We all want to play beautifully, with expression and meaning. But what does that actually mean?
To reliably play music that connects emotionally with listeners, you can’t leave it to chance, or rely on being in the right mood.
After all, most of us are freaking out inside when performing for others. That’s not the mood we want to convey at all.
One of my teachers had a funny story:
A woman came up to him after a performance and said, “Oh I wish I could just feel what you were feeling when you played that…”. To which he responded, “Believe me, Lady, you don’t want to feel what I’m feeling up there!”
To trust in feelings is a mistake. They’re fickle and they’ll let you down.
So what should we do instead? That’s what this article is about.
Emotion in Music
Music can speak directly to the emotions. In just a couple of notes, we can communicate a whole new emotion.
One of our main goals as musicians (at any level) is to play beautifully. And to play beautifully means to play so that someone hearing it actually feels something.
So what makes music beautiful? What makes it communicate emotionally?
The Components of Musical Expression
Just as certain chemicals in the brain (i.e. dopamine) are associated with certain feelings (i.e. pleasure), there are elements that are the precursors to musical beauty.
In music, gorgeous phrases are created by the notes, plus whatever the performer chooses to do with them.
The tools that we have to make music communicate emotionally are the musical devices and skills we have available.
A few of these expressive devices are:
- Dynamics (swells and fades)
- Articulations (smooth vs chopped)
- Accents (notes that stand out)
- The way we approach rhythm and harmonic structure.
Practicing the Vocabulary of Musical Expression
So if we want to play beautifully, we need to be able to play using expressive devices, we need to get comfortable with them.
In your daily practice, working on smooth crescendos (getting louder) and decrescendos (getting softer) will allow you to be able to use those in your music.
Accents, swells and fades, short stacatto notes and smoothly connected legato notes, these all take enormous focus and attention.
If you’re like most people (me included), it will take time and effort to get comfortable scripting and planning how each little note in your pieces is played.
Practicing the skills “outside of your music” allows you to focus just on the issue, and not the specific context. Very helpful.
Exaggeration and Limits
“You don’t know how far is too far until you’ve crossed the line”
In your practice, when you are working with these expressive devices, it’s important to exaggerate like crazy.
Not just a little, but clownishly exaggerated.
If you are working with dynamics, for instance, vary between as quiet as you can possibly play, and as loud as you can. Of course maintain rhythm and tone quality.
Remember: practice is not the place for subtlety or good taste. Make it garish and ridiculous.
That way, you can be more comfortable with the moderate twists and turns in performance.
Incorporating Expressive Devices in Music
So then we come to the task of actually putting these expressive devices in our music.
Where and when and how to best add these devices is a whole other lesson (or many lessons).
But one of the best ways to decide on your musical choices is to put the guitar down, and meet your music without the physical issues of playing.
Singing and Conducting
Once you remove the need to actually play the music, you’re free to explore different scenarios and try things that may be beyond your technical abilities.
Stand up, raise your music stand, and wave your arms around while singing through your piece. (yes, out loud with your voice, for real, like no one’s watching)
As if the angels themselves, or the New York Philharmonic was playing the piece: How would this be most soaring, most daring, most honest and vulnerable, most genuine? Go big!
Click here for more questions to spark exploration.
Then Deconstruct It
Once you conceive of a phrase in a way you feel works, deconstruct what exactly you’re doing with your voice to make it happen.
It will be a combination of the expressive devices you’ve been practicing: dynamics, articulations, etc.
Pull out a pencil and write your findings in your music, or make a fresh copy to mark up with all your ideas.
If you’ve got the stomach to listen to your own singing, it can help to record yourself, then deconstruct the recording. That way you don’t have to try to remember what you were doing.
Remember: None of this is set in stone. You may come back tomorrow and not like an idea as much. Totally fine. This is all just play. My musical coach gives me one musical suggestion one week and a conflicting one the next. As he likes to say, “Those of us with minds are apt to change them.”
Focusing on Details
What you’ll find is that each note is important. And the way that it connects to the next note is important.
Each moment is an opportunity to communicate something. There are no irrelevant notes.
So beautiful music is really a string of well-performed details.
Focusing on details is the habit that will transform you from a “note player” to a “musician”.
“Expressive playing is possible only through an absolute understanding and demonstration of the details.” ~Mark Westcott
It’s only through an absolute understanding and demonstration of the details that the music will come through.
But this isn’t easy. Far from it.
Most of us classical guitarists are somewhat introverted to begin with (or else we would likely avoid such a solitary instrument).
It can be uncomfortable waving our hands in the air and singing out dramatically.
That’s why it takes great personal courage to explore music in this way.
It takes being willing to utterly fail. To put it on the line and know that what we’re doing may not work.
It can be emotionally and mentally draining to work with a piece of music and breathe life into it through our sheer force of will.
This is probably why there is so much bland music out there. (a friend of mine calls it “wallpaper”.)
Playing beautifully means stepping outside of yourself, and connecting with core human experiences. Common emotions.
This is part of the practice: stretching our comfort zones.
Ideally, in every practice, we enlarge our comfort zone.
You, right now, have a comfort zone of how loud you can play. If you play louder, you feel “wrong”. It’s uncomfortable. You have to change that.
“I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” Terence (Roman author)
Same with playing quietly. You can play twice as quietly as you do. You’re just not comfortable with it yet. Practice!
Use your scales and arpeggio practice to exaggerate and stretch your comfort zones. It’s the necessary step on your journey to create beauty out of nothing.
Let this be a large part of your positive agenda.
The Alchemy of Creating Beautiful Moments
Of course, what we’re talking about here is nothing short of alchemy: taking something of little value (ink on a page, a wooden box with wire on it), and turning it into something of immense value (emotional connection).
Our technique, our skills, our memory, our understandings, our courage: these are all just tools we develop and use to conjure up something real and human. Something beyond words. Something unquantifiable.
This is our job, as musicians: to work and grow in service of beauty.
We can’t force anyone to feel anything, but we can put the pieces in place that will give listeners an opportunity to open to an experience. And we can remove the elements we know may distract from that.
In real terms, that means working daily on dynamics, articulations, accents, and other physical skills. Good rhythm, the ability to listen closely, some theoretical understanding (eventually).
The daily work to play beautifully is courageously exaggerating swells and fades, and increasing our tolerance of extremes.
Back to Earth
So the takeaway here is to constantly grow. Little by little. Even though it feels funny.
Work daily on the components of beautiful music, and beautiful music will certainly happen.
It doesn’t have to be some grand thing. And it’s not in the future.
Whatever your current level, you can go from loud to soft and back again. Do it! Then do it again.
By the way, I developed The Woodshed to help work on these exact issues and skills. These expressive devices are cooked directly into the DNA of the guided practices and courses you’ll find there. Take a look if you like!