"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.
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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