How does it sound?



In my two-part video essay V3b, I am concerned with the relationship between sound quality and gestural expressivity. Before I proceed with a discussion of my findings, it will be useful to review some definitions of a 'good sound' with respect to violin technique. An evaluation of good sound is necessarily influenced by personal preferences based on inherited aesthetic values (Auer, 1921; Galamian, 1962; Szigeti, 1979). To an experienced violinist, hearing a violin sound will reveal the technology of the sound production behind it. The attributes of sound such as full, resonant, round and far-projecting are universal qualities transcending questions of style and different historical practices. Achieving such universal attributes of 'good sound' comprises some remarkably simple physical principles of violin technique [1]. Nevertheless, it takes a lifetime of hard work and discipline to embody these principles.

Good tone production is dependent upon two things, the flexible spring-like action of the arm and bow, and the motion of the stroke at right angles to the length of the string. These are the fundamentals, but in no sense do they tell the whole story relative to tone production (Galamian, 1962, p. 133).

This, however, is not the whole story. One thing is to know 'how'; but to embody this knowledge in practice is a long process. Galamian was the founder of the violin school in New York, that has nurtured a generation of violin virtuosos including Pinchas Zukerman, who in turn further developed Galamian’s school. In his numerous masterclasses, accessible online, Zukerman demonstrates the technical principles of sound production with an unprecedented clarity. In particular, Zukerman provides not only a demonstration of exemplary sound production, but also a method for how to achieve it. Proceeding from simple to more and more complex exercises, the method builds up muscular sensibility and agility. Zukerman often gives the pupil a timetable for each developmental phase. The technical progress demands time in order to be properly embodied. During one of the masterclasses Zukerman anticipates that the process needed for mastering the given skill will demand four to six months of practice.


Vid. 1 Demonstration of sound producing movements and exercises in Pinchas Zukerman’s masterclass (Zukerman, 2014).


The main difficulty in embodying the simple principles of sound production is the fact that these technical principles are contrary to some of the basic natural human instincts. To increase the sound, the musculature instinctively stiffens in order to press the bow against the string. A heightened emotional phrase causes the violinist to grip the bow more firmly than necessary. A violinist succumbing to the enjoyment of his or her own performance, might lose contact with the sounding point in the bow-stroke, or might lose the relaxed but resolute action of the left hand.

Such natural human instinctive reflexes need to be supressed, or better, manipulated in the process of learning to play the instrument. The bow grip should not become noticeably firmer in forte, and all the joints of the arms should avoid stiffness in the emotionally charged passages.

The relationship of the instrument to the body, arms, and hands has to be one that will allow a comfortable and efficient execution of all playing movements. This is, in the last analysis, the main criterion for the 'rightness' of any bodily attitude or any muscular action in connection with violin playing. (Galamian, 1962, p. 12)

Apart from natural human instincts, what impairs the sound production even more is the erroneous habits developed in the initial stages of the learning process. Already in the eighteenth century, the violin tutors abound with warnings against neglecting the important technique-building steps and attempting to make too hasty progress. Leopold Mozart (1756) advocates a careful observance of basic technical principles,

or so called A B C, [the student] must continue with this until he is able to play in tune and without fault. Here is the greatest error committed by masters as well as pupils: […] not having patience to wait. Parents and guardians wish to hear that sort of untimely little dance at an early stage and then think miracles have happened […]. But alas! How greatly they deceive themselves. He who does not, right from the beginning, become thoroughly familiar with the position of the notes through frequent A B C, and who does not by diligent practice of the musical scale arrive at that point where the stretching and contracting of the finger, as each note demands, becomes so to speak second nature, will always be in danger of playing out of tune and with uncertainty. (Mozart, 1756, engl. transl. Knocker, 1985, p. 61)

Francesco Geminiani’s treatise ‘The Art of Playing the Violin’ is often quoted by HIP scholars and performers within the context of the stylistic and expressive aspects of musical interpretation. The never-ending polemic about the meaning of Geminiani’s enigmatic remark on vibrato, which he argues ‘should be made use of as often as possible’ (Geminiani, 1751, p. 8), divides scholars into propagators of a continuous vibrato and those who oppose such an interpretation of Geminiani’s remark (Castellani, 1979).

As both Mozart and Geminiani express a preference for violinists with good taste, rather than the empty virtuosos ‘betraying their great ignorance and bad judgement in every bar’ (Mozart, 1751, transl. Knocker, 1985, p. 215), scholars consider these seminal treatises as being concerned more with musical taste and style rather than advanced violin technique (Boyden, 1959). However, aspects of purely technical matters in violin playing, apparent in Tartini’s treatise ‘The Art of Bowing’ (Tartini, 1758), are also present in Geminiani. Introducing a bowing exercise on open strings, lacking any melodic, expressive, or harmonic context, he writes:

‘This practice of the bow should be continued, without attempting anything else until the learner is so far master of it as to be out of all danger of forgetting it’ (Geminiani, 1751, Preface, p. 9).


Ex. 1 Bowing exercises comprising only open strings (Geminiani, 1751, p. 33).


Jacques-Féréol Mazas (1782-1849), a student of Baillot and an important figure of the French romantic violin school, writing in his Méthode de violin (Paris, 1830), similarly

exhorts the pupil to study his instrument with a constant and analysed practice in order to master this difficult instrument; he warns that with an indifferent teacher the pupil may perhaps acquire such bad habits, that it would take more time to correct than if he knew nothing. (Mazas, 1830, p. 180)

In the twentieth century, the main violin schools (i.e. Auer, 1921; Galamian, 1962) increasingly underline the importance and efficiency of acquiring the technical skills of violin playing to a degree that the technique often becomes highlighted as a quality separated from the music making. A violinist must first display a certain technical level before the musical qualities, i.e. phrasing, timing, and expressivity, are assessed. In extreme cases, good sound and virtuosic skills become a synonym of musical expression. In a performance of such a virtuosic exhibition of sound production, you will be advised to close your eyes to perceive the musical expressivity achieved in sound aurally. Looking onto the stage might spoil the magic by revealing a 'sound-maker' that appears to be disengaged from the profound expressivity he/she produces in sound.

The model of performer detached from the emotions expressed in sounds arises first with Diderot and the enlightenment movement of the French encyclopaedists. While Carl Philip Emanuel Bach still propagates the emotional identification of the performer with the affect (Bach, 1787), Diderot, in the ‘Paradox of Acting’ (Diderot, transl. Pollock, 1883), taught that spontaneity and freedom can only be achieved if, paradoxically, underpinned by an inflexible, almost mathematical, technique. Diderot advocated the concept of the fourth-wall theatre, separating the performer from the audience (France, 1969).

When you write or act, think no more of the audience than if it had never existed. Imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen. […] Because people come not to see tears, but to hear speeches that draw tears. (Diderot, 1883, p. 102)

In order to explore the Soundist and Gesturist strategies from the various perspectives of violin technique and expressive body movement, I composed a video sequence capturing three different modes of body movements. First, I direct my body movements solely to support the sound producing trajectory of the bow action. The second mode combines sound production with some expressive movements. In the third mode, I focus solely on the expressivity of body movements. I divided video essay V3b into two parts. In V3b1 I analyse the three modes through the lens of a Soundist. Which of the three modes sounds better? In V3b2 I analyse the same video sequence through the lens of a Gesturist. What does the expressive movement contribute to the resulting sound?

In video essay V3b1, I achieve the best sound quality by focusing on technical matters such as 'catching' the sounding point at the onset of the sounds, drawing the bow evenly, and enhancing the weight of the bow by applying the arm weight without forcing or pressing. Applying expressive body movement impairs the control of the sound producing bow trajectory and compromises the application of the weight of the arm. The fingers guiding the bow trajectory have to make more adjustments to the bow action due to the conflicting centrifugal forces arising from the body movement.

Nevertheless, while it is very informative to assess sound quality separated from  other expressive elements, (i.e. timing, phrasing, or tempo), it is also problematic and one sided. In Part 2 of the video essay (V3b2) I analyse the visual expressivity of the body movements and their manifestation in the resulting sound. Apart from the visual expressivity of the movements, even the resulting sound reveals some gestural qualities that were lacking in the sound-oriented sequence. Timing, based on the expressive body movements, is gesturally more direct and comprehensible, even though some aspects of the sound production might become less controlled.

The question of timing is obviously as important for a Soundist as it is for a Gesturist. But while the Gesturist draws the timing directly from expressive body movement, a Soundist calculates the expressivity of timing by adjusting the timing of the technical body movements. Galamian similarly defines two kinds of timing, the expressive and the technical:

A necessary differentiation must be made between what might be called musical timing and technical timing. These two things will sometimes but not always coincide. In the left hand the fingers often have to be prepared ahead of the time of sounding. The same is true of the bow, which has to be placed in preparation before the actual playing of the notes.  (Galamian, 1962, p. 59)

Even though Galamian establishes musical timing as the final aim, it is achieved by controlling and manipulating the body movements. In this respect, assimilating mimetic gestures, dance, or poetic imagery directly in the body movement is considered to impair the technical timing of sound producing movements. Galamian continues, ‘the musical timing is the deciding factor. If it is to be perfect, it presupposes correct technical timing of each hand by itself and a correct coordination between the two’ (Galamian, 1962, p. 59).

Thus, while a Gesturist enacts a gesture, dance, or a poetic image in body movements, a Soundist conceives of gestures as mental sonic objects realized in performance by controlled sound producing movements.

The mastery of the entire timing complex (the technical timing plus the coordination of the two hands) is entirely a question of correlation, of the immediate and accurate response of the muscles to the directives of the mind. (Galamian, 1962, p. 60)

In the next section I will continue my quest to find a way of combining the Soundist and Gesturist strategies in terms of violin technique and body movement, both by further explorations of the virtuosic Soundist strategy, as well as by a critique of prejudices about expressive body movements inherent in the traditional classical violin pedagogy.









Back to video essay V3b






Back to video essay V3b