The Human Voice

Edited: December 6, 2017, 7:34 PM · Hi all, I attended a Christmas festival concert at a nearby private college over the weekend and once again I left so envious of their choirs and singers. The concert was populated almost entirely of choir pieces sung by small and large ensembles as this is this college's specialty.

I never felt so inadequate as a violinist, wanting to sing instead of play.

There really is nothing like the human voice is there? It is transcendental. Instrumentalists pale in comparison. After all what do our teachers tell us to do - play it as if you were to sing it?

But I have confidence there are similar culminating moments in the violin/ string repertoire: ranging from simple solos to symphonic concertos to chamber music. What moments in violin playing are seminal to you?

For me, the only one that comes to mind to match and possibly surpass what I heard over the weekend is in a Beethoven string quartet: the famous "Thanksgiving" movement, opus 132. There are concertos, sonatas, quartets, and solos that I know of that are great, but in my opinion, they don't surpass.

Replies (29)

December 6, 2017, 7:56 PM · Anything lyrical is sort of like the human voice, but both instruments and human voices together are what make music a pleasure to listen to.
December 6, 2017, 9:49 PM · I think that they both shine in their own ways. There are many things a violin can do that a voice cannot and vice versa.

As far as seminal moments that involve violin some that come to mind: the Largamente section ( and other corresponding section ) in the 1st movement of the Sibelius concerto, Schönberg's Verklärte Nacht, 3rd movement of Shostakovich's 1st string quartet, and the 2nd movement of his 8th quartet, 2nd movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante, the middle section in the 3rd movement of Brahms' second sextet, I could go on and on.

December 6, 2017, 10:54 PM · I do love to sing but I'm not sure I agree. There are *so* many marvelous climactic moments in classical literature that give me goosebumps, still, even after years of familiarity with them. (Maybe I'm just a sap, but on a semi-regular basis some piece of music will bring me literally to tears––and not just because I'm attempting and failing to play it!)

I second all of Lieschen's options and will add, off the top of my head:
-the saxophone solo in the first movement of Rach. Symphonic Dances
-Nimrod from the Enigma Variations (overplayed, perhaps, but with good reason)
-the stunning climax of Chopin opus 27 No. 2 (listen to Argerich nail it!)
-the second theme of Chopin's 1st piano concerto, where the piano plays a duet with the horn
-the entire second movement of the Ravel piano concerto, which is one of those things I fumble around with when I think no one is listening.
-the opening of the final movement of Brahms 1: first the brass chorale and then the entrance of the strings
-the violin solo in the middle of Also Sprach Zarathustra
-So much of Dvorak! the entire second movement of the Opus 65 trio, the violin duo in the second movement of the American Quartet, so many places in the cello concerto, the sudden shift in harmony before the key change in the first movement of the 7th symphony...
-the moment where the piano takes off in the second movement of the 4th Beethoven concerto.
–the key change in the second movement of the 2nd Brahms piano concerto.
–seminal moments in Prokofiev 2, Brahms, Sibelius, Mozart (all), Beethoven, Barber, Bartok 2 violin concerti...

I could go on, and on, and on. It would take hours and send me down a Youtube rabbit hole.

Re: human voice, I will say that I think my violin training has informed/supported my singing in my church choir–and vice versa. Thinking about how I might sing something helps me think about how to phrase it more naturally on the violin, for example.

December 7, 2017, 1:58 AM · Janacek knew a thing or two about the human voice and put plenty of it into his string quartets which have always sent me into raptures (unfortunately not playing but listening). Also his violin sonata slow movement. I swear when I did perform it a few years ago I heard a sob from a lady in the front row. Practically buckled my knees.
December 7, 2017, 2:15 AM · As a viola maker, I find interesting studying the human voice and comparing it to the sound of the instruments. After all, the violin family was created to emulate the human voice.
Edited: December 7, 2017, 5:05 AM · I distinctly remember the reason I took up the violin: I loved singing but my voice was terrible, so I wanted the violin to be my voice :)
December 7, 2017, 6:02 AM · Many of the pieces that I've found have this vocal quality have the title "serenade for strings". Elgar, Dvorak, and Suk come to mind.
December 7, 2017, 9:45 AM · @ that's why I only sing in the car when no one is around. My voice is about as comforting as fingernails down a chalkboard. And probably one of the reasons I've leaned to the violin, I need a good voice that can express everything.

The lady who lived next door when I was a kid had the sweetest singing voice I ever heard. She would sing as she did her housework. Her voice was meditative and soothing. Then there are Streisand and the girl from Glee who can really belt it out - powerful yet easy to listen to.

December 7, 2017, 10:10 AM · Paul,

Yes, I love both the Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak serenades.

December 7, 2017, 10:45 AM · I sing, therefor I always hear human voices when play violin, especially pieces by composers who also wrote great vocal music. For instance, when I play Bach, I hear this choral music; Handel and Mozart, their operas; Brahms and Schubert, their lieders.

Listening to great singers have been really helping me with tone production. My favorites include Cecilia Bartoli, Elisabeth Friederike Schwarzkopf, Jessye Mae Norman, Frederica von Stade, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Bryn Terfel, etc.

I started my voice training the second year after I started learning the violin. I had similar feeling as Kan described -- the sound of my violin had no comparison to my singing voice. Later I realized that voice training helped me with violin playing and vice versa: I'm more sensitive to colors from voice training and better phrasing from violin training. In the end, I am a lot more about violin than about singing. Partly because violin is so much harder to learn, for me any way.

Edited: December 7, 2017, 1:08 PM · In my opinion, the violin is more of a substitute than a complement to the human voice: it’s a rarity to see someone both playing violin and singing at the same time, unlike pianists and guitarists who can do both (posture when playing is of course one reason).

A violin is also less likely to escort a voice than pianos and guitars. Pianos and guitars, on the other hand, are often seen to escort a violin! When a violin is played with piano or guitar, it often assumes the main role, much like a human voice. Both a violin and a human voice are generally not seen to be soloed alone when there are no other instruments to escort them.

Stating the obvious, the violin is the soprano of the strings, and I find it particularly relevant to quote Vengerov’s saying, that it can sing, cry, be happy, and express a range of human emotions.

December 7, 2017, 4:38 PM · I started the viola when my fairly decent choral scholar's treble voice broke...
Edited: December 7, 2017, 5:47 PM · This is like comparing apples to oranges... yet, I have to admit that no instrument beats the human voice. Singers are in natural advantage, since they can easily use non-verbal elements, such as gasps, to enhance emotional context and message. Moreover, they can act while singing and use body language, which also helps to convey the message. Text / singed speech is close to cognitive / emotional processing and can strike us on the spot.

Listen to Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who recently passed away at age 55....
Listen to Patricia Petibon, Elena Garanca or other opera singers.
Listen and learn....

On the other hand, string instruments have their own universe of sound.... and perhaps in that longing to imitate human voice (and rarely accomplishing to do so) brings another element. So called "absolute music" is sometimes distant and not as easy to process as singed one. It requires more insight and refined ear to start appreciating it. Personally, the farther from Baroque, the more distant we are from our own heart.... with a few notable exceptions!

Edited: December 8, 2017, 5:16 PM · I like the range of the violin & the various things it can do that the voice cannot, but have to agree it's more of an imitation of the voice. Singing is probably where this whole 'music' thing started anyway...

Edited: December 8, 2017, 6:01 PM · I just find it hard to believe that there could be a superior instrument. At least when we are talking about ones that have made it into the canon and have continued to be mass-produced. For each thing Rocky stated that makes a voice "superior", I could find just as many favorable things that a violin, or some other instrument could do. Violinists can also use their body language to act out the music. Maybe we are just somewhat biased toward the voice, because, after all, it is part of our own body. Also, there are so many violinistic things that bear little if any resemblance to a voice ( I would love it if someone could show me a good vocal rendition of bariolage, or of tremolo).

But I wonder if there is something to the explicit nature of what a voice can convey with lyrics, that helps it be at the forefront in non-classical genres. It seems that outside of the classical world, the singers get much more of a spotlight than the other instruments. Not that that makes the voice better per say, but maybe having literal words attached makes things somehow spread easier. I am not sure.

December 8, 2017, 5:58 PM · Well, when playing double stops?

For me, human voice is too intense to be put as a background music.

A friend of mine who is an organist once told me: "Don't grumble, it's far harder to communicate musical feelings through the organ. The farther the soundpoint is from human body, the harder it is to make people goosebumped."

Edited: December 8, 2017, 6:32 PM · Cat,

I feel like it depends on the writing.There are backup vocals. And for vocal double stops, you should check out Mongolian throat singing. It sounds amazing in its own way. And as for the sounding point thing, that sounds like it may have some inkling of truth to it. I just imagined someone pressing a button on a computer from another room and having an electronic track start in a hall. I also wonder if Skype performances lose some luster, since the literal sounding point may be on the other side of the world.

Edited: December 8, 2017, 11:51 PM · It maybe worthwhile to note that an individual human's vocal range can surpass the near 4.5 octaves on the violin, both in lower and upper bounds. But such humans are rare.

US pop singer Mariah Carey has a 5-octave voice. According to Guiness, "the widest vocal range of any human is 10 octaves ranging from G/G#-5 to G/G#5 (0.7973 Hz - 807.3 Hz), achieved by Tim Storms (USA)".

10 octaves are even broader than a grand piano, which has the broadest range of any musical instrument AFAIK. I don't know whether most humans can hear all the notes he produces, or only dogs can hear.

December 9, 2017, 3:44 AM · Will: "it’s a rarity to see someone both playing violin and singing at the same time, unlike pianists and guitarists who can do both (posture when playing is of course one reason)."

I actually don't find it particularly difficult to control my singing voice while holding a violin. The hard part is the coordination. Singing lyrics and playing the same melody is doable (actually improves my violin intonation), but a simple duet (vocalizing, no words even) is too demanding of my brain capacity, especially if the parts have different rhythms.

Also, with my voice type being bass, my voice tends to become the accompaniment. Maybe I should switch to cello. :)

Edited: December 9, 2017, 4:17 AM · Han, are you saying you can sing and play at the same time, Wow. I think that tops Lindsey Stirling's dancing and playing!

Thanks everyone who shared and to those who offered the names of pieces you thought were seminal, I haven't heard everything and listening to some of them assured to me there is plenty out there to compete with! The string repertoire is indeed vast and gloried.

December 9, 2017, 5:00 AM · Han, if you ever got married to Lindsey Stirling, your child could be capable of singing, dancing, and playing the violin at the same time :D
December 9, 2017, 5:33 AM · Haha, I admit that I tried dancing while playing after watching Lindsey videos, but I quickly decided that that wasn't for me. :) Playing-singing unisono was hard initially, but I got it with a couple of days practice. I practiced much harder on duets, but without much success.

Background: I've been a choir singer for 20 years, including about 5 years of 1 hour daily practice when I was taking lessons. The singing is almost autopilot at the difficulty level that I can manage on the violin.

December 20, 2017, 11:30 AM · If you want to sing and play at the same time, play guitar, bass, or piano. Violin and voice lessons can complement each other very well, Singing helps connect the dots; the sustained long line. Learning a string instrument helps a singer's intonation and interval-sense. Breath control is analogous to bow control. Air flow = bow speed. Support = weight. Placement = point of contact. I have been fortunate to be employed in a genre where the violinist also sings - Mariachi.
December 20, 2017, 12:32 PM · Hi everyone, I find the vibrato of soprano is similar to vibrato on violin, and find people who love violin also enjoy singing, melody flows from heart, truly.
December 20, 2017, 12:48 PM · Hi Will Willy, what you said coincided with what I have thought about instruments, piano and guitar are polyphonic instruments with more than one part of melody carried at the same time, while violin is similar to human voice or oboe, with only one part of melody (double stop in violin is not like polyphonic two lines in piano), hence if we put human voice and violin together it seems not harmonious, the better form is polyphonic instrument plus melodic one, for example piano plus soprano, piano plus violin, harp plus violin or other string instruments...
December 20, 2017, 1:31 PM · Tutti, That’s interesting. In my layman terms, it’s the continuity of the sound of violin (or oboe, flute) vs the discrete notes on the guitar and piano, if I understood your idea correctly.
December 20, 2017, 6:41 PM · I prefer the violin for its uniqueness-it can "emulate" voice while adding so much more. Its "vocal range" is incredible. You can also achieve "vocal effects" that singers simply can't (like singing a duo or playing a fugue with just one instrument-one voice cannot "double-stop.")

(Instrumental trills vs vocal ones are very peculiar as well, both having their pros/cons.)

On top of all of this, singer diva-ism turns me off a big deal. It is a problem with all instruments, but has been so historically pervasive with voice to this day. I try to focus on the work and composer and forget about the singer, so I can better enjoy the music (my own personal bias, I admit.)

I am convinced, however, that classical violinists should at least appreciate vocal works so their playing benefits from what can only be achieved on the vocal medium. "Mechanical" violin playing often lacks or even outright rejects many vocal elements that would enrich most musical compositions. I love many lieder and operas because they also indirectly allowed our beloved instrument be what it is today-a virtuoso display, musical-vocal vehicle (Paganini "wouldn't have existed" without his friend Rossini, etc.)

Edited: December 20, 2017, 10:53 PM · Adalberto, you bring up some valid points and interesting points.

When I posted this, I was specifically thinking of admiringly of the choir singing/ choruses I heard at this concert. While there were some solos which were amazing, it was the choir - the combined ensemble - that so struck me; singing Christmas and religious music in perfect harmony that affected directly into my core being. One example of many: O Magnum Mysterium. There were no divas and no 'showing off' as that would have been actually antithetical to the intent of the concert (celebrating God and goodwill and peace to all).

I much prefer and was talking about this sort of music and singing rather than operatic ones. Although now when I think about it, who wouldn't be amazed at certain solos, duos and ensemble pieces such as in Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and others (my operatic knowledge is very limited for sure as compared to my orchestral one). But I agree with you that the showing off parts/ divalike quality in most operatic music do turn me off.

And I entirely agree with you and others, that we should try to imitate the human voice as we play.

And why do we?

There is something primeval and raw in the Human Voice that strikes directly into us that I claimed no instrumentalist can match.

Absolutely yes the violin/ violin family can be played polyphonically, has an incredible range, and we can perform incredible feats with it. And as some of the posters had pointed out, also bring forth inspiring seminal moments as well (add Barber's a Adagio to the list. Agree with 2nd movement of Dvorak's American quartet)

Edited: December 21, 2017, 3:03 PM · Some of us are forgetting half of the reason why singers can have such a strong impact, connection with the audience--the text! As instrumentalists we naturally focus on the pitch, too many classical singers have poor diction, and English is a minority language for singers, after Italian, German, French.

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