Expression Without Fear

Reluctance to play emotively may come from a societal taboo against “being emotional”. But music is a safe venue through which it is considered acceptable to express emotion; in fact, if you don’t, the music isn’t very interesting to listen to. A tune’s emotion might simply be happiness or pensiveness, but it needs to be there, and it makes the music more than just a series of notes.

Sometimes when I ask a student to play expressively, they don’t. But when I ask them to over-emote, the result is more sufficiently expressive. It can take some convincing to believe that such a degree of emoting is what is needed to create audible musical expression. It’s nearly impossible to over-emote musically (unless you’re in an orchestra, where being emotive can prevent you from blending in appropriately).

Emoting musically does not, however, mean there should be exaggerated facial expressions or body language, which look silly. Nor do we need to look completely deadpan; I get a kick out of watching old video of folksingers in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, in which performers’ faces are so devoid of expressions that it’s almost comical, considering the emotive content of the songs. In fact, I recall a recording company agent telling my sister and me that we’d have to lose the facial expressions and body language if he signed us on. These days it’s very different for rock and pop singers, and better for folksingers and instrumentalists. But it’s still possible to overdo facial and body language, and when we do it distracts from the music. Expression can more appropriately come through the actual music, rather than trying to cue an audience visually to what they should be picking up aurally.

Relaxation of Mind and Body

Natural body motions are, of course, a good thing when playing music. Relaxed movement results from, rather than being a substitute for, real musical expression. In fact, most of us should be allowing ourselves to move more with our music. Studies have been done on the effects of music on the body; music causes physical reactions such as production of endorphins, which in turn affect the immune system. It’s been shown that when people do not move with music they hear or play, there is little physical benefit, but when they do move with the beat, immune response and endorphin production are enhanced. (These studies were done with healthy people, and are not directly related to the playing of restful music for non-mobile patients in clinical settings, for whom specific types of music are immensely beneficial.)

You can tell when a player is relaxed because that’s how their music sounds. We admire musicians whose playing sounds effortless, even at fast tempos. Relaxation is necessary for playing all tempos and styles of music well.

Yet most of us are unaware of what we are doing with our bodies as we play. Many who play with tension in their hands and bodies have a subconscious assumption that physical effort is needed to play an instrument. The truth is that physical movement and mental energy are necessary, but not physical effort. Instrument playing isn’t like weight-lifting or wrestling.

There are many who actually make strange faces or strange movements or postures when playing, and are so lost in concentration they have no idea they’re doing it. These can actually hinder one’s playing. It’s a good idea to consult with an ergonomist who can tell you what you are doing that hinders your playing and show you what will help instead. And your mirror is your friend, as is video, so you can see if you’re doing anything unsightly that can distract your audience or detract from your playing. Relaxation is a result of good technique and good ergonomics.

To relax the body, the mind must relax, and vice versa. A relaxed mind is free to focus on the task at hand, and a relaxed body is prepared to cooperate with your intention. Let’s look at more ways to achieve mental and physical relaxation:

Conscious Breathing

Subconsciously, our breathing expresses our state of mind. When we purposely control our breath, it affects our state of mind. It’s a two-way street. Interestingly, we can use our breath consciously to enhance musical accuracy and expression.

When we purposely breathe slowly and deeply, we relax; when we breathe faster yet deeply we are energized. When we breathe shallowly and quickly we get agitated. Conversely, those states of mind when brought on by other influences will produce those types of breathing. No wonder that we are told to take slow, deep breaths when someone wants us to calm down: it works.

In performance, the breath affects, is affected by, and communicates how we feel about the music we play. Yet many musicians breathe shallowly, unsteadily, or not at all while playing. Some musicians gasp or pant while playing.

Our brains and muscles need a constant supply of oxygen. Shallow breathing or holding the breath deprives us of oxygen, which in turn negatively affects our physical and mental ability to play. Deep, slow breathing oxygenates the brain and, since muscles need oxygen to carry lactic acid (a by-product of muscle use) away, the more oxygen being delivered through the blood stream, the better. If you’ve ever wondered why the ends of phrases fall apart, or why your playing gets rougher toward the end of a tune, it might not be a practice problem  –  it might be a breathing problem. If you’re not breathing well, the lack of oxygen makes it harder to play well.

Conscious breathing can be applied even to short segments that are problematic. Whenever you’re concerned about accuracy, or when a difficult passage is coming up, concentrate on taking a deep, slow breath. The extra oxygen will help, as will the distraction, allowing your hands to do what they know how to do without added stress.

Another good practice is breathing to match your musical phrasing. It’s easier to use dynamics (loud/soft), and also to keep steady tempos this way. You will find that your music “breathes” with you. Practice conscious breathing into each piece. With practice over time, it will become habitual.

Focused Practice

There is so much that must be done in practice: learn pieces, develop kinesthetic skills, improve technical skills, decide what expressive tools to employ, memorize fingerings, and much more. We need to set aside part of our practice time to concentrate on each skill separately as well as together.

Additionally, set aside part of each practice time for focus, which means relaxing into playing your pieces and exercises very slowly, and concentrating deeply on the sound and feel of each note. When you later play the same pieces at normal tempos, you’ll notice tone, smoothness and expression have been enhanced.

Focus is not tension, but relaxed concentration. I call it concentricity. Some call it “being in the zone”. Being focused is a meditative or at least a contemplative state of mind.

Developing the ability to focus deeply on the smallest nuances of your playing has several benefits; it teaches you how to play without being distracted by outside occurrences, it shows you how much is really going on in the music, and it shows you that even the most subtle elements of playing can be purposely manipulated. Most importantly, it makes practice more productive.

Focused practice translates into focused performance. Performance can be so much more than just getting the notes right. Using the subtleties and endless variety of tone and dynamics, music comes expressively alive.