Expression in Music is Not a Skill

What's important?

If there is any one thing important about an artist's music performance it is "how they feel" when they're playing music. And therefore the experience of expression for the artist is really essential, it's the whole story, when it comes right down to it.

Play from the heart 

 All my life instructors, other musicians, and people in general, would talk wisely about "playing from the heart." I would ask;

"That sounds wonderful, but what does that mean?" 

And they would try to explain what it means with various levels of non-success.  Then I would be compelled to ask;

"Well that's nice but how do you do it?" 

[[ End of conversation!  ... fade into silence ... everyone in room exits stage left & right ]] 

So I set out very early on to find an actionable answer to this question; 

What can I 'do' to assure I'm playing from the heart. 

And very early on - I found something that actually works so well it is mind-boggling! 

I'm crazy - but not that crazy!

I've been presenting and constantly refining very intensive and deep music workshops on the subject of expression all over the world for over 40 years. The participants have been beginners and experts of all ages. The workshops focused on all kinds of music (not always classical) with singers, soloists, duets, orchestras, and every size band and ensemble.

So I've seen the same results over and over and over, and though this is way counter-intuitive  I can tell you with a completely straight face;

"Expression in music is not a skill,"

The Set Up

Here is part of the introduction I offered at my last workshop to classical soloists and ensembles at a music university;

Based on my 43 years of doing this workshop I can say with confidence, if you own this simple and mechanical technique I'm about to offer, you will be more likely to win the audition, listeners will respond more, and people will be more convinced that you have mastered your art.  Though this is true, it's not important - and it's not why I'm here.  What is important is how YOU feel when you are playing music.  And "expression" is everything.

In this particular workshop it is surprising that expression is not limited by your level of skill. It flows natrually through you.  Twinkle Twinkle Little Star can be expressed fully.  And contrary to common thought, you won't have to pretend to be expressive in any way.

What is required however is your suspention of reality. You will need to apply disipline, fearlessness, a willingness to explore the impossible, empowered by your dedication and trust in the muse.  And then you have to squeeze all of yourself, body and soul, into every moment, with great effort.

While these requirements sound demanding, don't they seem like a vision of a great musical artist? 

What is most interesting is that these do not require skill. They simply require 'doing it."  But how?  I will show you how.

Here's How

Imagine I'm working with Anna, a 6 year old piano student playing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  Here are the first few steps.

Step One

After asking Anna to play her piece at least once to get comfortable with it I offer the first step.

"Play your piece with great force." 

 I'm looking for Anna to hit the piano hard if it's a chord and push very hard with fingers if it's single notes. I watch to see if Anna is indeed applying outrageous effort and I coax her unforgivingly - with laughter of course.  I tell her that, It's not about the music or the sound, it's about applying force - muscles.  I let her do this till I think she has reached a substantial level beyond what is comfortable for her. Now step two.

Step Two

"Now play your piece with extreme delicacy"

If all the notes are coming out I know that much more effort needs to go into this mission.  I coax her until she reaches about 10 more levels of delicacy.  It might take 2 or 3 minutes to get what I'm looking for.  "Extreme delicacy."  Like moving an ant with a sledge hammer. 

What has just transpired is that Anna now has instilled in her muscles, muscle memory, touch,  mind, heart, and artistic tool pallet, an extrordinary dynamic range.  (More importantly it's a physical intensity range which surprisingly is where expression is felt from the artist.  Air guitar can manifest great feelings of expression without a sound.  And the physical realm is where the artist controls the music. It is the physical dance required to "play the notes" where all the resulting sound comes from.  And it is the physical dance that creates the feeling of deep expression in the artist.  I will address this in my next blog.  "Playing music has little or nothing to do with sound."  So with the intensity range instilled in Anna we go to the next step; 

Step Three

"Now play your piece AS THE GREAT ARTIST THAT YOU ARE"

 So here's Anna, a 6 year old pianist with the minimal skill necessary to perform Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Her posture has changed, her face has changed, her movement has changed, and she is playing with full-tilt expression - spontaneously - with great passion.  And then she says; "Wow! That was fun!"  

Usually these three very simple and mechanical steps (which usually take less then 2 minutes) open the flood-gates to expression.  This is clearly and profoundly experienced by the observers. Sometimes they just shout out; "Goose-bumps." Or; "Wow!"   If the participant isn't experiencing goose-bumps with their own performance however, I will move to step four.  

Step Four (if necessary)

Now play your piece with a constant flow of dynamics like the waves on the ocean, Touch upon forceful and delicate MANY TIMES.  keep it moving.  

And there might be the opportunity for additional direction:

 no two notes SHOULD have the same intensity.  forceful doesn't need to be developed to be felt, one instant of forceful will be ENOUGH, and delicate needs a good three seconds to become established and felt. 

If the inner artist wasn't brought out in the first three steps it should be by the 5th.  Sometimes I will conduct the dynamics up and down to help.  It's not common that I need to go beyond 10 minutes of guidance.  Beginner or expert, it's never going to take more than a couple minutes to get the full-tilt expression.  Here is my paraphrase of the most recent response  from a brilliant pianist who attended my last workshop as he finished going through the exercise.   

"When I was playing my piece and getting really deep into it, everything disappeared.  I don't know what happened with the audience.  Either I became them or they became me, or we both just merged as one into the musical experience." 

I explained to him and the audience that the beauty of this experience is that we are already ONE, and music just brings that into focus when it carries us to beautiful places.  And now you know how easy it is as a performer to get to those beautiful places.

An Example

The short story is that a banjo player came into my studio.  Without explanation I asked him to record a short tune. That's Example #1.  Then I gave him the exercise of establishing a dynamic range, and one minute later I asked him to play the tune again.  The deepening of expression in Example #2 was the result of the artist filling his pallet with the colors of expression offered in the dynamic range.  

The dynamic range in music is not everything - but in a very simple way as the artist varies the dynamics other elements are directly effected and get varied and it's all a self-expression from the artist.

Punch Line

Anything that 'anyone' can master in 10 minutes can't really be placed in the realm of "skill or talent."  As I said; "It's just flows though us.  We just need to know how to open the door." So expression is not a skill. It just a matter of knowing what to do and doing it.

But isn't that a beautiful thing to know?

Let me know if you have any comments or questions. 


P.S. In the next blog on this subject I will talk about why playing music has little or nothing to do with sound. 

You can also take a look at my book;  It also available in bulk orders for schools and etc.

"Let Your Music Soar - The Emotional Connection"