being musically multilingual

In a previous article, I briefly brought up the concept of being musically multilingual as an important goal for my students. Just as a multilingual person is able to communicate with people from a wider range of nationalities, a musician proficient in multiple cultural or musical traditions can perform with a wide variety of people, equally at home in a string quartet and a rock band.

Many people may think of the violin as primary a Western Classical instrument, and think of “fiddling” as a novel periphery, but the truth is that violin is among the most versatile instruments on earth, with a history in almost every musical style imaginable. At some point in the unknown distant past, an ancient hunter discovered that he or she could create music by rubbing a hunting bow and change pitch by pressing down. Ancient civilizations in both east and west adapted this technique, each creating their own versions of a bowed stringed instrument, and influencing each other as they traveled and traded with each other along the Silk Road and across the seas. As a result, today violin-like instruments are found (China) in almost every (Senegal) culture imaginable (Norway). Today’s artists working to find a place for the violin in jazz, rock, pop, and the different strands of “world music” are thus inheritors of an ancient tradition of utilizing the violin’s strengths to contribute to the world’s musical traditions.

However, it is not enough merely to know the “tunes” of a different style of music, and simply impose a single technique on all of them. Songs like “Cielito Lindo” or “Hava Nagila” or “Ole Joe Clark,” are not just a sequence of notes, but they are whole universes of unique performance practices. If you are a classically trained violinist, you owe these songs the respect of doing your homework (of very careful listening to it’s culture’s insiders) before playing them. Just like learning a language means learning grammar, accents, and new cultural idioms, so different styles invite different techniques.

Tracy Silverman has pointed out that, although many electric violinists take their inspiration from guitar players, the performers who might have the most to teach violinists are those who play on the instrument that can be accessed by every person on the planet – the human voice. So with that in mind, here are two very different styles of singing – as a way to look at how musical traditions create their own techniques.

In opera singing, each note rings out clearly and separately. The singer holds notes out, sometimes with heavy vibrato, so that each note rings out as a pure and clean tone. To create a sense of drama, she uses a wide dynamic range, getting noticeably softer and louder at key points.   Notice that Nina Stemme’s mouth is stretched wide open – creating a really big and resonate sound.

By contrast, gospel singing involves more guttural, scratchy, sounds with a rough and “soulful” sense of belting. Shirley Casear and members of her choir sing with a carefully controlled but enthusiastic, careful “shout” that privileges emotional intensity over a “clean” tone. Although the singers use less vibrato, and sing with smaller differences in volume, they have improvisational freedom to transcend the will of the composer, playing with the rhythm and the pitch with syncopations and sliding between notes in elaborate melismatic lines along the blues scale.

How are we able to imitate both of these different musical styles authentically and creativity on a violin/viola/cello? A large part of the answer lies in what Mark Wood calls “the violin’s secret weapon” – the bow. Just as singers work with breath, inhaling deeply and adjusting the way air leaves our lungs and throat – the stroke of the bow can control how a note “sounds” – and that can make your performance both truly emotionally engaging and authentic to a cultural tradition.

For the Classical violinist, we often imitate opera singers with a big, clear, and lyrical sound. This is achieved by bowing smoothly along the “Kreisler highway” (roughly the center between the bridge and the finger board,) so that we achieve uniformity and smoothness along all our legato notes. You are expected to adjust volume at a strong level, often crescendoing or decrescendoing over a long tone.

Fiddle from blues-derived styles of music, on the other hand uses crunchy bow strokes, scratches, rhythmic chops and ponticello techniques, sounds that would be considered “dirty” in a classical tradition, but that can give your tone variety and energy. Shuffles and strongly accented rhythms are emphasized and strengthened to make the music more danceable.

This is of course just the beginning of what it means to adjust your technique to fit whatever musical style you choose to learn and play. The key is to always be listening, and always experimenting to see what can get you closer to what you hear.


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