Is Expression A Technique?

December 26th, 2006 by

teaching musical expression

I wonder sometimes about all those dynamics markings. Crescendo, pianissimo,
forte, mezzo forte. They give us a good sense of what the composer wanted, or
what the editor suggests. It’s important to know how to honor those ideas and
do them justice.

But how far do we go with them? Are they like clicks on a volume-control knob? Do we play at a marked volume until a new symbol appears? How much personal interpretation do we allow ourselves, or allow our students?

Do you treat expression as a higher level technique, something that is only added once more fundamental techniques are mastered? Or do you regard expression as fundamental, and if so, how and when do you incorporate it into lessons?

This question struck me suddenly one time when I was judging a high-level Scottish fiddle championship competition. Of the two top competitors, one was primarily a classical violinist and the other a fiddler. Both were excellent players, but one big difference stood out between them.

The classical player played her tunes exactly the same way both times through them, with the same dynamic changes. The fiddler played her tunes differently the second time through, and partly because of this, she came across as more heartfelt.

Telling a Story

It occurred to me then that for some musicians, expression is just another part of their technique. They learn how to play a piece and then perform it that same way each time. By contrast, others, like the fiddler in that competition, learn music differently. They tell a story with their music. Once they play a tune the first time, they can’t start over and play it the same way again.

Very early on as I work with students, I like to encourage them to imagine their music as the soundtrack to a movie of their choosing. It could be a silly movie, or a story of something that happened to them that day, or something they wished would happen.When they have to repeat some music, they won’t play it the same way–they won’t want to. The story plot has progressed, something has already happened, and something new is about to happen.

Regardless of what the “movie” is about, it will inform their playing, and take their music beyond the mere notes. It’s also interesting to have them play the same music for very different story lines, and see what it does to the music.

This is a great way to move a student past learning a piece of music–towards knowing it.

…And You?

What are your ideas on working with dynamics? Where does musical expression fit into your teaching? Click “Add Comment” below, and let us know.

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About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

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