Arts and Entertainment

Choices in Voices

When to listen to your teacher, and when not to. A look at how instructors influence the musical experience of their students.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Zoe Buff

Three weeks ago, when the air in Munich was barely 70 degrees Fahrenheit, I was standing in a music room, violin in hand. My teacher had just demonstrated a four-measure phrase from the second movement of the fifth violin concerto written by Vieuxtemps. Being a dutiful student, I repeated it note for note, making every effort to reproduce the exact sound he made, the exact movement of his bow, and the exact speed of his vibrato. But I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was another way to interpret the same phrase.

Violinists will hang onto every word their teachers say, closely examine every hand or arm movement they see, and listen closely to every dynamic change their teachers make. Students learn from day one that it is important to listen to their teachers, but what they don’t learn is when it’s time to develop their own voices instead of relying on another’s.

In violin, technique is standard. There’s no misinterpreting a shift, finger position, or bow stroke. A violinist learns the basics in the first few years of training. But once the routine sets in, phrasing––the expression of musical sentences––becomes the focus. There are countless ways one can emphasize a note or build up a crescendo. Different historical periods call for different styles; the Classical Period is associated with more brusque strokes and lighter, clearer sound, whereas the Romantic Period is characterized by dramatic mood shifts and deep, rich tones. The musician must stay faithful to the wishes of the composer, but also find a way to make a piece his or her own. Or, in the case of music students, their teachers’.

For students, this situation is akin to writing an essay. Picture yourself in an English classroom, a blank sheet of paper in front of you. How do you start? The basics have been etched into your brain: you know how to spell, how to structure a grammatically correct sentence, and how to punctuate phrases. However, most students know there is more to writing than these simple building blocks. These are merely tools a writer uses to construct an intricately detailed masterpiece. Rather, at its heart, writing is about skillfully manipulating the English language to convey a certain message or express a certain emotion.

The same goes for musicians. They learn the building blocks in the very beginning, but once the basics are mastered, they face the next step: becoming true artists. At the start of this journey, the role of a teacher is essential. Even for students who are inherently musical, learning how to phrase is a complex process that requires a helping hand. If an artist phrases a musical sentence inappropriately, the result can be disastrous for the course of the piece. A violinist must learn that not every note carries the same importance, repeated phrases must sound like echoes, and phrasing is like a ribbon that stretches across many bars. The intricacies of phrasing necessitate the guidance of a teacher.

However, students who plan on pursuing music professionally need to develop a specific style, in addition to mastering the art of phrasing. For instance, famed virtuoso Itzhak Perlman is known for his fingered shifts, and concert violinist Hilary Hahn plays with a distinctive, metallic sound. These nuances, along with a proficient sense of musicality, allow for the development of a truly individual sound; the uniqueness of students’ voices is essential to their playing and defines them as instrumentalists. But it is difficult for music students to cross that bridge when every aspect of their playing, from the way they hold their instruments to the placement of their fingers in the umpteenth position, is directed by someone else. Frustratingly, many students feel their musicality suppressed by the instructions of a teacher, especially when they wish to find their own styles.

Finding a balance is necessary for optimizing teacher-student relationships. When the latter has not reached full musical maturity, substantial guidance is necessary; however, as a student reaches full musical maturity, a teacher should loosen the reins and allow for the student to hone their distinct style. The instructor shows the pupil how the passage should be played, but once the direction is given, the student has the freedom to explore alternative interpretations. This less restrictive arrangement ensures the student has been exposed to enough musical periods and composers to be able to decide what phrasing is appropriate, while permitting a degree of freedom to establish their voice.

After receiving many years of classical music training, I can say with certainty that phrasing is at the core of all instrumental playing, and it is a pertinent issue for many aspiring musicians. For most, musical maturity comes with time. Students are taught how to navigate this vast world, later branching out and transforming themselves into artists. Each voice is unique, and that quality is what makes music so compelling. So the next time you sit down to write an essay, think about what you want to express between the lines. Who knows? You may discover your voice in a high school English classroom.