top of page

The Charlie Chaplin guide to violin playing

Charlie Chaplin was one of the most expressive and popular communicators ever. What can string players learn from his art?

Light and heavy

Chaplin’s original concept for his tramp costume was of contradiction: tight jacket, baggy trousers; small hat, big shoes. His movements carry this contradiction too. Watch any chase scene (The Vagabond, The Circus, on skates in The Rink) and you see him as light as air, graceful and smooth. Even when he is making a cocktail in The Rink, there is not one extraneous movement, not one inefficient jerk, just as with any good string technique. Yet he is simultaneously weighed down by those ridiculously large shoes. This combination of lightness and weight is something great string players achieve. Watch Heifetz, for example, and you see his left hand moving absolutely smoothly, without glitch, yet there’s colossal force into the string as he articulates the notes. Any good bow arm combines this sense of lightness with sheer power.

Perfect imperfectionism

Chaplin was a notorious perfectionist and would shoot scenes hundreds of times to get them right. But he wasn’t seeking pure perfection, as he explained in 1921: ‘I want every bit rehearsed thoroughly, all the technical details worked out very carefully. Then, when all those bits of business have been gone through thoroughly, I say, “Now we’ll act it.” But I don’t want perfection of detail in the acting. I’d hate a picture that was perfect – it would seem machine made. I want the human touch, so that you love the picture for its imperfections.’ What we watch is essentially improvisation within a carefully structured, rigorously rehearsed plan, which leads to its communicative power and dynamic energy. No one should go into a performance knowing exactly how they will play.

Endless nuance

Classical music is similar to silent movies in expressing complex thoughts and feelings without words. In merely a look and a posture Chaplin could articulate depths of emotion (the final scene of City Lights and a bar-room scene in Gold Rush for example). A great player looks for such nuance and inflection in a phrase.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

Chaplin’s early films are kinetic and malevolent, and although they’re often very funny, he only really hit his stride when he started combining comic energy with more sympathetic aspects. He was supreme in switching contrasting emotions in an instant, whether an admiring look at a girl being undermined by a belch (The Immigrant) or a look of paternal love turning to disgust when he realises he’s wiped his hand in the child’s pee (The Kid). There are plenty of opportunities for such contrasts in string repertoire – Haydn string quartets, for example, switch from the sublime to the ridiculous in the bat of an eyelid and it’s interesting to bear Chaplin in mind when playing them.

The father of invention

Chaplin never repeats a gag exactly the same way – he’s forever playing with your expectations. If you think someone’s going to sit on a chair that’s being pulled away for the second time they won’t (The Circus); if you think Chaplin wouldn’t touch a door that’s too hot for the second time, he will (Dough and Dynamite). Similarly, great musicians find different ways to explore a repeated melody.

The burden of history

It is inconceivable that Chaplin could have existed without his apprenticeship in the music halls, during which he learnt the technical tricks of his trade. In his autobiography he analyses in detail the strengths and weaknesses of the great actors and vaudeville stars of his time and clearly knew his art back to front. It’s essential for any player to understand the tradition they are taking on and to listen to the great players who went before.

This was first printed in The Strad, December 2008. Read my article about Charlie Chaplin's lifelong passion for the violin here.

bottom of page