As promised, this post will follow up on the previous post about learning to play expressively on the violin, or playing with emotion.
Remember, we draw from several sources to play expressively, or with emotion: intellectual, bow hand, and left hand. Other factors include our own psychology and state of mind, and I’ll address those in yet another post.
I often tell the story of a time I sat in my car, transfixed by a performance of “Meditation from Thais” by Massenet, played by Anne Sophie-Mutter. It bothered me greatly to hear the huge chasm between her playing and mine. I knew that piece by heart, I had a decent vibrato, I played in tune, played all the rhythms correctly. So why didn’t I sound just like her? That that was the beginning of finding the answer: asking the question.
I dismissed the fact that her instrument was superior, because I was sure if she picked up my violin and bow, she’d still blow me out of the water, so I knew it had to do with something in her right hand, or left hand, or both. As I began to pay more attention to all the invisible stuff, those things that are not written on the page, a picture started to emerge.
The Secret to Expressive Violin Playing
The secret to evoking that special expression from a violin is in tiny little inflections, or nuances of playing. They come from both the left hand and the right hand, but mostly the right. So let’s begin there.
You will learn little ways of pushing and tugging on certain notes.
What certain notes?
Well, to learn that requires a lot of time and lots of listening to the masters, trying to imitate them, to learn what notes to tug and lean on. I would recommend imitating the masters first, and eventually, you will develop your own intuition for phrasing.
Besides imitating the masters, I highly recommend singing the passage. This is a technique that is grossly underestimated in its ability to enlighten us as to phrasing. Our humanity relates to music….and by singing, we remove the barrier of the instrument, and it’s just us, naked in the music. Try it! Your voice knows what to do!
- When you find yourself using more air, use more bow
- When you find yourself sliding into a note, there is a great left hand opportunity
- When you find yourself taking a breath of air, there’s another clue!
Let us go back for a moment to that “tugging” on special notes. Listen carefully to any simple tune played by a master violinist, and you will hear them working magic on certain notes. Just listen to something like the Bach-Gounod version of “Ave Maria”, or “Air in G” by J.S. Bach. These super-simple tunes can teach powerful lessons in expression.
That special tugging, or “leaning” comes from learning a good colle’, combined with a good loure’, and bow control. I spend a great deal of time teaching colle’, loure’, and expressive playing in my Suzuki Book 2 course, but you can find lots of information about these tools online as well.
My challenge for you after this article is to listen attentively to several performances of Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria, Bach Air in G, or the Meditation from Thais. Your playing will never be the same!
Lora- Great Advice. I often say to singers, “Look how the great string players draw out their bow on this phrase,” when there is a string version of the melody in an opera aria,or a similar song by the same composer. I guess we both learn from each other!
And, BTW, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria is actually rather difficult to sing, because it demands JUST AS MUCH nuance and breath control as bow control for a string player.
Sigh…. Perfection ain’t easy, is it? LOL
Wow!!!!! Thanks a lot!!!! I’ve been listening to a lot of Florin Niculescu’s gispsy playing…. never could do a pharse like him before reading to this text!!!! You are great!!!! Singing can show exactly de difference between playing a note and doing things with that note…. I’m just a new student at the violin, but I have being using my voice for 41 years!!!!!! Greatest advice ever! Thanks a lot! Receive my compliments from Brazil!!!!
You are right! NO ONE is a beginner if we count the years we have used our voices!
We just have to learn how to translate it through our hands to our violin!
Nice to meet you!