What is “musical expression”?

Teaching students to “express themselves through music” is an admirable goal for a music teacher. But what does that really mean? And if we can’t articulate it, how exactly are we going to teach it effectively?

When we express ourselves through spoken language, we do so through the words we choose, the order we put them in, our inflection, and body language. Music is much the same, but with notes instead of words.

Expressing yourself through improvisation and composition is easy to understand. Your creations are a reflection of your personal musical experiences and values. But that’s also true when playing music composed by another. You express yourself through your artistic choices. By making the piece your own, your art becomes a reflection and expression of your self. This is also the very definition of creativity: using existing ideas (words, notes, compositions) in new ways. Expression is a creative act.

Expression is conveying values through choices. Therefore, the more freedom, the more opportunity for choices and expression. The more freedom we have, the greater the opportunity to put ourselves into our art. The ways that we limit choices and creativity in large ensemble settings imposes incredible limits on students’ abilities to express themselves through their playing. When a teacher selects the music and leads rehearsal, every decision they make is the teacher expressing themselves at the expense of opportunities for expression by students. As a result, concerts often end up being an expression of the director’s aesthetics and choices more so than their students’.

How are we, as music teachers, expressing ourselves through our music programs? Can we give some of those opportunities back to our students?


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