Andante et Allegro


Rimsky-Korsakov Concerto

Morceau Symphonique






Barat Lesson 3a
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Getting picky about phrasing

In my experience, if you ask a player what he or she most likes about their own playing, you will almost always get the answer, "my tone". This is good, of course, and your tone is perhaps your first and your most effective calling-card. Good intonation, dynamics, ability to execute the technical things - these are also good qualities that you should always be working on. I wonder, however, if good phrasing - the ability to make a passage come alive and communicate and generate interest - is maybe even more important. Even someone with a scratchy, unpleasant voice can tell a spell binding story, whereas a beautiful voice simply droning through the sentences will not keep your attention.

 Consummate phrasing, polished delivery, smooth flow, communicative powers, impeccable inflection........

These would be high compliments for any of us - and they all relate to our ability to turn a phrase. Please listen to this Barat first movement run-through by an IU sophomore.

IU sophomore, m. 1- 48

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I would like to cite some of the very positive qualities that this player exhibits here: nice shaping of the phrases, tasteful vibrato, singing quality, overall musical and polished delivery. But now - to get picky - I want to use this generally quite successful run-through to illustrate three aspects of phrasing for you.

I.) Random, coincidental articulation

m. 25-27

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Now, besides those infamous dots under slurs here, I want to draw your attention to fact that there is no slur from beat three to beat four in these bars! That is was so played was not artistic conviction on the part of this student, but rather a lackadaisical approach to articulation. There is a lot of musical possibility, inflective opportunity contained in that little bit of ink above. 

m. 25-27

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Now check out measures 37-40. If my 10-year-old spoke like this I would surely say, "What did you say? You are mumbling again. Please speak clearly!" 

m. 37-40

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How about:

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These examples should help sharpen your sense of detail, which can be so important in communicating. We don't want to stop the flow of the phrase with these details. Think of it more as polishing each individual link in a chain necklace.

II.) The tongue should articulate the air stream - not interrupt it

Now, another aspect of this student's phrasing seems to be caused by the articulation interrupting the air flow instead of - well - simply articulating it. This happens in the low register, where many of our air/articulation issues magnified.

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This is a more a technical than a musical phenomenon, and the solution will be to address both sides of this coin: the air flow and the tongue. I like to think about the air flow like a hovercraft:

The air cushion must be very robust before you can enjoy a smooth ride over the various bumps and obstacles. Concerning the tongue, I often demonstrate a pizzicato pluck of a string. A slow, lazy finger pluck will deaden the string (interrupt the vibrations). A quick, agile finger will pluck the string without audibly deadening the sound between notes. 

Try this sometime, and see if it doesn't speak to you regarding the tongue and the air column.   
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Now these techniques require a more thorough treatment than I am offering here, and I go into it in this context only because a lack of refinement in these issues can impair the phrasing, as we hear above.

III.) Watch your phrase and note endings before breathing!

m. 41-46

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In a sense, this sound bite speaks for itself. When you become sensitized to this phenomenon, you will start rooting it out and correcting it. With this detail alone, you can gain a lot of polish and refinement. Bring the phrase and the note to a nice, well-rounded finish before you even think about breathing! If you set it up properly, the music will breath with and for you. A hasty, rushed breath will not help you, and can bring turbulence into the phrase that follows - not to mention fracturing the music immediately before the breath, as above. As we play in the louder dynamics or higher register where a bit more effort may be applied, it is important to release and relax instantly upon breathing. A well set up, musical  breath will always be a better breath. 

Again, this is a technique that should be worked on in and of itself, but I find it very significant in the context of phrasing.

(By the way, listen again, and notice how the underdeveloped air cushion in the low register sets the player up for another bumpy hovercraft moment in the final bar of the excerpt!)

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On to lesson four