How to sound like a superstar

by Sarah Freiberg

“I find tone is like someone’s voice,” says virtuoso violinist Jaime Laredo, conductor of the prestigious New York String Orchestra Seminar, “and like appearances, no two sounds are alike.”

In other words, your tone is your musical voice, as individual as you are, and you want it to speak for you as clearly and articulately as possible. Internationally known concert violinist and educator Ida Kavafian describes this quite eloquently: “The first thing that is responsible for a good tone is what each individual has in his or her ear, heart, and mind. Each individual has his or her own concept of sound and its importance. While many technical things are important in creating a good sound, the most important aspect is a person’s concept of sound.

“If you can define and hear what kind of sound you want, then you will find ways to get it.”

German violinist Viviane Hagner, known for her dark tone, and Kavafian agree that the music itself should be the driving force behind one’s tone production. “It is vital to have different sounds for different repertoire,” Kavafian says. “What you use for Debussy is not what you want to use in Brahms, and vice versa. Everything should originate from the repertoire one is playing—using the appropriate sound for the repertoire, and the character you want in and within a movement.”

In other words, don’t settle on a generic sound for your entire repertoire. “I don’t like the one-size-fits-all beautiful sound,” says Muir Quartet violinist and Boston University professor Peter Zazofsky. “It’s very unsatisfying in the end—it’s just skin deep. You have to do something with a beautiful sound. You must vary the sound to understand the mood of the music.

“It is the manipulation of the sound that makes the superstars.”

Many superstars play on phenomenal instruments, but how much does the instrument shape a player’s sound? According to Laredo, “The instrument helps, certainly, but people sound the way they sound. A great player can make a cigar box sound great. But a great instrument helps with colors more than the sound.”

The tools of sound production are few, the experts say, but their effects are endless. Sound depends on bow usage, and to a lesser extent, on vibrato. “To make a good sound, there are three basics: speed, pressure, and sounding point,” Zazofsky says. “The variety of each will present you with your best sound. What percentage of each depends on the context, but to find the right balance you have to manipulate each of these three variables.”

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