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How to teach emotion

Music is a spe­cial lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate feel­ing. Click To Tweet

All aspects of music performance—composing, reper­toire selec­tion, pro­gram­ming, rehearsal tech­nique, con­duct­ing and baton tech­nique, recording—should stem from this fun­da­men­tal truth.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, when con­duct­ing our ensem­bles we rarely get to the point where we dis­cuss the emo­tions of the music. Our rehearsal time is spent on the gram­mar of music: rhythms, pitch, artic­u­la­tion, dynam­ics, tone, bal­ance, into­na­tion, usu­al­ly in that order. If there is any rehearsal time left before the con­cert we may get to emo­tion, but it is not taught as a pri­or­i­ty, and usu­al­ly not taught at all. And unfor­tu­nate­ly, we have strayed so far from the pur­pose of music, that most of us are well sat­is­fied with a per­for­mance if it is tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect, and bare­ly a con­cern is giv­en to that fun­da­men­tal truth, that music is a spe­cial lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate feeling.

How do we teach now?

The amount of time spent on teach­ing emo­tion is direct­ly pro­por­tion­al to the age and expe­ri­ence of the musi­cians. Young ensem­bles get con­duc­tors who rehearse the gram­mar of music, often with demand­ing lev­els of dis­ci­pline and emo­tion­al detach­ment. Com­pare this to a pro­fes­sion­al orches­tra whose con­duc­tors rehearse noth­ing but the emo­tion and mean­ing of the music.

I believe this is one rea­son why stu­dents drop music for sport. One look at a kid’s sport­ing team (includ­ing the par­ents on the side­line) and you’ll see overt emo­tions such as ela­tion, dis­ap­point­ment, anx­i­ety, joy, sad­ness, antic­i­pa­tion, excite­ment. This link to the emo­tions is the norm for a sport. It should be the norm for music as well.

As school teach­ers we believe that if we get the chance to con­duct more expe­ri­enced musi­cians (such as an hon­or band), that we will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to rehearse the emo­tion­al aspects of music. How­ev­er, when this chance comes, we aren’t skilled in rehears­ing or teach­ing emo­tions. We feel self con­scious, and we default to cre­at­ing a tech­ni­cal­ly per­fect per­for­mance (but on music a grade lev­el more advanced than our usu­al day job).

Stu­dents and audi­ence may be sat­is­fied, but they have unknow­ing­ly missed out on the cathar­tic expe­ri­ence that is the goal of a “musi­cal” performance.

What is the conductor’s job?

Despite the myr­i­ad duties we have to cov­er every week, as con­duc­tors we real­ly have only one job—to be the inter­me­di­ary between the com­pos­er and the audi­ence. Every­thing we do in our busy work­ing life is to serve that pur­pose. To be suc­cess­ful in this endeav­our we have two main tasks: score study and rehearsal.

Score study

In study­ing a new score it is imper­a­tive to remem­ber that the com­pos­er had the feel­ing first, before they wrote notes on paper. The chal­lenge for the con­duc­tor through study­ing the score is to under­stand what the com­pos­er felt, not what they wrote.


From their study of the score the con­duc­tor knows what feel­ings the com­pos­er was try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate. The pur­pose of the rehearsal is to align the music heard in the room with the music heard in the conductor’s head and to help the musi­cians dis­cov­er this ele­ment of the music which is not found on their parts (there are no sym­bols for emo­tions on their parts).

How do I teach emotion to musicians?

Tra­di­tion­al edu­ca­tion does not help stu­dents dis­cov­er or under­stand their own emo­tions even though the feel­ings we have as an indi­vid­ual will deter­mine all impor­tant choic­es in our lives. Teach­ing a stu­dent to under­stand their emo­tions is the per­fect role for music education.

Begin­ner bands get con­duc­tors who talk about and rehearse the gram­mar of music almost exclu­sive­ly, and this is understandable—there is a lot to learn when you are a begin­ner. But it is not impos­si­ble to begin to teach emo­tion with begin­ner bands.

Every correction of grammar should have an emotional justification

Here are a few sam­ple sen­tences to use when cor­rect­ing the most basic of errors with beginners:

Instead of:
“Trum­pets, that rhythm is not togeth­er. Let’s prac­tice it.”

Try using:
“Trum­pets, that phrase would be more excit­ing if we all played the rhythm togeth­er accu­rate­ly. Let’s prac­tice it.”

Instead of:
“Sax­o­phones! For the love of all that is holy, it’s an F‑sharp, not an F‑natural!”

“Sax­o­phones, the com­pos­er want­ed this sec­tion to sound beau­ti­ful. Let’s all mark the F‑sharp on our parts”

As con­duc­tors we need a huge dic­tio­nary of adjec­tives at our dis­pos­al, so we can describe each minute dif­fer­ence in emo­tion: hap­py and sad is a good place to start but you will need to move on from there very quickly.

adven­tur­ous, aching, affec­tion­ate, aggres­sive, ago­niz­ing, angel­ic, anguished,
ani­mat­ed, anx­ious, appre­hen­sive, aus­tere, baby­ish, bar­ren, beau­ti­ful, bliss­ful, boun­cy, bril­liant, buoy­ant, cau­tious … [There are heaps of adjec­tive word lists avail­able that you can use to expand your arse­nal of emo­tion­al­ly descrip­tive words. Here is just one.]

Some more sen­tences with adjectives:
“Let’s all get the A‑flat so that the melody becomes more melan­choly.
“Brass, you can play real­ly strong­ly here, so we get it to sound majes­tic.

As we keep talk­ing like this in rehearsal, the stu­dents come to learn that every cor­rec­tion of a tech­ni­cal error brings us clos­er to the goal of reflect­ing the composer’s intend­ed emotions.

The rewards of teaching emotions

  1. Even if your con­cert is not tech­ni­cal­ly per­fect you will have a much greater feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion from remem­ber­ing that music is a spe­cial lan­guage for com­mu­ni­cat­ing feel­ing. An exciting/gorgeous/inspiring con­cert is much bet­ter than a tech­ni­cal­ly per­fect one.
  2. Stu­dents start to under­stand what dif­fer­ent emo­tions sound like, and what they feel like. This is one of the most impor­tant ways that music teach­ers can con­tribute to the lives of their stu­dents, by giv­ing them a safe envi­ron­ment where they can come to know themselves.
  3. The rehearsal room is a place where stu­dents can learn to iden­ti­fy and con­trol oth­er emo­tions not direct­ly dis­played by the com­po­si­tion. Emo­tions like frus­tra­tion, bore­dom, fear and anx­i­ety. It can be frus­trat­ing work­ing on the same pas­sage over and over. It can be scary to be play­ing a solo. It can be bor­ing when the con­duc­tor has to rehearse the per­cus­sion sec­tion ad nau­se­am. Learn­ing to con­trol these often neg­a­tive emo­tions will leave stu­dents bet­ter pre­pared for life beyond school.

Remem­ber­ing the fun­da­men­tal truth, that “Music is a spe­cial lan­guage to com­mu­ni­cate feel­ing,” can give a far more impor­tant pur­pose to our jobs as con­duc­tors and to the lives of our students.