When you decide to learn a tune, it may be because it’s been assigned by a teacher, or because you’re in an ensemble or band that’s playing it, or because you have it in a book and it looks interesting, or because you’ve heard it and liked it. All those reasons are valid. Ideally, you’ll enjoy all the music you learn. But unless you’re very, very adept at “hearing” in your head what you see on paper (think Salieri in the movie Amadeus), how would you know whether or not you like a tune if you haven’t heard it played? On the other hand, if you weren’t impressed, how would you know if the way you’ve heard it could have been done in a way you like better?
This goes for instruments as well as tunes and pieces. I used to think French vielles were horrible, screechy things when the only person I’d heard play one was terribly inept, and I didn’t know she was. Later when I heard them played well, they became one of my favorite instruments. But let’s talk about tunes - the ones you’ve heard which have touched you deeply enough to want to learn them so you can recreate that magic yourself.
When you hear a tune, it may or may not be on the same kind of instrument you play (or if it’s a song it may not be sung by someone with the same voice range as yours or with the accompaniment you have available). Nevertheless, if you like it - hopefully love it - there’s some special element that produces that response in you. It could be the melody, the arrangement, the tone of the instrument or voice, the player’s individual style or expression, the rhythm, mode, or any number of indefinable elements. When played, a tune is never just a tune, and what you like about it can’t be described as simply as “I like that tune”.
One of the ways to identify the elements you love is to find more than one recorded version of it. For instance, I fell in love with harpist Nicanor Zabaleta’s recording of Enrique Granados’ Orientale, but when I heard it on classical guitar by the Romero brothers it wasn’t compelling. (Just my personal feeling; they were very good, of course). What were the elements that grabbed me in Zabaleta’s recording? I can definitively say it was the tone of the harp and the resonance of the room in which it was recorded - probably a cathedral or other resonant place, which was enhanced by the recording engineer’s choice of microphone placement - plus the delicacy with which he played it. I liked the composition of course; the movement of the left hand part, the trills in the melody, the Moorish sound of the mode used, and the use of certain accidentals. It had a mysterious quality that was missing when played more forcefully on two guitars that were recorded with the microphones closer to the instruments (the usual placement when in a recording studio).
The truth is that we don’t really stop hearing a piece in our heads the way we heard it originally - even if our own playing or singing doesn’t resemble that. The music in our head actually disguises our own awareness of what is really coming out of our fingers or our voices. We often blithely play or sing a piece without ever realizing that it sounds nothing like what’s in our head. (Hence the phenomenon I call “Karaoke syndrome”.) You aren’t the other musician, and though you can put some of their mojo in it if you’ve identified what that is, you also have to add your own magic. So how does one do that?
Every individual has a personality that comes through in their music if the skills are there to support it.Without adequate skills, the effort of just playing the right notes will override most of the expression that could be there. I’m not saying you have to be an advanced player to be expressive. You just have to play well at your skill level. If you’re a beginner, allow yourself to be one, and be the best beginner you can be by practicing as much as you possibly can. If you’re an intermediate player, the same applies. If you’re advanced, be sure you’re not glossing over unclear notes, ignoring proper and consistent tempos, or otherwise doing what I call “pretending to play better than you actually are”. (The least effective way to gain skill is to push. The most effective way is to focus. Pushing only makes messes. It takes patience to advance to a higher level, so do it with focus, integrity and purpose, and let it take time.)
I once saw a quote by Henry Van Dyke that says: “Use the talents you possess, for the woods would be a silent place if no bird sang except the best.” So… do play your music with joy, and also know that focused, purposeful practice will increase that joy. The ideas presented below are meant to be incorporated into your practice; in other words, merely reading about them won’t help your playing become more expressive; but if you actually practice them in the same way as any other technical skill, your music can be truly expressive.
In really good music there is much more going on than just the notes and the rhythm; the musician creates an image through music, letting it tell a story that affects the emotions of the listener. This is musical expression. Expression isn’t a measurable thing; it can’t be defined in numbers or captured in one definition. Yet it is the crowning glory of good performance. How to play expressively isn’t often taught, because it’s so elusive and personal, yet we’re expected to learn how to do it.
Endorphins, Resonance, and Intention:
We respond physically as well as emotionally to specific resonances, tones, pitches, and harmonies. Different people respond differently, but there are certain things that are fairly universal - for instance, low tones at soft amplitudes are usually relaxing while high pitches and/or loud volumes are enervating; slow pieces in minor keys tend to be moody, and faster pieces in major keys are usually considered happier.
Intention, which has been studied using controlled scientific research methods, is the purposeful directing of your will. If you consciously intend that your music will portray a specific mood, evoke a special feeling or have a certain effect, that intention goes a long way toward making it so. Intention is not a substitute for skill. It is a discipline used in addition to skill.
Tone quality is dependent on how you play and how your instrument is made. Within the capabilities of your specific instrument, aspects of tone that you can control when playing are: volume, clarity, sustain, and certain string sounds. These elements are dependent upon the following:
- How you hold the instrument: If you’re not comfortable, you can’t play well. Learn good ergonomics for your particular instrument so you can relax and play with ease.
- How you pluck: Experiment with volume and tone by trying a variety of plucking techniques.
We’ve all occasionally heard speakers who recite monotonously (mono = one; tone = sound). It’s annoying; after all, we don’t speak that way in conversation. Likewise, we certainly don’t want to play our music that way. Yet too often we hear musicians playing in a monotonous way; in other words, with no dynamics. Remember, music is a language. Use the interplay of loud and soft, crescendo and decrescendo, as you would when speaking expressively.
There is a common tendency to play faster when playing louder, and slower when playing softer. This can negate the intended effects of dynamics. Practice with a metronome to keep your beat steady as you purposely change volume.
Don’t be afraid to use the entire dynamic range of your instrument, from the merest whisper to the loudest note you can possibly play. Only by experimenting with the full potential of your instrument will you know what it is capable of.
Melding Technique and Expression:
Accuracy without expression is just organized sound, and expression without accuracy is just disorganized sound. Notes are just notes, and feeling is just feeling; neither by itself is sufficient. But when you put the two together, you get music. A musician must be both a technician and an artist.
Those who have an easier time learning technical skills and thinking logically may be said to be “left-brained”. Those who relate better to the less technical aspects of playing, such as expression, may be said to be “right-brained”. I find students to be about equally divided into these two groups. Often, left-brained people find it challenging to play expressively, and right-brained people would rather not bother with technique.
An exclusive inclination toward one or the other can limit one’s chances of becoming a good musician. As a teacher, it’s my job to see that every student learns in the way that works best for them, and then to also give special attention to the aspects of playing they would ignore if they didn’t have a teacher who cared about their musical future. We must purposely develop the side of the brain that is less dominant. In this way, one can become “cerebrally ambidextrous” - equally capable of using technical skills and expressive skills to create a complete package of excellent musicianship.
Tempo, Beat and Rhythm:
Three basic elements in music are tempo, beat and rhythm. These are intimately related. Tempo is how fast or slow a piece of music is played; beat is the pulse of the piece, and rhythm is how the lengths of notes create patterns within the beat. In most music those factors must be easily discerned in order for it to be appreciated on any level, conscious or subconscious.
I’ve occasionally heard someone say they don’t want to play with a steady tempo because they think it will make the music sound metronomish or unexpressive. They don’t clearly understand what tempo and rhythm are for, how to hear and feel them, and how to be expressive within the parameters of these very essential elements.
If you feel rhythmically challenged, take classes in ballroom dancing, bellydancing, jazz dancing, or drumming. Take them seriously and consistently. When you have been taught how to feel a beat and a rhythm, and you have moved your whole body to it, you will have created new neural pathways that will re-wire your brain rhythmically. It will make a huge difference in your ability to hear, integrate and play all your music well.
Instrumental music is storytelling without words. A piece of music can evoke visual images for the player and for the listener, which are often suggested by its title. Holding an image in your mind will automatically affect how you play the piece, and even though your listeners may not “see” the same image you do, it’s likely they will hear more in your music than if you have no image in your mind.
What we do with our breath, both knowingly and unknowingly, expresses our state of mind. Therefore, the breath affects, is affected by, and communicates how we feel about the music we play. Additionally, our brains and muscles need a constant supply of oxygen in order to function adequately, and unconsciously holding the breath actually deprives us of it.
Many musicians gasp, pant, or hold their breath while playing; that is unconscious breathing. I heard a famous fiddle player who used a clip-on microphone on his fiddle, which picked up his gasping breath as loudly as it did his fiddling. It distracted from his music. But you don’t have to be amplified to have unnatural breathing affect both your playing and the enjoyment level of your audience. Even if your breathing is quiet, if it isn’t natural it will effect your playing.
When you breathe fully and consciously, you will find that your music “breathes” with you, and this creates expression in the music. Musicians benefit from actually practicing conscious breathing into each piece we play. That means we must practice being aware of the breath as we play, keeping it even, deep and regular. Eventually this will become habitual.
Also, whenever you’re concerned about accuracy, or when a difficult passage is coming up, concentrate on your breath. The extra oxygen will help, as will the distraction, allowing your hands to do what they know how to do without added stress.
To reiterate: identify what elements you specifically like in the music you hear. Decide which ones you can personally recreate, and then add your own touches. Pay attention to skill and to the suggestions above. Your music will grow in the special ways, both definable and ineffable, that make it compelling.