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Discussion Starter #1
A post in another forum got me thinking about this, and my best response is probably both yes and no. I have taught some students who seemed to instinctively play with expression and recreate the music rather than just the "notes on the page". I never figured out a way to give that innate ability to a student who didn't have it to begin with. That said, I could however teach that student some of the "tools" to playing with musical expression, and then guide and direct that student through a solo using those concepts.

I had some very fine teachers in college both as private teachers and conductors who taught me these very simple, yet profound concepts that help to form and guide expressive playing. Please understand that these are not "hard and fast" rules that apply in all circumstances, but guidelines to help one interpret and play or conduct music more expressively.

- Each musical phrase has a dynamic contour that usually follows the pattern of the notes
- Every note in a phrase is either leading toward or away from the peak of the phrase
- Every section of a piece of music is either leading toward or away from the climax of the piece
- Most musical expression occurs on the last beat of the measure
- All phrase endings in a legato piece should be tapered---some entrances as well
- There should be a slight hesitation before the stressed note at the end of a crescendo and before the last note of a piece
- There should be a marked hesitation or slowing before the climactic point in the piece


Teaching the above concepts to students and then hoping they would transfer those interpretive ideas to other pieces they play was about as good as it got with those students who did not naturally "feel" the music this way. So is that really teaching musical expression or just the mechanics of it. Who knows?
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This is similar to a question that has been asked about Asberger's syndrome. The consensus seems to be that you can't teach an AS person to feel empathy, sympathy and some other social/emotional behaviors, but you can teach them to emulate the appropriate emotional response so that they aren't quite so socially 'weird'.

Could these strategies be applied to folks that don't 'naturally' feel musical expression?
 

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That is an interesting comparison to say the least. I believe a distinction needs to be drawn between those people who have an emotional response when they hear music which includes most people including non-musicians and those who can naturally and instinctively inject emotion and feeling into their own playing in such a way it is communicated to the listener.
 

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Hmm interesting topic to say the least.
I am not sure I agree with all the "guidelines" above, it depends so much on the type of music one is talking about (I am writing arrangements in various styles) -- what works in one instance won't work in another musical context or style.
Like Maynard Ferguson I think anything that can be learned can be taught by a good teacher (unlike what Desmond said, quoted by Nefertiti).... whether it will be really incorporated/digested by the student is another thing AND if you are an interactive teacher you know you won't necessarily use the same approach to teach the same stuff to different learners.

I think that beyond guidelines or rules (which could be a good starting point), listening, emulating, modifying is a key approach (there is no single formula to musical expression in my view). This is true of music making, as it is with acting etc. But it can backfire, with many musicians/actors just copying someone else (it's easier than finding your own way) and ending up expressing eg "sorrow", "surprise", "joy" etc in the same standardized way.

Earth is a small planet but on it is a wide world (many cultural differences) and.... you have to cater for your/today's audience as a musician.
A concrete example: if a big band sax section today plays a tune of the 1930s with the fast vibrato used back then, isn't it going to feel annoying to a 2011 audience? But that's just me...
 

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I don't think there's any way to teach someone how to want to play with all the fire, heart, and passion that is required to completely embrace the music with the soul and mind. Once someone decides to do this, however, that person begins the journey that involves living and breathing the music. That's when expression really begins to take place.

I think one of the most important things we can teach is that every moment of every note should have meaning, whether it's part of a written piece or an improvisation. It's up to the player, however, to give it that meaning (or not play the note).

Randy
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I have three siblings. All four of us took piano lessons for many years, nearly all of it classical. All of us became reasonably adept in terms of right notes, right rhythms, dynamics, etc. But in my opinion only two of us ever played with a passion that came through in the music. My belief is anyone with the dexterity and a modicum of ability can manage to play an instrument with some skill if they are willing to do the work. And for many this will be enough and can be a great source of enjoyment and appreciation. But it seems to me there is something innate that is either present in a person or not, some connection to the music on a more ethereal level, something that resonates in the heart and mind. I have no idea what to call it or how to quantify such a thing. And I doubt it can be taught. I have had teachers that shared the background of a particular piece of music (who wrote it and when and what was happening in their life at the time) that helped stoke the flame of emotional/visceral connection to the music. But this only helped focus what was already there as opposed to creating something out of nothing.

It's a very interesting question both pedagogically and psychologically, maybe even spiritually. I'll be interested to hear more and very much appreciate the ideas already shared by some very masterful musicians and teachers. I love that so much experience is shared here by folks with such vast learning. To an avid amateur like myself it is wonderful to read. Thanks for the question jbtsax. And thanks to all of you. Please bring on some more!
 

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I think you should learn this by copying not by thinking too much about. You don't learn to talk expressively by thinking about all the single elements that makes it expressive, you copy it and do it subconsciously.
 

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No I don't think it can be taught.
Songwriting and After Dinner speaking can't be taught as well.
Some people seem to have expressional and communicational abilities that others may not have to any large degree.

A certain level of technique can be taught but for musical expression someone has to have something already in the pipeline to express and if the person has little to express then they won't express much.

It is possible to be a player with great technique that also doesn't communicate or express much at all and the same goes for after dinner speaking or politicians or whatever.
 

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A student can be taught to play the dynamics. That will give the impression that they are playing with expression.
Another student will throw dynamics out the window and play with so much emotion that it will raise goose bumps.
If they can't feel it deep in their gut, they're just going through the motions.
 

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I have three siblings. All four of us took piano lessons for many years, nearly all of it classical. All of us became reasonably adept in terms of right notes, right rhythms, dynamics, etc. But in my opinion only two of us ever played with a passion that came through in the music. My belief is anyone with the dexterity and a modicum of ability can manage to play an instrument with some skill if they are willing to do the work. And for many this will be enough and can be a great source of enjoyment and appreciation. But it seems to me there is something innate that is either present in a person or not, some connection to the music on a more ethereal level, something that resonates in the heart and mind. I have no idea what to call it or how to quantify such a thing. And I doubt it can be taught. I have had teachers that shared the background of a particular piece of music (who wrote it and when and what was happening in their life at the time) that helped stoke the flame of emotional/visceral connection to the music. But this only helped focus what was already there as opposed to creating something out of nothing.

It's a very interesting question both pedagogically and psychologically, maybe even spiritually. I'll be interested to hear more and very much appreciate the ideas already shared by some very masterful musicians and teachers. I love that so much experience is shared here by folks with such vast learning. To an avid amateur like myself it is wonderful to read. Thanks for the question jbtsax. And thanks to all of you. Please bring on some more!
It's called "talent". Talent and skill are two different things.
 

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imo, it CAN be taught. (i'm prolly gonna reword things already said)... i'm a student (and very slightly a teacher). i grew up listening to mostly rock. now that i've picked up the sax and turned my interest ot jazz, the jazz phrasing and expression just didn't seem to make sense to me. however, it interested me enough to try and learn how to both hear it and play it. like learning a different dialect.
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at first, my mind was just too overwhelmed with the mechanics of working the sax to even THINK about expression. then scales/chrods/progressions. then there's the phrases/patterns/licks that seem to achieve that "jazzy" sound that take time just to remember. there are a thousand ways to learn, but i seem to need to accomplish comfort/confidence with the mechanics before my mind is free enough inject personal expression. actually, this is why (i've discovered) that moving too fast in my phrase/vocab development is counter-productive. i NEED to get to the place where the mechanics are out of the way before my mind will even BEGIN to venture in expressive operation. of course, as i progress, the mechanical operation becomes less and less of an issue altogether, and even finding the note i 'hear' gets to be a closer and closer reality - but it takes time and patience.
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so i might say to a teacher that EVERYONE can be taught expression, but not everyone might be concentrating on trying to be expressive when the teacher wants them to. some pupils may just not have a passion for the music - maybe music in general, maybe the piece, maybe the genre. no one is very expressive in the things they don't care too much about. i don't know if it's ever possible to perfectly predict a student's real internal interest, so evaluating perceived under-performers is risky. my opinion of a perfect teacher, who is able to teach expression, is one who can determine the student's interests, cultivate a passion for them, be patient thru the mechanical phases, and inspire and present opportunity to develop expression.
 

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Earth is a small planet but on it is a wide world (many cultural differences) and.... you have to cater for your/today's audience as a musician.
A concrete example: if a big band sax section today plays a tune of the 1930s with the fast vibrato used back then, isn't it going to feel annoying to a 2011 audience? But that's just me...
I think the audience will be unfamiliar enough with the conventions of the '30s that they'd probably think it was just fine. The musicians, OTOH, will probably have been taught it's corny and obnoxious even for music of the period - even though it isn't.

It reminds me of what Alex Ross wrote about the St. Lawrence String Quartet. He observed that their first violinist actually played too expressively - varying the rhythms to the point that the other 3 sometimes could not follow him.

It was, Ross said, what a romantic type of soloist might have done early in the last century. He liked the quartet too much to say that the other 3 were stuck in a latter-day, precision way of phrasing. But he clearly, to me, implied that the romantic expression was good and different and ought to stay.
 

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I also have some thoughts about expression and whether it can be taught...

It can be copied or mimicked, certainly. In fact this might be a good way for students to begin. But it could very easily turn into a mechanical exercise.

What the teacher can - must do - is model expressive playing.

This isn't as easy as you might think. Too many never learned it, because for decades now, expressiveness has taken a backseat to precision and efficiency (in fact those 2 things can mean work or no work for a musician). But they could at least play recordings of players whose expression they admire.

Trouble is, the more generations of musicians we turn out where expressiveness is a rarity, the further back they are going to have to go, and the less relevant expressive playing will be. It will literally die out.
 

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I think it's like everything else. It CAN be taught; however, there will be those who just don't "get it." If you can't dance and can't feel the rhythm, then you'll be better off NOT trying to impress chicks at a dance. A lot of activities give rise to stereotypes... There's probably a reason for that but I ain't goin' there.
 

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"but i go dancin' every night, hoping someday i might get it right" (dancin fool, zappa)

(opinion warning) literary "expression", written or verbal, is not attempted/encouraged when students are learning the basics. it's developed using the tools learned/mastered previously. also, everyone has a different personality, or forms of "expression", so someone may be very subdued as a preference and seem dull/dead to a flambouyant teacher/audience. in "teaching" expression, i think the teacher has various options and elements, including known techniques, but (imo) i think the teacher really needs to help the student understand and develop THEIR (student's) expression. encourage the student to play his mood, in his own way. of course, it'd be good for the student to already know/understand some techniques for doing this.
playing straight eights, soflty, legato, is a form of "expression". it might not be the teacher's idea of expression, though. i bet i could take some parkening or segovia and ask some vanhalen fans to evaluate it, and get a few "it lacks expression" comments.
 

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Paul is on the right track. I advocate a set of teaching methods called Cognitive Apprenticeship. I think the methods are tailor made for teaching music. Here are the methods:

Model
SHOW a student how to do something- or let them experience an exemplar. You can't just demonstrate, you have to externalize what it takes internally to do a task.

Coach

You have to give feedback when a student attempts something.

Scaffold


When a student can't do something, you have to be able to 'build' a structure that is supportive, so that the student can accomplish that particular thing that you're trying to get from him. For example, limit note and rhythmic choices in a blues so that the student can successfully navigate the form.

Articulate

Remember that you have modeled your internal processes. Now you have to get the student to externalize his process.

Reflect

This is when a student compares his externalized thought processes to yours, or an expert's thought processes

Explore

This is when, at some point, you start withdrawing the scaffolding, and not only allow the student to problem solve, you allow the student to problem SET as well.

If you do these things as a teacher you can teach a student ANYTHING, including expression.
 

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Discussion Starter #19
There is a lot of educational jargon in this description that I find confusing and I have been an educator all of my life.

What does "cognitive apprenticeship" mean?

What is meant by "externalizing"?

What are some examples of how a music student might "problem set" at the end of this process?

Can you expound more on what "building a scaffold" means? Is it providing a foundation for a given skill, simplifying a task, or something else?

How does one "externalize what it takes internally to do a task" like play a chromatic scale?

I guess what I am asking is if these ideas can be put into plain English so that those of us who are not well versed in the latest educational psychology can better grasp what Cognitive Apprenticeship is about.
 

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No, it can not be taught. It can be learned however!
Yup. This is why I've heard sixth graders who can phrase with the best of them, and college majors with about as much groove as a block of wood ( and not a very funky block of wood, at that!) Some people know it as an instinct, others learn it via osmosis over the years, and for a very lucky few, it just clicks one day.
 
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