Four Strategies for Teaching Students to Play Music with Expression

Okay. Posture is good. Technique is learned. Rhythm is solid. The notes are right. The dynamics are played (albeit cursorily), yet the music is lacking something.

Specifically, it is lacking music.

It is lacking that moment where the child transitions from playing the dots on the page to playing something that moves them (and you) to something that takes the breath away!

So, how do we teach students to play with expression?

Here are four simple, but effective strategies:

1.) Sing It.

The first step in being able to take your student’s breath away is to teach them where to breathe!

The easiest way to do this is to have them sing the melody. It always blows my mind that more music teachers do not have their students sing.

It is critical!!

When students sing, they find the natural rising and falling of the musical lines. They figure out where it feels right to breathe. Sing with them, then let them out on their own.

But I must warn you: the first time you ask your students to sing, they will not sing musically, and they will probably balk so fiercely, that you will never want to ask them to do it again.

Push through! It’s important.

2.) Move It.

Kids are naturally expressive beings. Physically, they skip and twirl and move and clap to anything that excites them.

When it comes time to learn music, we take away this natural inclination and instead focus on getting them to sit still and correctly.

Being overly focused on perfect posture in your students can unwittingly instill a sense of rigidity in their playing.

Without the freedom to move musically, the students miss the opportunity to make the music move.

This must be un-done carefully.

We don’t want our students to move so much that it is a distraction to their performance, but we do want them to have the freedom to engage with the music.

Using the concept of arrival and departure notes is an excellent way to begin tying together physical expression with musical expression.

Have students lean into arrival notes such as the top of an ascending line that is getting ready to come back down.

Naturally, their bodies will cause their hands to add that subtle crescendo you have been trying to accomplish.

Next, have them lean back into the bottom of a phrase.

At first, it will be very awkward to them to do and for you to watch: it’s kind of like watching those glass ducks that dip their faces into a cup of water.

However, the more they do it, the more natural it becomes, so it is a worthwhile strategy.

3.) Act it out.

I find my students play more expressively when they identify with the piece of music!

I like to make up stories to go along with whatever they are playing.

Sometimes, the stories are easily given to us, like a piece titled Dragonhunter. Sometimes, not so much (ex. the title Prelude).

If you lack an idea, go with one of theirs! The stories do not even have to make sense; they just have to make a picture.

“In this measure, the dragon is hiding, can you hear the heartbeat? Right here, the dragon jumps out, and the battle begins!”

Having the students identify and relate to the music will encourage them to explore new musical options.

I also love using analogies in my teaching.

When teaching a piece of music, I like to find similarities within the structure. Then, I liken it to everyday living.

For example, if a composer makes the same statement three times in a row, it likely should be expressed differently in at least one of the statements.

If you were telling the same story to the same person three times in one sitting, you would change your expression or hand gestures to keep it interesting.

Why would we not do that in music? It just makes sense!

4.) Demonstrate it.

The most important thing you can do for developing a sense of musicianship in your students is to demonstrate best practices.

Make sure you model for them.

It is important for them to see a talented, experienced musician practice the way they should practice.


I hope these four simple, but effective strategies help you in your important work!

Remember to sing it, move it, act it out, and demonstrate it 🙂

Happy music making!!

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4 Replies to “Four Strategies for Teaching Students to Play Music with Expression”

  1. Great ideas – I especially like the one about moving. It’s true, they are naturally so movement oriented and we ask them to sit still! Finding stories and images to go along with the music is a helpful idea too. I don’t do enough of that!

  2. Thank you! I agree that the “moving” is the one I find most lacking and although I try to demonstrate this to my students, they often don’t do it…because it feels “weird” to them, I’m sure. I need to start sooner and be more persistent. Good tips!

    1. Hi, Linda! Yes, “moving” is the one that I lack most as well. I use this technique with my chorus students, but need to incorporate it more with my piano students. I’ll do it this week and let you know how it goes 🙂 Have a great one!

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