How do you teach your students to play expressively?
I am not a harp teacher, but the way I **learned** to play (piano) expressively happened by accident — I was playing something from West Side Story for my lesson, and my teacher commented on how much more expressive I was with a song that had words. Ever since then, I’ve either put words to melodies, sung melodies to myself (la la la), or treated each piece as a program piece by describing scenes that the music evoked to me.
Expression happens naturally when one has control of one’s fingers and of the music. If you teach what the tools of expression are and how to use them, the student will find their way, if you don’t show them.
Tools of expression include: dynamic control, tempo control, evenness of execution thereby allowing for accents, rhythmic control, sense of style, sense of the composer’s intent, music reading and analysis skills. Self-expression is a myth in music. People who express themselves do not express the music, just themselves. Real expression comes from deep within, from the heart, the soul, the spirit. It is released by knowledge. It is inhibited by dwelling too long or being too proud of technical accomplishment. The more the student can relax when playing, be rid of anxiety or self-consciousness, the more the inner music can reveal itself. It is a long process of stripping away the self and ego, over and over and over again until the bare music is exposed. It is a truth-seeking process.
With young harpists, establish evenness, then dynamics, and an awareness of how to achieve dynamics based on actual sound and not intention. In other words, when you play a string, it immediately begins a diminuendo, so you must always crescendo slightly just to maintain a dynamic, and more so to create a crescendo. To control a diminuendo is therefore rather difficult as what you really have to do is a diminishing amount of crescendo on each successive note. You have to learn to listen to all the overtones, all that is happening in the harp and manage that. It comes with time and listening carefully.
^^I agree that expressiveness begins with a technical foundation.
One thing I try to do with my students is to find out what they already feel connected to – what is their meaning? This could be a pet, it could be ballet, robot warriors, the sounds of birds, even sports. I try to use metaphors and imagery from something they already love and extend it into music. Expression can be described in anything from the intuitive physics of motion, to images, to nature sounds, to abstract internal emotions. This aspect helps the student make a personal connection to the music. To help the student make a connection to music, I morph my approach around their interests and inspiration.
Exposure to expressive playing is also necessary. Students should have access to recordings and attend performances by the best players, so that the storehouse of their minds can be filled with the best possible sounds.
From a practical teaching level, being able to teach technique effectively is what connects the expressiveness in their minds through their fingers and onto the strings. I also tend to use references to the human voice because much of musical phrasing has its foundation in how we intuitively relate to our voices – higher notes often have more emphasis, phrases tend to be four measures in length, taking a breath before a phrase can articulate the structure of the music, etc. All of this has its roots in the human voice, which wind players know using their instruments as an extension of that voice. Those of us who use our fingers can also benefit from natural breathing that informs phrasing.
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