In this post, I would like to address some of the psychology of playing expressively, as well as some more tips on phrasing that will greatly enhance your ability to impart emotion in your playing.

Let’s start with a few words about our psychology, or perhaps more appropriately, our self-consciousness. Allow me to share my own personal experience with this, and if you can relate, then this article might be helpful to you.

Master the Safe Elements

I grew up in a loving family, we always got along perfectly well, and I thought I had the best family on earth! As I grew older though, and gained more perspective, I realized that the reason we all got along so well was due to the fact that none of us showed our true feelings, nobody rocked the boat. There was no fighting, but there was also very little of hugs or “I love you’s”. Long story short, what I had to learn was that I was actually a very “closed” person emotionally, and I apparently never let my feelings show. Looking back in retrospect, it was actually pretty bad, and I did not have the tools or maturity to understand what was holding me hostage.

So, imagine me as I got more and more advanced on violin. I was longing for that expressive sound, but had NO IDEA how to convey it. I knew how I wanted to sound, I did my homework, and listened to the masters. But when I tried to do it, I felt too naked, stripped bare, as if my diary were laying open in front of my teacher or my audience. My musical expression was locked up with my personal inhibition about self-expression.

Finally, as I was confessing my problem to a foreign exchange student who barely knew me, (that felt safest)…he laughed at me, and gave me the best advice EVER! He said, “Don’t worry so much about playing expressively! Just play the music, obey all the dynamics, and by the time you’ve got everything right, the expression will be there!” I felt liberated! You mean I don’t have to wear my heart on my sleeve, and hand out copies of my deepest fears and darkest secrets to members of the audience? Cool!

For me, with my deep seated fear of any emotional expression, I was over-personalizing it, and therefore making it harder than it had to be. YES, music is personal! However, if you are struggling with expressive playing due to your own inhibitions or self-consciousness, then you need to focus more on all the specific things you can do that are not personal. Like these:

  • obey, even exaggerate the dynamics
  • maybe think of a change of emotion as more of a “tone color change”
  • work on bow distribution (covered in my Suzuki Book 2 course)
  • find the phrase structure, then learn to shape the phrase (another topic of my Suzuki Book 2 class)
  • find certain notes that are more important than others, and give them a little “colle tug”. (Suzuki Book 2!)
  • find a cool spot where you can make an expressive, juicy shift

You will be so busy doing all these things that it will distract you from your inhibitions and self-consciousness. Take baby steps, and you will eventually become accustomed to inviting your audience to peer inside your soul, in fact, you will start to treasure the experience.

I hope this article has been helpful to most who read it. But I’m sure there are a few of you out there who needed it more than others. And to you, I encourage you to not only explore musical expression, but also work on your interpersonal relationships, explore your issues and fears with a professional or a friend, buy a book, and confront your demons! Music is life, and life is music, and if you can improve one, you also improve the other.

Now go run naked through a meadow somewhere! (with shoes)