Teaching Expressive Playing

June 19, 2004 at 12:52 AM · I am writing a paper for Suzuki Pedagogy class on teaching expressive playing. While I have my own ideas on the topic, I was curious as to what everyone else thinks. How do you teach a student to be an expressive player?

Replies (24)

June 19, 2004 at 02:27 AM · I have no idea how to teach it, but I sure wish that I had been taught more than just louder and softer. I always feel like my playing is too mechanical.

June 19, 2004 at 02:31 AM · Greetings,

her are a few guidelines and rules of thumb thta spring to mind:

1) From the beginning teach the stuent to be aware of harmony and the musicla line as being part of a whole. Any expressivness that does not take this inot account has no value other than ego trip.

2) Teach the student to pay attention to what is written on the page. This may meaning for example, photocopyinh a page and then marking everysingle dynamic with a highlighter pen and have the students play every single one. One way to increase sensitivity to dynamics is to ahve the studnet play the exact opposit of each one...

3) Practice bowings exercise designed to give students control over dynamics and link this work to the work being done on music.

4) Have the student clap a new piece first and then sing it. The studnet must have learn to sing everything first.

5) Stress in every lesson that the violin is a singing instruemnt fiorst and foremost. Have the student listen to singers as well as sing themselves.

6) Have the students create stories and then play according to stories.

7) Net let a student get away with just playing anything. Asm them what each phrase or passage means to them in terms of character. It is very importnat to extend their linguistic vocabulary inorder to be able to articulate such ideas. It is actually a kind of chicken /egg situation. By learning to articulate idea morea ideas come along ans so forth,



June 19, 2004 at 02:40 AM · I am a student, but i have been asked by my teacher about this, since he believes i am the most musical out of his students. For me, i have always loved music. i was exposed to different styles of music by listening to cds, and going to A LOT of concerts. That helped me express music in my own way. Im not sure if expressiveness is something you can teach, i mean, you cant teach someone to enjoy music. I think its more of a devolpment and love for music.

June 19, 2004 at 03:29 AM · I am a dance/folk fiddle player. I have to be expressive enough for folks to dance. It's not easy but I get immediate feedback when I'm getting it right. It took me a long time. I memorize everything I play...usually without music and frequently off a CD. I then write down what I learned. It forces you to think. Then a few days later use the paper to get started but don't read off the paper until you get stuck. If you can't memorize or get mixed up you might have a navigation problem. I do. I used to start by learning the last measure and proceeding to the first measure when I had paper. Walk around and don't use a music stand except as a paperholder.

June 19, 2004 at 06:17 AM · I struggled with this, as I had a few teachers who seemed to feel this was either inborn or you just don't get it.

Having studied writing extensively and taken many courses in the mechanics (technique) of the written word, I came to see music in the same way. It is a means of expression, a language, and in order to use it effectively you must learn all of its quirks.

To teach this, I find it helps to be quite specific. A little poetry is nice, but nothing so broad that the student is left puzzled. For example, when I was studying Intro and Rondo Capricc, my teacher said to me, "More French, more French!"

I had absolutely no clue what he meant. He understood, he was European. I was a girl from Colorado who had never been out of the States. I finally asked him, "But what does that mean?" He had very little to say. I think he could have said something like, go listen to Debussy, Ravel, other pieces by Saint-Saens Organ, see what these pieces have in common. This piece is light, sophisticated, and specifically, it starts tipsy and keeps trying to stand up, or whatever...just something!

There are little feelings within every few bars of a piece of music. You just have to feel it yourself, then describe it for your student. It can be mocking, funny, holding back, running forward, dark, brooding, light, questioning, answering...It can also change 35 times in the same piece.

I think the mistake comes when a teacher tells a student, "This piece is a sad piece," or "It's French," or something totally overarching like that. It means nothing and doesn't help; it's just too broad.

June 19, 2004 at 01:13 PM · Greetings,

Laurie, that is so right! It is all to common to find that the music is not expressing itslef because of a simple tehcnical impediment . Changing a fingering to suit the student rather than your preconceptions of what is right... the student feles more relaxed and the music begins to flow.

Up to a point at least, the music is in the music.



June 19, 2004 at 06:08 PM · I start with the very young player (or beginning adult) teaching them variation. It is in the variation that our playing sounds musical. They need the tools and the inner musical initiative on how to use the tools will come later. I think the most important expressive tool is bow distribution. Bow speed. Anything that changes the sound with the bow, basically. Troubleshoot early. Some students get what I call the pulsing bow. Whaaah Whaahh. Where they release pressure after the pull on every note and think they are being musical. Or the swell. I don't think you can teach a student to be musical, but you can give them the tools and they will find the music through them on thier own. And that is my two cents worth. No student is ever to underdeveloped to start learning the finer aspects of technique...in my opinion of course. The sooner they learn to control dynamics, form phrases, and use the bow in all its different functions, the more expressive they will be without knowing it. Then, just wait until their personality hits the instrument!!! Now we're up to four cents. He he.


June 19, 2004 at 10:10 PM · Some very thought provoking answers, and I agree with everything that has been said.

Lately, I've been noticing a lot of advanced students that play very well, but there is...something missing. They are technically excellent, and aren't unmusical. They do the dynamics, phrasing, and articulations...but they just don't have that emotional connection to the audience. They don't play with love. I've heard so many of these technically perfect performances that just don't have heart. I believe that it is possible to be musical, but not expressive. I also believe that it is possible to be expressive, but not musical. Think of the performance of the kid that is technically a mess, but is playing their heart out.

I think that from the very beginning, we need to teach students to "wear their heart on their sleeve." Musicians at all levels can play with love. I like to tell my young students in Go Tell Aunt Rhody to "tell your mom how much you love her in your tone." Obviously, it is important to give students the tools to produce a good tone. But in my opinion, without love, it doesn't mean a thing.

June 19, 2004 at 10:56 PM · Sometimes I ask my students if they have ever been told that they have an "attitude". Then I tell them that with their violin, that is allowed. They can play with "attitude". They approach it much differently after that...wonder why?

June 20, 2004 at 02:40 AM · expressiveness is simple. put the fiddle down.

listen to the piece and hear the harmony first.

then sing the top line with feeling (or at least imagine singing it).

finally, pick up the violin and do what you imagined on the violin.

those are the exact steps people follow before they start to play, but we forget to keep doing those things once we start playing. i wonder why?

June 21, 2004 at 03:55 AM · This is a very interesting topic, especially for younger players, most of them do not have enough life experience to really organize their feeling (or still fighting the effect of hormones). One way you can try is to show them what is "expressive" and what is not "expressive" and why it is important. Unless they know why expressive playing is important and what good examples of violin expression are, it can be a frustration teaching experience.

June 21, 2004 at 07:17 PM · This is a really difficult issue, and one my jury is still out on: I often talk with my students about the character of the piece they're playing; I try to equip them with techniques necessary to bring out this character; in some cases, when it matters (performance pieces, for example), I will go as far as almost spoon-feeding expression, annotating the music with whatever words spark the desired result in the student. However, true expression is something you just can't contrive or fake, and after two years of teaching I have yet to encounter a student who spontaneously 'gets it', much less applies it in their playing. As a teacher, I think the best thing you can do is encourage your student to go to concerts and listen to recordings as much as possible, and hope that at some point they will be touched by something they've heard.

My own teacher has a theory about students who come from more repressive cultural backgrounds to study under her: that sooner or later they get romantically involved, and get their hearts broken... problem solved.

June 22, 2004 at 12:01 PM · Hi,

I don't think expressive playing can be taught. You can teach the means (dynamics, tone color, vibrato, ...) but not the feeling itself.

In my opinion, you'd have to find a piece that really "speaks" to the student (as in "talk to me" in jazz). That doesn't have to be a piece the student knows or even likes. My teacher has given me several pieces totally outside of my own "musical realm". Over a relatively short time, I've come to love those pieces (Klezmer, Franck violin sonata, ...) and now I can play them expressively - as far as my technique will permit me.

The late John Hartford said something like "teaching my hands to do what I hear in my mind" and that covers it precisely - there has to be something within that mind.

The biggest problem could be those people inwardly full of emotion but unable or reluctant to express those feelings (yours truly!). This can only be overcome by exposing oneself to the thing feared: get up on stage and ham it up. You'll never get rid of "stage fright" (I like the German term "Lampenfieber - klieg light fever" a lot better), but it'll change from something mortifying to a catalyst.



June 23, 2004 at 02:45 AM · Good point Juergen, although I don't believe a player's ability to play expressively can rightly be judged under performance conditions: for my part, my mind is as incapable of facilitating expressive playing on stage as if you asked me to read my journal aloud in front of a panel of judges... same difference...

June 23, 2004 at 03:08 AM · greetings,

the way to facilitate expressive rather than egotistic playing on stage that was taught me by Vivien Mackie is to play with the determination and attitude thta you are giving a gift to a specific individual in the audience,



June 23, 2004 at 11:20 AM · My old piano teacher used to always have me make up a story to the piece and picture it as I was playing; which worked well as you are always trying to play to fit the story.


June 24, 2004 at 01:23 AM · Buri, you are so right about making a performance a gift to the audience. When I was recently doing a runthrough of my recital, my teacher stopped me in the middle of the Brahms Concerto and gave me that same advice. I thought of my husband, and it completely changed everything, both musically and technically. I had forgotten to play with love...how silly of me!

June 26, 2004 at 05:51 AM · I forgot...you have to smile...smile...maybe frown in some places. If you have a frozen face you may have trouble with expression. The great players have learned to transfer their face expression to their hands...that's why they can have a hard professional look...but until then, remember...don't grimace when you do something wrong...it's so common. When our group plays we have to be reminded to smile 'cause we are all concentrating.

June 26, 2004 at 08:57 AM · I've discovered that know the background of the piece helps me incredibly. For example, when I was learning VonGluck's "Melodie," I just thought it was a sweet, pretty piece. After I learned the story surrounding it, the piece came alive to me, and I began playing it with much more emotion. And yea, facial expressions help a lot.

June 26, 2004 at 04:32 PM · Unless you recently had botox injections...

June 27, 2004 at 06:40 AM · If music is a language, then I think it's a good idea to show how it relates to speaking. Listen to the ways that your students speak. They all have their own ways of communicating that they find to be the most comfortable. Even the insecure and shy ones know how to express themselves when they are speaking to people with whom they are most comfotable.

Make your studenys aware of tone of voice, sentence structure, inflections used in questioning, answering, exclaiming, sighing, weeping, muttering, enunciating, demanding, etc.

When going through a piece, have your student think about the tone of the piece, the mood/s it sets. Look at the phrasing. Have the student draw humps to show where each phrase is, and have them put a star or arrow where they want their most important note to be. Have them think about inflection of the phrase, whether it has a strong ending or a soft. Have them also look at the strings of phrases and how they build upon each other. Help them to see the story in each piece, and then have them tell it with their instrument the way they would if they were speaking it themselves.

June 27, 2004 at 09:03 AM · Greetings,

Emily is making an importnat point I think. I also belive that a highly developed language sense is directly related to emotional development, increased range of feelings and such which are reflected in playing expressively.



December 1, 2004 at 01:41 AM · Well, as a violin student who loves playing the violin almost more than anything, I have to say that the one thing that I believe was the main factor in developing my deep love for classical music was simply listening to music. I listen to it all the time, and that really helped me learn how to truly express myself when making that music myself. Another thing I remember a former piano teacher of mine used to tell me all the time was "sing the music in your head while you play it." I've always remembered that and I think that was also helpful.

December 1, 2004 at 03:26 PM · Probably the best way to approach the topic for a paper is to decide what is the scope of your topic.

Expressiveness can be outlined through a general strategic view, such as when in a student's overall learning progress can it be introduced, and/or microscopically, when in the process of learning a piece should it be introduced. (The age of a student and their particualr technical abilities will be a factor depending upon the piece of music being played/studied)

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