Forget Playing with 'Feeling': Build Your Musical Expression

December 20, 2017, 1:00 PM · "Play it again, with feeling!"

When I was a student, I found this to be a baffling request. More feeling? What am I supposed to be feeling that I'm not feeling? How do I insert "feeling" into something I've already learned how to play?

As a teacher, I avoid demanding "more feeling." Why? Because it's a non-specific and unhelpful request.

Musical expression, like spoken expression, takes time to learn. It's a long-term project that involves developing a musical-expressive vocabulary, learning to use it, and then ultimately, making it your own. As with a small child learning to speak, those first efforts at musical expression will involve some parroting, awkward mis-steps and general floundering, before one eventually learns to use it with ease and fluency.

Another quote, from the painter Edgar Degas, better illustrates the goal: "Art is not what you see, it is what you make others see." The idea holds for music: Music is not what you hear, it is what you make others hear.

bow and palette

In music, we paint with sound, and sound is the element we must analyze, understand, replicate and mine for meaning. Sound can be loud like a train, or quiet like a whisper. It can startle; it can start from nothing and build. It can fully fill the air, or it can alternate with silence. Pitches can be consonant or dissonant. Rhythms can simulate all kinds of motion: walking, dancing, stumbling, gliding.

Musical expression -- or "feeling" -- comes from deeply understanding the many sounds that one's instrument can make and then sculpting those sounds into something meaningful. It involves both the understanding, and the technique to execute those sounds and ideas. If you understand the human significance in sounds but can't create them, your music won't likely connect. If you can create sounds but can't understand how to sculpt them, your music won't likely connect.

If you seek to have "more feeling' in your own playing or in the playing of a student, then start small. Exactly what is the particular feeling, in this specific piece of music, in this passage, in this note, that you wish to create? Just to get you thinking this way, here are a few examples that I've found myself telling students over the years:

Musical expression requires both imagination and technical engineering. Come up with specific expressive ideas and figure out how to make your audience feel those things through sound. This is how you build an expressive musical vocabulary. The wider-ranging your vocabulary, and the more you learn to apply it, the more your playing will naturally become more expressive.

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December 20, 2017 at 08:03 PM · May I add an article by philosopher Stephen Davies that paraphrases you in its title? Here it is, "Once Again, This Time with Feeling":

Davies, too, seems to be dissatisfied with such requests during lessons... It's an approachable text to read for anyone out here!

(EDIT: I don't manage to show the link entirely, but Researchgate should allow you full access to the article.)

December 20, 2017 at 08:54 PM · Thanks Laurie,

Personally, I prefer the concept of ownership of the piece. Not, of course, to the point where what is played is no longer recognizable, but just enough you to make this rendition yours.

December 21, 2017 at 12:14 AM · This is very useful. I love the analogy of learning to talk. I am learning to "talk" with my violin, but I have to learn the right words first.

December 21, 2017 at 05:08 AM · This is a very nice, thorough explanation of musical expression.

Yes, it's the forming of these expressions in just the way we want them, which makes playing the violin so hard, but yet can be so rewarding!

December 21, 2017 at 06:15 AM · Very well said, and true. I never thought about it this way but you are spot on!

December 21, 2017 at 12:54 PM · That's very helpful. Thank you!

December 21, 2017 at 03:05 PM · Thank you Laurie! I have recently started making notations in my music (I'm an intermediate-possibly early advanced player) and it has made a HUGE difference for me.

Can you comment on the "creating a story" or "what stories does this piece bring up for you?" questions revolving around playing various pieces of music? I find it takes me a long time to dig into that aspect, and I'm hesitant to pin a "story" to the work on the spot - does it become easier the longer/more frequently one does this?

December 21, 2017 at 03:31 PM · I think it also has to do with shyness? Similar to public performance of speaking some text, some story. You don't tell a story in a monotone voice. Very shy young students would probably tell the story in such a monotone voice. But if they were to tell the story to their grandpa, or to their pet, or to their sister, they would open up. The teacher has to convey the same about playing a musical piece. You can ask, what would you play strongly, which parts softly, where would you speed up a little bit, where would you slow down, would you play this staccato, or legato, or... This then nicely connects to the various techniques they are learning. I guess this is exactly what Laurie is saying too. All my best wishes everyone!

December 21, 2017 at 04:00 PM · Thanks for the whole blog, but in particular for being specific and helpful with what you are supposed to do when the music is a dance. There are a lot of dances in Baroque music and students tend to hear that comment a lot--play it like a dance! But today's dances tend to be more free-form and otherwise different from dances in Bach's time. So you're often left wondering, what do they mean?

December 21, 2017 at 08:08 PM · Karen's right. Period dances have different flavors. One of my teachers got very specific with his explanations. "This music is to help the dancers pick their feet up quickly and lightly. That music should make them want to put their feet down rhythmically." And then we were shown how to do the dances. My son's cello teacher does the same thing.

December 21, 2017 at 09:04 PM · Pamela, when it comes to stories and music -- I don't think you can fix a specific story to a piece of music -- even though it is done all the time! Music can convey the feelings in the story, but music can't predictably convey the specific plot points of a particular story.

That said, story can be very helpful as inspiration to a composer or performer, as long as it truly relates to the music. A composer might have been very specifically inspired by a story and might even name his or her piece after that story. But it does not mean that the listener will think of that story when hearing the music by itself.

One example that comes to mind: long ago I attended a rehearsal of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, performed by Joshua Bell. Groups of school children also attended this rehearsal, and beforehand they were given a lecture, which I also attended. At the lecture, the speaker (it wasn't Josh) played a recording of the beginning of the Sibelius, and then in a very Socratic way, asked the kids, "So what did that make you think of?"

So these were public school children from southern California. Here's about how this exchange went:

Child 1: "The desert?"

Speaker: "Well no..."

Child 2: "Night time?"

Speaker: "Well not exactly..."

Child 3: "The Power Rangers?"

Speaker: "Nooooo...."

And then the speaker explained that Sibelius was from Finland, a place of cold icy landscapes, and this was his musical painting of a cold icy landscape.

But here were a bunch of kids, many who had never in their entire lives seen snow. Does this mean they were incapable of feeling this music, understanding it, enjoying it? I would argue that the fault here was in being too specific with this story, which was not the "truth" or the "meaning" of the music. Maybe it was an inspiration for Sibelius, and also maybe it's good for children to know. But they aren't wrong if they hear in that introduction the desolation of the desert, or the stillness of night, or some kind of power they associate with one of their heroes.

December 22, 2017 at 12:19 AM · Another great blog, Laurie, thank you! I also find that if I stop singing in my head, I stop playing with feelings. So I try to always sing in my head even when I'm working on chunks to fix technical issues. It's more fun but not always easy, especially with double stop scales.

December 22, 2017 at 01:10 AM · Thank you for this blog, it's very helpful.

December 23, 2017 at 02:08 PM · I love this article. I have had similar thoughts about those instructions “play it with feeling”, and never found that’s particularly useful for helping students play expressively. This is so helpful, especially the part about turning things around and asking the student to consider the feeling or impressions that they would like to evoke in the listener. Thank you!

December 24, 2017 at 06:05 AM · In my own experience, I find that feelings and ideas about the spirit of the piece come from careful study of the score.

If you don’t know what you want the score to sound like, how can you ever play it the way you like?

I was at a fascinating masterclass with Miriam Fried (who teaches at the NEC in Boston) the other day, and she kept asking students, ‘How would you describe the sound here?’, ‘What’s the character of this phrase?’, and then tying to figure out with them how they could do that on the violin.

And it made me realize how few players actually have a really powerful and clear vision of what they want. When she would ask the students, a lot of them had to think a long time before answering.

December 24, 2017 at 06:57 PM · This is a great blog, Laurie.

What's helped me the most is my teacher saying things like, "Aim this phrase into the downbeat of that measure." The specific clarity about what I should be trying to achieve helps me figure out what the line should be.

December 25, 2017 at 05:40 AM · Writer Reshetkin mentions Miriam Fried.....being a Bartok non-admirer, I attended a rehearsal and concert of Ms Fried doing Bartok #2...thinking of how I was not going to enjoy nor marvel at either composer nor performer, I was completely converted...watching her almost deep-knee bends with the phrasing and body language and wide dispersion of 'expression', knowing the incongruity of the texture and how she spun it into a sensible, lush and perhaps Romanticized but wonderful experience...however, a mere recording might not have 'grabbed' with the same depth of, it was at the Chautauqua Institute, on a wondrous summer day, outdoors, with the lake a few yards away...yet her rehearsal performance and concert were each an unforgetable episode in my life.

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