The Expressive Tool Kit Diane L. Winder
As musicians-teachers, performers and listeners, we relish peak musical experiences, those in which we find heightened communication, technical freedom, emotional electricity, and unified intent among the players. While we expect this from professionals, how do we teach this artistry to our own students?
One definition suggests an artistic person is one who produces art and thinks in terms of creating beauty and form. Artist implies one who practices this art in which conception and execution are governed by imagination and taste; an artist is a skillful, public entertainer. This skill – a learned power of doing a thing competently – assumes that this aptitude (or feeling) may be developed.
First we need to motivate students to want to learn to perform expressively. Ask, “What is the purpose of expression in music? Why play expressively?” You may receive answers such as:
- To understand the music - To touch the listener - To create a mood - To understand the composer’s ideas - To form phrases and shape the piece - To share myself/express my emotions - To communicate
Students also need to know about the circular Communication Road that runs: From COMPOSER, by way of notation, through the PERFOMER, to the LISTENER, and finally back as a response to the PLAYER. Written music reduces the composer’s ideas to a form of map, which the performer interprets. A good musician re-composes what flows from the composer’s imagination and emotions. This, translated through the performer’s mind, body and emotions, is sent out through the instrument, shaped by the performer’s technique.
To navigate the Road Map successfully students need a musical guide, a teacher, as well as:
• A fearless desire/need/commitment to playing expressively. (Remember, this is hard work!)
• A good basic instrumental technique. For example, explore execution of a variety of crescendos and diminuendos, or experience the difference in sound
and articulation on a string instrument between spiccato vs. detache for repeated eighth notes.
• Imagination/Ideas. Start with a good recording. Listen, then analyze and discuss what makes this performance expressive. Alternately, examine a full or piano score of the composition. Identify the formal and expressive architecture such as cadences, dramatic dynamic shifts, and surprising rhythmic fluctuations.
• An Expressive Tool Kit. Students experience, then store emotions gathered while reading novels, watching movies, listening to music, hearing about friends’ experiences, watching daily social interactions, etc. As needed, students recall the original situation and revisit the moods/emotions. Students usually vividly recall how the emotion was portrayed – how the body moved, what the face expressed, the speed of breath, and tone of voice. For example, an angry person often breathes and speaks quickly, using a loud, shrill tone of voice. Students may replicate this mood in an intense, climactic musical passage with loud dynamics, a shrill tone, and sharp attacks with the bow. It’s clear that a player often mirrors in performance the actual motions of an outward expression of emotional energy.
Musicians, similarly to actors, access their Emotional Tool Kit, decide which tactics to apply to a specific passage, and learn to turn the chosen emotions of and off. Musicians decide which notes, like words, to cluster, and what inflections to apply by choice of dynamics, speed, articulation, etc. In fact a performance presents students the opportunity to experiment, to do or express what one might never even try in “real” life.
In order to find the most appropriate expression for a musical passage, the teacher/conductor provides definitions and understanding of the musical language of the era, style, country, composer, and genre. Together students and teacher listen to a recording, if possible, study the composer’s biography, the general musical style of the period, aesthetics of the period, and equipment of the times (were Baroques bows in use?). Next basic theory points out significant compositional events
– cadences, modulations. Together students and teacher identify scales/ modes, keys, form, and important chord progressions as these identify form. Additionally, they consider types of cadences, interesting harmonic rhythm, and points of strong dissonance and resolution. Of course primary and secondary melodic lines must be differentiated from harmonic lines.
Then, it’s time to listen again. On a score, students note the form, as well as mark phrase breaks and arrival points. They contemplate, perhaps after playing through passages, a hierarchy of phrases. Which are the most important points of arrival throughout the work? Where is the climax of the entire piece? How do the parts fit together to tell the story?
Likewise, students and teacher need to discuss the relative importance of and types of cadences. Next, students must be encouraged to search for motives and decide how these are developed through repetition, sequences or ornamentation. Finally note changes in harmonic rhythm, often in the bass line.
Challenge students describe the general mood or emotion of a section or movement – happy, triumphant, sad, etc. Next apply various aspects of that mood to phrases. For examples, sadness might be expressed as anger, desperation, alienation, depression, or heavy-heartedness. The range of triumph includes joy, power, strength, calmness, celebration, etc.
Students generate other expressive ideas by imagining the music tells a story or joke or they may visualize a picture, movie, or play. Other pieces feel like part of a conversation or song. Students may also feel the music as color, shape, architecture, movement, gesture, or as a variety of energy levels.
When the students actually perform the section joyfully, powerfully, or calmly, the performers activate the appropriate technique and body motion to effect the emotion. The bow stroke becomes a paintbrush to create a wide array of colors and articulations. Additionally, more advanced tactics of expressive playing to be taught and learned include: Amount of support under a tone; width and speed of vibrato; variety of accents; percussiveness of attack; expressive pitch
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