Expressive Playing  –  Second Installment:

Melding Technique and Expression

Accuracy without expression is just organized sound, and expression without accuracy is just disorganized sound. Notes are just notes, and feeling is just feeling; neither by itself is sufficient. But when you put the two together, you get music. A musician must be both a technician and an artist.

An exclusive inclination toward one or the other can limit one’s chances of becoming a well-rounded musician. We must purposely develop whichever skills come less easily, to become equally capable of using technical skills and expressive skills to create a complete package of excellent musicianship.

It takes time and patience. The brain actually has to build new neurons for each ability, connecting them with other neurons, encoding each with specific information, and then supporting and securing that information with repeated experience. It can take years to put it together. Let it.

Kinesthetic Playing

What makes “multi-tasking” possible is muscle memory; playing an instrument is largely a kinesthetic skill when well practiced. If we try to think about or watch every note being played, we will never play reliably at even the slowest tempos. That’s what repetitive practice is for; it trains the brain and the muscles to play on autopilot.

Muscle memory is quicker and more reliable than conscious thought. (Without it, we wouldn’t even be able to tie our shoes. Yet we automatically tie our shoes everyday without thinking about it.) Playing an instrument can be like that. Muscle memory (kinesthetic playing) comes from sufficient repetition of a movement or sequence of movements. Therefore, fingerings have to be consistent; in other words, we have to use the same fingerings every time within a tune until they become automatic. Otherwise your fingers will be forever confused. Consistent fingering should be used from the very first time a tune is played.

Tempo, Beat and Rhythm

Three basic and compelling elements in music are tempo, beat and rhythm. These are intimately related. Tempo is how fast or slow a piece of music is played; beat is the pulse of the piece, and rhythm is how the lengths of notes create patterns within the beat. In most music, those factors must be easily discerned in order for it to be appreciated on any level, conscious or subconscious.

Music’s tempos, beats and rhythms can affect those of the human body: heart beat, respiration, brain waves; and the psyche (states of mind). You can purposely use these inherent elements of music to enhance performance; it is, in fact, what all good performers do. (Please see my books Body Mind and Music and Singing the Universe Awake.)

I’ve occasionally heard someone say they don’t want to play with a steady tempo because they think it will make the music sound metronomish or unexpressive. This indicates a lack of understanding what tempo and rhythm are for, how to hear and feel them, and how to be expressive within the parameters of these very essential elements of music.

Do you feel rhythmically challenged? Do you have trouble counting beats? Can you dance? If not, playing expressively may be a challenge. To overcome the feeling of being rhythmically challenged, take classes in ballroom dancing, bellydancing, jazz dancing, or aerobics. At the very least take drumming lessons  –  not just New Age drumming (which doesn’t have the structure and attention to varied complex rhythms) but Irish bodhran or even rock n’ roll. Take them seriously and get good at it. When you have been taught how to feel a beat and a rhythm, and you have moved your whole body to it, you will have crated new neural pathways that will re-wire your brain rhythmically. It will make a huge difference in your ability to play your other instrument(s) well.

Expressive Imagery

What you wish to express through a specific piece of music may be the feeling that came to you when you first heard (or perhaps composed) the piece. But the notes alone won’t give your listeners the same experience. If you wish to have your music evoke specific responses, you have to create them.

Of course, songs with lyrics are expressed through the words, as long as you pay attention to how the words would be expressed if you were speaking. (The biggest difference between folk and classical singing is that folk songs are about the lyrics and classical songs are about the tone.) Emphasize the words and syllables you would express when speaking, but keep it musical. (More on this in a future blog.)

Instrumental music is storytelling without words. Many pieces of music evoke visual images for the player or for the listener. Your own images can help you express your music more fully. Holding an image in your mind will automatically affect how you play the piece, and even though your listeners may not “see” the same image you do, it’s likely they will hear more in your music than if you have no image in your mind.

Decide whether the piece should evoke playfulness, melancholy, joy, loneliness, love, and so on. If you can feel these yourself as you play, your audience is likely to feel them accordingly. It’s like method acting, in which an actor doesn’t just go through the motions but actually feels an emotion in order to portray it well. A good musician brings their own life experiences, convictions, and states of mind to their art. Don’t, however, fall into a trap of having all your music evoke one sentiment. Variety is essential!

Plan Ahead of Playing

While playing each phrase, instead of listening to see how it comes out, hear the next phrase in your head exactly the way you’d like it to come out. Think of it as being like streaming video. When you do this, your playing becomes more accurate and more expressive because you are at cause instead of at effect; you are creating every phrase in advance so it comes out the way you want it to.

The expression of a piece is not static; if it were it would just be a formulaic manipulation of dynamics and note values. How a piece is expressed can and should change from performance to performance. You might hold some notes longer, but the next time you play the piece you might not. You might play louder here and softer there. Or it may be played faster or slower according to your mood or that of the audience. If you try to play it the same way every time, it will just become stale. Who you are changes as your thoughts, experiences and emotions change, and your music can express who you are in the moment.