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How to Phrase, or It’s All in the Phrasing!

“I don’t need words — it’s all in the phrasing.” – Louis Armstrong



How to phrase in music can be difficult to talk about and to teach. I would like to share three things you should know about phrasing, along with some practice tips to improve your phrasing.

1. Phrasing is inflection. Inflection is what makes the meaning of our words or music clear. The simple sentence,”I said no,” can take on three different meanings depending on which word we emphasize. “I said no,” not someone else. “I said no;” I already told you. Or “I said no;” no, you may not. In the same way, the inflection we choose for a melodic line gives it meaning for the listener. We make our choices based on our understanding of the entire piece.

Here’s an easy exercise to practice putting inflection into your playing. Start with the sentence, “She told me he didn’t do that.” This is a sentence where emphasis or inflection is important. The meaning changes depending on which word is emphasized, and each word is a possible inflection point. Practice saying the sentence with each word emphasized in turn. Then play a four-note scale up and down (for instance, C-D-E-F-E-D-C), putting the same accents into your playing. Think about the different dynamics and articulations that will help make your meaning clear to a listener.

2. Phrasing requires technical control over a range of articulations and tone colors. As you develop your technique, you learn to create legato and staccato effects and to perform them evenly whether playing loud, soft or in between. You also develop a repertoire of tone colors that evoke different moods or feelings. The more colors and articulations you can play well, the greater number of expressive tools you have to create a beautiful phrase.

You can easily grow your expressive tools in your daily practice. Just play your daily warm-up with attention to different articulations and tone colors. (Attention harpists! Other instrumentalists do this much more regularly than we do. Our beautiful sound can have colors and variety, too.) If you want to be even more creative, try this: pick a musical mood you would like to create. Then play your entire warm-up using tempo, tone color, dynamics and articulation to establish and support that mood.

3. Phrasing is where music happens. Without the inflection to bring meaning, music doesn’t communicate. Without the colors and articulations to provide variety and interest, no one would listen for long.  This quote from Daniel Barenboim’s book, A Life in Music, states it perfectly:

“When the technical problems of finger dexterity have been solved, it is too late to add musicality, phrasing and musical expression. That is why I never practise mechanically. If we work mechanically, we run the risk of changing the very nature of music.”

Watch for a follow-up post on this topic about what is possibly the best phrasing “system” ever developed!


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