What does it mean to "play with feeling"?


Why does one musical performance sound cold and mechanical while another can move us to tears? Both performers may play the right notes at the right time, but somehow one player communicates emotion while the other does not. Piano teachers are famous for asking their students to “play with feeling,” but unless someone knows what this means, it’s a bewildering request. How, exactly, do pianists find emotion in a collection of written notes expressed through an inanimate instrument? 

The most powerful musical performances come from performers who understand that music is a form of communication, not a virtuosic athletic display. They don’t attempt to manipulate a response from listeners, they simply speak the truth that they see in the music and themselves, using the language of the notes. True feeling in music comes from true feeling in the performer. This is why “playing with feeling” requires ego detachment and a deep level of self-honesty. Some performers have an innate ability to do this; others need a little guidance. If you struggle with expressing emotion through music, these questions may be helpful: 

Do you like the piece?

I believe that everyone communicates something when they play, but sometimes what they emote doesn’t enhance the piece. This is why it's extremely important to like (or, even better, love) the music we play. As a piano professor once told me, “there’s so much wonderful music in the world that there’s no reason to play something you don’t like.” If the music leaves you cold, it will have the same effect on your listeners. If you’re playing the piece because someone told you that you “should”, or if you’re telling yourself that you can learn to love it, stop now. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself, set it aside, and work on something that makes you long to get your hands on the keys. Someday, you may return to the piece and be able to love it the way that it deserves.

Do you have technical command of the piece?

OK, so you love the piece, but can you execute it? Effective musical communication cannot happen when we’re caught up in the mechanics of playing the right notes at the right time. This was what most undermined my own performances; I had strong feelings for the music I played, but many times my communication was garbled by technical problems brought on by poor practice habits. I had to learn to step back from my passion for the music and do the sort of meticulous and repetitive practicing required to play the notes effortlessly. The reward of better practice habits is the freedom to communicate the music with clarity and passion. 

Are you willing to marry your imagination to the composer’s directions?

When I worked with young students, I used to ask them, “if this song was a story, what would the story be about?” Music is communication. When we practice, we’re communicating with the composer through all the clues written in the score. When we perform, we join hands with the composer to communicate our shared vision with the listener. The notes don’t come alive until they’re filtered through our own experiences and imaginations. It’s not that we impose meaning on the music, but rather that we allow the notes to find meaning in ourselves and then we simply share this with the listener through every note we play. The most expressive musical communicators know that music is a language more evocative and powerful than words, and if we have nothing of value to say, even the most eloquent expression will fall flat. 

Are you willing to get yourself out of the way to the music can flow through you?

I remember attending a recital years ago of Chopin’s Ballades—every note was correct, the lines were sensitively shaped, and the pianist’s tone exquisite. I left at intermission. Why? Because I couldn’t find Chopin in all those pretty sounds; all I heard was the pianist’s overweening ego. Those gorgeous pieces shared no universal feeling, no communication, only the performer’s smug sense of self-satisfaction. I felt that both Chopin and I had been done a disservice. 

Performing requires us to have big egos (how else would we have the nerve to put ourselves out there like that?), but artistry demands that although our egos propel us on stage, we’ve got to put ourselves aside the moment we put our hands on the keys. When we do this, we become the conduit through which everything that is true and noble and eternal in the music can flow through us to the listener. This deeply humbling experience is a gift to both performer and listener, because it lifts the music from temporal, individual concerns to things universal and timeless. 

Ultimately, the ability to play with feeling comes from choosing to live with feeling. When we can marry head and heart in all areas of our lives, that richness infuses everything we play. Our commitment to truth in ourselves becomes a commitment to truth in the music. Our appreciation of beauty wherever we find it means we’re more likely to recognize and share it in the music we play. Simply put, expressive playing comes from expressive living.