Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity

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Can Musical Expression Be Taught?

It’s battle week on The Voice, and I’ve been excitedly watching pairs of singers duel over one song in order to stay in the competition.  Although I love watching the singers perform, I especially love watching their vocal coaching sessions leading up to the battle.  There is such a big transformation from their first rehearsal to their performance.

At this stage in the competition, everybody on the show has a good voice; it’s just a matter of who can make the most of their voice in the song they are given by their coach.  When Usher was counseling Biff Gore and T.J. Wilkins on singing “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” he emphasized the importance of conveying the begging, pleading, desperate emotion expressed in the lyrics.  Beyond giving them technical tips, Usher taught Biff and T.J. the importance of musical expression and being able to draw an audience into a performance, which made me realize . . .

What sets the best artists apart from the rest?  Their ability to emote.  You can hit all the right notes, but if you lack expression, people won’t listen. 

*Photo Credit: starmanseries

*Photo Credit: starmanseries, Creative Commons

Some people seem to be naturally expressive, but everyone else must be taught.  And unlike teaching technical skills, it can be really difficult to teach musical expression.

Can musical expression be taught? 

I think so.  And it starts with teaching and developing empathy.  Even if you haven’t experienced a situation first-hand, you can learn to put yourself in someone else’s shoes—vividly imagine how that person would feel, and get into their character.

*Photo Credit: AndyRobertsPhotos

*Photo Credit: AndyRobertsPhotos, Creative Commons

Once you establish what emotions are trying to be conveyed, there are limitless musical tools that can be used to embody an emotion.  For singers, think about how we intuitively use our speaking voice to convey different emotions—angry shouts, joyful exclamations, and heartfelt soft whispers.  Other expressive tools to think about:

  • Breath support.  Varying the amount of breath support given to a particular line can help convey a certain feeling.  Less support creates a more airy, weaker sound versus a fully-supported confident, powerful sound.
  • Phrase endings.  Should the line trail off or end in loud exclamation-point way
  • Special vocal effects.  You can sprinkle in different kind of tones—like raspy, gritty, vibrato, nasal-voice, chest-voice—for different expressive effects.

Alright, now I want to know: Have you ever had to teach someone musical expression?  What have you learned that’s helped you be more expressive?