One of the most important elements of musical performance is musical expression. Without it, performances can sound bland regardless of technical virtuosity. And with a lot of it, even the simplest technical performance can be highly emotional and memorable. Unfortunately, expression is very often neglected in practice until it’s far too late.
What is Musical Expression?
In a nutshell, musical expression is how we shape the sound of our musical phrases and pieces based on variations in tempo, rhythm, articulation, timbre (or tone color), dynamics, and embellishments.
Another way to think about it is in terms of mood, personality, or intention. In the same way that someone can say “hello” to us in either a sad or happy manner, in musical expression we “speak” our musical phrases and notes by playing them with our interpretation of a particular mood (e.g., sad or happy), personality (e.g., confident or timid), or intention (e.g., hurry up or take your time).
Expressive practice is often neglected or delayed because it feels too abstract to organize and/or because we want to get our chops refined first. Fortunately, we can make expressive practice more tangible which, incidentally, I find also makes practice way more enjoyable. And once we have a good understanding of how to practice expression, we should absolutely do so in the early stages of learning a piece. Research suggests that including expressiveness early on can significantly improve performance!
To get started, pick a short musical phrase (e.g., 1-4 measures long). You’re going to play your phrase 5 times using any 5 of the expressive ideas below. Make sure to focus mainly on expression, NOT on technique.
Idea 1: Play your phrase as if you just won the lottery!
Idea 2: Play as if you were called 20 times by telemarketers.
Idea 3: Play in an incrementally sad manner (i.e., start happily and end sadly).
Idea 4: Start quietly and end as if you have to yell.
Idea 5: Play as if you’re at the library.
Idea 6: Play with your right hand near the fretboard (guitarists).
Idea 8: Start loudly and end in a whisper.
Idea 9: Start quickly & gradually slow down.
Idea 10: Start quietly, increase to loudly, and end quietly again.
Idea 11: Play with your right-hand ear the bridge (guitarists).
Several of these ideas are highly subjective on purpose. It allows you to interpret what those feelings are and how to express them on your musical instrument. There's no right or wrong other than playing without expression (which would be wrong).
Make sure to include expressive practice in every practice session. Your main goal is to get your music to sound expressive and interesting, not just technically accurate.
NOTE: If you make a technical mistake while doing the exercises above, write it down so that you can address it when you finish this exercise (e.g., missed the 4th note when I increased volume). Then work on fixing your mistake while using the same expressive shape.
Please let me know in the comments at the bottom of the page if you found these strategies helpful.
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