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Music should engage, right?

Being a musician, amateur or professional, you have one fantastic advantage over everyone else: you can make music. And if people take time out to listen to you or even shell-out to hear you play, how hard can it really be to play expressively?

When we learn a musical instrument, whether as a beginner, improver or as an advanced player, the goal of music making must be to be expressive: to give pleasure playing the music, as well as listening to it. Music conveys feelings and emotions and out of all the instruments, the violin is probably the most closely related to the human voice. To be able to make the violin sing and to be expressive in the music, there are several strategies that you as the player can employ to convey those emotions and to engage yourself and your audience to the full. 

Are you this person, who plays quietly in your own practice room, and would secretly like to take your playing to the next level? Let’s find out how you can play more expressively and delight not just yourself, but others around you too.

Technique comes before anything else

Before you can be free and be able to express yourself in the music, you will want to start with a piece of music that you can comfortably play, without making any mistakes. This may be a piece that you have learned in the past and that you enjoy playing. Becoming more expressive is a lot easier when you thoroughly like the music. So choose a favourite!

Being technically fluent will allow you to focus on other aspects of your music making, such as the dynamics or other performance directions. Later on, when you have become more expressive in your playing generally, you may be able to sort out your technical issues whilst you are working on being more expressive at the same time.

Performance markings, what do you mean?

If you have a very close look at the piece of music you have chosen, it is very likely that there will be all sorts of clues to help you become more expressive.

I have worked with many players (myself included I must admit) who completely overlooked the expression marks in the music such as:

  • The title of the piece
  • Dynamic markings
  • Tempo changes
  • Accents
  • Staccato and Legato markings
  • The Metronome mark

Apart from the hints that you can find in the music, however, there are also some general ways of playing that you can adopt and that will make your music more expressive.

Other things you can do to play more expressively: Sing!

One very simple thing you might add to your playing immediately, is to play louder when the notes go up, and to play more quietly when the line of the notes go down. Playing musically is very much to do with playing the music as you would sing it.

Try this at home: sing a well know song, let’s say the national anthem or happy birthday. Do you notice how your intake of breath is greater as your pitch gets higher – that your singing is louder as you sing higher notes? It is human nature to do this and it will make your playing sound more musical straight away.

Play about something

Playing more expressively is much easier when you define something that you would like to express with your music. In my teaching room, I keep a selection of old calendars with pretty pictures of mountain landscapes, images of nature, or works of art, which help when you want to express certain moods or feelings in the music.

Simply going on holiday and have a change of scenery certainly helps me being more creative in my playing.

Colours or textures

Thinking about colours or textures helps convey the same idea. Different things work for different people, so you can experiment with these concepts: think about a section in your music being purple or yellow or green, or play with a velvety sound as opposed to a tinny sound. 

Putting it all together

Once you have decided what you want to express with your music, you may want to exaggerate everything you so. So often, we think we are playing crescendo or diminuendo, but someone listening may not notice this at all!

Whatever you want to express with your music, say it with conviction, so that no member of your audience will miss what you wanted to say in the first place.

It may be that, once you have diverted your attention to other aspects of your playing, weaknesses in your technique show up, so get back to basics and patch up your legato bowing, or make your string crossings more fluent if this is the case.

Be aware that you can only become truly expressive after you have experimented with what works and what does not work for you. You will only find out by trying – so I hope that you will enjoy doing all sorts of outrageous things with your music, including the exact opposite of hat I have suggested above and let me know what you find out!




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