There is a way of giving someone positive feedback that can be both beautiful and devastating. I remember clearly one such moment on Montreal’s Saint Hubert Street. I was twenty-one years old and had been playing the five-string banjo for a year and a half. I thought I was pretty good. I’d already done a fair bit of busking (playing for tips on the street) in the U.K. and was now frailing my Appalachian Mountain tunes during a Montreal lunch hour.

A middle-aged woman was watching me. At the end of a song she approached, put a dollar bill in my case and looked me in the eye. Her gaze was deep and caring. She said, “You’re very good,” and I probably blushed for a moment, before she continued, “but you don’t play with feeling.”

It felt as if the ground beneath me was falling away but she kept my spirit afloat with her kind eyes and some encouraging words. She told me I had the technique down and if I could put more feeling into my music it could reach new heights. The memory of that dear woman has stayed with me ever after and completely changed how I approach my music. She made me understand the importance of putting feeling into my work.

Technique versus Feeling – which is the most important?
It’s vital to have a good grasp of technique, for without the physical ability to play the right notes at the right time you won’t have a chance of adding feeling. But technique alone is not enough. I know a young musician who is on the autism spectrum. She adores music and practices her guitar every moment she can. She learns complex solos and plays every note correctly but her music sounds strange because it is devoid of nuance. Her music doesn’t ebb and flow, it doesn’t get louder or softer and there is no phrasing. She plays each note with identical weight and right on the beat, seemingly unaware of the subtle feelings that music can arouse.

Learn to Feel
If you’re looking to play with more feeling then you first need to be able to feel. How emotionally connected are you to the world around you? Do you feel moved by the sound of a windy day, a distant radio or an old man’s voice? That is the poet’s way.

Listen to music that moves you. How does a particular piece of music make you feel: sad, happy, grounded, energized etc.? Does the feeling change over the course of the song? Listen several times to the same piece. Concentrate on the interplay between technique and feeling. What is going on in the music to make you feel the way you do? Notice where the music swells and falls. Are some notes played louder than others? Do you hear any variation in musical themes? Are there any new sounds or deliberate silent moments? Notice how effects such as tremolo and vibrato are used. Listen to the phrasing. The word phrasing is used to describe the particular timing that a performer chooses to sing or play a sequence of notes. Your choice of phrasing can greatly affect how a lyric or line of music is perceived by the listener.

Emotional Intelligence
Start applying some of the above qualities to your own music. Choose a song you already play well but which could use an emotional boost. Before you pick up your instrument decide to approach the song with a new intelligence: your emotional intelligence. Different parts of the song will make you feel different emotions. Work out ways to communicate those feelings to listeners. Go through the song and make precise notes to yourself in order to be able to play the song in a way that reflects your inner emotional journey.

You can do this at whatever level of ability you’re at. As a beginner perhaps all you can do is vary the intensity of the song. A more experienced player can work at creating a piece where rhythm variations further the emotional impact and where every note is given a purpose. Applying your mind to songs in this way will make a big difference to your music.

Make Yourself Cry
Once the thinking work is done you can pick up your instrument and start to play. But now your practice takes on a new meaning. You’re no longer trying to just hit the correct chords, notes and words; you are now studying the art of how to play those chords, notes and words. If you can occasionally make yourself cry while practicing a song it means you’re heading in the right direction. I think most artists have such moments.

Ask yourself, “Why would anyone want to listen to me?” Is my music something that I would want to hear if someone else were playing it?” If your answer is no then it could be time to put more feeling in your playing.

© Ralph Shaw 2016