To help celebrate the launch of our new Violin Channel Learning Center, here on the site, and the re-launch of Maxim Vengerov's new website, maximvengerov.com, the superstar violinist and teacher, over the next eight weeks, will be guest presenting a weekly series of exclusive teaching advice classes for our readers, teachers and students everywhere.

Accompanied by helpful teaching videos demonstrating all his concepts, Maxim will cover a wide range of topics including sound, left and right hand technique, bowing, breathing, harmony and structure.

In today’s first lesson, Maxim talks us through the importance of ‘Storytelling in Music’.

Join us over the next eight weeks, and be sure to share the classes with your own students and friends, and let us know how Maxim’s advice has helped you on your journey to learn more.

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Storytelling is as old as humankind. It is how we share our experiences with one another and understand the world around us. Through stories, we can transcend time and physical limitations, broadening our imagination beyond the scope of our own individual experience, and bringing shared understanding and meaning to human existence. 

Alongside other art forms, music is a language for communication and storytelling. Through music, we can say things for which there may be no words. The greatest music, and performances, are not only aesthetic creations to be experienced from afar - there is an immediacy of human connection reaching out to grab us, and change us. 

In this post I will share with you some thoughts about how I approach storytelling as a performer, as well as some recommendations for how to discover your own stories in music and transmit these effectively to an audience.

 

STORYTELLING IN MUSIC

“When you play, use your imagination to tell a story and bring the music to life.”

Instrumental music is without words, and usually there is not a specific image or association suggested by the composer. However, this does not mean the music is abstract or remote; it is up to us as performers to discover and communicate the story behind it. 

The beauty is that there can be different stories, different interpretations. This is what keeps the music alive. Just as light passing through different lenses may refract slightly differently, showing the painting of an old master in a new light, so it is with performers of music.

When I teach, I try to help students form an interpretation which they created. We explore the music together, and imagine what the story could be. Images can be a powerful way to bring the music to life and visualise the story behind it. I find images are often also a helpful tool to inspire my students: I try to spark their imagination and encourage them to think about the music for themselves. An image can prompt them to think beyond the technical considerations and reconnect with the essence of the music, making their playing much more vivid and alive. 

Sometimes a particular painting or image can fit well with a work. For example, in Ysaÿe’s Sonata no. 3 for solo violin, there is a specific moment where I can imagine the image of the expressionist painting “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. However, there is not only one image or association; this depends on the performer and what resonates with them, and can also change. Indeed, I often find myself explaining using different images for the same works when I teach.

Of course, not all music lends itself well to a story or visual association. Some music is more absolute, more structural and architectural in nature, for example German or Viennese classics. Here, you must think more about the structure, musical form, harmonies, character, and so on to discover the message in the music. 

What we think about, and what we feel when we play, is what comes across to the audience. This is something my mentor, Mstislav Rostropovich, once told me, which has always stuck in my mind. If we think of nothing, then the music is empty and radiates nothing. If our imaginations are alive, then even the most repetitive or difficult virtuoso passages become vivid music with a story to tell. 

 

DISCOVERING YOUR OWN INTERPRETATION

 

“Study the score closely, until you have absorbed the music and it becomes your own.”

 

To find your own vision of the story behind a musical work, I suggest you let your imagination run free without any limitations, and experiment! In the privacy of your own room, you can push the boundaries - nobody will hear or judge your playing. Try not to get too hung up on technical difficulties - you can take care of these later. Just try things out, let yourself be a bit crazy, and see what happens!

Exercising your imagination when you practise is just as important as exercising your hands and body. 

However, at the same time, always stay connected to the source, which is the score. It is easy to get too carried away and deviate from the composer’s wishes, so keep in mind the boundaries, for example the style and epoch of a work.  

When you study a new work, try to absorb it and let it become yours, as if you have written it. This comes through the process of learning the score in depth and analysing down to the details. I generally recommend to students to start by listening to a few interpretations whilst following the score - but then, once they have some auditory experience of the work, not to listen to recordings any more, and to work directly from the score. In this way, they can find their own vision for a piece, which is informed by, but independent of, performance tradition.

Sometimes students listen to recordings and try to copy them; whilst this is well-intentioned, it is a pointless exercise, because you cannot successfully copy anyone, and it means absolutely nothing to try and do so. Equally, it is a misguided exercise to study other interpretations and then try to be different, just for the sake of it - this approach is again derivative of the ideas of others and does not stem from a genuine understanding and honest representation of the original source, i.e. the score. 

By working directly from the score, you will discover the irregularities, the structure, harmonies and special characteristics of the work for yourself, and begin to inhabit the work and make it your own. Through this, you will discover how you feel about the work and how you want to present it to the audience. Ultimately as performers we are like ambassadors for the music, and if we do not absorb the music then we cannot present it and let it speak through us.   

Sometimes you make the biggest discoveries in the moment of performance itself. When you are in front of an audience, your whole nervous system is raised, your senses are heightened, and another part of your brain opens up. This adds another dimension, and is why live performances can be so exciting. If you are inspired by the music, if you have goosebumps, then you can be sure the audience are getting some too!

BRINGING YOUR MUSICAL IDEAS ACROSS EFFECTIVELY TO AN AUDIENCE

 

“For a listener sitting in the last row to understand your message clearly, you may need to exaggerate a little to bridge the distance.”

 

Playing to an audience is very different from playing to yourself. There is a distance between the performer and the listener, both visually and acoustically, and we must compensate for this when we play. Otherwise, like a game of Chinese whispers, we may find that our intended message is not the one which reaches the audience - something may get lost or distorted across this gap. The larger the distance, the more we need to compensate: playing in an intimate setting is very different from performing in a big hall. 

In order for your message to arrive intact, listen carefully to the acoustics of the room, and play to the person in the last row - if you can reach this person, you can be sure the people in the first row will get the message. 

Just like an actor performing in a theatre, we may need to exaggerate and articulate more than usual. (This is a very different craft from acting in a movie, where the camera is up close - this is more akin to making a recording.) You should clarify everything, and be very clear with the message you want to convey. Emphasize the contrasts, and be wary that finer details can get totally lost, especially with an orchestra behind you. 

Drawing on an image can also help you bring your message across to the audience. By bringing to your mind an image you feel is particularly evocative and suited to the music, your physical expression will be much stronger, and therefore so will the impact on the audience. 

This does not mean the exact image will translate to the audience — even if I imagine “The Scream” when I play Ysaÿe’s Sonata no. 3, probably 99 percent of the audience will not have this association, but they will feel the energy. In this way, you help the audience to make their own associations and connect directly with the music, and your performance becomes much more compelling.

 

TO CONCLUDE

 

When we play music, we should always remember why we play. Musicians are not acrobats performing tricks, there is more than this — there is a message behind the music and a spark of connection from one human to another. It is not enough to have a good recipe and be a good cook - we need to know how to serve a meal and create an ambience, just like in a great restaurant. 

I hope these reflections give some food for thought, and some practical advice on how to discover your own images and vision of the music you play. We must be storytellers: this is our art as performers.

 

 

This article was co-written by Anna Gould, Community Leader of Maxim Vengerov's team.