I’m watching the finals for the men’s figure skating. (I still fast forward if someone looks to be losing it … it just hurts too much to watch.) The man who is skating now (I want to call them boys, they all look so darn young) does some fine jumping. And then he does this stuff that I suppose is meant to be expressive. But what it looks like is, “Now I should shrug my shoulders. Now I should look sad. Now I should do this …”. He’s been told how to look expressive, but doing what looks expressive and being expressive are two different things sometimes.

It’s similar in music. I’ll hear a young student who’s clearly been told “Lean on this note, more vibrato here, rubato here …” but it’s all not natural. And that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? Natural expression. Making sure it comes from you. Not your teacher. Not mimicking a recording. But from inside your own gut, so to speak.

Sort of like someone saying, “I love you,” but it’s clearly not from the heart.

False expression, in some ways, bugs me more than no expression at all. Maybe because it’s like lying. And I really hate lying.

Anyway … just thinking out loud here. Maybe I’ll write more about this later. Because how one achieves true “gut expression” is quite a puzzlement in some ways. And I had a student come to me, clealry asking me to give her the key to being expressive when she herself didn’t seem to be expressive even in her personality. And I’ve pondered this issue since then, or even before.

Okay … now I must prepare for the dentist. It’s only a cleaning, but I absolutely hate going to the dentist.


  1. I’d be interested in reading your further thoughts on this. As an actor or singer, you have the words to guide you. You know what the mood or intent should be. It still has to be real – it still has to come from you, but there’s not much mystery (although clearly there’s always *some* room for interpretation). But I’m curious how an instrumental musician adds expression. Is it just “how the music makes me feel” or is there more to it?

  2. Have you read Daniel Helfgot’s book “The Third Line : The Opera Performer As Interpreter”? As I recall he talks about getting clues to expression not only from the words but from the harmonic structure and melodic lines (leading tones, etc.). But yes, I think it is also “how the music makes us feel” in addition to clues in the composition or orchestration of a phrase.

  3. I know I’m biased… but great post! 🙂

  4. Mike, you do have words to guide you, but words are only words until they are made real. I’m sure you know what I mean … “I love you,” said by an actor can be real or not, right? Someone who has to scream “I hate you,” can be believable or not. It’s not just words. But you know that already.

    Falseness really bugs me. So does “acting” … by which to say I have to honestly believe the actor has *become* … rather than “merely” acting as if he/she has become …

    Oh dear. This isn’t really easy to explain for someone like me!

    Musically, there’s something about it becoming part of me. I can’t even really describe it well … expression pretty much came naturally to me. When I’m “on” and it’s working, I feel as if the music is coming from the center of who I am. I can also go home totally wasted because I feel as if I’ve just bared my soul to the world. (When doing something like Ravel’s Piano Concerto, for instance.) And yet in “real life” I can often be somewhat cold. It’s just this inside thing … ugh … I’m going to have to think on this more to make any sense at all. IF that’s even possible.

    Dan, yes, you are biased. But thanks! 🙂

    Gee. Sorry this comment is so messy and ridiculous!

  5. Hey DK,
    how did you come to read THE THIRD LINE?

  6. A colleague of mine (also in the OSJ orchestra) had it and loaned it to me; Daniel worked for many years with our opera company. I thought it was very enlightening, and some of it applicable to instrumental performance as well. I’ve always felt I’ve learned a lot about musical expression from listening to opera singers and music.

  7. I think part of it is that one has to be so comfortable (familiar?) with the technical aspects of producing a good sound that one can focus on the emotive part. I think in that respect it is easier for singers (I’m not saying it’s easy), since there is no external apparatus to deal with (i. e. no reeds, valves, fingerings, bowing etc.).

  8. That might be part of it, Tim, but not always. I’ve heard players with beautiful sound not be able to play in a believably expressive way. I was at a workshop once where there were some incredibly talented students. Beautiful sound. Incredible technique. But the expression was completely missing.

  9. I remember Doc Patnoe trying to get me to play a solo with more expression: he used the term “schmalz” and described it in such a way that I can’t do it justice here (to say he said it was “a piece of warm bread dripping with butter*” doesn’t convey his own expressiveness). He was a pretty amazing guy – I still miss him.

    I don’t know if it can be taught, really – you can try to lead someone to it, I suppose, or if they’re inspired by something/someone, but it’s about letting go, right? Also about not clinging to the faster/higher/lower/louder/look-at-me mentality, maybe.

    *I know, it should be chicken fat, but he used butter (and it worked for me).

  10. I’m 150% with you on this one, Patty. My observations of young musicians are similar: standards of technique and tone are of a higher standard than they used to be but at the expense of what I call musicality.
    Expression has to come from the gut. It is felt and therefore surely must be an emotional response to the music as you are playing it. Call it the “X-Factor” or “passion”, it is rare to find technique/tone/expression present at the same time.
    I agree with Tim – you can’t teach somebody how to love can you? It’s something innate.

  11. My high school band director used the same word, Tim.

    This “it’s just in you” thing really hit me when a student came to me asking to be coached. I finally figured out she was asking me to tell her exactly how to be expressive. She said, “Play it for me,” and wanted to copy what I did. I played the solo. Then I said, “But maybe I’d do it this way instead, depending upon how things are going, what I think the conductor is telling me about the piece,” etc (one doesn’t always say “I love you” the same way either!)… and played it in a different, still expressive way. And then I explained that this was from ME, and that she needed to work on it coming from inside HER. She quit. I couldn’t give her an easy solution to being expressive, and she really just wanted the key. (It’s interesting to note, too, that she seemed to come across as an emotionless person.)

  12. My teacher in college used to tell me repeatedly to “now play it with more expression”. Period. I remember one lesson on a Vivaldi slow movement (the morning after we’d gone to hear Debbie Henry play the Marcello exquisitely) where he kept telling me that repeatedly to no avail, which ended with me bursting into tears, because I had no clue how to accomplish that; I could certainly hear it in others, though. After college I studied with another teacher who gave me specific techniques (vibrato, dynamic, and/or tone color changes on a note or group of notes) and started out by pointing out places in a phrase where he would use them, and why. Then progressing to having me point out where the high points in a phrase were. This seemed to unlock whatever it was in me that allowed me to play expressively. Maybe I was just ready for it then, but I think the change in approach was also just what I needed at that time. So I think some students may have a natural feel for how to play expressively, and others (like me) do need to be given some tools to work with and some direction how to apply them.