From the Top, With Feeling: Expressive Music Practice

The notes I handle no better than any other pianist. But the pause between the notes–ah, that is where the art resides.

~Arthur Schnabel classical pianist (1882-1951)


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Feeling is everything in music. Or very nearly so. No matter what kind of music we listen to, we know it when we hear it. It’s so important that most listeners can perceive the emotional content in just a 1 second slice of sound! What is it that makes a piece of music expressive? It’s the musician herself that does, of course. But how does one go about learning how to do that? How do you convey feeling through sound? It’s the same answer as just about anything having to do with musical skill: you practice! But what does that mean? How do musicians practice the expressive aspects of music?

Well, it turns out there is a piece of 2009 research that chronicles how 18 classical musicians do it, conducted by Rosenthal (VanderCook), Durairaj (The Latin School of Chicago), and Magann (Methacton High). They conducted and analyzed interviews with 5 professional musicians (actively performing college profs: flute, marimba, piano, viola, clarinet); 5 music education students (jr, sr, masters: voice, clarinet, sax, marimba); and 8 high school orchestra students (9, 10, 11, & 12th graders: violin, ‘cello, bass).

A 10-12 minute practice session was recorded on video, and immediately after the session, the researcher and the musician reviewed the tape and the musician commented on what he or she was thinking while practicing. The researcher then analyzed each of the phrases in that simulated-recall interview. Phrases were categorized by function and content, and each was analyzed for metaphoric content, too. Some interesting things emerged:

Overall, 29% of subjects’ Segments (generally equivalent to a sentence or phrase) pertained to Expression. The remaining 71% were distributed, in descending order of frequency, among Parallel Practice Strategies, Technique, Chunk-and-Chain Practice Strategies, Musical Structure, Mind/Body issues, combined Structural/Expressive issues, and combined Structural/Expressive/Technical issues. (p. 41)

More experienced musicians tended to make more combined commentary, which means they’re practicing more efficiently. For example, the combination of technique (hands) with structural (form) elements in the statement, “use my hands to try to get the phrasing” (p. 40). Another interesting difference is that the more experienced musicians used parallel strategies (such as clapping, singing) that coded the musical passage in a different way facilitating both memory and learning. The older musicians “verbalized frequent, very small goals throughout the practice session” (p. 45), an important element in effective practice. More experienced musicians also used less evaluative phrases, whereas high schoolers and music education students used the most (and mostly negative assessments), signifying that students at this time might need help maintaining correct focus while practicing. The use of metaphoric language was also more prevalent in more experienced musicians, though when younger students did use metaphor, it was usually a metaphor of motion, a tendency the researchers noted that teachers might want to be aware of when helping younger students think about expressiveness in classical music.

These more refined and effective practice strategies  raise an interesting question as to whether less experienced students can learn these more efficient technique overtly or whether they arises through experience. As researchers like to say, more study is needed.

There are some things about this study that are worth noting. First is that some studies (Ericsson, 1993 and others) have indicated that music education students practice significantly less than music performance students, and it might be that professionals who do not teach but play for their livelihood may have a different approach than those interviewed here.

But the most troubling issue for me is that classical music is once again put forth as the epitome of musical approaches, not overtly, or even intentionally, I’m sure, but this is another example of classical music’s hegemonic presence in our thinking, so embedded that we don’t notice its domination. How is the issue of expressivity practiced in jazz or pop music where–I would argue–individuality is even more important, or at the very least more overt than in classical music? If the same study was undertaken in these genres, I’m positive different approaches would emerge. Somebody should do this study.

Anyway, here are a couple examples of expressive music for you to enjoy that aren’t classical which you might not have heard or seen. The first is some superb expressive performances by a who’s who of 50s jazz: Billie Holliday, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Vic Dickensen, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and others on the tune Fine and Mellow. The next is a fun Bluegrass-style cover of the Bangles tune Walk Like an Egyptian, done by The Cleverleys; the drummer is especially fun to watch and listen to. Have fun and good luck with your practice.


Rosenthal, R., Durairaj, M., & Magann, J. (2009). Musicians’ descriptions of their expressive musical practice. Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, 181, p. 37-49.

see also:

Juslin, P. N., Friberg, A., Schoonderwaldt, E., & Karlsson, J. (2004). Feedback learning of musical expressivity. In A. Williamon (Ed.), Musical
excellence: Strategies and techniques to enhance performance (pp. 247-270). London: Oxford University Press.

Woody, R. H. (2002). Emotion, Imagery and Metaphor in the Acquisition of Musical Performance Skill. Music Education Research, 4(2).

Woody, R. H. (2006). Musicians’ cognitive processing of imagery-based instructions for expressive performance. Journal of Research in Music
Education, 54(2), 125-137.


Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

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