A Violinist Searches for Symmetry - The Beautiful Simplicity of a Phrase

July 24, 2022, 2:05 PM · There are two memories I have of hearing the gentleness and contour of a phrase – singing Do-Re Mi from The Sound of Music and watching my elementary school teacher conduct our orchestra. Both experiences started tuning my ear to the natural flow of beats, notes, and musical ideas. However, before too long I was encountering lots of musical interruptions to this smooth process – unwanted crescendos and over-emoting would throw me off. How do you keep within the framework of a phrase?

Three Ways to Flow with the Phrase

1. Notice that every beat feels slightly different. A metronome pulse will be exactly the same, but the bow is doing something different all the time. You’ll experience big changes in character and mood, while the beat is, for all intents and purposes, steady.

2. When you play subdivisions (8th notes, 16th notes, etc.), be prepared for the phrase to ebb and flow. Thinking one beat at a time helps the phrase unfold naturally; it also steadies your musical mind.

3. Try to match the regularity of the rhythm with what you hear in ordinary conversation. No matter how quickly or slowly you speak, inflections and space between syllables are perfect. When your musical rhythm falters because of a change of string, for example, then a “red flag” should remind you to space the notes accordingly.

The Fine Art of Being Both a Leader and a Follower

Orchestras are filled with many personalities, and the extroverts sit side-by-side with the introverts. What better place to develop the skills of following the melodic line, always knowing the inner choreography that helps you make sense of the music, and not intruding in any way on the drama unfolding?

1. When you think about it, the correlation between a conductor and an orchestra is one of the most subtle relationships ever created. This interplay can easily be thrown off by one member who might move too much or show the beat even more than the conductor is indicating. Once a kink is thrown into the musical fabric, the musicians circumvent it, rising above it to deliver the best musical product they can produce. The system can sustain a disruption, but at the cost of making the performance much more complicated.

2. Be aware of your body language when you’re playing in an ensemble. If you’re moving gently with the pulse, you won’t distract your stand partner. If you can’t stop yourself from leading, you’re very likely showing both the pickup and the downbeat. Even if you’re the principal of the section that’s not necessary, but when a section player does that, it makes it even harder to watch the conductor.

3. Devoid of any distractions, an orchestral player gets to experience a finely-tuned phrase machine. Whether he sits quietly or moves passionately, he knows in advance which way the wind is blowing. He learns to be a better leader because he knows what it takes to keep from slowing down. He becomes a better follower because he knows there’s nothing he can do to alter the orchestra’s structure. As delicate as a phrase may be, all of the components of the orchestra and the conductor are designed for cohesion and clarity. It would be pointless to try to get in the way of that.


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