By Rebecca Fischer

“Beauty is the enemy of expression!”
—Christian Tetzlaff, The New Yorker, 2012

Beauty has trouble being labeled. As humans we all know that beauty is deeply subjective, but we still try to put the idea of beauty into a box. Dualistic thinking leads us to dismiss or accept people, things, and experiences as either “beautiful (good)” or “not beautiful (bad)”—and this is easy to do. Easy, but limiting. We admire youthful, overly Photoshopped appearances in advertisements, for example, while it might be the raw blemishes of world-wearied skin that moves us with its humanity.

As a violinist, I’ve periodically fallen into the trap of pursuing what is supposedly beautiful in my sound, but I’m often reminded that my assumptions need to be challenged when my sound becomes flat or predictable. There is always more that I can do to find varied expression, more intention, more color in my sound.

Most of the musicians I know have struggled with these questions: Will the beauty of my sound draw in an audience? Will I play beautifully enough to win that job, or convince my teacher that I’m ready for the next challenge? Through my own journey as well as teaching violinists and chamber musicians of all ages, my experience has taught me that exploring sound beauty must be linked to finding authentic expression. Yes, teachers can guide us to play with appropriate techniques to make a good sound, but until we get creatively inspired, we won’t play with the passion and commitment that is our own. In addition to the strong technical study of our instruments, we also need to practice interpretive music-making without fear of making bad sounds or “doing it wrong.”

“Through my own journey as well as teaching violinists and chamber musicians of all ages, my experience has taught me that exploring sound beauty must be linked to finding authentic expression.”

So how to teach this, and where do we start? The exercise I call the “Beauty Tree” is the most freeing and meaningful way I have found to encourage students to approach sound with character in mind. (And I use it myself!) The Beauty Tree exercise starts from the premise that creativity is deeply personal. We start with a blank page (or whiteboard) and a piece of music. Students take a passage—say, the opening phrases of the Romance from Henri Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2 or, for chamber musicians, the opening of Johannes Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 in A minor—and start brainstorming characters they imagine are present in the music.

Students write every quality they find (e.g. heartfelt, cool, nervous, wide-eyed, passionate, etc.) on their “tree,” hanging from drawn branches like strange fruit. After trying the initial ideas, they start to add to or change them. Some musicians don’t enjoy using words but instead prefer to put colors on the tree: orange could represent a particularly fiery sound and blue a quiet sound, or vice versa. Other students might respond more to the idea of a sound as a brush stroke comparison (he or she might play Bach with a thinner brush stroke than Mahler overall).

There are infinite possibilities.

With each addition to the tree, the students literally develop their artistic conceptions of a piece. With each character or color they try, they are becoming more discerning about their musical choices. By asking themselves how to convey the difference between “heartfelt” and “passionate” they are becoming more skilled players. Perhaps “heartfelt” prompted a student to use a faster vibrato and a slower bow speed, and “passionate” required a wider vibrato and more rubato. As students start identifying their choices and linking them to tools they already have—like vibrato, timing, bow speed, and fingerings—they gain confidence as artists.

Making a Beauty Tree is not simply about identifying adjectives that could describe sections of a musical work and trying them once. It’s about the creation of an organic piece of art that is constantly changing as we are, and the tree serves as a record of our journey. I love to see students’ eyes light up when they show me their Beauty Tree full of colors, shapes, and adjectives. Their performances show a new sense of ownership. With each idea they have recorded on their tree, they have made a contract to play with character and engagement.

It is my hope that by dedicating ourselves to musical work of this kind, we will not only become more enthusiastic, authentic artists and teachers, but we will also be more inclusive of the many expressions of beauty in our lives.