essays, poems        & stories

Your Tools of Expression

by Mark Dvorak

Doug Miller was a great teacher and an early mentor. He was a talented singer and performer but chose teaching over hitting the road as a full-time musician. “I could spend my life making music,” he said, “but thought it better to spend my life helping to make musicians.”

Doug and I first met in the 1980s when he directed the folk music program at the David Adler Cultural Center in Libertyville Illinois. By the early 1990s, Doug and his young family pulled up stakes and headed north. He took a position as executive director at Folklore Village Farm, a cultural, educational and recreational center located west of Madison, Wisconsin, near Dodgeville. Doug and I were never really close friends, but we were always in touch. Less so once he moved north. Doug was warm and friendly. Upbeat, kind, well-read and very aware. He was a visionary who touched many lives.

Around 1996, Doug was scheduled to give a talk on teaching and learning at a music conference held in Madison. By that time my own teaching had begun to mature and teaching appeared to be a thing I would be doing now for awhile. I attended the conference looking to soak up what I could. In his presentation, Doug used the term “tools of expression,” and his message resonated. It resonates still. Sometime after his talk, Doug and I sat down over coffee for a visit.

The primary acts of expression are dancing and singing. Dancing is movement. Walking, running and leaning on grocery cart while moseying down the dairy aisle are all a kind of dance. Athletes moving across the field or court are dancing to a rhythm only those focussed on the ball can sense. My fingers working the keyboard as I type are dancing to soundless music being played by inner thoughts, memories, images all coming together and echoing words that first come to mind, and like a kind of magic, then appear on the screen.

Singing is sound produced by the human voice. A baby crying is a kind of singing. Discussion at a meeting unfolds as a vocalized ensemble with its own rhythm, purpose and meaning, as did the chit-chat over lunch at the corner restaurant last Wednesday. A boisterous argument over pints at the pub also erupts as a kind of singing. You get the idea. In making art though, we elevate and refine our dancing and singing through practice. The tools we use to express ourselves are many and varied, and become integrated in new ways as we keep working. 

Our tools of expression exist both externally and within. Your music stand, the lyric sheet, chord chart, tablature, your amplifier and microphone, your picks and strap and tuner, the chair you sit in and the room in which you play and sing are all tools and are all external. 

The sensibilities, work and intention that come through you and your instrument, out into the air as music, are within. And those are the main ones. The points of contact between the external and internal begin with the touch of your hands upon the strings and the next breath you take, and these are the tools of expression that Doug Miller talked about over coffee. These are the tools that you alone have at your disposal and are yours alone to nourish. And to take care of. And to develop. These are the tools first given at conception, along with the very beat of your heart.

And we prepare ourselves again and again, to get all of this working together, to leave our cognitive selves somewhere behind; to enter again the arena of authentic creation. From time to time you may notice a new spontaneity in your playing and singing, and experience a new sense of authority over what it is you are trying to express. Doug’s word for this was “explosive,” and that’s a good word for it. And each time you detect these qualities in your playing and singing, mark it down, you’ve been practicing well. Mark it down that you’ve learned something vital about the proper use of your God-given tools of expression.


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