration" of a dear friend or family member I will have different emotions than for a stranger, but the stranger still deserves the same experience as a situation that is more intimate for me. It has to be worked out in advance. When it is a performance, it is "theater" and we are actors trying to get the audience to feel a certain way. It is a show as surely as is a violinist playing the most showy Paganini or most difficult Ysaye - just a different show.

October 13, 2017, 9:50 AM · I'd say it's a form of acting; if you are really good at it, you convince yourself. But the "feeling" is not the way in; good technique and a strong desire to communicate something pecific - that is the way in.
October 13, 2017, 10:17 AM · Yes, different styles of "acting" may be appropriate for different audiences and of course different music. I'm getting very fond of Franz Drdla's little salon pieces, that really respond to a little Viennese schmaltz. My favourite is "Ivresse" which starts in full bierkellar-song mode and ends with a snooze.
Edited: October 13, 2017, 12:13 PM · I too like Laurie's advice on communication is the key. Some players are emotional players, some are descriptive, some are academic... I don't care what approach one takes, as long as they can convey the cool stuff they have grasped. How? First, you have to have a clear idea what you want to "say", then do whatever in your power to get your point across. It is no difference whether you say something in music or in English, Italian, Hindi, Urdu, or what have you. It's a lot of work and feeling may not even be part of it.

To answer your question, Kamalakiran, does feeling get lost the second one starts to make "conscious" efforts to transmit that feeling to the audience? I can only speak for myself. I don't know if I genuinely feel something, I will stop feeling it when I convey the feeling to someone. On the contrary, the quality/intensity of feeling might even be enhanced when the listener(s) seem to get it once conveyed successfully. That's the most rewarding part of communication -- you expand your internal experience into the universe, then see its effect: silence? smile? nod? shock? tears?

November 1, 2017, 6:25 AM · There is a spectacular violinist who excels in putting both feeling and projection into his performances. He also has a spectacular flying stacatto in this rendition of the Wieniawski 2nd Violin Concerto in D Minor


November 1, 2017, 8:33 AM · I don't know, seems a lot of the violinist scrunching their faces makes me think they are trying to dramatizing the emotion. Not to mention it's ugly as all get out. Are they really feeling the music or are they just bad actors. I don't trust drama.

But, that being said, a definite tell-tale is the sound that comes out. I agree something can be technically accurate and still be emotionally stagnant. I'm not sure if a student, regardless of age, will be able to put forth convincing emotion if they don't actually feel it within. Same with a professional. If a person doesn't have a certain 'internal' sensitivity to begin with, I'm not so sure it can be taught.

Perhaps, to have a student connect to a piece is not just telling the story behind the piece, but to encourage them to think about something in their own lives that strike similar emotion.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 9:04 AM · sorry about the double post but I thought of a good analogy:

You ever go to a starving artist sale? Hundreds of paintings that are painted by hand. What a lot of people don't understand is the paintings are painted by a formula/written directions. That's why there are dozens of the same painting, or what appears to be the same painting. They can look nice but every one is devoid of any feelings. Now go look at a Chagall, Goya, or Picasso. Now you're feeling! same with playing music

Edited: November 1, 2017, 9:10 AM · "I don't know, seems a lot of the violinist scrunching their faces makes me think they are trying to dramatizing the emotion. Not to mention it's ugly as all get out. Are they really feeling the music or are they just bad actors. I don't trust drama."

I can't speak for all. I believe some of the facial expressions show someone getting through difficult technique.Also possibly they are feeling the music in such a way as to be completely unmindful of their expression. Expression at that point has left the face and the hands have taken over.The soul is now moving through the fingers.

Similarly "guitar face" has long been noted.


Edited: November 1, 2017, 9:28 AM · "That's why there are dozens of the same painting, or what appears to be the same painting. They can look nice but every one is devoid of any feelings. Now go look at a Chagall, Goya, or Picasso. Now you're feeling! same with playing music."

Okay ... Picasso I'll give you. But let's say you were asked to compare landscapes by Gainsborough or Constable side-by-side with those of "starving artists" -- are you sure you would be able to pick the work of the masters, if you didn't already know those specific artists or paintings? Especially considering that the "starving artists" are probably not devoid of skill or knowledge and may be deliberately adopting the styles of their predecessors. My mother painted, and we grew up learning to look at paintings and sculpture all the time, but I'm not sure how well I'd do on such a test. Years ago I read about a guy who would buy "motel paintings" for a few dollars at yard sales and "donate" them to top museums (e.g., Tate, Prado, Hermitage) to see if they would actually be displayed as great works of art, and sometimes they were. (I read this in the NYT or the New Yorker, must have been 30 years ago now.)

November 1, 2017, 9:21 AM · No one has really been specific about transmitting emotional content in music. In WAM (Western Art Music), we utilize several techniques which, when combined, lead to a performance we call "musical."

The first, and I think the most important, is timing. Students typically have problems timing cadences convincingly. And cadences are where so much of the music happens or doesn't happen. It's like speech in that we often have to wait till the end of the phrase to see what the emotion is (question? demand? certainty? uncertainty?). The concept of "Rubato" is a Romantic concept in which we play with the timing, sometimes giving, sometimes taking away.

Dynamic contrast is also important and is one of the defining differences between WAM and most popular and folk musics, in which the dynamic levels are constant throughout a piece.

Sound color differences: how we use our bow and vibrato.

Note shaping: how is the note shaped and ended--abruptly, or convincingly tapered? With a rounded, or sharp attack?

Use of accent: like speech, we need to accent the metrically important beats. If you accent weak beats, it sounds unnatural, and thus unconvincing or natural. Someone who says "vi-O-lin" or "DeBUssy" may not sound like a native speaker because the wrong syllables are accented.

It's the combination of timing, intensity, and color, note note shapes, and rhythmic stress that leads to "musicality."

Edited: November 1, 2017, 9:33 AM · Music is sound. We hear sound. Therefor transmitting the "feeling" of the music requires the performer to translate feeling into sound. People listen to recordings of music - transmission of the "feeling" (emotions) must be in the sound, in the music. Dancing and grimacing, smiling, whatever - has trouble making it through an audio recording.

Many of the facial expressions violinists make are the result of various muscle-nerve connections. You can see that Itzhak Perlman works quite hard to suppress what his lips want to do while he plays - especially tough stuff. I've always done that too (the awful facial contortions) - except I don't even try to suppress them; I don't have enough talent to think about what I look like while I'm playing. Other players clearly have connections from their "music muscles" to larger body muscles. I don't think it makes sense to relate those things to "feeling."

Maybe it is different with simple songs - or playing when one is intoxicated.

Edited: November 1, 2017, 9:59 AM · Scott I agree with you totally. There are "elements of musicality" that one needs to learn. That's a language. Being able to speak the language with a convincing accent and in an idiomatic style is all about combining the elements in ways that have come to be accepted. Poetry comes afterward.

I do think there are players who intentionally make facial expressions while they play -- expressions that do not seem to me to be an organic outcome of the music-making process as Andrew described. Two violinists that come to mind are Maxim Vengerov and Ray Chen.

November 1, 2017, 10:25 AM · I think there must be interesting parallels between playing music in a way that conveys emotion and effective acting. It's probably a little disappointing to hear that one's own emotional understanding/feeling about the piece is insufficiently conveyed absent considerable technical skill--but then, we aren't all good actors either, even when we manage to understand a part.

What's harder to grok--and somehow more disappointing, for me, anyway--is when convincing performances turn out to be purely technical feats with little emotional heft behind them. And yet I suspect this is more common than we think. Some of the best musicians and actors are renowned assholes, but you'd never know it to see/hear them perform. How can someone with so little personal connection to the content perform it so convincingly when I am incapable of doing so? How can they act and sound so simpatico when in person they are often quite nasty? Technical wizardry!

Edited: November 1, 2017, 10:43 AM · Katie I agree, many are acting. Especially when they play the same routine over and over again. As an occasional performer( not on violin) I can say that no matter how I feel, I can momentarily put myself into the context of the music and actually feel it. Is this acting?

When I begin I am attempting to put myself into the frame of context, yet after I start the music takes hold of me and I am then feeling it and it is conveyed. So it can be a little of both I think.When we are in the moment a part of us can become the music.
Edited: November 1, 2017, 4:20 PM · Scott, you are absolutely right in identifying the musical elements. For more on that, I recommend former Chicago Sym Orch principal bassoonist David McGill’s book Sound In Motion, which gives an excllent treatise on general elements of performance and how to plan a performance that communciates feelings. Flautist Mattieu Dufour (CSO & Berlin) is also brilliant at planning emotive performances of things as mundane as the Andersen etudes (my wife had a few lessons with him.)
That said, there is also the physical presence of the live performer. Many often physically emote with a flat or ill-planned musical performance that has illogical peaks and changes. Others play a beautifully planned performance, but have a flat affect.
Just as when talking to someone, your body language should match and reinforce what you are saying, so some physical change is good as long as it matches a planned performance.

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