Expression and Playing Musically
Pat M., Canada
I have an adult student (currently in Level 3) who sent me the following email and I would like to reply to this:
“I would love to have more feedback on how to play better! I am very happy with my classes the following is just a minor question: I feel we are spending most time in class on explaining how a new song works (and this is something that I could learn or recapitulate from the videos). So far, we talk little about the question how I could play the songs that I learned better. So far I am “just pressing the keys”, I don’t know to make it sound more musical. The demonstration pieces in the videos sound awesome and expressive. By contrast, if I play the same piece it sounds mechanical. I feel like combining passages in “sentences” makes it better, and pauses in the right places… Is the transition from “pressing keys” to “playing well” something that you expect to happen naturally or is this something I can learn? When I was learning classical Ballett, we had two learning stages for every new piece: First we learned that steps and then we learned how to do them well. I wondered whether something similar can be done for playing the piano?”
Here’s my response to Pat’s question:
Mark M., New York
Great and important question. Yes, expression is hugely important, and it applies to every piece after the full mechanics are learned! A handful of answers, and I’m sure there will be many more!
–Foundation videos are not intended for self-study. They were designed as support for teacher-delivered content. This is true all along, but it’s increasingly true as levels go on. Your student will notice that each level has less and less detail/repetition in Neil’s videos so that it’s that much more important to solidify content with you during lesson. So explain this to your student to get that idea off the table — in general, but while also validating their legitimate concern about expression.
–In the end, this whole thing is about the art of making music, and that’s going to be about aesthetics and subjectivity. The key mainly is to play around and see what happens. Encourage creativity, with or without any particular tools. But, that said, let’s talk about a few good tools at your disposal.
–Are you using the TWS Program on Using the Pedal? It’s a great program and gives a big jump in the direction of expression.
–Expression is explicitly covered in Tune Toolkit Comp & Improv Vol. 1, with a handful of particular notions to jog thinking toward expression — and it all applies equally to any piece, not just to one’s own original improvisations and compositions.
–I did a webinar in late-2020 on comp & improv which is very generally applicable whether or not you use Tune Toolkit and which, like Tune Toolkit’s expression project, has lots of expression ideas with broad applicability beyond C&I to any pieces at all. This could give *lots* of fodder for experimentation. Here’s a link to the post where I shared the video of the webinar: https://www.facebook.com/groups/simplymusicteachers/posts/3326240290778952/
Leeanne I., Australia
I tell students after we learn what to play, we learn how to play. The “how to” is rhythm and expression. Check rhythm is correct by playing along to the audio tracks. Expression: thinking about what the song is saying as you are playing it. Using Sleeping as an example and a good song to start with. It’s a lullaby, Daddy is watching his baby daughter sleeping. We want to play it softly so we don’t wake the baby! Night Storm is another good one. Think about the storm brewing, scary, halloween kind of stuff. It’s about forming the picture in your mind about what is happening in the song and learning to express that through your fingers.
Maureen K., California
I take an extra week after they have finished learning the song to “make it more beautiful.”
Pat M., Canada
Maureen K. I usually do that in more advanced levels so maybe I should be doing that with all levels.
Maureen K., California
Pat M. I’m not always consistent myself. But even on early levels it’s good. Simple things, like do lNight Storm with or without pedal? Thinking of Fur Elise as a sad song, how would they play it? Try Chester staccato and then legato—which do they like?
Ian M., Indiana
I think of this as being both very complicated and also a simple two-step process: 1. Imitation, and 2. Experimentation. First you try to imitate what you think you’re hearing/seeing/sensing in the playing of others that is making the piece better, from your point of view, and then you try other ways of playing something differently and see what works. There’s a lot more stuff in my head about this, but this is the essential part.
Hmmm … Maybe three steps? 3. Evaluation. Is this working? Am I making a difference? Develop a vocabulary involving emotion and imagination. Play for other people and involve them in that vocabulary.
Scott J., Australia
Your student already sounds like they would have an amazing amount of musicality in them.Ballet would of set this student up to be already connected emotionally to the music.You might find that in their mind they are fluently dancing but the fingers just have not had enough experience to dance the dance yet.Belief is a huge thing , letting go of what we think the result should be and trusting in the program( it takes as long as it takes ).The song is just a map/ a racetrack / a down hill ski run If you already know your course and every turn to take then you will get through with very little problems allowing you the freedom to showpony it ( play with enormous expression/play with your eyes closed or hands behind the back ) If on the other hand the course was not studied to the full extent and a few corners were missed then one should expect a good wipe out or two which is great for the spectators but not so good for the performer.I hope this helped if not at least you will map out your next race course.
Michelle H., Australia
I was going to say “patience grasshopper”. The learning the what to play, then how to play and then adding expression into a piece comes with time.
One thing I’ve found really helpful is to record myself playing. It’s given me a different perspective of my playing and I get to really hear what it sounds like. I can pick out sections I like or think “maybe that needs a little attention”. I find this very useful to add more expression or sometimes i surprise myself and that I really like how it sounds.
Original discussion started January 18, 2022