When watching a master pianist perform, one can’t help but be moved by the sheer expressiveness they bring to the music. But what exactly is musical expression and why is it so critical in piano playing?
Expression refers to the personal interpretation and stylistic nuance a pianist employs when performing a piece. It is what allows the performer to take the notes on the page and transform them into a living, breathing work of art. Expression involves utilizing a range of musical techniques including dynamics, articulation, phrasing, tempo rubato, and tonal coloration in order to convey specific moods, emotions, and meanings.
An expressive pianist does not just play the correct notes and rhythms. They imbue the music with feeling and character. This may involve highlighting melodic lines to make them sing with warmth and intensity. It may entail shaping phrases to build tension and release. It can mean varying the touch and weight of strokes to elicit different tonal colors from the instrument.
Great expressive pianists understand both the context of a piece – its historical origins, the composer’s intentions – as well as their own personal connections to the music. They then leverage this insight to create an interpretive performance that both respects the score and resonates with their individual vision.
The legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz was renowned for his dazzling technique and musical imagination. But it was his supreme capacity for expression that made his performances so compelling. As Horowitz once remarked, “Without expression, there is no music, only exercise.”
So while amateur pianists may focus on getting the notes right, professional concert pianists devote themselves to the higher art of expression. They recognize that the path to a transcendent performance lies not just in what is played, but in how it is played. Mastering the principles of expression is what allows a pianist to truly take ownership of a work and share it with an audience in the most impactful way possible.
Expression is what breathes life into the black dots on the page. It is what moves us, inspires us, and transports us when we hear a great work performed live. And it is what separates the mechanically proficient pianist from the truly profound artist.