On Practice: Expression
By Daniel Roest
Why does a certain artist's playing make your jaw drop? It's not just mind-blowing technique, but a combination of that and tons of expression.
Let's talk about expression and what it gives us. Think of expression as dials on your guitar, and you control the setting on each dial. This page is an introduction to the dials. Note that some of the expression elements have their own page elsewhere in these Mini-Lessons.
What speed will you play a piece? See what happens to the emotional tone when a piece is played at slower or faster speeds. Just take the metronome and go from a slow tempo to gradually higher and see what happens to the tune - and what the audience is likely to get from one version versus another.
Rhythm can be emphasized or not. Generally we emphasize the first beat of each measure. Every time signature and every dance form has a pattern of accents. Put a little more "umph" into the first note of each measure and you'll sound more "expressive." Common rhythms include 2/4 marches, 3/4 waltzes and 4/4 "common time" (the most common time signature). One variation is alternating measures of 6/8 and 3/4 for a Latin feel, such as "I Want To Be An A-mer-i-can, I Want To Be An A-mer-i-can..." from West Side Story.
Rubato (a less strict adherence to tempo) can be used to convey a more romantic feeling. Think of it as stretching and contracting time, unlike the metronome's unwavering speed. One use of rubato is to add just a little time to the first note in a phrase or when there's a change in harmony. With a tight, metronome-like rhythm on one end of a continuum, and a free, play-the-next-note-when-you-feel-like-it style on the other, decide where the music belongs and play it with conviction. Check out Peo Kindgren playing "Romance" for an example of rubato. Now imagine the same piece played with a rock solid beat.
This is one of the most powerful effects. The best way to manipulate this dial is to make strategic changes in volume (dynamics) to create a figure-ground image. Also, brief changes in volume made by accents create expression. Rest strokes and free strokes are the techniques you'll employ for accents and the figure-ground imaging.
Learn how to control dynamics in your playing by, at will, playing at ten levels, from pppp to ffff (see Dynamics)
How you stroke the string and where how close to, or far from, the bridge creates a wonderful range of color, from very bright to very dark, called "timbre" (TAMber). Also, instead of playing a note E on the open E string, for example you can play the same pitch on the 2nd string at the 5th fret or the 3rd string on the 9th fret, not only for a darker tone, but a chance to add vibrato (wiggling the string to raise and lower the pitch). Michael Chapdelaine put up a detailed explanation of how to get good tone on his site. He's also one of the most expressive players you'll ever hear.
An aspect of Tone, really, vibrato is a technique for alternately raise and lower pitch on a note by pulling and pushing it. You've seen this every time you've watched a violinist or cellist. The parameters to control on this dial are depth and speed. You increase depth by increasing the distance you pull and push the string. You'll find the middle of the string softer than the ends and therefore a much easier area in which to produce vibrato. Vibrato applied to a note is said to add "warmth" to the note. Almost any time you have a melody note that's held long enough, it will benefit from vibrato. Watch an old video of the legendary Julian Bream and John Williams play a duet, each using vibrato.
On the guitar we often play melodies and harmonies together. Take some time to get very clear on what note are melody and what notes are harmony, and what feeling is created by each. It's your job to make them clearly distinguishable from one another and underline the key points in the melody and the harmonic movement. Don't let the harmony smother the melody - which brings us to the next topic - balance.
Generally, in the foreground is the melody and in the background is the harmony. Balance one against the other by playing some notes louder than others: you need to bring out the melody and keep other lines clear and intact. If it's a piece with two distinct voices like Bach's Bourrée from the 1st Lute Suite, you want to make that bass line sing. Imagine a bass player listening in just zeroing in on that one line. So many pieces have great bass lines, and it helps the audience appreciate the music so much more when it comes out clearly.
Instrumental music is often best expressed as if it were being sung, including pauses to take breaths, put in commas, complete a one thought before the next one begins, etc. This is called phrasing, and the phrases often come in fairly predictable sets of four or eight bars. A perfect example is Tárrega's Adelita.
Legato should be your default way of playing a note. It simply means to give it full value. If a pitch is indicated as a half note, in 4/4 time that means sound for two full beats. Legato means "connected." Its opposite is staccato, which means "detached." Staccato is a special effect, to be used as such in contrast to the legato tones.
Ascending and descending ligados, or slurs, not only ensure legato in your line but have other features as well. For one, they don't have the attack of the beginning of a plucked note. For another, they can be very fast and flashy. They also give your right hand a break. They can be single, double, triple or more, daisy-chained together. Another way to make a slur is to execute a glissando, whereby one finger slides up or down multiple frets. For a few more ideas on legato, refer to explanations of "articulation" at http://cnx.org/content/m11884/latest/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Articulation_(music).
Watch for all of these effects the next time you're enjoying an expressive player's concert, and work on gaining control of the expression dials on your guitar.