practice without emotion, perform without

Edited: September 8, 2022, 11:25 AM · I am actually looking for the source of this approximate quote that I read some time ago.

The point was that if you practice a piece for pure technical achievement and then add the expression once the technique is mastered, you will likely revert to the deadpan playing of your initial studies during the performance.

My hunch was that it was Milstein - but that now seems unlikely. Anyone know the quote?

I think the theory may be worth another discussion too...

Replies (47)

September 8, 2022, 3:25 PM · Personally, I try to always practice each section like I'm performing it. I envision the crowd, I think of how I want it to sound.

Of course, one can't always feel emotions when practicing, but the idea for me is to properly convey the feelings in a passage, even when it's just "practice."

"Emotion" really only works when you have a passage somewhat learned, though. When you're practicing difficult runs initially, they can't always be played with any degree of expression. So I don't feel that the quote really applies to everyone. At a low level, players need to learn to have LESS emotion when practicing. At a high level, perhaps the technical barriers are less of an issue and this quote is more applicable.

Edited: September 8, 2022, 10:47 PM · Hi Elise!
For what it's worth, I agree with the statement. Emotion is as much a part of music as the tenths, the octaves and whatever else you have. Leaving that part fallow until you master the technique leads to it not growing with the rest.
If you study only exercises and musically unsatisfactory etudes for too long, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep in touch with the emotional side of music.
And then: expressing musical emotion brings its own difficulties. In some pieces (such as Massenet's Meditation from Thaïs, Nocturne from Khachaturian's incidental music to Lermontov's Masquerade) we know which emotions are involved -- respectively profound doubts about a previous vocation in one piece, and apparent cheerfulness while great calamity brews in the other. But how do you render those emotions on your violin? Apparently you have to think deeply and thoroughly about that. And these are just the easy cases, where the emotions are given in language. In absolute music it is even more difficult, but you only have to think of Schubert to realize how full of emotion music can be.
I think this is the hardest thing about learning a piece of music. You certainly cannot wait until you have mastered the technique, because the two aspects are not separate. Exactly what the technical task is only becomes clear once you understand what you want to convey.
September 8, 2022, 5:05 PM · Greetings,
In a rather simple nutshell I think we should practice it how we sing it. Then critically analyse correlation between that idea and what is being produced based on rhythm , intonation, sound and relaxation. Nothing wrong with researching for the context a work was produced (vitlal actuallly) but at the sam time I am a wary of rather nebulous concepts like trying to be sad or angry or whatever . Sometimes its bette rot get out of the way. (Milstein definitely said that).
Cheers,
Buri
September 8, 2022, 9:03 PM · As I've noted a number of times previously, expression is technique. Expression requires deploying a vast array of technical capabilities. Our right-hand technique is fundamentally expressive. But so is the nature of our vibrato, the timing and execution of our shifts, the timing of notes in general, etc.

So if we're playing without phrasing, without dynamics, etc. when we're practicing, we're practicing something that is fundamentally technically wholly removed from what we want to sound like when we're performing.

The shape of the music can help us technically, as well. The way that we mentally shape things into a phrase fundamentally provides organization in our heads, and it's easiest if we hang technical execution off that framework. So if we're practicing a difficult run and it's got an associated crescendo, we should work that in from the start, since it's going to affect the right hand a lot and the coordination between the hands.

Of course, expression will become more and more nuanced as the piece becomes more secure and our concept of it evolves. But I think wholesale changing the expressive content represents a major technical alteration that requires significant re-practicing of a section.

Edited: September 9, 2022, 9:00 AM · Just came across this 2setviolin video. They know how to convey emotion! They must have practised a lot.
Seriously though, in my previous post I may have confused emotion with musical expression.
Edited: September 9, 2022, 10:07 AM · Lydia says expression is technique. I agree entirely, but in my book emotion is something else - not what you express but what you feel. I practise with full expression but relatively little emotion and let it all hang out when I perform.
September 9, 2022, 11:03 AM · An emotion is (at least in part) an in-the-moment reaction. We may know how we would like to feel in certain situations, and can practice with that in mind. But how accurately can we "decide" exactly how we are going to emotionally feel and what emotions we are going to project, especially at a planned and prepared-for event such as a musical performance?

It seems to me that how we emotionally react at the moments of performance always have as one element the spontaneity and a reaction to the music as we play it. And that reaction may add to or modify the emotionality of the performance we prepare for.

September 9, 2022, 11:14 AM · Absolutely. The emotion the performers feel is irrelevant, what matters is the emotion they project. It is not true that playing say the Shostakovich quartet number 8 you have to feel desperate. You will just as likely have positive feelings, assuming the performance proceeds well.

I believe we should use the word "expression" rather than "emotion" in this context (when DESCRIBING music you can use "emotion" obviously but not when discussing how to play it).

Edited: September 11, 2022, 4:41 PM · Interesting discussion:
Every time I had to prepare a solo for performance I worked on what emotion(s) I wanted to convey and practiced the music accordingly. Fortunately I did not have to do that an overwhelming number of times; some of the pieces I had worked on for my own pleasure for many years before performing them. If you are going to play Meditation for weddings and for memorials - you have to consider this sort of thing.

I recall a video performance by Ivry Gitlis in his mid-90s at a festival in Switzerland which showed some of his life-long expressiveness. So I purchased one of his CDs and got some idea of how much a violinist can "get away with." This informed a lot of my practice during the COVID shut down and my exploration of expressive playing that no one else will ever hear (I'm well past the age of playing solos in public, whatever Ivry may have chosen to do).

September 9, 2022, 7:50 PM · I think as a player it helps to be able to make creative decisions in the moment.

The other day I was playing a slow lyrical air at a fiddle competition with a bagpipe band intermittently in my background. I changed up my intended dynamics -- thus needing to reshape interpretation throughout an entire section -- on the fly to cope with the fact that I couldn't play at a hush like I'd intended, but instead had to pick the highest volume I could reasonably put out.

No doubt that changed up the perceived emotional content from the audience's perspective, but my emotion was "annoyed". :-)

Edited: September 9, 2022, 8:02 PM · Lydia: Your story reminds me of the famous story about Sir Thomas Beecham. A woman at a concert came up to him and said she had a young child whom she wanted to start learning a musical instrument, but that she hated the sound that beginners make. She asked if Beecham could suggest a suitable instrument. Beecham replied, "Yes, the bagpipes, because they sound exactly the same when you've learned how to play them as when you start."
Edited: September 10, 2022, 1:27 AM · One reason I'm often disappointed by live musical performances is that the performers appear so impassive. No matter how "expressive" the playing may be, unless the players also look like they're emotionally involved I can't get fully involved myself. Then of course there are the strange contortions some performers make to convey the sincere depth of their feelings. Sometimes it's better to close your eyes...
Edited: September 10, 2022, 2:46 AM · Another name for a professional musician is “interpreter”. I think that resumes what it’s expected.
What differences art from craft is emotion.
September 10, 2022, 11:09 AM · Repeating myself from an earlier, similar discussion. Emotion is the audience's job. Our job is to provoke that emotional reaction. Fortunately, the composer has done most of the work for us. Maybe major soloists can let themselves go like that, but I have too much to think about while playing.
Bagpipes?!-- The best sounding version of the bagpipe that I have heard is from Spain/ Galicia-Asturia.
Edited: September 10, 2022, 10:02 PM · Joel, yes, we have been here before but I think it bears repetition. I believe that a factor missing from many if not most classical performances is "heart". All too often we're faking it, not really making it.

I'd propose to Joel, Albrecht, Lydia and others that performances that communicate most strongly to the audience are those in which the performers themselves are emotionally engaged. We all must have had experiences where the music has "taken off", the band has become "hot", the players look at one another and become collectively inspired. Sadly in classical performances this happens rather rarely but even in audio recordings the times when the orchestra is really motivated I think are pretty clear.

In orchestral performances that inspiration should most often originate with the conductor. I can't help thinking of a particular world-famous figure, currently in London, whose interpretations are meticulous, the playing expressive and technically superb but for me completely cold. I look round the faces of the players and see the same lack of emotional response that I feel. Some conductors have to work hard to inspire their players; others are sufficiently respected to achieve it by their mere presence. Chamber musicians have to find their inspiration internally.

September 11, 2022, 11:10 AM · Thanks for all the responses - it seems my quote is an obscure one though if you guys can not identify it. I must have read it in a book (which is one clue I guess).

I do like - and relate to - Lydia's comment that expression (and I meant that, as in my post, not my title) is an integral part of learning the piece. I can't play it unless the phrasing makes sense and the latter does not happen unless I have a way to express it. Even etudes have their expressive element, albeit in short chunks, since isn't that really what they are about, the isolated words that are used to create the phrase, and hence the message.

Still, I recognize that this is not true for everyone. I have no idea how but many violinists learn music as a logistic note puzzle that is dissociated from composer-intended or artist-evoked expression - and then work on these as a distinct and later stage in the practice sequence. The begged question becomes can the listener hear it? I am going to guess that the synchronous expression/technical study-performer can but the latter sequential study-performer can not.

September 11, 2022, 12:00 PM · It's exactly the same as acting. You figure out what the emotional content is, and you figure out how to infuse your expression of the work with that emotion.

You may think you have to do it by feeling the emotion every time you play, or you may do something more abstract and calculated which you developed by reference to your experiences and knowledge of the emotion. These things will depend on what "school of acting" you have adopted. My favorite players are visibly immersed in the music's meaning when they play, but I wouldn't be prepared to argue that that's because they are 'method actresses'. It may be because they are so good at finding and expressing the content of the music that they can't help but be pulled into it.

The problem of wanting to rehearse without emotion is a common methodical failing of amateur acting. On the flip side, the useful advice to keep practice interesting by infusing emotion into the driest exercises appears now and then.

September 11, 2022, 3:00 PM · If music is a language, as my teacher taught me, it is the language of emotion. Music and emotion are one-in-the-same. That being said there are lots of Etudes that aren't emotional and that begs the question - are they really music or just technical skill builders?

To be sure, I experience more that a few young musicians who, while playing in tune, are emotionally flat. No joy, sadness, élan, caprice,... sort of like an etude it doesn't communicate any emotion. Yet the parents, relatives, and even teachers applaud.

I try to bring in emotion generating music in my studio. Tunes that the musician likes, enjoys, has an emotional connection to,... That means that they play, the work through the technical details, and play well with emotion. Their music makes a statement.

To be sure, some playing makes the statement that: I don't like this music/instrument/teacher... Tomita proved the point with "Switched on Bach" cute, novel, as well as boring and lifeless.

September 11, 2022, 4:57 PM · Subjectively, it seems to me that one element of emotion is a vocal sense, a sense of voice. And that is one characteristic that bowed string instruments (the violin, viola, and cello) have in common. More than any other musical instruments, they have a vocal quality similar to the human voice.

If this is true, then perhaps projecting emotion may require adapting or thinking of one's "technique" as including projecting a vocal quality, a sense of singing, into the notes that one plays.

And (again, subjectively) it seems to me that those violinists who project emotion do so not necessarily by jumping around and making faces, but use their technical skills as does a singer (or indeed, an actor). It's in the voice. So many of the players known for projecting emotion might well be called "stone faced" in their stage demeanor.

In any case, the question of emotionality in performance is a subtle one, but we sure know it when we hear it and when we are fortunate enough to be in a position to play it. And when it happens, the impact is transcendent.

Edited: September 12, 2022, 5:46 AM · Greetings,
I think there are a few issues being mixed up together here. I do believe it is valid to research the general background /context of a work and allow that indirectly to inform our performance. I do think we can legitimately ask young students whose players lack expression to consider emotions and try to play in such a way. In the practice room we should always strive to imagine that we are either playing music or indeed performing, even with the driest exercises. I think approach sthat trie to focus purely on technique are not as helpful as one might believe. We must strive for a beautiful sound in a dry exercise . I have posted similar comments to Lydia about what are the elements of violin playing and how focusing on these produces the art in our head/hearts and minds as we would sing.
The idea of thinking/trying to feel emotions as a professional is, respectfully, false. It is about getting the audience ot feel that way and anyone with performing experience at that kind of level is probably aware of a certain state that has little to do with trying to isolate nebulous concepts like sadnes sand happiness. The nearest I have rea dot it recently is a quote from Ryan Holiday talking about an art display byAbramovic who sat in a chair for 750 hours and let people look at her face while she wa s100% present (a very rare condition indeed for most of us:
For those ones lucky enough to see the performance in person it was a near religious experience. To experience another person fully in the moment is a rare thing. To feel them engagewith you, to be giving all the energy to you, as though there is nothing else that matters in the world is rarer still.
abramovic said: peopl don’t understand that the hardest thing is actually doing something that is close to nothing.

Buri: yes, that is what a great performance is like in essence.
Cheers,
Buri

Edited: September 12, 2022, 6:52 AM · I think "emotion" in the OP's title can be interpreted in (at least) two different ways - expression or passion? Expression is what the player uses to convey emotions implicit in the music, and if not emotions then the shape of phrases and the emphases employed in everyday speech; passion, on the other hand, reflects how the player personally responds to the music and the circumstances of performance. I'd say yes, all practice should be done with expression but save the passion for the performance.

The content of much instrumental music, particularly from the baroque and classical periods, is for me emotionally neutral. If you are inclined to doubt this, consider what emotions are supposed to be present in all those Vivaldi concerti? That's not to say they can't be played with both expression and passion.

September 12, 2022, 7:19 AM ·

This one who has said this Quote you are looking for is probably paraphrasing something that has been said a million times. I've heard actors talk about not over-practicing because it tarnishes the emotion.
Often our favorite pieces are one that we are currently working on, because we haven't over-practiced them and we still play them with emotion.

September 12, 2022, 9:15 AM · I think that what Mr. Buri said is true to many personality types, but no so much others.

Technique is musicality, because you cannot express musical ideas nor "feelings" without it. Therefore it is a false dichotomy to state I rather have "a musical performance than a technical one". Technique is often portrayed as if it always got in the way of making beautiful music, but no music of any beauty can be expressed with limited technical ability (or better stated, the better the performer is technically speaking, the broader tools for musical expression are available-even students can move us with a very inspired though not so perfect performance. But proper technique can remove any limits on said inspired performer.)

However, it is possible to become overly rational about building up the work studied. This is advocated by famous teachers, but I question the final results. All music studied should have some life, not just after it has all been perfectly and technically controlled and memorized. Even during the process of learning a work, musical ideas should flow. I believe that was the "heart" of what Milstein was getting at, if he indeed stated as much.

The more thinking type players should strive to make sure their music is conveying a musical message-the more feeling type players should make sure to let emotions run *without getting in the way*, so these influence the performance without disturbing it.

So my main and non-relevant disagreement is that I feel players who are more of "feeler" types should not be questioned for having feelings throughout a performance. Some music we play is extremely powerful, and we are not robots. And I am not talking about moving a lot or making "sad/happy faces" (another thread altogether.) One can be quiet and express a lot of moving music, or move physically a lot for nothing. I just know that happiness, frustration, anger, sadness etc. are often also felt by at least some performers, and it should not be questioned as long as it doesn't lead to memory lapses, fainting onstage, distracting displays, etc. Some think more, some feel more, but none are necessarily superior to each other.

Be well, and definitely no disrespect meant to anyone. Happy practicing. :)

September 12, 2022, 9:43 AM · I somewhat disagree about technique and expression being one and the same. Many musicians may not be very technically proficient in playing their instrument (or instruments) but can still find ways to express themselves in a very original and creative way. For example Paul McCartney may not be as technically proficient a singer, guitarist, and keyboardist compared to some of his peers in rock, jazz, etc. But he's a genius in terms of writing songs that convey a wide range of emotions from joy, anger, ecstasy, to amusement. He may not a great bass guitarist in terms of playing scales and arpeggios but his bass lines are still somewhat complex and very original.
Edited: September 12, 2022, 10:48 AM · Great stuff here open for clarification. Need the sharpest mind to untangle it--like Roger Scruton's.

Children often develop their technique by recognizing and controlling emotion, as well as developing the imagination able to produce the emotion that accords with the music.

Recurring emotions running like an undertow in Beatles music is fed by cynicism and lucrative boredom (sacrilegious thought!).


September 12, 2022, 10:51 AM · Sometimes "sloppiness" is part of the music. However it is often not the case in Classical. Sloppiness is acceptable depending on your level of play, and you can be incredibly musical and expressive even with imperfect technical means. I am actually on your side on this, just that it is not apples to apples when comparing McCartney to musicians who only play classical for a living. He plays his own music, which is not virtuoso repertoire, *nor needs to be*. Both are music and valid, but one needs not to be utterly, technically perfect-especially live-while the other traditionally expects perfection-especially from and after the 20th century.

My comment is more aimed at some folks who excuse their own sloppiness in Classical to their favorite violinist. "This violin master wasn't perfect in his/her playing, so I am allowed to be musical, rather than technical." Within classical, why make these two sides of a coin fight? Do not choose a side-take advantage of the whole coin-that is my honest and main proposition.

Definitely nothing against so-called "bad musicians" who have penned and performed great music throughout the years. I hate elitism myself. In non-classical, I am not interested in heavily produced, perfect music-all the opposite.


My apologies for my previous comment appearing so pretentious in nature.

September 12, 2022, 3:27 PM · Greetings,
Hi Adalberto. Actually our positions are not in conflict. A player may well (perhaps inevitably experience emotions while playing) The point is that they are not consciously trying to achive them.
Cheers,
Buri
September 12, 2022, 4:12 PM · "Perhaps"?! The day I feel no emotions while playing is the day I'll pack it in.
September 12, 2022, 5:00 PM · You don't have to play technically perfectly to play expressively.

However, you have to have technical command over your means of expression -- you've got to have a means of making what you hear in your head come out of the instrument.

Edited: September 13, 2022, 2:53 AM · Lydia, I don't think your "have to have" and "got to have" (technical command) was meant to imply that technical deficiency should prevent a player from being emotionally committed. If you haven't got it, fake it.

Unfortunately so many violinists, amateur and professional, seem to be musically inhibited and play like monks at matins. I remember one concert of my community orchestra that I was obliged to sit out in the audience on account of having missed too many rehearsals. From Row C the sight of so many players looking bored or scared to put bow to string was truly depressing. John Lill was playing Rach 3 for goodness sake!

September 13, 2022, 7:15 AM · I once said to a delightful young student that in one passage I could see her feelings but not hear them. Then we examined the technical means of expressing them in sound.

And when orchestral violinists look bored or scared, most of the time they are just concentrating.

September 13, 2022, 7:51 AM · When community orchestra violinists look scared, there's a nontrivial chance they are. :-)

Some are nervous performers. Some are inexperienced performers. Sometimes the music is just too hard. (And some will lack the technical command to play expressively.)

September 13, 2022, 11:32 AM · They can all play but they won't PLAY!
September 13, 2022, 12:29 PM · Tutti sections are not soloists: they contribute to the expression.
Edited: September 13, 2022, 1:16 PM · I hope I'm being fair and understanding to the thoughtful responses on this discussion of emotion in practice and playing. Obviously, this is a complex and subtle subject, and arriving at a definitive understanding is unlikely. But I think it may be helpful to try to categorize one's focus on the varied factors.

1. Awareness of and integration of the sources of internal and external emotions into one's preparation and performance: For example, these sources may include one's own personal reaction to the music, one's perception of the composer's emotional intentions, planning what one want's to project to the listener, one's own spontaneous emotional reaction to the music as it is played (while practicing or during performance), utilizing technical factors in terms of emotional expression, etc.

2. Performer's preparation: These can include applying one's emotions as best as possible while practicing, deciding what emotions one wants to project or provoke in the audience (such as utilizing technique to include emotional expression, for example in shaping a phrase), etc.

3. Musical performance: In addition to applying the practiced emotional as well as technical preparations, one can certainly add factors such as stage demeanor, physical expressions of emotional involvement, moment by moment focus on and utilization of spontaneous emotional reactions to the music, etc.

September 13, 2022, 1:58 PM · Adrian - I guess I'm still not making myself clear. I'm not talking about expression but involvement, energy, passion. If the artistry is less than exquisite this is what will excite an audience.

The best review I ever had (OK it wasn't all about me) was when one of the quality dailies was summarising the contribution of the Chelsea Opera Group to the London cultural scene. The orchestra, it said, "ranged from cheap and cheerful to thrillingly committed". Put it on my gravestone.

Edited: September 13, 2022, 3:10 PM · In my experience amateurs who play with "thrilling commitment" often play loud, too loud. It requires a conductor or coach to channel the commitment and translate it into audible musical results. A conductor I remember used to say "it is not sports".

Enthusiasm is an essential ingredient for a good performance but it is not a replacement for striving for artistic quality.

Edited: September 14, 2022, 4:44 AM · Albrecht, I can see I'm in a minority of one but will put in one last plea. In amateur orchestras there is a collective fear of "standing out" which is only in danger of becoming a reality when the rest of the section is playing like mice. In my view each violinist should play with the same musical energy as if they were alone on the platform or in a chamber group, fortissimo when the music says and likewise pianissimo. Only then would the section balance with the weight of the woodwind and brass who don't suffer from the same inhibitions as we do.
PS - I wonder what Mary-Ellen thinks?
September 14, 2022, 9:43 AM · Explained with details like this I largely agree. I'd add one point though: there is a second fear in amateur orchestras: to make an error that ruins the performance for everyone. "Better play like a mouse than risking that."

I think it is not easy to encourage people to take the risk (which is real if exaggerated, lets face it). Even though the tradeoff overall would justify the risk.

BTW I have come to think that taking risks (in all aspects from programming to interpretive detail) is an essential and often missing ingredient for artistic performances. This is why I like people like Kremer or Salerno Sonnenberg who do take risks.

September 14, 2022, 10:40 AM · Playing in an orchestral tutti "with the same musical energy as if they were alone on the platform or in a chamber group" is hardly respectful of our colleagues, the conductor, the audience, or the composer!

In both pro and amateur contexts, I have occasionally been asked to play less loudly, more often with less vibrato...

Edited: September 14, 2022, 11:52 AM · What's the problem? Orchestral music is chamber music writ large - we aren't just an extension of the conductor's baton but active contributors to a collective work of musical recreation. Sure, I'll play less loudly if asked.

Just once I was lectured by a conductor (actually he was addressing his homily to the wall but I knew who I was) on the need to "blend in". This was my second and last rehearsal with a very mediocre orchestra and the section I was supposed to blend in with consisted of 5 ladies, 3 of a certain age and more or less inaudible. Clearly not my scene.

Edited: September 14, 2022, 12:58 PM · I play string quartets with three "ladies of a certain age," and it's all I can do to keep up, even when I've practiced my parts for a week and they just show up and play.

Like Steve, I also find it frustrating that other violinists in my community orchestra "play like mice". But what is needed is clear instruction from the top, such as, "This is our second rehearsal. Rhythms and a steady tempo are more important than the notes. If you're keeping up by playing some wrong notes, that's better than lagging or faking. Everything is mezzo-forte for now. I want to hear every instrument."

September 14, 2022, 1:34 PM · In talking about projecting "passion" and "emotion" in performing, can that "emotion" include something that is (shall we say) amorous or spicy?

Here is a performance by Anna Netrebko of a Franz Lehar aria, "Meine lippen sie kissen so heiss"  (My lips they kiss so hot"). She is great, and this is just beautiful, but also sexy and funny as hell. Enjoy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZlPG91IRps

I would assume that this is one emotion that would present a number of challenges if one were to try to integrate it into one's performance.

Edited: September 14, 2022, 1:51 PM · Netrebko is always wonderful and for me her singing always survives on recordings - but I see not at all what the dance performance does for the song. I fail to understand how she can do all that and sing that way too.
Great show - BUT!

Is that why my eyes always tended to close at great live performances?

Edited: September 15, 2022, 9:49 AM · As a soloist, I play how I want. In a string quartet, we are four soloists who dialogue and unite. In an orchestral section of two violins, one of us leads, the other blends, or the result is a mess. In a section of ten violins, we all blend to create that magical, velvety unison. The conductor creates the "expression".
This flexibility is called "musicianship".
September 15, 2022, 9:59 AM · To try and answer Elise's question (!) I practice "technique" to concentrate on quality (intonation, tone, articulation, dynamics etc.)
so that I can feel the music expressing itself more spontaneously, react to the playing of others, and to the acoustics of the venue.
I may or may not add mental imagery (e.g. a story, a person, a landscape).

Art is often inspired craft.

Edited: September 15, 2022, 11:52 AM · Adrian - I think you're arguing against my phrase "the same musical energy" that I believe we should apply to solo, chamber and orchestral playing. What I meant to imply was "as much" musical energy, which can be expended in various ways. Put simply, don't let your concentration lapse when your notes aren't very interesting. This debate has got way too philosophical!

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