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Emotional Content in Your Music

Why do we play guitar?

Is it because we can impress our friends and neighbors? Because we hope it will lead to riches and fame? Because it will win us a partner or spouse? Because we love the endless hours alone in a small room, practicing?

I submit that the reason we're drawn to this particular instrument is the intense emotional power of its unique voice; it's sound. But then, even deeper, it is the powerful emotional reaction we have to hearing it played beautifully, musically, emotionally.

So then, as we work so very hard, day in and day out, are we working to cultivate our abilities to play in a way that will move our audiences? Or do we somehow stop short of this goal?

This subject is constantly on my mind as I teach and coach my students. The problem is straightforward, really. We have to learn the notes and the rhythms. We have to finger the music carefully for both hands. We have to learn the dynamics and the articulation. We have to master the style and any applicable embellishments. We have to understand the harmony, the counterpoint, the form. We are confronted with a pretty steep hill to climb, just to play the pieces without making mistakes, and it takes time.

It is understandable if the student feels extraordinarily accomplished to have done all that. Having mastered the piece as suggested above, they'd feel as if they'd positively arrived. But they won't have arrived. In fact, they will have just begun. The most important part, the part that separates them from the other players, still hasn't begun: the quest to imbue the music with emotional content.

For me its as if all the physical preparation of the music leads us to a "doorway." Once a piece is technically ready, we can then pass through the doorway into the realm of interpretation. And in this realm lies the most rewarding part of being a guitarist, a musician. Here lies the emotional content of the music. Here lies the player's power to move the audience. And that, I feel certain, is why we play the guitar.

So what can the student do to enter this "realm," and what do they do once there? In other words, how do they practice emotional content?? This is actually not so hard and it is great fun to do. If more players would pass through that doorway, we'd hear lots more captivating playing than we do.

A sensible place to start is to assemble a list of emotion words, words that convey feeling of one sort or another that could be applied to a passage of music. For instance:

with melancholy
as if lonely
as if sick
as if gently laughing
with hilarity
with abandon
with intensity

and so on….

Then, yes, you got it, play a given passage in EACH way listed.
Really??, you ask. How can one do this? But you can. It requires imagination. It requires engagement. It requires that you employ all the resources at your disposal. Color, dynamics, articulation, timing. Each one of these categories of expression is infinitely mutable.

Take color:
Find ten discreet locations to play on the string, from the 12th fret to the bridge. Then, in each location, play ten different tones by subtly altering the angle of the nail. OK, now you have 100 different tones to choose from.

Add dynamics:
Identify eight discreet volume levels: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff. Apply each volume to each tone. Now you have 800 different sounds to choose from.

Add articulation:
Identify eight different degrees of shortness of note, from extremely staccato to extremely legato. Apply each variant of articulation to each of the sounds identified above. That's, uh, 6,400 sounds to choose from...

Add timing:
The phrase in question can start slowly, gently speed up, then gently slow back down. It can start abruptly, then relax as it ends. It can start moderately, slow down a little, them lean forward at the conclusion. It can be played quite steadily but suddenly linger on a specific note, for expressive emphasis. And so on, ad infinitum. Now apply each of these ideas to each of the sounds above, and there will be, let's say, 50,000 possibilities.

But that's only if each sound were maintained throughout the phrase, unchanged. And we don't play like that, at least not if we are playing expressively. We modify the sound as the music unfolds. So in fact, there would be an infinite range of possibilities as all these options are explored in various orders and combinations. And these are only the tools.

What is important to explore and to learn to practice, is the use of these tools in the service of an expressive, emotional idea. If the phrase should sound exultant, then perhaps louder, with a firmer tone, and some detached articulation, in an unvarying tempo would be a place to start. If it should sound wistful, then a darker tone, a softer dynamic, a more legato articulation and a bit of rubato would be a place to start. I'm not dealing here with style-period issues, just expressive possibilities in general. 

Picture what an actor does while preparing his/her lines. Say it emphasizing this syllable, then that syllable, say it slower, faster, with the pitch of your voice rising, falling, with smooth elision or clipped consonants, etc., etc. Try it, effectively, in lots and lots of ways. Because that is how you discover the truth of it, the way it has meaning for you, the way it makes sense in the given context. Imagine if actors were satisfied having only learned to pronounce the words in question!

Take the musical phrase in question (and then the next one and then the next…) and look hard at your word list. Consider an emotion word and try to evoke it through your playing. Don't analyze the ratio of crescendo to brightness to staccato; just do it by ear, by instinct. Close your eyes and imagine the effect, then try and produce it. Then try again. And again. This is the process I want my students, ultimately, engaged with. This is the process of exploring expressive interpretation. Of finding the emotion in the music. Of finding their own unique voice, of artistry.

You know it when you hear it. The music transcends the notes. It carries you away into a new place of the performer's creation. It can evoke tears, bring on chills, send you into a reverie. I have heard this done with the most unlikely of pieces. Once in a performance of a Llobet's El Testament d'Amelia (Ricardo Iznaola); once in a performance of Villa Lobos' Etude V (Roland Dyens); once in a performance of the Cardoso Milonga (Costas Cotsiolas); once in a performance of the Rawsthorne Elegy (Chad Ibison), once in a performance of the Piazzolla Tango Suite (SoloDuo); once in a performance of Beaser's Barbara Allen (Benjamin Verdery, with Rie Schmidt, flute); once in a performance of Bach's Chaconne (Raphaella Smits). A few more times as well, but maybe only a few. That transformative moment, that moment when you've experienced an emotion while listening, solely because of what the player did: that is a moment worth waiting for.

And as players, it is a moment worth striving for. Remember, mastering the notes only gets you to the doorway. You still need to walk through to enter the realm of true expressive playing. You still need to explore the emotional possibilities of your music. You still need to cultivate the inner artist.

Benjamin Verdery at Oberlin

Chamber Music My Students Have Performed