Expressive Playing Is Important
Of all the students of all the musical instruments in the world, I would have to say that the violin and violin students have higher expectations as far as expressive playing.
Think about it: the mythos surrounding violin is one of love, mysticism, and powerful emotion. This mystique is fed by poetry, folklore, operas, literature, theatre, and movies. Even if the subject matter is not specifically talking about the mystical or emotional power of the violin, inevitably the most powerful moments will most often include the sound of violin music in its soundtrack or orchestra pit. There is just something about a violin that has the ability to tug on our hearts, to inspire love, to impose fear, to express sorrow.
That is why of all the skills to be acquired on the violin, it is the elusive skill of playing with emotion, playing with expression, that is most highly sought-after by violin students, especially the adult students.
Can Expressive Playing Be Learned?
Of course! After all, when was the last time you saw a very young child playing violin with that depth of expression? This is not an instinct we’re born with. There are specific things you can learn and practice to improve your expressive violin playing.
It doesn’t come over night, and it can’t just be “flipped on” like a light switch. Learning to play the violin with expression and emotion comes with lots of hours practicing, mastering many techniques, and internalizing and emulating the sound of the masters that came before us.
In this series of posts, we will discuss some of the most important components of expressing emotion on your violin:
- intellectual components
- left hand components
- bow hand components
Intellectual Components of Expressive Playing
Let’s begin with the easiest component to acquire and to understand: Intellectual. You can attain the intellectual tools needed for expressive playing by LISTENING to the masters. I mean LISTENING. Ingesting. Internalizing. Emulating. I mean for hours and hours. When something grabs at your heart in a piece of music, listen more closely! Ask what it is that you find so appealing, so touching.
Of course, often, it is the music itself that has the magic. But there is more to it than that. I think most people can agree that “Meditation” from Thais is an incredibly beautiful and expressive piece of violin music. But we can also agree that the way a student plays it probably will not affect us as powerfully as the way someone like, oh, Itzhak Perlman might play it.
But if BOTH violinists are playing the right rhythm, the right pitches, the right dynamics, then there is some other magic at work. Perlman is doing SOMETHING on that wooden box that affects us on an emotional level. Did he sell his soul to the devil?
Maybe. Probably not. Maybe.
Listen. Listen to the stuff that is not on the written page. Professional violinists take all sorts of liberties with music that is not distinctly written on the page. They might lift their bow. They might slow down a tiny bit. They might take a tiny pause before starting a new phrase. It is no different than reading a book aloud.
A student reads what is printed. They pronounce all the words correctly, the pause when they see a comma. But a professional dramatic reader will bring the book to life! They will add vocal inflections, their voice will rise and fall, they will speed up in certain sections, and slow down to emphasize other sections. They are interpreting the meaning of the book, and expressing their interpretation as they go along.
There is nothing wrong with the student for pronouncing all the words exactly properly. That’s a necessary step on her way to becoming an accomplished dramatic reader, but the goal is to take it much further than just reading properly.
It is no different with music! And the first step is to listen to the masters and let it all soak in. As you listen, try to hear what it is that is lending expression to their playing. Listening to other violinists can teach us the most direct route to expression, but also listen and pay attention to other instruments or singers…you can learn some surprising tips by listening to how things are expressed on other instruments.
Here are some hints about what to listen for (and what to ignore) to understand the secrets to expressive violin playing:
- Speed of the bow
- Weight of the bow
- Lifting the bow
- Dynamic changes (louder/softer)
- Bow attack—strong or super soft
- Tone Quality can evoke an emotional response
- Shifting the left hand
- Speed of vibrato
- Articulation of the left hand
Things to Ignore, or Dismiss:
- Recording medium; rich sound is seductive, but not expressive
- Visual impressions; video can influence how we feel about what we are hearing, i.e. a soaring eagle evokes certain emotions
- Performances that are visually expressive, but not musically expressive, in short, nothing more than theatrics
In future posts, we will discuss and explore each of these elements, and other things you can do to unlock your expression on your violin. Until then, happy listening!