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A few years ago I started playing the guitar, but after two years my guitar teacher told me something which made me aware of a hidden plateu that eventually made me quit. He said that my play was technically correct, but that it was also void of emotion.

This came out of nowhere and I had no clue how to fix it. For me playing the guitar was just about getting the notes and the timing right, nothing more.

Recently I picked up singing, and I've run in to the very same problem. Whenever I look at myself sing I get the impression of someone who's reciting a memorized text, but doesn't know the meaning of what he says.

Are there any practices that could help me overcome this issue?

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We all experience considerable frustration when learning a musical instrument. Two years is, in general, simply not enough time to be expressing emotions effectively in ones playing.

Depending on your age, this may just be a natural state of affairs. Males in the mid-teens to early-twenties are often overwhelmed by other issues and may subconsciously keep everything buttoned down.

Ask yourself : "Am I an emotional person?" If you answer no, then ask yourself again. You may think you are as cool as a cucumber, but if you look hard enough inside I'm sure you'll find all of the usual emotional turmoil.

Other things to consider are :

  1. Do you make an effort to understand the emotional content of the music you are playing/singing?
  2. Is the style of music you are playing/singing suitable for your emotional profile (comfort zone)?

Sincerity is a necessary condition for expressing emotion effectively. Matters of taste can also effect emotional colour. Many things do as you will no doubt learn for yourself if you continue your studies.

On a more practical note, you might consider exploring techniques used by actors relating to setting a mood. Many performing musicians use what often appear to be rather over-the-top physical mannerisms to enhance their performance.

  • I do consider myself emotional, it's just that I'm focusing so hard on playing every note perfect that I can't pay attention to anything else. My problem can be divided into two things actually. Firstly, there are songs I can't associate with. Let's say there's a metal song about being angry at everyone and everything. I know what the song is about, I just can't get an agressive sound like that. Secondly, there are songs like the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I like the way it sounds, so I wanted to play it, but I don't know what the song means, and probably never will unless I google it. – Chris Jul 20 '15 at 22:22
  • @Chris If you're talking about metal guitar playing, then 99% of the emotion you feel comes from the electronic effects employed by the guitarist. If you unplug all the pedals and processors then most likely you will hear a guy playing Polly Wolly Doodle rather badly - maybe throwing in the odd diminished 5'th. (bad joke). I still think you are experiencing normal frustrations and that 2 years is not enough time. Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a perfect piece to develop a more emotional approach. It is a fairy tale with a strongly nocturnal mood - dark and spooky yet fun and playful. – UserZero Jul 20 '15 at 22:41
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I think it's rather inept & cruel of your teacher to tell you your playing is void of emotion. That's subjective, and is intangible so very hard to know how to fix, or know when you've fixed it. Even if you did, you'd only have been satisfying your teacher. I'm really sorry to hear it made you quit.

Example: I find Bon Jovi utterly devoid of emotion or excitement, but a lot of people really love their music so they must find something enjoyable in it. If I was Jon Bon Jovi's tutor, I'd be tempted to comment on his emotionless performances but probably would hold back so as to let him be what he is. Excuse my arrogance there, but that's kind of my point: We're all allowed an opinion, especially with the arts, and we may not all agree :-)

There are other examples I could list but it'll start to sound like me bitching lol

A thing not to do (at first): The current trend is to sing a zillion notes around the tune when one or two would have done. Even that can sound mechanical (and sometimes awesome too). If you'd like to sing like that, it's probably best to work on the basic stuff first and then embelish it. But I just wanted to say that this style isn't a replacement for 'singing with feeling' - call me cynical, but it's just more notes.

You haven't said what kind of music you play so it's a bit difficult to give a 'technique' but one thing that gets the rush of passion for me is when my band (rock bass/drums/guitar - I'm guitar & vocals) is throwing out a huge sounding tune which hits you in the chest- literally. So thating with that ..

  • Thing 1: Loudness. I think there's some kind of instinctive excitement in hearing loud noises like drums and guitar. The sound thumps you in the body as well as your ears, and gets the adrenalin going.

For me, that excitement pushes my mood up and I just have to let it out with the sining !

Note that loud doens't necessarily mean ear-damaging : you can wear earplugs or maybe just the bass throbbing away will do the trick.

  • Thing 2: Learn from the masters. Try listening to some motown or 60's pop/soul like Tina Turner, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Stevie Wonder. Also Janice Joplin. Pay attention to how they slide the notes about - especially sliding the pitch up to meet a note, and where they add vibrato in the voice. It's probably not contrived for these people - if they want to hit a certain note, it sounds like that when they do - but I think I can safely say that such soulful performers do so with style.

  • Thing 3: Strain a bit (but not much) For most people, the tension in the voice gets more noticable as you reach the top of your range - or sing loudly- so that the voice gets a little gravelly. So try singing some songs where you have to try a bit to get the higher notes. Don't overdo it though as too much can damage your voice. Best bet is somethign that is generally comfortable but you have to stretch a bit now and then, either volume or pitch.

  • Thing 4: Don't apologise. If you're going to sing, SING! Stand there and give it to them right between the ears. People want to hear it, so endow them in bucketfuls.

None of this relies on being able to sing accurately. Bob Geldof is a pretty flaky singer but gives plenty of emotion, as does Johnny Rotten (Sex Pistols). Or David Byrne (Talking Heads). There are plenty of examples like this- some of the 'emotion' comes from missing a note a bit or fluffing timing a little.

I hope you pick the guitar up again too !

  • On the guitar I used to play rock (mostly 80s and 90s) and classical. My play wasn't "wild enough" for rock, and as I said in an other comment I had mostly no idea what the classical songs were about. By the way it's not just about the sound, but also my body language. Whenever I played I only moved my hands, and I even tried to avoid any useless movements doing that. Right now I'd like to sing rock songs, some of them should sound aggressive, some emotional, but I can't seem to get the feeling right. I'm not sure about the guitar. It has been so long that I even forgot how to read notes. – Chris Jul 21 '15 at 22:55
  • @Chris It's interesting that you say you've forgotten how to read notes. .do you play by ear at all ? It occurs to me that the kind of music you'd like to sing is generally written / played by ear - ie - from within, rather than from a piece of paper. Maybe that will help ? – user2808054 Jul 22 '15 at 8:41
  • Regards body language : I too don't move much when playing and singing, but that's as a singer/guitarist, because you can't really. Your mouth has to be on the mic and your hands are busy. When I get a chance, there might be some limb or other trying to shake in time, or sometimes I break into a spot of headbanging when the guiar part is just chords. Have to watch that as it makes me dizzy lol – user2808054 Jul 22 '15 at 8:44
  • Here's a question : re body language.. Are you aiming at that thing where people kind of act out the meaning of the song as they're singing it (eg lyrics "I just want to say I'm sorry" .. <singer does sorrowful face>), or just some movement to get into the groove of the tune, almost like dancing, or actually dancing ? – user2808054 Jul 22 '15 at 8:46
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    I was talking about something like this. youtube.com/watch?v=yrOH_qz0x3E He's fully absorbed in his own music. He and I might be worlds apart skill-wise, but I've also seen amateur musicians give off a similar vibe. – Chris Jul 22 '15 at 20:56
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An actor in a play appears to be in a murderously bad mood. Is he really like that? Whilst you may not be a professional, it's entirely possible to put yourself in the right mood to play a particular piece. If it's a gentle lilting song, get the imagination working before you start - lying in a lush field, sun shining, all's right with the world, etc. On occasions, I've wound a pupil up into a frustrated mood before playing the blues, say. It does work. On gigs, your mood will affect your playing, like it or not. The trick is to be aware, and programme yourself accordingly. Of course, if you're still trying to play a piece well, but don't know it well enough, none of this will happen, as your mind is preoccupied with which note follows which note. As said in other answers, knowing a piece inside out is always the first important step.

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Lacking a good connection to some cover song is OK: simply play something else - something you can feel. Or consider trying to write and sing your own songs, be they either vocal or instrumental. There's nothing wrong with hitting the right notes... sometimes the note itself is wrought with emotion and a perfectionist will find the emotion behind the note in order to nail it. In vocals that might mean a certain almost-cracking of the voice; in guitar it might be subtle vibrato, or bending up to a note, or sliding into it, or a touch of artificial harmonic for some squeal, etc...

Technique-wise, try performing with your eyes closed... something about not seeing anything seems to help for me.

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Listen to the song a few times, then see if you can figure out the mood the composer was trying to convey. Then, try forgetting about the timing and play with the song. See if you can find a track with just the voice or guitar and playing/singing with it. For example. swing. The notation is two 8th notes, but you play/sing it as a quarter/eighth triplet, that gives you the feel. Try finding the stylistic things that make the song sound how it does (vibrato, not being on time all the time, etc). Basically, feel the song before you try to play/sing it.

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Well...Emotion is a vague concept. People sometimes inherit it naturally while others have to practice it. When playing the guitar especially, you need to realize what you are doing and why you are doing it. Playing the note accurately is not about playing the guitar. Just check out 'Buckethead', one of my all time favorite guitarists. He brings out such an emotional feeling and makes the environment so tensed while listening to his songs. You need to realize that bringing out your inner emotions through your guitar playing or vocals cannot be achieved within 2 years of training. It takes years. Don't give up. Keep practicing. Watch other top / best guitarists playing and try to grab whatever you can and learn from them. Even the scales you are using to play have a bigger effect on bringing out emotions. Good luck.

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