The Violin Channel recently caught up with London's Royal College of Music Head of Strings, violin pedagogue Professor Mark Messenger.
In a VC-exclusive guest blog, Mark shares his thoughts on how one goes about building their own unique and personal sound.
'Sound is everything. Without sound we are nothing; our personal voice is the sound we make. When we start learning a string instrument, right hand is about the sound, left hand about the pitch. When we discover vibrato it feels great. But 90% of our sound is still in the right hand, and so often we either neglect this or cover our best intentions with a vibrato sauce that make everything taste the same.
Our own musical voice and how we adapt it for different repertoire is generated first from our imagination, but we need to hear what’s going on with the bow. Take a melodic line that needs continuity of sound, shape and expression; perhaps the opening of Sibelius violin concerto or Schubert “Arpeggione” sonata and play without vibrato to hear how much phrasing is there. Probably not much at first. Once one listens for phrasing it is noticeable how seldom it is there in performances and recordings. One definition of phrasing might be: the manipulation of sound to make a coherent musical narrative. Once the vibrato is stripped out one begins to realise the infinite variety of sound between one note and the next which is needed to create a phrase; this happens principally in the bow with its complex combination of speed, weight and point of contact.
Once the bow leads the music-making, then begins the process to create a sound that is our unique voice. The danger is it that for a musician with a good ear copying is relatively easy, much easier in fact than original thought, so performances can either sound derivative or uniform. My recommendation is to begin every practice session by activating not just the ears but the physical connection with the instrument. Slow scales without vibrato but with the most beautiful and even sound. Feel the instrument physically against the body and how it vibrates, but also sense the physicality of making the sound; the response of the bow in the hand and the contact of the string under the fingers. There always needs to be a physical connection with the sound that emanates from the instrument. Because every player’s physical connection is different, then this gives us a unique starting point in the realisation of our personal voice.
Remember too that what the composer writes on the page is not a set of instructions but part of the narrative of the music, a narrative that demands a personal and subjective response from us as performers. Each of us will have our own reaction to a change of harmony in Schubert, or a subito piano in Beethoven. We learn from others – great artists, teachers, colleagues – but once the understanding of its meaning is our own then we create our own sound to communicate this.
From sound evolves everything. Imagine a movement of solo Bach and before you play a sound that is so clear in its colour, its character, its texture, its flavour. Once this is defined then everything else becomes inevitable: speed, style, articulation, bow use, vibrato, phrasing. Now you have a performance that is incontrovertibly your own; it might be liked or disliked, but no one has the right to say that it is wrong.