By Julian Schwarz

The old Heifetz story goes that the master would be told frequently after concerts, “Maestro, your Stradivari sounds incredible.” In response, he would open up his case, bring his violin to his ear, shrug, and quip, “I don’t hear anything!” Though this comedic response has become a joke among many prominent soloists, the reality remains the same—there is a fundamental misunderstanding among musicians and music lovers alike as to what produces sound and, by extension, what is to be lauded.

Just as Heifetz implied, the sound of an instrument is created by the musician. Though a great instrument can give a skilled artist access to a wide color palate, that same instrument does not create colors by itself. There is no string playing equivalent to piano rolls . . . yet!

That said, I have grown to interpret the comment, “Your instrument sounds great,” to mean, “You make a great tone.” I assume this is the intention of the compliment—at least I hope it is. It’s always difficult for me to remind myself of this, however, especially in the moment. I recently performed a series of concerts, after which I received nice compliments—about things over which I had no control.

“Wow, the new shell in our hall made your cello project so well!”

“Wow, that is the loudest cello I have ever heard!”

“Wow, your cello is amazing!”

“Before the recent renovation of our hall, it was so difficult to hear cello soloists, but now I can hear every note!”

Of course, I try to see the best intention of each comment. Though each remark did not give me credit for my sound production, the end result was the same—I sounded loud.

The next day a review came out, which some would say was very good. Objectively, it was. Yet, after noticing the creativity in credit given the evening before, I could not help but notice a similar trend in the review. The critic commented that my cello produced wonderful colors and sounds in the concerto, and that the cello podium on which I sat projected my sound to a great extent.

Now, the cello podium was responsible for my projecting tone.

I was puzzled. I was not upset that the cello podium received undue credit, but I was confused as to what the writer thought my involvement was (if any) in the performance. If I neither made the sound nor the color, what did I do? Why has this become a popular way of saying “It sounded good” or “You have a nice sound”?

In this way I am envious of pianists. It seems ridiculous, as they have the hardest job in the industry (having to change instruments for every performance and become one with a new tool every time, always at the mercy of a piano technician to achieve the ideal tuning and action, and often without the ability to warm up on the instrument prior to a performance), but a pianist will rarely be told that his or her piano has a nice sound. Why? Because—with a few exceptions like Cliburn and Zimmerman—it is not their own piano. And every pianist who plays on that particular instrument has a different sound.

This side of the equation confuses me even more. A piano is merely a series of buttons. If I press the button and you press the button, the same sound should come out, right? And yet this could not be further from the truth. As many concertgoers and musicians notice, the sound and range of color and dynamics on a piano differs greatly, depending on who is playing.

On a stringed instrument, the variables seem much greater. A stringed instrumentalist’s sound, through the use of the bow, can vary to an even greater extent through weight, speed, sound point, strength, and one’s ear. The sound desired by a performer is incredibly subjective, and satisfaction with a particular sound at a particular time differs greatly from player to player. It is as much what you do to produce a sound as what you desire the sound to be like at its core.

Often a great pianist will receive the comment, “Wow, this piano has never sounded like that!” For a string player, it is very rare that an audience member would hear the same exact instrument played by two different players.

I first realized the great range of sound from player to player as a young student. I was attending a small chamber festival when my teacher took my cello for a demonstration. I did not recognize the sound. My jaw dropped. How was it possible that my cello sounded so different? It might have been my physical position in listening (an instrument always sounds different from a distance than under one’s own ear), but this was too great a disparity to attribute to my orientation.

I was stunned. Since then I have always been curious to hear other cellists play my instrument. There are great lessons to be learned in regard to one’s own sound, and the sound others produce naturally.

And as far as sound production is concerned: Yes, it is building up muscles. Yes, it is what is in the ear. Yes, it is partially to do with the greatness of an instrument. But guys, give us string players some credit once in a while, would ya?

For more from Julian Schwarz, read his other Strings exclusive blogs: “I Play the Cello. Should my Teacher?” and “Destiny—Tied with a Bow.”

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