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Expression In Playing and Its Conditions


A newspaper clipping recently sent to me for comment contains a somewhat disgruntled expression of surprise at the unsatisfactory nature of the playing of many piano students who are rated as possessing talent and technical skill. “It appears to us,” remarks this correspondent, “as if a whole lot of time were spent upon technic, and when the pupil at last is heard he has technic and not another thing beside.” There is nothing new in this complaint; in ancient Greece philosophers lamented that music, instead of holding to its true office of poetic expression, was degenerating into a mere virtuoso display, and doubtless the pipe and lyre players of the time of Jubal were often subject to the same censure. The unprofessional patrons of music, the general public, have always been disposed to insist, in spite of temporary aberrations, that music ought to mean something instead of manipulative jugglery; they have held pretty firmly to the notion that music is an art as well as a science, and by no manner of means a mere handicraft. An art, to be entitled to the name, must have some vital relation to life; it speaks from and to the soul, and quickens the emotional sensibility through the medium of beauty. However difficult it may be to give definitions of art or of beauty,—in the last resort both of them touch the conscious life of the soul, giving pleasure that is felt to be healthful, enlarging, and permanent. Whether an art is impersonal as architecture, or unimitative and indefinitely suggestive as music, this one universal element remains an indispensable factor—the mental exhilaration produced is realized as a sufficient end in itself because promotive of spiritual life and growth. One who clearly recognizes this aim and essence of art will be impatient even to wrath with any result of the study of the technical elements of art which rests satisfied with them, and which gives to the expectant art lover only the outer wrappings or superficial agencies of art when he is hungering for its sweetness and strength-giving power.

That such and such a pianist plays without expression is a frequent charge. Those who make the accusation would often be unable to state in set terms what is meant by musical expression, but they mean what I have indicated, that the player somehow fails to impart the real pith and substance of the art-work; it does not breathe and glow; the inward spiritual beauty is not revealed. Making due allowance for illegitimate demands on the part of uncultured listeners who sometimes require of a piece of music an effort which is not within its special nature to bestow, this complaint of lack of expression, in the playing of young performers particularly, is often just. The reason of this deficiency on the part of faithful, mechanically accurate students is, of course, that they do not themselves really know what musical beauty is. They follow their teacher’s directions as best they can, but the final charm of which any given production is capable they do not impart because it does not exist in their minds as an antecedent consciousness. This defect is not due to lack of conscience or of hard work, but is simply a sign of mental immaturity. There is something in music which their ears have not heard or their hearts conceived. In such an instance there is no occasion for surprise or fault-finding. Young people generally, up to a certain age, are destitute of that disciplined emotional or imaginative faculty which grasps immediately the special significance and ultimate loveliness of a musical work, just as they are irresponsive also to the profounder suggestions of poetry and painting. This coldness is due, in the majority of cases, not so much to original lack of sensibility as to neglect of its development. How can one give what he does not possess?

Now, the question arises, How shall this sensitiveness to intellectul (sic) beauty, the preliminary condition of expressive playing, be developed in a young student? Doubtless there are many ways. Let me suggest a few:

Technic is ordinarily supposed by a young learner to consist of striking a certain number of notes with accuracy and evenness, legato or staccato, in a certain specified time. The pupil should be made to feel, however, that quality as well as quantity of tone, and the balance, adjustment, and blending of sounds to produce a rich and finely shaded effect upon the sensuous ear, are also included in the province of technic. An unharmonized scale or trill, a detached chord or arpeggio, may arouse a sense of beauty through the management of tone-color alone. The ear should be trained to appreciate and demand this element in the beautiful. Many students are not keenly conscious of the effects they produce; they are so occupied with the perceptions of the eye that the ear is only half awake. This organ should be developed at the same time with the fingers; it should be alert to the most subtle distinctions of pitch and the most exquisite gradations of timbre in the piano, violin, and the human voice. Harsh or inappropriate tones will then be impossible to the player, for, of course, he will not knowingly produce impressions which are painful to himself; and when he has learned to revel in all the possible luxuries of sound and make the achievement of them an object in his study, then one important element of expression in playing will have been mastered.

Another factor in musical beauty is harmony. The student should be led to recognize and enjoy the impression conveyed by full, pure, majestic, masterly constructed combinations; to linger with delight over some enchanting chord or chord progression; to follow with satisfied delight those undertones which move within the fluent mass of sound, lending weight, dignity, somberness, or luster. He should accustom himself to listen down through the harmony, instead of allowing his attention to rest upon the surface. Most young players produce too thin a tone; the left-hand part is weak; the tone does not balance; the brilliant treble has no adequate substratum. Let them be taught to watch the bass part by direct vision and listen for the bass and tenor components in the harmony, and bring out every characteristic figure in the under and middle parts. Then when they come to enjoy the beauty of harmony and substantial wealth of tone they will strive to produce it, and another element of expression will have been mastered.

The same might be said in regard to developing a sense of the beauty that lies in rhythm,—not the obvious march and dance rhythms which every one catches as if by instinct, but the more involved and recondite rhythmical groupings which lend such an impression of firm-knit, yet facile, power to the works of men like Bach, Schumann, and Chopin. There is also a beauty of flexible tempo, the air of ease and self-poise which is conveyed by a skilfully-handled rubato in music of a buoyant, undulating character. There is a beauty of contrast, of strong dissonance, of syncopation, of crescendo and diminuendo, of glaring colors, of a tempestuous, passionate delivery.

All these, however, are but the external contrivances, the mediate terms, of true expression; their direct action is upon the nervous organization. The problem of expression is solved only when they are employed by the judgment for judicious and appropriate ends. What is to prevent a false use of them, a travesty of the composer’s intention? Only the ripening of the musical sense, recognition by thought and experience of the laws of characteristic beauty as distinguished from general abstract beauty. There is an ultimate, irresolvable element in expression which can not be imparted by precept and hardly touched by any words at our command. It is that mystical somewhat which we call, for lack of a better phrase, poetic interpretation. By virtue of a certain intrinsic imaginative power, the player sinks his whole being in the art-work which his hands are calling forth, so that it becomes soul of his soul, breath of his breath, a part of his sacred inner life taking form for a moment and realizing itself in the eloquence of sound. Now, can this capacity for feeling the utmost beauty that lies in music, and the impulse to project this feeling in justly tempered tone, be aroused or developed by any means within the teacher’s reach? Not if there are no germs of it in the student’s mind in the first place; but as there are probably few that do not possess its rudiments at least, much can be done to call out a consciousness of the vital elements of musical effect. One method is that of giving music that is connected with a definite idea and that has a character appropriate to that idea. A child who would not play a Mozart andante with expression would quickly see that tenderness and grace must be imparted to Gade’s “Spring Flowers,” languor to Schumann’s “Child Falling Asleep,” and joyful eagerness to Wilm’s “Before the Ball.” Where a single idea or quality is more vaguely suggested, as in Seiss’s “Evening Song” or Mendelssohn’s G-minor “Gondellied,” the player’s fancy may be arbitrarily stimulated, and his judgment allowed to take its own course in adapting the musical treatment to an imagined picture or sentiment. Perhaps the best way of all by which to arouse dormant notions of expression is by the accessory aid of vocal music. Use some out of the multitude of song transcriptions, and, at the beginning of the study of the piece, require the student to read the words of the original song, and then (privately, of course) sing the melody, thus becoming imbued with the definite meaning and spirit of the composition. A love and study of the best vocal music, the practice of hearing good singing, and judging it from the side of its relation to poetic sentiment, would be a powerful stimulus to a healthful musical feeling. I can not help believing (although I do not dogmatize upon the point) that a love of beauty in other forms, as found in poetry, painting, and the world of nature, is or should be bound up, in a greater or less degree, with a genuine love of music; for, while the laws of art expression vary according to the medium, yet if the student earnestly strives to penetrate below the sensuous vehicle to the spiritual activity within, it can hardly be possible that the tie which binds all manifestations of beauty together will escape his recognition.

What does it profit a student or his friends if he can perform Liszt’s “Tannhäuser March” with mechanical accuracy, but can see or reveal no charm in Schumann’s F-sharp “Romanza” or Chopin’s D flat “Prelude”? Music of a profoundly emotional character should be included in every teacher’s repertoire, and the question of the pupil’s advancement made to depend partly on his ability to deal with solemnity and pathos. Still more important is it that the young artist should be awake to the greatness that often lies in moderation and simplicity. There is no more certain evidence of superficiality in musical judgment than the inclination to despise the simple. The literary critic calls Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways” a masterpiece. A great painter may expend some of the rarest resources of his art upon a clump of shy wayside flowers. A musician is unworthy of the name if he will not bow with reverence before a thing like Bach’s E-flat-minor “Prelude” or Franz’s “Ave Maria.” That which the highest authorities worship let not the student be permitted to despise.

All that has here been said may be but safe and glittering generality, but it comes as near being practical as the case permits. For playing with profound musical feeling is not a matter of routine or analysis, but of temperament; it can not be taught by precept, but must be stimulated by suggestion and indirection. Encouragement has much to do with it; overexpression is far better than none at all, and teachers are too inclined to repress the individuality of their pupils. The student is so afraid of doing something wrong that he renounces his own instinctive feeling for the composition, and gives only a lifeless and perfunctory performance, because he does not dare let himself go for fear of some technical slip which will bring down rebuke upon his head. It is much easier and more satisfactory to tone a performance down than to tone it up; some excess, some turbulent exaggeration of expression, may well be permitted rather than a rendering that is mechanically accurate, but, after all, “faultily faultless, icily regular, splendidly null.”

The whole matter resolves to this : Teach music as art, as the manifestation of the life of the soul. Help your pupils to become more intelligent in judgment, more acute in perception, more tender and liberal in feeling. One only needs to be alive to every finest, every characteristic degree of tonal and emotional beauty; then with a technical skill adequate to set forth the hidden quality which he has intellectually grasped, there will be no complaint that his playing fails to reach the heart.


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You are reading Expression In Playing and Its Conditions from the July, 1898 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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