In talking about musical expression at a higher level, as we’re going to do here, I just have one caution to suggest first: one of the biggest mistakes teachers and students make about musical expression is to imagine that it’s icing on the cake, that it takes place after all the technical hurdles are passed. On the contrary, expression is not the reward for having technique — it’s the reason for developing technique! It needs to be part and parcel of the learning process, from day one, or at least from very early on.
There is a good reason why stage actors hyper-exaggerate every movement or sound they make. They have to not only express an emotional gesture, but they have to make you notice it.
Two stories about making you notice an emotional idea: one story about a touring musician I heard and wished I could give a lesson to, and one about a series of drawings that I once made.
The touring musician was quite good of course. But as the performance went on I began to feel a little antsy, as if she was teasing me with ideas but not really saying them fully. Yet it was not my place to say so.
If you speak French in France, and you don’t say things quite right, who’s going to correct you? Not likely anyone, because if they understand you, that’s all that’s necessary. It’s not their place to fix you. You get by and you just get better with practice. Similarly, if you play well and have interesting arrangements of music, or a decent ensemble, who’s going to tell you it could have been better? Generally, listeners only know what they hear, not what they could have heard. This is a blessing, actually, that people appreciate what they get. But when it comes to improving your playing, listeners are not usually there to help you.
Performers who are serious about improving will go the extra mile — taking a few lessons, a master class, or recording themselves and listening back. Prince used to watch a video of his own show afterwards every night in order to make notes on how to do better the next time.
Getting back to the touring musician: Her show was interesting, enjoyable, and well done, but I kept feeling there was a certain amount of variety that was lacking, an emotional distance being kept. If I’d a chance to give her one lesson, I might have had her play a tune or two for me and asked her what she really wanted to say with them, find out if she even knew, and if so, asked her to dig for it. It’s one thing to know what you want to say, and another thing to get it across. To communicate your expressive ideas you have to articulate and exaggerate them, to let people know you’re going to say something and then say it — which can only be done if you really know what you mean to say with your music in the first place. And that takes some serious exploration of possibilities.
Pianist Ernst Bacon once said, “Too much American teaching is by encouragement, too little by provocation.” Drawing expression out of a musician, especially a good musician, might require a bit of provocation.
I was once provoked by a comment an art student made to me when I showed him a photograph I’d made of a Pennsylvania barn. I really liked the color, the shape, the background. But when he treated it like a random snapshot rather than an intentional photograph, it was frustrating and set me to thinking very much the way a musician might feel if their teacher said, “I know what you want to get across but I’m just not hearing it. What are you going to do about it?”
What I did was to make a drawing of the photograph to highlight the aspects of the picture that I thought were most important. But then it hit me that someone could dismiss the drawing too. So I made a drawing of the drawing to highlight what I especially liked in the drawing of the photo! I ended up coaxing myself into making five versions of that drawing and they morphed into something striking in design and color, though all based on the original photograph.
None of that would have happened if the art student I’d showed the original photo to had said, “Oh that’s nice.”
For the same reason, a touring musician, getting accolades of appreciation in performance, has no reason to dig into why she’s playing a particular tune, no reason to pin down how it is she wants to move her listeners.
It might require a good teacher to draw that out.