The real music is not on the paper. What’s on the paper is a series of symbols. You could listen to that page all day and never hear a thing. Notation is just a guideline. The music is in your head (and your heart).

Unless you’re a Mozart or a Salieri, it’s nearly impossible to play expressively without an auditory reference that tells you how the music can sound, or for which to strive musically. Sure, what’s notated might be a lovely arrangement, but the music is not just in the notes. Without expression and nuance, it’s dry and dull.

Here’s an example: “Searching for Lambs” is a beautiful tune that is usually notated very simply.


If you play it as written, it sounds stilted. It has no expression and it doesn’t flow.

But listen to what happens if you really think about the lyrics and how they would be spoken descriptively, and express it as though it were being sung –  double click below on these two versions:



Thie first is a simple a capella solo; the second is a full arrangement, and both are very expressive. They’re so differnt from what we usually hear when we just play the notes from the page!

Besides being able to hear in your head how the music should sound, it’s also important to be able to play what you hear or imagine. In a previous Post (“We Can’t Hear What’s In Your Head”) I wrote about the dubious benefit of not paying attention to the difference between what you hear in your head and what actually comes out when you play. Remember that your audience has no idea what you’re imagining. That could be a good thing or a bad thing.  It’s a good thing if, when your fingers don’t follow your intention, you can ad-lib; few listeners would be the wiser. But it’s a bad thing if what you’re hearing in your head isn’t effecting what’s coming out your fingers.

Not realizing how your music is actually sounding is a common malady. We think that if we’re hearing it beautifully in our head, then everyone must be hearing it that way, and all the while our fingers might be producing an entirely different and somewhat undesirable effect that bears little resemblance to what we’re imagining. It’s a good idea to record yourself and honestly listen to what you’re doing. If you’re not up to the standard you want, at least knowing how you’re really sounding gives you the opportunity to fix it.

Expression is not just a skill for advanced players. Listen to a version of the piece played well at your skill level. This might mean having your teacher play it for you or maybe even record it for you, or find an appropriate version on You Tube  – you can find all kinds of examples there; some are good and some not so good, so you have to choose carefully. Listening to as many versions as possible will give you clues about what’s good and what isn’t.

If you have a version in your head that you heard and admired, keep in mind that it’s impossible to play it exactly like the person or recording you wish to emulate  – you may be better, or you may be worse, or you may be just different. Every good musician makes the music their own.

Although I’m using the term “in your head”, remember it’s also “in your heart”. If you don’t feel something wonderful inside when you play a piece of music, there’s not much point in playing it. If you don’t feel it when you play, few others will. It’s easy to get lost in the technical aspects of playing and forget why we are playing.

Sometimes the many repetitions that are required to play a piece well can make it go stale, so here’s what I do about that: I go ahead and let it be just an exercise most of the time in practice, for the sake of practice-makes-perfect. Then, a few weeks before I have to perform it, I start thinking again about how to express it. I get back in touch with whatever it was about the piece that made me love it enough to want to learn it in the first place. I hear it in my head the way I want to play it, and I let my imagination teach my fingers to do it that way.

Try it! You’ll love the result!