How Actors Become Virtuoso String Players on Film

Here's how some recent films involved string coaches and overdubbed performers to make actors' performances as string players feel authentic.

By Brian Wise | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine

Nowhere in traditional conservatory training does a violinist study how to play with a green bag over their head, only to have it edited out and digitally replaced with the head of an actor. But that’s one of the many smoke-and-mirror techniques that enables actors to portray string players in films and TV series—always with the near-anonymous support of string teachers and body doubles.

The work of string coaches can be seen in several recent films and streaming series, including Tár, in which the German actor Nina Hoss plays a concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic; Chevalier, starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the Chevalier de Saint-Georges; Wednesday, the hit Netflix series in which Jenna Ortega is a cello-playing Wednesday Addams; and The Song of Names, a 2019 film about a Polish violin prodigy (played by multiple actors) who disappears in the aftermath of World War II.

String players have been putting their stamp on Hollywood cinema for decades, from the 1946 Paganini biopic The Magic Bow—in which actor Stewart Granger expertly mimed to a Yehudi Menuhin recording—to 2009’s The Soloist, for which Jamie Foxx studied with Los Angeles Philharmonic cellist Ben Hong. But the pressure to make faked performances seem real has grown in the modern age, as visual standards rise and social media pundits dish out a steady stream of snark and awe.

In the 1946 Paganini biopic The Magic Bow, actor Stewart Granger mimed to a Yehudi Menuhin recording

A Crash Course for Chevalier

For Chevalier—a drama based on the life of the Guadeloupe-born violinist, composer, and fencer, born Joseph Bologne—the producers turned to Ronald Long, an American violinist based in London. Initially hired as a hand double, Long was promoted to on-set violin teacher after director Stephen Williams determined that Harrison would need to learn the violin himself for a greater degree of realism. Though his scenes would be synced to a recorded track, he would still need to fake it to a contemporary score by Michael Abels. “It was not easy,” Long says. “Even for myself, this would be really difficult to play. But then I just sucked it up. I said, ‘Kelvin, we just have to do this.’”

Though Harrison had briefly played the violin as a child, he had to relearn the mechanics of bowing, fingering, and vibrato over three months in 2020. Because the film was set in the 18th century, his violin was set up without a chin rest, increasing the risk of a performance injury. Using a whiteboard, Long developed a simplified notation so that Harrison could learn the left-hand fingerings while using lower positions on the fingerboard. Once filming started, soap was applied to his bow, a common technique that minimizes sound production on the set but also makes the bow slippery when applied to the strings.

Training hands and fingers was only part of the process. Harrison also watched performance videos of other violinists, including Tai Murray and Janine Jansen, observing their mannerisms and facial gestures. “That was one tip I told him,” says Long. “If you want people to be distracted from looking at your fingers and your bow, just put it on your face. So he put the really heavy acting skills on his face so it was all about the emotion.”


While most of the performance scenes involved Harrison miming to Long’s playback tracks, one particularly “jazzy and unpredictable” number prompted the opposite approach: Long stood in the wings and played along to Harrison’s gestures, with the microphones capturing the performance (Long later rerecorded it at Abbey Road Studios in London). “It was really confusing for Marie Antoinette [played by actress Lucy Boynton],” Long says with a laugh. “She’s walking on the set, and she sees both of us playing, and she’s like, ‘Who do I look at?’ There were so many moments when she was looking at the wrong person. But that was a good scene.”

Wednesday Addams as Cellist

Cellist Jason Pegis was a doctoral student at UCLA and teaching part-time at the Angeles Academy of Music, a community music school in Westwood, California, when Jenna Ortega, the star of Wednesday, arrived for a six-week cello crash course. In twice-weekly lessons, she read through a Suzuki method book, worked on scales, and watched videos of cellist Jacqueline du Pré. “Her bow hand got into a very good position, where if you look at it, you’d say, ‘Oh that’s a cellist. They know what they’re doing,’” Pegis says of Ortega. But he had no inkling of the music that Netflix had in store for Ortega to mimic: fiery arrangements of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the Rolling Stones song “Paint It Black.”

“I was trying to tell them to make it as simple as possible because the harder it is, the harder it gets for the actor,” says Pegis. But by the time Ortega received the arrangements, she had left for filming in Romania, where another cello teacher briefly took over. Pegis was flabbergasted. “I was like, ‘Come on, why make it that ridiculous?’” Some viewers had a similar reaction. Jeremy Tai, a Boston cellist, claimed to offer $250 to any of his TikTok followers who could accurately play the arpeggios in “Paint It Black.” Multiple cellists on YouTube, including Wendy Law, deconstructed the whirlwind scene and determined that it involved some overdubbing.

“It’s weird having the goal of getting someone to look like they can play,” says Pegis, who now teaches cello at Colorado Mesa University. “I think the best way to do that is just to set them up so they can actually play.” Photos of Ortega’s cello training circulated online, including in a Teen Vogue video. “Holy cow, I was not expecting to be in Teen Vogue.”

Becoming a Concertmaster in Tár

While Ortega was a beginning cellist, Nina Hoss was on her third film role as a violinist when she appeared in Tár as the Berlin Philharmonic concertmaster (and conflicted wife of conductor Lydia Tár, played by Cate Blanchett). It also marked her third time studying with Marie Kogge, a German violin instructor who has worked on several films.

Several hurdles awaited Hoss. Kogge says that while three weeks is enough time for an actor to learn a melody like “Frère Jacques,” with Tár, Hoss was tasked with faking exposed passages in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Elgar’s Cello Concerto, all while seated onstage with the Dresden Philharmonic, whose performance is heard onscreen. Director Todd Field wanted the flexibility to film Hoss from every angle. “This is very hard because we basically had to prepare the excerpts perfectly from all sides,” says Kogge. “You didn’t know if he would show her hand, her face, or the entire orchestra.


“Nina could do all single elements—vibrato, finger movements, shifting, bow movements—but it was hard for her to do all of these elements at the same time.” So Kogge stood in front of Hoss, off camera, providing choreographic gestures to help the ingredients coalesce. “I did something like a [traffic cop], with exaggerated movements,” says Kogge. “With Nina’s intelligence and willpower, she really wants to understand what the piece is about, and she doesn’t relax until she gets the spirit of it.”

Along with the technical guidance, Kogge conveyed how a concertmaster uses posture and breathing to lead to a section (her own teacher was Thomas Brandis, a former concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic). Having an actor on the podium added another layer of complexity. Before filming began, Hoss, Blanchett, and their respective coaches met for piano rehearsals of the Mahler and Elgar works. “Todd Field was so friendly, but at one point he said, ‘It’s your job that it looks real, and it has to be perfect,’” Kogge recalls. “He wouldn’t have accepted something that looked stiff.”

From Body Doubles to an ‘Octopus’

Hollywood visual effects departments increasingly carry the weight of performance scenes. With The Song of Names, director François Girard combined computer-generated imagery (CGI) with body doubling and old-fashioned violin instruction. British violinist Oliver Nelson was hired as a teacher and body double for both Clive Owen and Jonah Hauer-King, who play a Polish virtuoso named Dovidl at different stages in his life.

Behind the scenes recording music for The Song of Names

“The task had to be pretty precise because not only did they need to look like each other, so far as they could, but also match styles of vibrato,” Nelson says, singling out one of the techniques at play. “It became clear very early on that not only do Clive and Jonah need to look like each other in technique, they also need to look like me because I would need to do some of the scenes where Clive couldn’t, via CGI.” (Nelson also worked with actor Richard Bremmer for his role as a violin busker.)


For one performance scene, set in an asylum, Nelson was on set, ready to assist Hauer-King and, if necessary, step in and play the melody, a Jewish theme by composer Howard Shore. Nelson wore an identical costume but would play with a green bag over his head, thereby “ready for head replacement with Jonah’s head,” he says. “But Jonah had learned Howard Shore’s melody so well that after he had done his impressions, François said, ‘No, that’s a wrap. We’ve got it.’”

For another scene, Owen mimed parts of Bruch’s Violin Concerto before a professional orchestra and some 250 extras seated in the hall. Several cinematic techniques were employed, including the “octopus,” which Girard pioneered for the 1998 Academy Award–winning film The Red Violin. With this method, Owen had the violin tucked under his chin while his right arm grasped the bow. Standing to one side was Nelson, his left hand curled around the neck, his fingers touching the fingerboard. Owen’s arms were then tied to Nelson’s at the elbows, so that when he moved, the actor’s body responded.

A clip from The Soloist starring Jamie Foxx

“It was extremely challenging because you feel a little bit like a pantomime horse,” says Nelson. “Nothing is shot below the elbow but only someone very observant would notice that my hand is rather more delicate than his.”

Girard also re-shot the scene with only Nelson performing, costumed identically. The final result was a tightly edited hybrid. “It’s a bit of Clive, a bit of Clive and Oliver—Frankenstein style—a bit of me from the back, and a bit of him from far away. I suppose the viewer can’t get in too closely. But there’s going to be no viewer with any common sense who thinks that Clive Owen is playing Bruch’s Violin Concerto.”

Owen obliquely acknowledged Nelson’s contributions in an interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “I had an amazing coach,” he said. “But it was an awful lot of work, because there’s a big concert in it, and I have to be convincing.” After some teasing from Colbert, Owen recalled how Girard assured him that he would look convincing. “He said, ‘Do as much work as you can, and I promise you, I give you my word, that I will make you look brilliant on the violin.’ And he did a pretty good job, I think.”