We’ve all heard performances where we were awed by the music. Usually this happens when the music seemingly transcends the musician, and sometimes even the composition, when some kind of magic seems to happen. The musician may be awesomely skilled, but beyond technical prowess there is also an indescribable quality that goes far beyond the notes being played.

What is this elusive thing? It’s as though the universe holds a secret that only pours through our music when we’re in the ‘zone”. We are not its masters; it drives us… as long as we let it. Let’s call it “heart”. I like that term because “learning by heart” is an old Irish phrase that describes a way of learning and playing music that suggests bypassing analytical ways of learning and playing.

Many musicians prevent access to “heart” by thinking too hard, being too data-logic oriented,  playing from the left brain all the time. Learning cannot be forced; it’s a process of opening ourselves to information and focusing on absorbing it as we practice its technical aspects. Yet we might put so much angst into the process that we can sabotage the learning process and also prevent ourselves from playing expressively.

The most effective way to access “heart” is, as soon as you can remember and play a piece accurately, put away the notation or tablature, and concentrate on feeling the music. Feeling produces expression. Expression can’t be faked (it sounds obvious and trite when it is), so connecting with the soul of the music is the path to real expression.

Notice I said “as soon as you can remember and play a piece…” implying that if you can’t remember it, you don’t know it. If you can’t hear it in your head, you probably really don’t know the piece yet (see my last post). Just being able to read through it isn’t knowing it. Many musicians never do the work required to actually learn their pieces!

Interestingly, I’ve found again and again that it’s often the simplest pieces I play that get the best response from audiences. Complex pieces may be impressive, but they are showpieces that highlight the musician’s abilities, whereas the simpler pieces are where one is often more able to  access and express the heart within the music.

If you feel your music lacks heart, try to remember the feeling that made you choose to be a musician in the first place. So many of us lose sight of our musical passion as we concentrate on  just learning the pieces. Sometimes we learn pieces we don’t even like! Once you get beyond beginner pieces, you can choose to learn music that touches you. Otherwise, why play?

There are certain things that can be done to assist you in playing expressively:

  1. Dynamics: modulate volume to express important phrases, just as you would when speaking.
  2. Emphasis: accent specific notes and passages. Emphasis often goes along with lyrics (whether sung or not), such as “This land is YOUR land, this land is MY land”. Even though some tunes never had lyrics we can still learn emphasis. Emphasis can include dynamics, or it can be done by simply holding a note slightly longer than its indicated value (in some cases you may have to shorten the following note accordingly).
  3. Keeping the Tempo Reasonable: Many musicians play pieces way too fast. It’s obvious at sessions, but less obvious in solo playing and even less so with “slow” tunes. If the entire purpose of a piece is to be fast and pyrotechnic, fine, but if it’s supposed to be an expressive piece, keep the tempo under control. It’s amazing how just slowing a piece down a little will bring out the melody and the mood.
  4. Chord Rolling: on a stringed instrument, rolling some or many of the chords can be very effective. On a harp or keyboard, this is the equivalent of a very fast arpeggio that starts before the beat and ends on the beat. On a guitar, banjo mandolin or other fretted instrument, it’s a slowly executed strum.
  5. Ornaments: adding grace notes (notes that take no extra time in the beat), turns, trills, snaps, cuts, and so on, to a melody can really spice it up. Ornament types vary from culture to culture, so it’s a good idea to take a class in ornamentation for Irish, Scottish, Nordic, and other ethnic styles because each is different.
  6. Manipulating the Beat: in some pieces you can play ending phrases slower than the rest, or pause for emphasis here and there  –  but not in all pieces. Some musicians think playing with no discernable tempo is the only way to express. Not so. Often, playing with a very steady tempo but lots of dynamic modulation is more effective.
  7. Changing Keys: Occasionally, changing keys in the middle of a piece can be exciting.
  8. Changing octaves: You can play a tune once through in one octave and then once through an octave higher or lower. Don’t do this with every piece, though.
  9. Plucking near the bridge (fretted instruments) or the soundbox (harp): This produces a nasal, bright tone that’s nice for occasional accentuation of a phrase.
  10. Changing plucking angle: in clawhammer-style banjo in particular, if you play with the fingernail parallel to the string, you get a mellower tone, and if you angle your nail a bit you’ll get a more nasal tone. On a harp, if you pluck with the middle of the fingertip you’ll get a different tone than when you pluck with the side of the fingertip.

… But those are all formulae. They are necessary and helpful, but the heart of expression that makes music compelling is feeling it first.

Beware of trying to over-express with your body instead of expressing through the music. We’ve all seen rock stars who dance better than they sing, and I recently saw a clip of the group Kiss which was amusingly overdone: extreme makeup, extreme costumes, extreme body posture and facial expressions  –  all to hide what wasn’t there musically. Joan Baez used to stand alone in the spotlight and hardly move at all  –  her exquisite voice and the lyrics were all she needed to be mesmerizing. That said, it’s good to move in a relaxed but not exaggerated way with your music, it helps the feeling to happen. Joan is a rare phenomenon.

Lastly, make the music your own. Trying to sound like someone else, no matter how much you admire them, never works. Bring out your own soul in your music  –  that’s what people want to hear.