Three Ways to Teach Students How to Play More Expressively (And Is There a “Best” Way?)

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My daughter has been composing a short piece for a summer program she’s in, and up until this point, her only concept of the piece is the MIDI performance that her computer generates. But in a few days, for the first time ever, she’ll have an opportunity to hear live, human musicians play something she’s written. 

I’m super excited, because I think she’s going to be surprised. Hopefully in a good way, of course. But I do think it’ll be slightly disorienting at first to hear how different the black notes on the page sound, when filtered through living breathing musicians with expressive, music-making instincts as opposed to her computer.

Of course, I think we’ve all had moments where we’ve been guilty of playing more like the robot in our computer than the expressive humans we are. At least, I can certainly remember many a lesson where my teachers would try to get me to worry a little less about accuracy and focus more on playing expressively.

I remember that they utilized a number of different approaches – from images and metaphors to demonstrations and listening assignments and guided questions and specific suggestions and instructions and more.

With so many different ways to approach this challenge, is there a best way? Or even a set of best practices perhaps that are effective in teaching students how to play more expressively?

A piano study

To explore this question, music education researcher Robert Woody conducted a study (2006) of 36 undergraduate and graduate-level pianists. For some of the participants, piano was their primary instrument, while for others, piano was not their main instrument. 

The piano majors averaged about 11 hours of individual practice per week, and had had 16.8 years of private piano lessons. The non-piano majors averaged fewer hours of practice and lessons (about 3 hours of piano practice per week, and about 9.3 years of lessons). All this to say, even the non-piano majors appear to have been pretty competent pianists. At least, this is way more experience and a lot more practicing than I and most of my fellow secondary piano classmates did when we were in school! 🥴

Three types of instructions

Anyhow, the students were presented with three short musical phrases to play1, given some time to practice on a digital piano, and then asked to perform these short excerpts in a “normal musical way, without doing anything special.”

Then, they were given some instructions on how to make their performance more expressive.

One approach was auditory. Alongside the unmarked music, students listened to a faculty member’s recording2, which served as an auditory model to emulate or give them some ideas on what expressive possibilities to consider incorporating into their own performance.

Another approach involved concrete instructions. Rather than an auditory model, students were provided with a copy of the music that had expressive markings written in. Like articulation markings, dynamics, and suggestions on where to push the tempo forward a bit or slow down.

Like so:

And the final approach was imagery/metaphor-based. Instead of specific musical directions, they were given an emotionally evocative image or metaphor that a faculty member had generated for each melody, that would (hopefully) help them develop a clearer sense of what mood or character they should aim for in their performance of each melody.

Such as:

And after a little more practice (they were allowed to take as much time as they wanted), the participants then recorded one final expressive performance.

Which approach was best?

To compare the three instructional approaches, students’ “normal” and “expressive” recordings were compared to the expert model, to see what sort of changes occurred after each type of expressive instruction.

And which one was best?

Well, as you might have guessed, all three strategies led to more expressive performances (at least in terms of measurable changes in dynamics, tempo, articulation that more closely approximated characteristics of the faculty member’s model recording) – and no one approach was necessarily any more effective than the others.

There were, however, some interesting observations that might be important to consider.

Observation #1

Giving students an auditory model led pretty consistently to performances that sounded more like the model. So it seems that students may have interpreted the recording more as an ideal to emulate exactly, as opposed to one potential approach to take inspiration from.

Observation #2

Concrete instructions helped students play more expressively as well, but was also associated with significantly more practice repetitions than the other two approaches (4.8 practice repetitions vs. 3.3 for the auditory model and imagery/metaphor strategies). Which suggests that this could be a slightly more time-intensive approach than the others (though that might not necessarily be a bad thing, if it means students are doing more thoughtful experimenting in these extra repetitions).

Observation #3

The metaphor/imagery prompts did lead to significantly more expressive playing – but not necessarily in ways that were always musically appropriate. Like, they may have emphasized a note that wasn’t very important, or pushed the tempo forward instead of holding back, etc.

So what can we take away from all of this? Well, the author offers a few recommendations based on the findings of this study.

Recommendation #1

If you’re trying to achieve a specific sound, color, or articulation, an auditory model can probably help. Which could mean listening to a recording to help you form a clearer mental model for your own playing, or demonstrating for a student to help them develop their own internal model.

Recommendation #2

If, on the other hand, the goal is to generally add more “life” and expression to a passage which sounds kind of boring or robotic, searching for a more compelling image or metaphor could be the way to go. And if when trying this with a student, they do something that isn’t stylistically appropriate (a huge juicy glissando in Bach, etc.), you could guide and shape them towards something a little more appropriate through concrete instructions.

Recommendation #3

And speaking of concrete instructions, it’s important to keep in mind that beginning or less-advanced students (or perhaps even advanced students who are working on especially challenging new rep, or making adjustments to their technique/embouchure, etc.) may have difficulty juggling and incorporating too many instructions all at once.

Final takeaways

All in all, the main takeaway for me, is that there’s probably no one-size-fits-all strategy or approach to helping students (or ourselves) play more expressively. And that ultimately, it’s the artful mashup of all three of these strategies (and likely others) that probably works best.

In that the “best” strategy likely depends on the student, and on being able to read the situation to figure out what they’re hearing in the model you present, what they’re taking away from your image/metaphor, and whether they have the bandwidth to focus on multiple expressive dimensions (i.e. dynamics plus articulation plus phrasing plus sound, etc.), while also balancing the technical challenges and demands that they may be working through in that moment.

Yeah – it’s a lot, but also kind of what makes all of this fun, no? 😅


References

Woody, R. H. (2006). The Effect of Various Instructional Conditions on Expressive Music Performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 54(1), 21. https://doi.org/10.2307/3653453

Footnotes

  1. A short melody written for a previous experiment (Clarke & Baker-Short, 1987), plus melodies taken from two Schubert song cycles)
  2. Technically, it wasn’t a recording, but the MIDI data played back through the digital piano, with all of the expressive details of the original performance intact

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