How to sound like your favorite player or find your own voice

What is it about your favorite players that makes them your favorites? Is it their clean tone, their intonation, their musical expression? What distinguishes your favorites from others who are playing the same music? It’s easy to hear the difference between Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin even though they are both female R&B singers. But what about Itzhak Perlman and Joshua Bell? Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli? What makes an individual player’s sound unique and recognizable?

What about you? Are you striving to sound like your teacher? Your favorite player? Or are you trying to find your own voice?

Of course, it’s easy to tell the difference between Grappelli and Heifetz because each has his own recognizable repertoire. And there are sound characteristics that make each musical genre unique. But if you go beyond the obvious distinctions of genre, what makes each artist’s sound unique?

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The usual track for studying music—any kind of music—is to find a good teacher and imitate his or her every move. The student may imitate everything the teacher does: fingerings, bowings, dynamics, intonation, ornamentation, and the like. The smallest nuances are drilled over and over to make sure the student is playing like the master. All of the musicians I’ve mentioned above spent some time studying music in this way. And yet you can still tell them apart. How does that happen?

Cellist Natalie Haas was trained at the Juilliard School and now plays with master Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. Haas has this to say about developing your own voice: “When you’re growing up learning an instrument or a musical style, it’s all about imitating other people. So, in a way, your personal musical voice is an amalgamation of all of the players you grew up listening to and mimicking, but it’s also more than that. There are so many choices made on the spot that can only come from within—ways of entering and leaving notes, whether to play an up or a down bow here, which grace note to put there, etc. You hope that once you’ve done your homework—paid your respects to the masters by copying what they do, and mastered all the fundamentals of technique on your instrument—you will have something to say and the vehicle through which to say it.”

Consider the Factors

Certainly a big part of one’s sound is one’s instrument. A better instrument makes the expression of nuance much easier. But even here there are differences in taste that color one’s impression. Remember the process you went through finding your current instrument. You may have had several to choose from in the same price range and some felt better than others to you. That experience may have been different for your friend or colleague who tried the same instruments and made a different choice. But it’s also true that a great player can make a lousy instrument sound great and an inexperienced player won’t be able to do much with a great instrument.

Other than the instrument, there are technique factors that make a difference, too. A particular bow hold, individual vibrato, a unique way of approaching shifting or double-stops, how close the bow is to the bridge, and what happens to the bow as it changes direction all affect sound.

There are more musical factors, too, like stretching or contracting phrases in a particular way, variations in dynamics, and subtlety of bow speed to emphasize a particular note. Some of these things, like tone or color, are difficult to articulate in words. Often a teacher can only sing the line or make a gentle sweep with the arm to express the shape of the phrase. For instance, Clay Hoener, the associate chair of strings at the Longy School and principal second with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra and the Handel and Haydn Society, uses such verbal descriptions as thick, sticky, airy, fluffy, opaque, translucent, transparent, cutting, warm, chocolate, bold, and scary to encourage a variety of sounds.

“With continued encouragement and dedicated lesson and practice time,” he says, “students will learn to employ certain physical techniques for creating particular tonal qualities from the myriad sounds available on a string instrument, [and] which sound is appropriate when, and realize the full measure of expressive capabilities of their choosing from their newly acquired tonal color palette.”

These concepts may seem esoteric, but they are the things that any good student must listen to with great intensity—these are the things that make the difference between playing it correctly and making music. The great artists have developed ways to make music that is uniquely their own, thus making it easy for us to pick our favorites.

Challenge Yourself

Developing your own unique voice may just be a matter of getting comfortable enough on your instrument that you can take chances and experiment with new technical and musical ideas. “Quartet playing has encouraged me to explore the subtle variations of tone and color,” says violinist Lucia Lin, who plays with the Boston Symphony and the Muir String Quartet. “It requires the flexibility to change your tone according to the repertoire and whether your line is supportive or soloistic—sometimes in the space of a couple of notes. For me, it’s painting with sound, and the challenge is using all the tools you have to achieve the widest range of colors.”

As with any aspect of learning music, listening and imitating is a huge part of getting your own sound. But it’s also important to be picky about what you are imitating. When you find a sound you love, imitate that. If you have trouble, ask your teacher to help you or find another teacher who can help you.

Try to catch as much nuance as you can—details that go beyond the right notes and the right rhythms. Always have your ears open.

You never know when some musical phrase will catch your ear.