What I’ve Learned: Find Your Voice

May 19, 2005

by Rachel Barton Pine

Strings Magazine

Rachel Barton Pine shares her knowledge on how to best find and develop your musical voice and identity.

Over the years acclaimed concert violinist and recording artist Rachel Barton Pine has amassed a wealth of knowledge.

CONCENTRATE. Many people think putting in hours practicing is what it takes to become a good musician, but just logging the hours without it being good practicing won’t get you very far. America’s first great master of the violin, Maud Powell (1867–1920), wrote a wonderful article on practicing in which she advocated concentration and consistency. Concentration means focusing on what you’re doing at the moment, as well as planning your practice sessions and being goal-oriented. When I practice, I like to use the un-American theory of “guilty until proven innocent”: Treat everything you do with suspicion. Check it all—intonation, tone quality, cleanliness, musicality—and don’t wait until a mistake gets your attention because you might not catch that mistake. In terms of consistency, practice the same amount of time every day, and pace your practice intelligently.

PLAY OTHER STYLES. Learn as much as you can from nonclassical music. So much classical music has been influenced by folk and popular music in terms of rhythm, harmony, and melody. There are lots of folk tunes hidden in Bartók and Dvorák, and a lot of contemporary music incorporates elements of jazz. Learn how to do a little bit of folk playing and listen to the masters of various nonclassical styles. And when you get to a classical piece that’s folk- or jazz-influenced, you can really bring it to life much better.

KEEP EXPLORING. It’s very important to follow wherever your curiosity leads you, especially during your younger years. But even as you get older, you’re never too busy to keep exploring music. We get caught up in practicing pieces for competitions and auditions, and repertoire for performances that are coming up. That’s all necessary, but don’t forget to practice a piece just because you like it, or just because you’ve always wanted to learn it. Plunge in and do it.

SEEK OUT EXPERTS. And never be afraid to ask questions. When I was about 14 years old I became intrigued by the idea of Baroque ornamentation, but I had no idea how to do it. I asked around until I found a wonderful gamba player in town who coached me on historically informed articulation and phrasing. Later, when I was studying the Schoenberg Fantasy, I drove up to Oberlin College and had a coaching with Richard Hoffmann, the last living student of Schoenberg from the Vienna days. And when I was doing the Berg concerto, I asked Pierre Boulez if he’d answer a few questions I had about the score. I was nervous to ask and expected him to say no, but he gave me a couple of hours of his time.

FIND YOUR VOICE. The most important point: Always seek to find your own musical voice. I’m not saying one should be different just to be different, because that can lead to pointless eccentricity. But you should have a personal relationship with the music. Listening to recordings is inspiring; it’s important to do that and get ideas. But in the end, it’s just about you and the piece you’re playing. That’s not about ego, it’s about making the music personal, which gives listeners your best possible performance. For that, you must feel a strong personal connection with the music.

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