The 7 Elements of Phrasing
This morning during my practice I used some of my down time – you know, the time spent shaking out arms and fingers, stretching limbs and the like – to consider all the ways at our disposal to affect what we call ‘phrasing.’
Of course we could probably exchange the word phrasing with expression without getting off track. Yet phrasing to me leads more directly into the particular concerns of music making; it’s certainly more euphonious.
Now bear in mind, as I go through the list that there is no real order in importance to these things. It all depends on the music being played.
So here’s my list.
The distortion of time.
Wow, what a concept to begin with. Yet it is certainly a fundamental aspect of phrasing. On a basic level you only have to think about so called ‘swing’ in jazz, where two written 8th notes are ‘phrased’ unequally; think of a triplet where the first two 8ths of the triplet are tied together as a quarter note, leaving the second shorter in duration by half.
Another way to bend time in the service of phrasing is through ‘rubato.’ Rubato simply implies the taking away of time in one part of a phrase and the adding back of time in another. This is very different from either rushing or dragging, mind you, where the net result is either less time or more time taken than the original tempo would allow. In ‘rubato’ a balance is maintained between the moving forward and the drawing back parts of the phrase. Needless to say the two can be reversed, one can follow slowing with a hurrying forward for a very different effect.
An easy one, really. Yet certainly the way a line is shaped through the use of dynamic changes – i.e. conscious modulations in volume – will effect how the music breathes. What you don’t want are the unintended rises and falls in sound – what I call ‘unsightly bulges’ – which come from Unconscious changes in bow speed and pressure along the way.
Here I’m talking particularly about the beginnings and endings of notes. Many times I find that it is the ending of notes where attention fails. Notes must be brought to a close just as purposefully as they are sounded. And this, of course, this has a lot to do with the left hand as well.
Namely, the subtle trade-offs made between bow speed and bow pressure. If you mean to convey a feeling of a more dense, purposeful nature, then greater pressure with less ‘travel’ is the ticket. If a more buoyant, transparent tone suits then make the opposite compensations, less pressure and more travel. This is something to experiment with in extremes when playing scales, I find.
Yes, this can also be used in a nuanced way to affect phrasing. The speed and range of your vibrato can both be altered with practice and used effectively in shaping musical lines. Again, I tend to use my scale and arpeggio practice to warm up and expand the limits of my vibrato. You just have to be a little careful, when attempting to speed up and/or narrow the range of the vibrato, that you don’t become tight in the process. Belly-breathing is a great antidote for this tendency.
Yes, subtle pitch manipulations can be a part of phrasing. Think of ‘blues’ notes in jazz, for instance. Milstein himself used to color harmonies, particularly minor harmonies, quite a bit in romantic music, I remember.
Left hand articulation
This is perhaps the most subtle of elements, actually, yet it does contribute in a real way. Having control over the way your fingers address the string reinforces the message you are sending in the music. This is not only true of the raising and lowering of fingers either. I also will consciously get up on the tips of my fingers when I’m ‘hearing’ clear, bell-like tones, and I move to the pads when the mood becomes soft and gray.
So these are what we have to play with as we go about making music. And, of course, to a great extent you do them naturally as you respond to the music in front of you. All the same, scales, arpeggios and etudes are irreplaceable when it comes to developing real facility with these things.
Then, when it comes time for repertoire, just let the games begin!
All the best,
P.S. In a couple of days I’ll be coming out with dates for my next master class. Meanwhile, rosinate!
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