The highest level of expression in music–conveying emotion

I feel that one of the jobs an artist or musician has is to convey emotion. So then, how do you prepare for that? I can only answer for musicians, but there are three things I can think of:

  1. Listening (especially going to live performances)
  2. Practice conveying a sense of fun and play on the instrument (which is helpful in getting to an emotion)
  3. Developing the skill of playing with other musicians at a high level

Manu Katche smiling (fun+play=emotion)

It’s important to realize that this is one of the toughest things to do as a musician. And, even if you know you need to do it and what to do to make it happen, it’s not going to work all of the time, or even most of the time. This is art, and art is hard.

It’s also hard to describe in words what conveying an emotion is like. I’ve been playing for a long, long time, and it’s still hard to put words around it. However, it’s much easier to understand if you’ve witnessed it, if you’ve felt it. And the best place to witness it in the music world, I believe, is in a live performance of music. Audio/video recordings and YouTube are also places to find this, it’s just harder to find it in that medium vs. live performances. And on top of that, even if you’re at a live event, if you’re not listening–really, deeply listening–it’s possible to miss these things. That’s why listening is so important.

It’s like your brain and body can only register and witness these emotional moments if you’re open to them. I’m sure I’ve been in the audience at some incredible moments of emotion in music, and I missed it because I just was not open to it, or I was not listening fully.

The good news is that delivering emotion can be practiced and rehearsed. Or rather, you can do things in a practice/rehearsal environment that will help you deliver the emotion in a performance setting.

One way to do this is through the listening and fun homework I give my students. Let’s talk about listening first.

Developing the skill of listening

I make listening a part of each of my students homework every week, because listening is the most important skill to develop as a musician. THE most important thing (not your technique, or your speed, or your reading…or what shirt you wore 🙂

Part of listening is about knowing the recorded history of the genre of music you’re playing. How have the greatest musicians that preceded you played the music you are playing? What decisions did they make based on what they were hearing? Books like Danny Gottlieb’s “The Evcolution Of Jazz Drumming” in jazz, or Rich Lackowski’s “On The Beaten Path” for popular music (Rock, Pop, R&B, Country, etc.) can help you with this. Also, studying with a teacher who can help point the way will also help (there are a lot…a LOT…of recordings out there, so you’ll need help navigating the mass of information out there). Get the answer to questions like ‘Why did drummer (X) play the same song differently than drummer (Y)—what were they thinking?’

Of course, this is art, so there will be no definitive answer. That’s not the idea here. The idea is to understand as much as you can about the process, absorb that information, then use it to develop your own aesthetic approach to the instrument.

Now let’s talk about listening while performing. On the bandstand it’s not only about listening to other musicians to stay in sync with them, but listening at a higher level to what other musicians are doing and responding appropriately. Your response can be to mimic what they’re doing, support what they’re doing, or play a counterpoint to what they’re doing. Sometimes the best thing to do is just not respond or even stop playing.

The real magic in music lies in the decisions you make in terms of how you respond to what you’re hearing. Delivering an emotion is very closely related to this. Whenever I’ve had a ‘wow’ moment playing music, it’s always been when I’ve been playing music with other people. The only way to make that happen is to be listening like crazy.

How to convey ‘fun’ and ‘play’ on your instrument

Changing your playing to convey a sense of ‘fun’ and ‘play’ is closely related to changing your playing to convey an emotion. Much as children practice emotional skills during play, we musicians can create a feeling of ‘fun’ and ‘play’ in our practice and rehearsal time. We then use these skills to develop the ability to convey an emotion in a performance.

So, how do you do this?

I have ‘fun’, or ‘play’ as a part of each practice session I have, and each homework assignment I give my students. Why? Because we play music, we don’t ‘work’ music.

For me, playing along to my iPod on shuffle is fun–it’s just a blast for me. And I make sure that this fun thing is a part of every practice session I have–even if it’s just for two minutes. So…if I’m getting the sense at a gig or a rehearsal that things are sounding a little stale, or uninspiring, I remember what I felt like when I was doing my ‘fun’ practice (the iPod on shuffle) and I bring that feeling to what I’m playing in that moment.

It’s much the same for my students. Every once in a while, a student will play for me some thing that is technically accurate, but not-at-all delivering on the emotional side of things. What I do at that point, is refer back to their fun homework: “what you just played was OK, but it didn’t reach me emotionally like what you did for your ‘play’ homework. Can we have this sound like that?”

Playing with other musicians is critically important

Playing with other musicians I’ve listed last here, but it is the most important part of this whole exercise. Whenever I’ve had one of those ‘wow’ moments in music, it has always been when I’m playing music with other people. Al-ways. And, in order to play well with other musicians, you have to spend a lot of time at it.

If you want to be great at something, one of the things you need to do is put in a LOT of hours practicing that skill. And in music, playing with other musicians should be a significant percentage of those hours of developing your craft as a musician. It’s not the only thing you need to practice, but it’s the main thing.

You have to put in the time playing with others, because there’s so much to learn that you will never get from simply practicing, rehearsing and lessons alone, no matter how much of these you do. Remember, the goal of a musician is not to become technically skilled or amazing in a practice or rehearsal environment, but to share their music with others. This means playing with other musicians.

Overall, this is about playing with command

It’s important to know that what we’re talking about is pretty high-level stuff for a musician. It’s difficult to even think about this if you’re worried about simply getting through the music you need to play (believe me, I know THAT feeling 😉 You have to be able to play the music you’re performing with command* before you can consider the idea of delivering an emotion. (*My definition of ‘command’ is being able to play anything the song requires, while more than half of your listening attention is focused on something besides yourself–the singer, the bass player, etc. Sounds simple, but it’s easier—much easier–said than done.)

But, the good news is that this is available to all of us. Even my beginner students can approach this through learning one song really well, mastering their mistakes (my post that explains ‘mastering your mistakes’), and being aware of the emotion that the song needs to convey.

In closing…

The big idea here is that, at the highest level of expression, a musicians job is to convey an emotion through their music. This is a hard thing to do, but there are ways to prepare for it:

  1. Through learning to listen deeply
  2. By developing a sense of ‘play’ and ‘fun’ on your instrument, and using THAT to enable you to deliver emotions through your music
  3. Through learning how to play with other musicians at a high level

Lastly, I leave you with some thoughts that might have been buried in the text above:

  • Don’t forget that as musicians, we don’t ‘work’ music, we play music
  • Our job is not to become the best musician in our practice space, but to share our music with others; doesn’t matter if it’s three people, 300 people or 3,000 people, you need to share your music to reach your full potential as an artist

NEXT POST: We’ll discuss how this idea can be translated to other areas of our lives–our family lives, our work lives, etc.

Until then–cheers!

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2 comments on “The highest level of expression in music–conveying emotion
  1. Gregg Landrey says:

    Very interesting and helpful.

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