Expressive Playing    –     First Installment

In good instrumental music there is much more going on than just the notes and the rhythm; the musician creates an image through music, letting it tell a story that affects the emotions of the listener. This is musical expression.

Expression isn’t a measurable thing; it can’t be defined in numbers or captured in one definition. Yet it is the crowning glory of good performance. How to play expressively isn’t often taught, because it’s so elusive and personal, yet we’re expected to learn how to do it.

Making the Best of Your Skill Level

Years ago, a friend of mine won third place in the annual dulcimer competition in Winfield, Kansas, an event at which top professionals vie for the title of National Champion. Yet my friend was an advanced beginner at the time. She won her prize because she played accurately and expressively, while the majority of the more advanced players had chosen to play pieces that were a bit beyond their skill levels and therefore were not played as well. The judges, wisely, weren’t listening for how many notes per second they heard, but how accurate and expressive the music was.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t challenge yourself. Challenge is how we improve our skills. Pushing beyond our current limits ensures that we keep improving, and we should always be working on new pieces that require learning new skills. Before they are thoroughly mastered, such pieces are excellent to play for our teachers, family, and in certain organized music circles where the purpose of sharing them is to challenge ourselves for the sake of gaining experience. But performing them before we’re ready isn’t effective or satisfying. When we perform formally, playing pieces with which we have absolute confidence is essential, and my friend who won third place in the national dulcimer competition proved that there is no shame in playing well at your own skill level!

Practice, by the way, does not need to be drudgery. Mere repetition isn’t the effective or fun. If practice were drudgery, there would be no good musicians.

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers points out that statistically what makes the top professional musicians so good is that they have given at least ten thousand hours to mastering their skill. This is not exaggeration, and the number isn’t just an estimate. But before you throw your hands in the air and give up, think about this: even if you don’t aim to be one of the top musicians in the world, you can still be very good; even five thousand hours devoted to your skill can make a huge difference, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes to accrue those hours. Start now and you’ll get there sooner or later. You deserve to be the best you can be, and what you are capable of may be way beyond what you’ve imagined thus far.

Don’t Get Ahead of Yourself!

Many  students who come to a new instrument already knowing how to read music, and who have experience on other instruments, have a tendency to attempt to play music that demands more technical skill than their hands have yet been trained for on the new instrument. There is a big difference between knowing how to read or hear or imagine a piece of music and actually having the technique to play it well. And there’s a big difference between the techniques for one instrument and another; they are often not interchangeable!

If you try to play music that is more advanced than you have the technique comfortably and securely in place for, your skills will not improve. Although it can be frustrating to be an advanced player on one instrument and a beginner on another, until your hands have good harp habits, don’t overload with musical demands you are not ready to meet. Allow yourself to be a beginner!

Goose Bump Music

Composers use specific elements to create evocative music. Interval and harmony, beat and rhythm are interwoven with melodic movement in purposeful ways that produce emotional response. Music actually stimulates the brain to release endorphins into the body; some listeners even report the feeling of “goose bumps”, which is a physical response to a rush of an endorphin called serotonin in the system. Endorphins produce a state of mind much like being in love; this is probably why musicians are “addicted” to playing music, and why most people listen to music often.

We respond physically as well as emotionally to specific resonances, tones, pitches, and harmonies. Different people respond differently, but there are certain things that are fairly universal  –   for instance, low tones at soft amplitudes are usually relaxing while high pitches and/or loud volumes are enervating; slow pieces in minor keys tend to be moody, and faster pieces in major keys are usually considered happier.

Tone Manipulation

The tone your instrument produces is dependent on how you play and how your instrument is made. Within the capabilities of your specific instrument, obvious aspects of tone that you can control when playing are volume and clarity. For stringed instruments, all aspects of tone are dependent upon the following:

  • How you hold the instrument: If the sound holes  are closed off against your body, the tone and volume will be compromised. And if your arms rest on or grasp the soundbox while playing, it damps the vibration and therefore the sound. For some instruments, cradling it too firmly against the body can damp the sound  (that’s why so many mandolin players use a basket-like contraption attached to the backs of their mandolins to hold them away from the body).
  • Where you pluck: If you pluck in the middle of the length of the string, you get the best tone. For special effect, you can occasionally pluck very close to the bridge (fretted instruments) or the soundbox (harps) for a crisp, nasal tone. Be careful, though, if you play a fretted instrument or a harp, not to let the hands habitually get higher than your heart; adjust how you hold the instrument if they are. Keeping the hands lower than heart level allows for best circulation and therefore best dexterity. No kidding.
  • How you pluck: the harder you pluck the string, the louder the note will sound. If you pluck too hard, you will hear an unpleasant noise. Experiment with the volume of your instrument. There are too many musicians who are afraid to pluck with enough oomph to bring out the full tone of their instruments. If your instrument cost you, say, $2500.00, why would you want it to sound like a $300.00 instrument? Also, if you don’t use the full range of volume, you can’t use dynamic nuances for expression. (dynamics = loud/soft.) Also, plucking with more gusto does NOT mean with more tension in the hand or arm.  See the next item…
  • Whether the fingers and hands are relaxed: if they are not, your music will sound as stiff as your hands feel. When the body, hands and fingers are relaxed, the music sounds smoother and the tone is better. If you don’t feel relaxed when you’re playing, find a teacher who can help you learn to eliminate tension. You’ll be so glad you did! Eliminating tension can sometimes catapult your skills forward so profoundly it will sound like you’ve had years more practice!


The tonal qualities you wish to bring out will differ from piece to piece and phrase to phrase, depending on the mood of the music and how you wish to express it.  The use of dynamics will help express your music.

We’ve all occasionally heard speakers who recite monotonously (mono = one; tone = sound). It’s annoying; after all, we don’t speak that way in conversation. Likewise, we certainly don’t want to play our music that way. Yet too often we hear musicians playing in a monotonous way; in other words, with no dynamics.

Remember, music is a language. Use the interplay of loud and soft (crescendo and decrescendo) as you would when speaking expressively.

Dynamics Exercise:

First, think of a sentence such as “I have not been to New York,” and repeat it aloud several times, emphasizing a different word each time. “I have not been to New York” implies that you, rather than someone else, have never been to New York. “I have not been to New York” might be a response to someone claiming you have been there. “I have not been to New York” might imply you’ve only been in the area or have studied about it. “I have not been to New York” implies you’ve been to other big cities even though you’ve not been toNew York.

Now, choose a short piece of music, and decide which parts you can call phrases. (In most tunes, melodies are set up much like sentences are in speaking. Where the commas in a sentence would be are where the phrases end and begin in music. If the tune has lyrics, phrases are easy to identify, but if there are no lyrics, you can use the shape and timing of the melody to figure it out.) Play the piece softly except for the last phrase. Then play it again emphasizing only the second-to-last phrase, and so on. You will find that the meaning or mood of the music changes dramatically depending on which phrases you emphasize. You can do the same with individual notes or short groups of notes.

There is a common tendency to play faster when playing louder, and slower when playing softer. This can negate the intended effects of dynamics. Practice the exercise above using a metronome to keep your beat steady as you purposely change volume. Being able to separate dynamics from changes of tempo will increase your expressive skills.

Don’t be afraid to use the entire dynamic range of your instrument, from the merest whisper to the loudest note you can possibly play. Only by experimenting with the full potential of your instrument will you know what it is capable of.