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Expressive Speech and Music

Nancy Schmalz | March 2011

    “O Frabjous Day! Callooh!  Callay!” The exuberant exclamation from Lewis Carroll’s famous poem Jabberwocky illustrates perfectly the mysterious interface between sense and nonsense – the elusive realm of expressive communication. After basic facility with notes and rhythms, the most important skill young flutists learn is expressivity. Not the frosting on the cake, but the cake itself. Expression is the reason we play; without expression, playing music is pointless. 
    How often have you reminded students not to wait until the final stages of preparation to incorporate expression markings into their performance, but rather to consider their expressive intent from the very first reading of a new piece? The challenge of helping young students discover the magic of expressive playing is one of the greatest pleasures of teaching.
    My flute students are bright, capable, charming, and as different from each other as colorful jungle birds. Sometimes they express their individuality in puzzling ways. One student, for example, might barely come through the studio door before she launches into an animated account of soccer practice, math class, or prom dress, complete with larger-than-life gestures, hilarious asides, and a whole cast of characters. Her storytelling is so entertaining that it is tempting to serve cookies and just sit down for a good talk. When I manage to steer her attention to playing the flute, however, her performance is bland and timid. She has clearly practiced for the lesson, but her music reflects none of her gregarious personality.
    Another type of student murmurs a polite greeting, assembles her flute and arranges her music on the stand. Her performance, unlike her spoken communication, is imaginative and daring, colorful and impassioned. When she finishes playing, she responds to my comments and suggestions with nearly inaudible one-word replies.
    These extremes illustrate the curious dissonance between many students’ personalities as expressed by their spoken communication and the personalities they reveal as they play. The tantalizing question for teachers is how to  help students expand the range of their expression by observing their spoken and musical communication and showing them how to use strengths they already have while respecting their individual personality?
    To address this question, I designed a series of activities to increase students’ awareness of the parallels between speech and music. The goal was to help them recognize some of the physical gestures that enhance speech and show them how these gestures translate into music. In addition, I hoped to diminish students’ self-consciousness about their own expressive communication, whether spoken or musical, and to have a good time together as we experimented with my ideas.

Musical Interpretation

    From the simplest folk tune to the most complex contemporary composition, interpretation depends on a performer’s personal reservoir of ideas. These interpretive inspirations derive from many sources, one of which is the idea that a text, whether actual or imagined, underlies much of the music we play. Singers have the advantage of knowing the words a composer had in mind for a particular song. Not having a printed text for flute music should not keep us from imagining a possible story, as well as characters who might  sing those words. One of my favorite examples of this kind of inventiveness is the line sung by my friend, flutist, and teacher James Grine, to the jaunty melody from the first movement of Mozart’s G major concerto: “Yes, I will be home for din-ner!”

Undoubtedly you and your students will think of other equally inspiring or amusing texts for the flute music you are currently studying.

Sounds in Nature

    Some musical ideas, though not rhythmically matched with a text, are nevertheless evocative of natural sounds or moods. Some examples are the numerous birdcalls in flute repertoire and the musical imitation of wind or bells. I mention these because they show the power of a word (birdcall, breeze, ringing) to evoke a spectrum of associations in the imagination of performers and the audience, all of which can contribute to interpretive ideas. The best way for each of us to add to our store of evocative words and images is to live a full and attentive life outside the practice room. The more experiences we have, the richer our store of imagination-triggers.

    Another source of interpretive inspiration is physical gesture. It is a rare student who doesn’t move her hands, eyebrows, or head as she speaks. Surely expressive gestures (clapping, pointing, hugging) predated speech as a means of communication. In dancelike music we speak of the musical gesture to refer to the contour of a phrase that reflects a physical impulse. Students who have experience in theatre or dance will recognize the parallels between musical gestures and the physical movements that are appropriate for those phrases.
    Less obvious, but equally fascinating to explore, are the more subtle movements or gestures that substitute for a verbal explanation. In fact, a single gesture such as a raised eyebrow or a finger to the lips may take the place of many words. Consider the familiar gesture of a handshake. Practice various styles of handshake with your students so they can experience the tactile difference between a warm, hearty handshake, which is the equivalent of a confident opening phrase that shows the performer’s pleasure to be there, and a handshake that communicates the opposite message.
    An underlying premise of this project is that music and speech are communicative functions, requiring a listener, so I had students experiment with reading aloud. A child is the ideal audience for this purpose because when we read or speak to a child, we tend to exaggerate our expressive gestures in order to convey the story clearly. A single child is better than a class or roomful of children because we relate more personally to a single listener than we do to a crowd. Small children, especially, give immediate and honest feedback, so we know whether our communication has succeeded. Many of my students babysit or have younger siblings who are eager participants in this part of our exploration.
    Using the discussion of physical gesture and vocal nuance as a background, I asked students to read expressively from a children’s story and to observe how naturally they used the elements of the story to structure their expression. Features like quotations, italicized words, questions, changes of character, or words like and, but, or so invited imaginative inflection or changes of vocal quality that could be transferred to musical expression.
    Just as the words and, but, or so have musical analogs, certain musical elements imply verbal equivalents. Pickup notes, for example, indicate and then this happened, repeated notes can say and I really mean it!, and a V-I cadence signals the end.
    Sometimes the music suggests two people having a dialogue or an argument, or one person asking a question that is answered by a second person. Character changes can be indicated by a new dynamic, a faster vibrato, or a darker tone color. We work on these skills, not because they are ends in themselves, but because they are the tools with which we achieve more sophisticated communication. Clearly, the responsibility and pleasure of finding an effective way to communicate whatever we perceive as the composer’s intent lies with the performer.

Historical Styles

    There are aspects of historically correct performance practice that must be considered at some point in a young flutist’s study. My concern is simply to show students the many expressive possibilities that are available and to leave the refinement of these expressive choices for another time. Until students have developed a repertoire of expressive gestures, the confidence to experiment with them, and an attitude of curiosity and delight towards musical communication, I believe that they should not have to worry about whether the choices are historically correct.
    Breath, in all its poetic and physical manifestations, is the source of energy for speakers and wind musicians. In addition to its physiological function, breathing has expressive possibilities of its own. Breaths generally correspond to commas, semicolons, or periods, with varying lengths of pause that correspond to the relative weight of a punctuation mark within a sentence. 
    To put this to use in musical performance, first listen to a simple melody, observing phrases, cadences, and sections of the melody. Then decide whether the phrase endings should be punctuated with a period, a semicolon, a comma, or perhaps a question mark or exclamation point.
    When students learn to recognize the sound of a V-I cadence, they understand that the aural sense of resolution demands a breath-pause indicating finality, whereas an unresolved progression calls for a shorter pause, so that the listener’s attention may continue without a break.
    To help students discover how important breath-pauses are to the audience’s comfort and understanding, they can read a prose passage, breathing only when they run out of breath. The result is a disconcerting rush of confusing words, with the audience as well as the reader feeling breathless by the end of the passage. Students can also learn how expressive breathing affects a listener by observing the various styles of breathing used by professional announcers or actors.
    In unaccompanied music, a cadenza, or music notated “freely” or “in an improvised style,” we can make especially good use of meaningful breaths and breath-pauses. This style of music offers performers considerable rhythmic freedom and frequently intimidates students. It requires performers to make decisions usually handled by the composer. Students learn that they can trust their own ability to make good expressive choices and that there are many good options. The test of a good choice is whether it communicates effectively. 
    It is a challenge to find a textual equivalent for a mood in abstract music. Sometimes, music is most effective when left in its purest, least textualized form, unencumbered by visual associations. One of the strongest arguments for not over-interpreting music is that its emotional impact can transcend the realm of verbal expression; it is precisely this inexpressible aspect of music that is so compelling to performers and listeners alike. On the other hand, any ideas that help a student understand a previously inaccessible piece are worth considering. Even abstract music can be approached from more than one direction.
    As students become familiar with the idea of using their speech skills to enhance their expressive playing, I use questions about the music we are studying to help them recognize these parallels. Here are some of the questions that I have found to be particularly helpful.

Questions to Ask:

•What mood do you hear? 
•Does it change?
•Can you think of adjectives to describe the moods?
•How many characters are involved and what are they like?
•Are they arguing, discussing, questioning?
•Are there places in the music that remind you of a gesture or a sound, such as a sob or a sigh?
•How would you move if you danced to this music?
•Where are the best breathing places to show where characters change or ideas end?
•Are some of the breaths dramatic, meditative, aggressive?
•If you were speaking the message of this music dramatically, where would your voice be most intense? Where would it be hushed?
•How will you transfer those qualities to the flute tone?
•What is the mood at the very end of the piece? The audience will experience this mood. What can you do visually as you finish playing to help them switch from the music’s mood back into their role as audience members?

    The following is a list of activities related to the concept of using the correspondence between speech, music, and gesture to trigger interpretive ideas. The activities are open-ended and can be expanded or adapted as needed. Many of these work well in a group setting where students can brainstorm ideas, play their experiments for each other, and enjoy trying new interpretive possibilities together.
    These ideas will not necessarily turn shy students into extroverted performers, but they may open up worthwhile communication channels. Students who experience performance anxiety may also be helped by these exercises as they learn to focus on the story they are telling, rather than on the audience’s judgment of their performance.

Activities and Suggested Music

     1. Read a passage from a children’s story aloud or some other text that includes dialogue, various characters, and emotional expression. I used the opening of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Observe the way vocal inflection is used for quotations, parenthetical or italicized phrases, and the lengths of breath-pauses.

     2. Become aware of gestures used by friends and family, with or without accompanying speech. Consider how these gestures affect the speaker’s meaning, or whether a gesture substitutes for words.

     3. Use a folk melody or other tune with familiar words (Rockabye Baby works well) to discover why we breathe in the places we do.

 The first two breaths occur at the ends of ideas. The third breath illustrates breathing before a pickup, and the fourth breath reinforces the text by leaving a silence at the moment of the surprising tumble.

     4. Use a copy of an unfamiliar but expressive piece that has been purged of all expression markings. Listen carefully to phrase contours and implications of tension and resolution. Find good breathing places and notate them with punctuation markings.

     5. Using music with the composer’s own markings, play with careful attention to those markings not as abstract instructions but as a way of telling a story. Possibilities for this music include the slow movements from the Baksa Soliloquy (because of their rich emotional content and their relative lack of technical difficulty), the middle movement of Muczynski’s Three Preludes, and the opening of Honegger’s Danse de la Chevre. Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for oboe solo works well for flute and offers a story to use as a starting point.
     For younger students, the Vaughan Williams Six Studies in English Folksong are beautiful. I use the version for violin, which needs just a little modification to be suitable for flute.

     6. As a final collaborative activity bringing us full circle back to Lewis Carroll, read together his Jabberwocky, demonstrating that even nonsensical words can be meaningful. Although the notes in flute music have no inherent meaning, we can play them meaningfully by using our imaginations, just as we can turn the whimsical gibberish of Jabberwocky into a story understood by any audience.