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Helping (in)expressive students.

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Published: January 25, 2007 at 11:29 PM [UTC]


What do you do to get people to play more expressively?

I can understand the frustration of having a student who doesn’t play with feeling, but the truth is, a person without them is dead. It is all in there, for any normal person. Anecdotally, there is a well known pedagogue in London teaching at the Academy who told a friend of mine the following: "When Japanese girls come over they often play flawlessly. But I have to wait a few months for them to have an affair and their hearts to get broken before they really start to play..."

Make of that what you will.

My approach is somewhat different. I believe the whole question of emoting is extremely dodgy and one often sees supposedly quite advanced students and even professionals who confuse physical play acting as emoting and can even trick a listener into believing that their playing is emotional. This, to me, is the strongest manifestation of the false consciousness about our playing that the majority of players tend to build up. What the great players have in spades is genuine awareness of what they are doing.

To clarify this let me recount a couple of experiences I have had in Alexander teacher training classes. One time a trainee took to his beloved harmonic and began a very good rendition of some blues. Not bad at all. The instructor did the usual magic of resetting the primary control and bringing the player into the present. The difference was painful. Man, those blues blew me away. The player stooped and was asked, "What do you think about that?" He was angry and said so. "You took away my sadness." This was crazy to us but that was a genuine response. He had learnt to kid himself though misdirection of self.

The same thing happened to me in a master class with Vivien Mackie quite a few years ago. I played a Mozart concerto to a small audience and it seemed averagely okay. Then she worked on my primary control (neck, head back) and had me simply pay attention to that and imagine giving the music to the audience as a present. I thought the playing was okay but felt very empty which I remarked on to Vivien. She suggested I look at the audience. Some of them were crying (maybe it was that bad…). Vivien commented, "The first time I heard you play, I wondered why you went to music college all those years ago. This time I know. You are an artist.`

What I learnt from this kind of experience repeated over and over again is that when we try and get people to be emotional we are frequently blocking the genuine emotional content which flows through us when we are a vessel for the message. If you like, there is nothing more boring that watching someone cry.
Which still leaves the original problem...

For me the solution is often rather paradoxical sounding. You want more emotion focus on technique. Or rather, focus on nuance through the medium of technique. Nuance consist of dynamics, rhythm and accent. It is well worth reading and rereading Auer's chapter on this in his little book , "Violin Playing as I Teach it." Then work very diligently on producing these, especially dynamics. Teach exactly what a graded crescendo means by example and even through the use of the voice. IE have a student say a word progressively louder than a sound. people know immediately what a crescendo is through this medium! A student's inability to produce dynamics is a technical limitation in the sense that even if they don’t feel them (not usually true) the block is a specific use of the bow speed, sound point, or whatever. The teacher can really focus on these. Incidentally, a very good way to get students to pay attention to and produce dynamics is simply to ask them to play a piece doing the exact opposite of what is written on the page,

Once one has a crescendo or diminuendo in place, the question a student has to address is, "Where is it going?" which leads to a discussions of whether or not an accent (agogig, dynamic or whatever) is necessary and if so, is it to be done with vibrato speed or bow speed or whatever?

Interestingly, because of the time it was written, Auer's book does not reflect contemporary ideas on vibrato. However, it is an essential part of expressiveness and is almost always left to chance. So much so that the student often acquires the believe that vibrato is connected to dynamics. Not really. It has always seemed natural to me to connect vibrato with intensity. Not the same thing at all. Once this is clarified in the students mind one can pose questions about what vibrato speed and width seems to go best on such and such a note. Are you trying to increase of decrease intensity? If you are doing a crescendo here would you increase or decrease the speed and or width?

Very often students lack the technical ability to vary the vibrato and once they have been shown the one can isolate the factor of intensity IE omit dynamics and practice only in terms of vibrato speed an important technical weakness has been revealed that can be worked on quite mechanically through such means as Basics exercises.

These are all highly technical questions, which don’t push a student into the mental corner of thinking they are not emotional enough or are inadequate as a person.

The result of working backwards form end result (nuance ) to expressive (since a piece played with nuance is expressive) is that a student recognizes the nature of being expressive as something they can achieve that is not dependent on their real or imaginary psychological condition which may lead to all manner of complexes.


From al ku
Posted on January 26, 2007 at 12:11 AM
really good piece of info and profound insight. some deep carp. thanks.
From parmeeta bhogal
Posted on January 26, 2007 at 7:23 AM
Very thought provoking. Thank you Buri.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 26, 2007 at 7:51 AM
So true! Every time I play with real emotion, it hurts my performance, as I got distracted where I need all my concentration to make the it sounds right and the music flows properly. I thought this was just because I’m not quite there yet technically speaking. In a way it’s probably true and one day I’ll have the freedom to goof around when I play.

I believe this for some time that expressiveness in music and our daily emotions (joy, disappointment, sadness, etc.) must be categorically different things. They are related of course, and I suspect that the former describes the later and the later may inform the former, but to equate the two or to reduce one to the other is a result of a conceptual mistake. I mean, how many of us would spend money to feel the real sadness we sometimes experience in our life? Yet many of us do not hesitate to pay big money to listen to music (or watch sad shows for that matter) which often arouse some deeply sad feelings. More interestingly, when one is depressed, playing sad music often eases the pain or at least makes the wrenching quality of pain go away. But if they were the same kind of emotion, you would expect the sadness be deepened or intensified.

From Sarah Vandemoortele
Posted on January 26, 2007 at 9:42 PM
Very interesting! Please, could you paraphrase your last sentence? I don't quite catch it and I feel it's important.
Nowadays I'm very concerned about finding a good stage attitude which suits me. I'm very aware of the two attitudes as you described people can have and I'm certainly not the knight-fighting-for-his-life-on-the-battlefield-type. The thing is, while doing everything to avoid I get absorbed by the music, instead of transferring it, I basically only listen to my playing, judging it constantly to know objectively how the audience hears my music. However that doesn't make me being involved of course and it certainly doesn't make me communicate. Then I get comments like "your playing sounds practiced, but it's not alive at the moment, you don't display your heart." (My professor has a specific gesture for that: take your heart out and put it on the table :-))
Displaying your heart in a communicative way asks a lot of courage and personality though, which I maybe might not have... I wonder whether I can learn it, even if I'm a shy person.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 26, 2007 at 10:27 PM
how do you feel when you are giving a gift to someone you love? How do they repsond?
Can you perform from this perspective. When you play to yur teacher look at him and consciously use the sam,e experience. 'This is my gift to you." When you play to an audience choose a person and really try to connect with them. "This is a present for you." Imbue the action with the samme attention and focus as when you give you mother a Christmas present or your boyfriend or whatever. Not a casual glance in the face and then move elsewhere.
This may help.
Also try not focusing on your playing sound. Instead watch a DVD over and over of your fvaorite palyer. Get taht image in your head. Now, your purpose when playing is simply to -look- exactloy like that perosn as they would play the piece in question.
Very powerful tool.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 27, 2007 at 5:22 AM
Amen, Buri.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 27, 2007 at 6:03 AM
did I die? ;)
From Nicholas DiEugenio
Posted on January 27, 2007 at 7:06 AM
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 27, 2007 at 8:51 PM
In other words, you have to mean it when you play. Just like when you say something to a person, you mean every word of what you are saying. So, instead of saying “play it with emotion”, we really should say “play it with intention!” or “play as you mean it!” And if I can connect with a great violinist and to convey to my audience the same intention that the great violinist conveyed to and touched me, then hopefully I’ll be able to touch my audience. Am I getting it?
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on January 27, 2007 at 9:50 PM
actually I wondered if tahtw asn't an intelligent rewording of the original problem? Play it with intention sounds rather like something the self will interpret in the same way, samme old patterns.What I am always lookling for is ways to short circuit them so the genuine stuff coes out.
One thing that definitly helps is to stampy your foot the moment before you play.
Incidentally, an interesting thing cropped up last night. I was coaching an orchestra in the 1812. the cello opening was rather bad and ten rets wasn't uch better so I asked who actually knew the content of the work stroy wise. The repsoinses remminded me of the Woodey Allen classic:
"I tok a speed reading course once. We studied War and Peace- it was about Russia.'
So I exmplained about how the russian weather killed 490 000 oiut of an ary of half a million, that the opening might be seen more as pareyerfrom grieving women demanding as only women can to a diety why human nature has to be so stupid. A sort of bitte rpain appropriate to a church.
Then the cellos played again and....
it was even worse!
So I looked at the score and noted that they were beginnign all their crescendos a bar too soon and the three time that a legato as opposed to tneuoto/portato 8th note occured tehy weren't makign any distinction.
That got the right sound immediatley.
From Laurie Niles
Posted on January 27, 2007 at 11:42 PM
Maybe the metaphors work better when the students are at least close with the technique. But expression comes as a result of technique, no amount of "feeling" will help in the absence of expressive technique.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on January 28, 2007 at 1:30 AM
Now this is extremely clear to me, eveb though I need to put it to practice to fully appreciate it. Thanks Buri and Laurie!

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