Be a Better String Player: Questioning

Rule No. 4: Questioning everything is an essential part of expressing yourself musically
So far, I’ve talked about preparation and performance, and how to bring your interpretation across to your audience.  But how is it that you arrive at your interpretation? Can it be practiced or learned?

Learn to direct questions to yourself and others to arrive at the best and most convincing interpretation you can. As large music schools churn out ever larger numbers of string players, I have a fear that individuality, the quintessential heart of music-making, is getting lost. There seems to be rampant mindlessness in rote copying and repetition, various rules and traditions are taken as gospel, and expression outside of this is not encouraged. I can’t speak to those who are playing an instrument only to please their parents, or to get a higher prize than some other person in a contest. But art is not a sport.

Here is my advice for those who would like to have fulfillment from music.

No interpretation is interesting to others unless it is your own. Trust me, it doesn’t work to copy a recording or do exactly what your teacher says all the time—this always sounds ersatz. To put it spiritually, if your soul’s not in it, other people’s souls can tell.

When learning a new piece, the first order is to find out what the composer actually wrote. The best way to start is by getting your hands on an urtext edition of the piece (such as a Bärenreiter or Henle edition) or, in some happy cases, the autograph manuscript. If you can’t afford it (they can be expensive), then borrow the urtext and compare it with whatever you are using. This is particularly important when preparing to perform works by such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. The last thing you want getting in your way are wacky and outdated ideas of dynamics and bowings that some dude at a publishing house decided to add 80 years ago. Above all, avoid anything with Chinese characters anywhere on the music, even if it’s free. I’ve taught master classes in Asia and regularly hit the roof at the idiotic dynamics added to Mozart concertos and Bach partitas in Chinese editions.

What presumption and disrespect.

Let’s Talk Bach

Okay, so now you have your urtext. Once you have an idea of the form and length of the piece or movement, sit down and think about it. As an example, I’m going to use a piece that all violinists play at some point in their lives, and all violists and cellists have certainly heard: the Adagio from Sonata No. 1 in G minor for violin solo by Bach.

When it comes to Bach, the given is that everything he wrote is right and nothing is by accident. Therefore, your questions should be directed at yourself, much like figuring out a puzzle. “Why did he start with this opening G minor chord?” Hmm, let’s see . . . . Well, as a string player, he knew that it’s the lowest and strongest chord on the violin. D minor has all the open violin strings, while G minor has only three, so he must have chosen it for the idea of bass—to have that lowest note of ours as the tonic.

Take a look at Sonata No. 2’s Grave and compare. Ask yourself why he has the third on top for that one. Listen to BWV 539, which is the violin’s G minor fugue, but for organ in D minor. Compare that prelude to ours. Why is ours so much deeper and involved? And look at the last movement of this sonata. If you think of the first three bars and downbeat of the fourth in three, then you have your opening chord arpeggiated backwards.


No way.


So, now you know that he wrote the most arresting and powerful first chord he possibly could have for the very first note of his very first solo violin sonata. Armed with this knowledge, you can decide how you want to play this.

Please choose wisely.

Listen to the Rhythm

You’ve probably discovered that this is an unusual work rhythmically. Take a look at the manuscript and see how black it is here and there, with 32nd and 64th notes all over the place. Yet it’s a slow movement. Why is this? I think it has to do with the improvisatory nature of this piece—he’s treating it as a prelude to his first violin fugue the way he does with his organ preludes. The fact that he took the due diligence to write it all out painstakingly seems to mean that one should learn the exact rhythmical values of each phrase until it’s completely innate but, ultimately, play it as though improvising. And, of course, once you’ve done that rhythmical work, you’ll have discovered that there is a tradition of playing the second half of the fourth quarter of the penultimate bar twice as long as written. And since you’ve asked yourself why, and gotten no good answer, you’re not going to do that, right? Thank you.

According to some lucky folks who lived in Leipzig from 1723 to 1750, Bach regularly improvised preludes and even fugues on the organ. With all those kids and a cantata due every week, sometimes he just didn’t have time to get it on paper, they say. What I wouldn’t give for the Thomaskirche, a time machine, and a recording device.

Okay, so in his inimitable way, Bach takes us on a journey to D minor. Nothing unusual about that yet, but then he almost turns us to C. . . . Not quite, though. He plays around with E flat, A flat major, and then, a totally unexpected diminished chord with a fermata (the only fermata in all his solo violin works not at an ending—Ex. 4). This is followed by another diminished upwards arpeggio off the bat (Ex. 5), and if you want to get a feel for just how intense that diminished is, try playing the arpeggio with a g instead of the A flat. Now go back to the A flat. See? It’s aural anguish.

This takes us to the reiteration of the opening, now in C minor. Why C minor? Take a look ahead to the fugue, where you will notice that the answer to the subject is at the subdominant, which is, of course, C minor. (The only other instance I know of a subdominant real answer in a Bach fugue is the C major organ fugue BWV 531). Think of how different this fugue would be if he answered at the dominant! So, this is rare and very special, and he’s giving us a preview in the Adagio. It’s so special, in fact, that he took a very roundabout way to get us here—and he’s going to keep us in C minor for a while . . . until . . . oh my, an F sharp. We’re back in G minor.

Or are we (Ex. 6)?

Suddenly here’s an A flat. Why is A flat so important? Interestingly, A flat has the last word.

Play the Arc

Along with many others, these are a few ideas that you could have in mind when playing this and creating the arc to the piece. Knowing what key you are in and where you’re going will always help you make good decisions in the Bach solo sonatas and partitas. Try to approach this cornerstone of violin repertoire with an open mind (the manuscript can help with this) and find your own style. Don’t play these works in some manner that you’ve heard because you think that’s the “right” way. Experiment! Play them in the way that feels right to you.


Often, I will ask a student in a master class why they are doing something a particular way—usually because what they are doing is not working. When the answer is “My teacher told me to,” and I get no response to “Well, what do you think?”, my interest in the student plummets. Music is not about repetition, rote, and copying, although way too many people seem to do only that. It is about critical thinking, experimentation and imagination—finding your own solutions to problems, and figuring out the puzzles. Only in this way can we truly illuminate the page for the listener.

If you think about it, music is the one fine art that always requires an interpreter. Paintings and sculpture you can look at, theater you can read (better with actors interpreting for you, but you can still know what it’s about), poetry sounds pretty good if you read it to yourself, and architecture is eventually a material reality. There are very few people who can look at a piece of music and know what it sounds like, and those folks don’t do it for fun. So unlike a painter, who just does whatever he or she wants on a canvas, we have a responsibility to the composers to not only respect their wishes, but to bring their art to life in a manner that reflects us as well. If composers (lately) didn’t want individual interpretations of their work, they would all just write for computers. Most, even now, don’t. And none of us should sound like a machine, which is all repetition and rote without thought is ever going to achieve.

But What about the Teachers’ View?

Some folks wonder about their teachers. Should everything be taken at face value? Or should one question their teacher about things they either don’t understand or don’t agree with? Well, I tend to be of the “yes” and “yes” camp. Keep in mind though, questioning does not mean challenging. For example, if a teacher tells you to do a diminuendo someplace not marked that way by the composer, you can certainly try it out. If you can do it as instructed and it still doesn’t feel right to you, then it’s fine to ask what the reason is behind it. Likely as not, your teacher will have a good explanation, which will probably make it clear to you and easier to perform with integrity.

If it so happens that your teacher cannot answer you—or says something like, “That’s just the way it’s done,” well, then, I think you have the right to do what you want. As the author T.S. Eliot once said: “Tradition without intelligence is not worth having,” and this certainly applies to musical traditions that are so ingrained no one has actually stopped to think about them for decades, if not centuries.

However, I think you’ll find that most teachers will be overjoyed to discuss this hypothetical diminuendo with you, hear your thoughts, and come to a mutually agreeable solution. The teacher might even discover something for her or himself. The more questions I get asked in master classes, the happier I am. And the same goes for any answers I get to, “Well, what do you think?”

The only wrong answer to that question is “nothing.”


And now, just imagine how convincing you’re going to be on that phrase, with diminuendo or not. You’ve thought about it, experimented and come to a decision based on instinct and critical thinking.

That’s what music is all about.

Player Tip: Watch the Accidental Marcato on Down Bows

This can work in occasional circumstances as a way of marking a note in a place where you really need that extra clarity and oomph. However, I have heard folks play entire concertos as though every down bow is marked with a marcato carrot—they take the bow off the string at the frog of the up bow and start the down bow with a bite all the time. Please be careful that you don’t do this very often! Constant use of what should be an occasional technique invariably makes the player sound desperate, repetitive, and, frankly, kind of like an angry troll.