Someone asked me recently about how to release emotions, ideas, expression into her playing. It’s a great question that players of all levels can get a lot out of for themselves.

Expression doesn’t happen by itself. And it isn’t all about technique.

Putting musical expression into your playing may be easier with better technique, but just because someone has the technique doesn’t mean they’re going to have expression. In fact, it’s easier to learn better technique if you have ideas about musical expression — not only is there more motivation, but if you have an idea of what you want to hear, you’re more likely to figure out how to get that sound.

In classical music, dynamics are often written into the music, and for many, this turns expression into just another technical exercise. One time I judged a high level fiddle competition where a classical player played a nice slow air, but when she played it again, I realized she was playing it exactly the same way. It lacked genuine, responsive feeling.

In this little article we’ll look at some ways you can add expressive ideas to your playing, and then include a few tips on enjoying it more and making sure people hear what you’re trying to do.

You can try this with any tune, but let’s suppose you’re playing a slow air. With this type of tune, you know nobody’s going to be dancing or tapping their toes, and you are free to tell a story with your music.

Start with a single phrase. Each phrase can have an overall musical idea, an arc, an emotion. Your phrase may have an obvious high point, such as a high note. Make that note the loudest note. If that note is in the middle of the phrase, try building up to that note, and then away from it. Now try the opposite. Start and end the phrase loud, and making that high note in the middle the quietest moment. You can try these contours with any phrase — loud to start and end, or quiet to start and end. You might surprise yourself with which way you find most interesting.

Try other musical arcs for a phrase: Start very quietly and end it very loudly. Start loud and end quiet. Include two loud spots, or two quiet spots. But make sure we can hear the difference!

You can also slightly speed up in the middle and slightly slow down at the end. Speeding up gives forward motion and makes the listener feeling like you’re taking them somewhere — so make sure you do! Lead them to a high point in volume or in emotion or in pitch. Then take them away from that.

In changing speed you must be organic about it or it will sound arbitrary and confusing. Think of your tempo as being like pedalling a bike. If you’re going uphill you might slow down a bit with the effort, and as you go downhill again you might let your pedals resume tempo or speed up. This kind of change is a natural one. Without context, you can’t just pick a note or two to hold longer than others, and call that emotion! They can only be held longer if the context implies it, if the beat has slowed.

The great speedster on the fiddle, Johnny Cunningham, once said that he used to take fast reels and practice them very slowly, as if they were slow airs. That’s where he’d discover the musical emotion of the tunes. Then when he played them fast, he could still bring those ideas into his playing.

The experiments above help you try out different musical arcs in order to discover a shape that you like, one that you might not have thought of otherwise. But how do you make sure people hear what you’re doing?

Remember that stage actors always make big motions. You too need to make big motions in your music. An actor moving a finger on a stage (as opposed to a movie which can hone in on anything and enlarge it to the size of a wall!) will hardly be noticed. An actor is more likely to move an entire arm, not just a finger, and will probably throw the whole body into the motion. That’s when the audience in the back row will notice the action, and take it in.

In music too, if you have an idea of getting louder, start super soft, and I mean so you can hardly hear it. Then make the loud part nearly as loud as possible.

Listeners are not expecting anything — they’ll take what they get— but if you make a huge contrast like that, they will notice and take it in. And they’ll enjoy that. Sometimes if I listen closely, I can hear a musician trying out a change in dynamics or emotion or tempo, but not always enough to be really noticeable. Make it happen and make it big!

The bonus for making emotional contrasts bigger is that they are much more fun to play. One of the main stumbling blocks for doing this is simply habit. If your ears or your bowing muscles are not used to such extremes, they are reluctant to go there. But if you practice more extreme motions and sounds, you’ll be more able to use them, and will be totally comfortable with lesser shifts in volume, emotion, tempo.

One last caveat: Your bow is the key to emotion, commanding sound quality, dynamic sound changes, tempo. Your left hand can add very little other than a bit of vibrato and some grace notes. Bow technique is therefore really helpful in bringing musical contrasts to life. Probably the single most important bow technique for this is smooth bow changes. If in the middle of a phrase you keep stopping your bow or make choppy changes of direction, you’ll be breaking up the sound to some extent, and your plan to grow louder will only happen in fits and starts.

The first five videos in Technique Video Group #2 on can be very helpful for developing expressive bowing — Notches, Breathing Bows, Circular Bows, Meeting the Bow, and Slowbow.

Set yourself and your playing free, and enjoy!

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