Does Your Music Speak?

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man uses tin can and string to broadcast his message

Can you hear me now?

Do you struggle to make your music speak? Are your hands so full of the notes that there doesn’t seem to be time to think about the music? Perhaps you know your music should communicate something, but you’re not exactly sure what it should say or even how to go about making it speak. Or maybe you’re trying, but it doesn’t feel like you’re doing enough.

In the earliest stages of music study, a teacher emphasizes basic technical skills. After all, if you can’t play any notes, you certainly can’t make music. Then the student learns about dynamics, and learns to create soft and loud notes and to make gradual changes like a crescendo or diminuendo. Often, however, there comes a point where teachers stop “teaching” students about expression and just expect the students to play musically.

In contrast, I remember my teacher spending entire lessons on how to shape a particular phrase, or pace a rallentando evenly. What a gift that was, and what a difference it made in the way I think about, and play, music!

Let’s look at the ways that music speaks, and how you can make your music say exactly what you want it to.All music has a message. It can tell a story, either fairly literally like “Swan Lake” or more figuratively like a Chopin Ballade. It can set a mood, set a scene or evoke a memory. Sometimes the composer tells you what their idea for the music is in the title of the work. Other times, you need to make your own decision. Rest assured, though – there are no really incorrect answers. Your music should say what you think it should say.

When you have chosen a message, then look over the expressive tools you have available to help you communicate that message. You probably have many more expressive tools than you are used to using on a daily basis. Here is a partial list: dynamics, including crescendo and decrescendo; tone color; articulation; tempo; changes in tempo like rallentando or accelerando and rubato. How many of these do you practice regularly?

Tip: The stronger your technique, the more of these tools you will be able to use effectively. That’s one of rewards of playing your scales, exercises and etudes!

But to make your music truly speak, you need to practice using those tools in combination with two other critical ingredients: your experience and your imagination.

Your musical experience plays a huge role in how expressively you play. Be sure to listen to performances, live and recorded, by accomplished artists. Listen analytically. How do they bring you the listener into their music? What devices and tools do they use to make the music a personal expression? Try those things for yourself. Can you approximate some of the same effect? The more music you hear and the more music you play, the more depth of expression your music will have.

And don’t stifle your creativity. Your imagination is truly your most valuable expressive tool. What will make your performance of this piece different from someone else’s? What would happen if you changed your tone, or tried a different dynamic scheme or a slightly different tempo? Can you give your music an imaginary story to make it flow differently? Experiment; challenge yourself.

At the beginning of this process, you may feel that your musical communication is very basic and not very imaginative. Keep at it. As you go on, you will strengthen your expressive muscle, and you will find that you have more musical ideas and are more able to realize them when you play.

Can we hear you now? Loud and clear.

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