“I would love ideas about how to take an advanced player who plays “mechanically” and get her to “feel” the music a bit more? I should add that she does tons of dynamics and plays very aggressively. It just doesn’t come off in a natural, organic way. It feels canned.”
This was a great question on a web site and, I fear, is a very common problem. Instead of thinking how to get students to play expressively, I often find I first have to deal with what blocks them from doing it.
For me, the point of playing music is to live where you don’t. In my way of seeing things, a human being has three components: physical, mental and emotional. Very few activities I can think of require us to use all three of these components to the highest level at the same time. Music does. Playing music expressively makes us feel like whole human beings and is a wonderful experience – one reason why some students are willing to practice many hours a day. Most of us tend to identify with one aspect more than the other two. The teachers therefore have to modify their approach according to where their students tend to spend most of their time. My explanations to children who live in their intellect, for example, are often quite different from those to students who live primarily in their bodies (some of my students are serious dancers or athletes).
The student mentioned above has no doubt thought out everything – dynamics, phrasing, fingering, bowing, etc. But she just can’t let herself live in the other parts of herself. You can hear her thinking when she plays and that is what is bothering her teacher. Students who are stuck in their heads (which society generally praises, values and promotes), are not aware that there is more to themselves than what is going on in their heads or their bodies.
How to approach students who may even be afraid of what they can’t see or think through? You talk to them. They need explanations, intellectual ones. You can give all kinds of musical examples to students like this but it will mean nothing to them unless you try to explain the mystery that is music and help them have an intellectual insight. This way you give them an approach they can understand to help them accede to the other aspects of themselves.
The way we teach music is often just like sending a child to house of worship, teaching him to pray without ever telling him there is a God – if she has “talent” she’ll figure it out on her own! Obviously, those who give their children a religious education, talk about God from the beginning of their children’s lives. Why should we not talk about the spiritual aspects of making music when needed? I often tell my students that playing music is another form of prayer or meditation, a manipulation of subtle energy. Music is about transcendence, trusting our minds and bodies to do the job they have been trained for so we can free our spirits to express something more. It is not thinking only about ourselves or how we are going to put our definitive stamp on the music. So far, I fear that the student mentioned above thinks she is just the sum of her body and her mind.
There are other factors that sometimes block students from expressing themselves musically. Here is a list of a few of them: Continue reading