Technique in service of what? The practice of expression

Of what use is technique if not to be harnessed and used to express a musical thought or emotion?

After several years of being a Suzuki parent and many more as a musician, I’ve come to appreciate that technique is subservient to expression.

Technique is indispensable but it is instrumental (no pun intended!). The goal is to express a musical idea that partly belongs to oneself and partly to the composer. A recent article by violin teacher and blogger Eloise Hellyer speaks brilliantly to the importance of nurturing expression from the earliest stages of musical development. Her [post( should be required reading for anyone in the Suzuki community.

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This is really the crux of the matter. Children want to understand why. Insofar as our work at home isn’t only to be technique police, but to extend the lesson in other ways, being involved in helping children play expressively is vital.

How to encourage expressive playing at home

  • Always link technique and expression. - As Hellyer writes, children are capable of understanding complex ideas and can convey emotions that they may not yet be able to verbalize. Home practice, an extension of the lesson, is the perfect environment to rehearse these connections. As questions about technique come up, we can constantly refer back to the importance of why it’s best to do things in a certain way. The technical bits aren’t arbitrary; they serve a goal. Something like: “I noticed that when you dropped your shoulder, you allowed more weight to go into the bow and your tone projected better. It makes the whole passage sound more lyrical, don’t you think?” In a couple sentences, you can provide not only good feedback but reinforce the relationship between technique and musical intention. Metaphors and roadmaps can help with this.
  • Involve yourself in understanding how technique and expression are linked. - For a parent who doesn’t play the child’s instrument, it may be difficult to understand what purpose a technical requirement serves. If it’s not clear, ask. Personally, I’m a collaborative pianist and a so-so (read “bad”) violinist. But despite my own deficient violin technique, I’ve enjoyed learning about how the mechanics of playing the violin influence the tone, phrasing and ultimately, expression.
  • Listen with musical expression in mind. - Thinking about Suzuki’s mother tongue idea, I think we can extend his analogy. As children acquire their native language, they’re not just implicitly learning vocabulary, grammar, and such. They are also learning how to convey thoughts and emotions. Is this not also true of learning the language of music? The purpose of listening isn’t only to learn the notes - that is, pitches coming one after another in sequence. The purpose isn’t even just to learn good tone production and articulation by good example. The purpose of listening is also to acquire a sensibility about the music. Much of this happens under the radar, but we can nudge the process along by asking and commenting on the music we’re listening to, encouraging a dialog about what the music is conveying. And by all means, listen outside the repertoire too! It helps children gain a sense of what they like and of the wonderful breadth and scope of serious music.
  • Practice. It’s not just technique. It’s easy to view practice the same way as a workout at the gym, exercising technique to become automatic and facile. To be sure, there’s a role for repetition and focused attention to developing technical skills in practice. But as parents/practice partners, it’s also an opportunity to test out ideas about musical expression. In turn, sometimes that process exposes incomplete development of technique. More to work on! For example, my daughter was working on a piece for a music festival not long ago. In one passage, her intent was to conclude a phrase with a bit of rubato. But it wasn’t coming out quite right. The last note of the phrase faltered. Trying to carry off the desired expression meant discovering the need for more bow control and better attention to bow distribution which she worked on with her teacher.

As I always mention here, I’m not a teacher. Work on what the teacher advises, but I’ve found it very helpful to pay attention to advice about expressive qualities. And above all, understand not only “what” to practice, and “how” to practice, but also “why” to practice a certain way from the perspective expressive presentation.

How do think about the interplay between technique and expression as children are learning to play? Is there a role to use practice to develop expression? I’d love to hear what you think. See the Suzuki Experience Facebook page to comment.

Written by:

Alan is the main practice partner and accompanist for a young violinist.