Having feelings vs. Having a musical-expressive vocabulary

September 11, 2009, 11:46 AM ·

I enjoyed reading V.com member Brian Hong's piece earlier this week about people playing pieces before they are ready. Brian is 15, and his thoughts provoked a veritable flame war. I know, from being on the Internet nearly as long as Brian has been alive, that it's a little weird to be the author when something like that happens, but Brian, it's all goodness. You made people argue, talk...even think.

In fact, the piece and ensuing discussion make me think about the issue of being ready for a piece. I believe Brian was referring mostly to people being technically ready, though he did touch briefly on people being expressively ready to play a piece.

And this is where my thoughts picked up: when is a student ready to play a piece, from the standpoint of expression?

I've heard the idea that sometimes children and teenagers aren't ready to play a piece because they don't have enough “life experience” to understand the feelings in a piece. I don't buy it. I've even heard of teachers saying that their student needs to “go get your heart broken a few times” before they can really understand most music.

How condescending, and how myopic.

You don't need your feelings inflamed and raked over by a love affair to claim ownership real emotion in life. Everyone has feelings -- deep feelings -- including children. These include: love, loss, longing, joy, exhilaration, panic, boredom, anticipation, excitement, melancholy...the list goes on.

Music is the universal language of feelings, and though your exhilaration might come from falling in love, mine might come from Northwestern University actually winning a football game. A two-year-old's might come from going down the big slide on the playground.

I can remember when my daughter was four years old, and she was visiting a friend that she had not seen in a while. When they saw each other, they bellowed each other's names from across the park, broke into a run, charged at one another, hugged, laughed, jumped up and down, and ran off together.

The other mother looked at me and laughed, “Imagine if we greeted each other like that!” We talked through the whole scenario, how we'd drop our purses, run at each other, scream at the top of our lungs...

Yes, kids have feelings, you might even argue that they feel them more fully than adults do. They are not immune to pain: parents divorce, friends turn on them, the family moves to a new and strange city. They are not emotionally empty slates.

So please, do not write off a child's expressive capabilities; they have plenty on which to draw. Before saying they are not “emotionally ready,” ask, have their lessons made them musically prepared? Are they building a musical-expressive vocabulary?

Building a musical-expressive vocabulary starts with simple expression, just as it does when learning  vocabulary in a  foreign language. You learn phrases and context, and later, you will put them together in your own, unique way. But first, one has to learn the conventions. For example: The staccato that feels bouncy, the legato that feels smooth; the musical interruption that feels startling; the low, quiet ascending pattern that feels sneaky. A teacher should help a student connect the feeling and the music, and build that connection into their musical vocabulary. The larger this vocabulary, the more tools the student will have for self-expression down the line.

Lacking a musical expressive vocabulary is not the same thing as lacking feeling or emotion. The musical vocabulary is teachable. And the feelings are there, you can be assured.


September 11, 2009 at 04:57 PM ·

Laurie - I think your point is interesting, but I am not sure I totally agree.  To be sure, there are technical issues, e.g., to really play the Bach S&Ps with some feeling, you probably have to have a certain level of technique and understand some music theory,  Assuming technical competence and an adequate knowledge of theory, there is no question that a young person can infuse a piece with some feeling that wil speak to us.  But I am not sure that ends the debate.  When my father was a student at CCNY in the 1930s, the German Department would not let anyone under 40 teach Goethe's Faust.  I suspect that a similar rule would be reasonable for King Lear.  For a music example, I would note that what are/were commonly considered the gold standard recordings of the Mozart Sonatas for violin and piano (Goldberg/Kraus, Szeryng/Habeler, Grumiaux/Haskil) were made by performers who were at least in their 30s.    So, at some point, someone who has more "life experience" is likely to have a lot more to say and a lot more feeling to put out there.  A related issue discussed in a thread some time ago was recordings of Bloch's Baal Shem trilogy.  These pieces have fairly significant cultural and ethnic context and may have been best played by violinists who have/had fairly close ties to the milieu from which the pieces originated.  So, I think it really depends on what you are looking for.

September 11, 2009 at 05:38 PM ·

"...the feelings are there..."  Yes, agreed.

My own experience as a child was that I always had a strong, passionate reaction to music.  I didn't have all the life experience, but the feelings were powerful.  That hasn't changed, but the technical mechanism is a little better (insert smiley face here).  The shoes get re-heeled sometimes too (insert another smiley face here).

And Brian wrote a great blog, well written, thoughtful, and caring.  It was nice to see a 14 year old care so much about music and students, especially because so many older people really trash the Gen Ys these days.

September 11, 2009 at 06:04 PM ·

 I thought that Yehudi Menuhin had more to say as a young prodigy than as an adult. 

Who can say what the link is between life experience and artistic expression?

Mozart's letters don't reveal him to be a philosopher or deep thinker but his music is very deep and profound.

September 11, 2009 at 07:39 PM ·

ok, Laurie...you redeemed yourself

Lacking a musical expressive vocabulary is not the same thing as lacking feeling or emotion. I do agree...

feeling & emotion = age & wisdom

September 11, 2009 at 11:55 PM ·

Interesting point.  I think that the most important thing (which is also most often lacking in younger players) is the insight to really look at a piece and be able to feel the emotions.  I have no doubt that younger players can play just as emotionally (if not more so) as older, more experienced ones, but I have found that the difference is that the overwhelming majority of younger players don't bother to investigate the emotional depth of pieces further than the ink on the page.  It is difficult to tell if that is the teacher's oversight or the student's, or both.

September 12, 2009 at 07:44 AM ·

Hi, y'all.

I'm basically just an adult beginner on the violin, but I suspect another aspect not explicitly mentioned at least in this thread is the emotional maturity (vs simply having little controlled feelings of a child or grown-up kid for that matter :-) ) that may be needed for a richer and/or more refined expression of music.  And of course, there are degrees of each aspect, not just a cut-and-dry 100% "have" or "have not" kind of thing -- and certain things can work in opposite directions as well.

Yes, I know I'm using a bit of loaded terms and references there.  And yes, I'm aware that it's quite possible that some pieces of music just work better (for some listeners) w/out the same degree of emotional maturity (or perhaps, rather, self-awareness).  Don't forget that a lot of this stuff is subjective afterall.  One person's refined expression could easily be another person's boring, emotionless, even robotic, playing, eg. Jascha Heifetz.  Another's fiery, mercurial expression could be someone else's tasteless, vulgarity disguised as virtuosic violin playing, eg. didn't Leopold Auer famously hate "excessive" use of the vibrato? ;-)  And of course, these things can vary depending on the occasion too as we all don't feel and respond in exactly the same way to exactly the same degree at all times.

RE: the reference to certain musical geniuses like Mozart, he may not be a good, convincing data point to use since he seems to be so unique w/in all of music history -- unless you want to argue to the extreme that just anyone can realistically be trained to become equal to Mozart. ;-)  Then again, personally, I don't really "get" much of his music myself, but I guess I'm the relatively vulgar type who prefers my classic music to be a bit more "red-blooded" and romanticized (or at least more apparently "serious") than is usually displayed in Mozart's music, whether due to tradition imposed restrictions on musical practices or actually due to his compositions themselves.  Many others find his music divine (or angelic) and highly refined while I find much of his works boring (or often just a bit childish) -- and I'm even **tempted** to agree w/ a small minority who thinks Mozart is actually not that original as an artist, but rather derivative. ;-p  To be sure, I do like certain pieces of his works, but I'd say, by and large, almost none of his works move me as easily or fully as various other famous composers both before and after him.

Now, I should add that I'm not opining that Mozart's works (or his musical mind in general) are indeed trivial in any manner at all.  I'm just saying most of them just do not *subjectively* work for me as much as they work for many others who adore/idolize him.  In that sense, perhaps, this is not much different than how one might perceive the musicmaking of a typical matured adult vs a child, assuming both have comparable musical vocabulary and technical skills, but are inclined to work them differently and thus likely reaching/moving different audiences in different manners to different degrees...

Hmmm...  Hope that wasn't too confusing to follow... ;-)



September 12, 2009 at 09:31 AM ·

I basically agree with this.  Student writers sometimes get the same sort of advice, that you can't really write until you have "lived," "fallen in love," "had your heart broken," etc. etc. I think that advice is similarly condescending and myopic.  Sort of.

Because I think there is a third axis on which readiness might be profitably considered, and that is readiness for performance.  I would argue that a player can be technically skilled enough, and possess a sufficient musical vocabulary to express his or her feelings, but still not be ready to perform on stage in front of a room full of strangers and judges.  (Similarly, a writer may have something to say, and may express it well, but not be ready to have the book or poem or story published widely, reviewed, and discussed by anyone and everyone).  There are degrees of readiness, in this as in other criteria.  Someone might be more than ready to play in front of their grandparents, at the school talent show, or at church, but not at a statewide festival or national competition.

Performance is a skill that I think is rather separate from either technical skill or musical expressiveness.  And I think that life experience/maturity helps players overcome performance anxiety.  It helps them take the long view that one person's opinion or another doesn't really matter that much.  It helps people find their own voice, and stick to it.  It helps players understand that the point of performance is communication with the audience, rather than showing off or feeding the ego.

Some children have this quality of being great performers and communicators already at a very young age, I suppose, but it still needs to be nurtured carefully.  I don't really understand why adults think it's necessary to put young children in high-stakes performance situations, or why audiences go along with it.

September 12, 2009 at 01:07 PM ·

"Some children have this quality of being great performers and communicators already at a very young age, I suppose, but it still needs to be nurtured carefully.  I don't really understand why adults think it's necessary to put young children in high-stakes performance situations, or why audiences go along with it."

Karen, I totally agree!!!

As a late starter at 14, I swear to everyone I have always been the same musician "emotionally" with the same ideas but that the only thing that has changed is that now, I know how to name things and am better technically to "materialize" these thoughts I have always had. Even when I played for the first time and that it sounded like sh... , I knew it sounded like sh... and was so complexed about it because the music in my head was not sh... ! Even though it will never never never be finished!!!  Unstead of instinct it is getting that I can more and more "name" the concepts I want and seek.   I can tell the components I consider "emotion" and try to apply them.

Every student is a musician and should have his/her tastes, opinion and IDEA of what they want even though they do not know how to describe it and do it.  And this, since the first ever scratch on the instrument!  If not, it would be questionnalble...  if the kid is really a musician or if it is the parents who forced it to play... 

I believe super gifted kids are 50 (or more : ) times like what I described for me but at less than 10 years old (often).  But probably, they don't know more than any other one how to name it or why it is like this.  Because when you are young, it is all instinct (and the teacher's job is to show one how to express this "instinct" and give name to things)

Interesting discussion!



September 12, 2009 at 03:35 PM ·

 Mrs. Niles, I agree with you completely.  If we are never ready to play these pieces because of "life experience", when should we play pieces like the Brahms Concerto?  When we are 40?  It is preposterous.  Younger kids' emotions are much more raw, but just as, if not more, intense.

Take into account the teenage Mendelssohn.  His A Minor string quartet, op. 13, was written when he was truly in love, or he thought so at his tender age.  And the result is a genius piece of work.  And I didn't even mention the Octet!

September 12, 2009 at 04:13 PM ·

Laurie, I agree with you so, so much.  There are child prodigy musicians but no child prodigy poets, novelists, or painters.  Music is not only a language of the soul, but the first language of the soul to develop.  I sometimes used to hear a recording of a piece played beautifully and in a personally mature way by a 10 or 14 year old and ask myself, "How could he do that?  He hasn't experienced romantic love yet."  I decided that the understanding of romantic love is inborn.  We all have the capability, perhaps the genetic code, for it in our brains.  A deep, personal tragedy to an adult can be matched in intensity by a child who has lost a pet or a doll. 

I've heard professors of literature say that students really shouldn't read and try to understand certain books before the age of 40.  I believe that you can read something and get some good insights from it at the age of 16 and reread it at the age of 40 and get additional and/or different insights.  Christopher Parkenning has said that Segovia gave him a classical guitar transcription (by Segovia himself) of Bach's Chaconne and told him, "You can start studying it now, but you really won't be able to play it until you're 50."  He was referring to the emotional expression as well as the technical difficulties of the piece.  Segovia was wrong.  I've heard Parkenning play it both live and in a recording when he was only in his 20s, and his emotional expression and impact were fantastic.

A shortcoming of the Suzuki method of training is that he micromanipulated his students' expressions of their emotions.  This has helped further the misperception that kids can be trained in technique but not in expressing their own emotions.  This brings me to an important question:  How do we teachers encourage our kid students to find and express their own feelings in music?

September 12, 2009 at 05:59 PM ·

 Sorry for commenting again.  I completely agree with Ms. Lerner above.

I wanted to respond with a blog written by Mrs. Ruth Kuefler, a week ago, approximately.  This sums up Mrs. Niles' and Ms. Lerner's posts perfectly for me.


September 12, 2009 at 05:55 PM ·

First, apologies to Brian for lopping a year off his age, he is 15! Still mighty precocious...

Pauline, I think the key to teaching children expression is to view it more like teaching children a vocabulary. There are obvious examples in the pieces they learn, where a teacher can point to a little phrase, or a gesture, and talk about the way it feels and why. I think the problem comes when the teacher creates an entire story, without input from the child, giving them the impression, "That's what this means."

I can think of a few examples in the Suzuki books, in which I've pointed out to kids that something in the music feels dizzy because it's going up and down the four notes repeatedly, or something feels forceful because it is loud and in a majestic tempo, or something feels graceful because it has its genesis in dance, and five different kids come up with five radically different images or stories or references to fit the feeling. For one person it feels like the bus on the way to school, another thinks it's like doing a ski jump, another makes up a fantasy about a monster and a princess. The key is to point out the feeling (and by the way, they might think it feels like something else) and then let them run with it, instead of just simply helping them through the technical hurdles and then letting them saw through a piece, playing it like the tape they heard and never really thinking about any kind of musical meaning or expression.

September 12, 2009 at 10:22 PM ·

What Laurie describes above (for teaching music expression to kids) is roughly what my kids' Suzuki teacher does although I'm not sure how common that is -- I think most of the teachers in my kids' Suzuki program teach more or less like that.

In fact, our teacher even prefers to give the kids as much opp for decisionmaking (and developing some independence) as possible while still being in synch w/ the Suzuki curriculum and philosophy overall.  For instance, she prefers to let the kids decide to use their own words for the various Twinkle Variation rhythms, instead of having everyone use the same set of words -- of course, she guides them along in that decisionmaking process as much as necessary, but she doesn't dictate the results (nor the exact flow of the process).

In general, our teacher prefers to try various approaches to find one that suits the student best -- and my 2 kids have been quite different so far, and so I've seen the differences in actual practice.  The teacher is generally not quite as technically minded as some others though, so her own approach to music certainly strongly influences her teaching style here.  The moderately down side to all this is that my kids tend to take more time to work through certain technical aspects (and the curriculum) when compared to kids of certain other teachers in the program -- but my kids do generally seem to play w/ more self expression than most of the others at or somewhat above their level (and age) in the program.  Yeah, there are always gonna be some tradeoffs, but so far, so good me thinks -- and it's not like I was planning for my kids to become concert musicians anyway, not that I wouldn't like that... ;-)



September 12, 2009 at 10:01 PM ·

"From the mouth of babes", "oh, to be a kid again!", "No Johnny, just because Susie upset you doesn't mean you can tell her you hate her and wish she'd die." I could go on.

I'd contend kids are much freer with expressing their emotions than adults are. The difference is kids have not learned to control their emotions in a socially acceptable way yet (depending upon age, emotional development etc. And yes, some adults have not learned that either!). And, they don't have the vocabulary to express clearly the subtle differences in their range of emotion. NOT that they don't have the range of emotion, just that they don't know how to express it properly, at times. Other times (examples above - greeting a friend) they are far more express than adults are.

When it comes to music it takes training, experimenting, performing, getting feedback on performances, etc. to be able to get to the point where you can musically get across to the audience a range of emotions. What does it take to play the same line in a way that expresses love vs longing vs. sadness? Dragging the beat vs. pushing the beat, different vibrato speeds, difference delay on starting vibrato, different contact point on the string (bright sound vs. dark sound), etc. It comes down to matching up technical skills with emotions. "when I play like this it sounds happy, when I play like this is sounds sad, etc"

In the beginning (for kids, for "adult learners", for pros learning a new style) one has to learn the technical skills, one has to learn the notes for a piece, then one has to analyze the piece and think about which technical skill needs to be matched up with which part of the piece to convey the desired effect. For a long time that's a pretty "mechanical" process. Eventually the technical skills and the ability to call them up at the spur of the moment become second nature. That's when the emotional connection with the audience moves beyond immature performer to mature performer.

It's not just kids that aren't "ready" for pieces. Read/listen to yo yo ma talking about learning bluegrass / Appalachian music. The musicians he was working with took a while to get comfortable with him before they could tell have that he was "wobbling way to much, all of the time". He had to learn to play without vibrato. How long did it take before he got the musical vocabulary down before musicians who grew up with that style of music accepted his playing it as "authentic"?

Or, how hokey does it sound when an opera singer tries to "sound" country? Way to nasal, accent over done, etc. Right? It takes a while to learn a new style. Baroque vs. Romantic vs. Jazz vs. Rock.

Yet if one is not given the opportunity to dive in, not matter how "immature" it sounds at the beginning, how can a person ever grow? Imagine telling yo yo ma, "you're not ready to play bluegrass because you haven't farmed for years and experienced losing your entire crop!" It just wouldn't happen.

September 13, 2009 at 08:29 AM ·

Laurie, thanks for your suggestions.  I will try them and see how the kids respond.

In a similar vein, I remember getting an assignment when I was in grade school to write a short story based on Walter de La Mare's poem The Listeners. Our teacher said that every student's story was unique, but the greatest range of interpretations came from the youngest students.  I suppose that the older students had had their imaginations smothered in the school system.  We don't want anything similar to happen to our violin students.  BTW, the poem still sounds very scary and rich with possible interpretations to me as an adult.

September 14, 2009 at 11:27 AM ·

 I'm torn...while I totally agree with Laurie's point that kids have strong emotions, and can translate them to playing, I believe it's also true that what develops a bit later is nuance.  In the same way that a young child can adaquetly express thoughts and ideas in word, young children can communicate emotion.  But, an older child has more 'tools in the toolchest' so to speak, whether in be in language or music.  They understand sublety more, are able to read behind the immediate to the unspoken nuances and shadings of words.  

That is an ability that develops gradually in all areas of a childs life...in general it will be true that a 10 yr. old has far more grasp of nuance than a 7 yr. old, a 15 yr. old is worlds beyond a 10 yr. old (witness our Brian as an example :), and which of us as adults don't look back and realize how much greater our understanding of nuance is at say 30 than 18.

I do believe that nuance in an important part of musical espression. I'm not at all prepared to say that a child cannot play expressively, as I believe they can.  Still, I think it's probably true that for any given child, the expression they would bring to a piece at age 8 will be very different than what emotions the same child might bring to a piece at age 12.  It has be be so, otherwise, we are arguing that this is not an area that 'develops' with maturity.

Just my conflicted two cents worth...  cheers!

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