How to beautifully end a phrase?

Edited: April 9, 2020, 1:10 PM · How to beautifully end a phrase?

For the most part I can play with an acceptable tone and vibrato but I am having trouble ending one phrase before going on to the next. To my mind while playing I think it sounds great, but in listening to a recording it sounds like some kind of energizer bunny that never stops....and does not provide an enjoyable experience for the listener.

I would greatly appreciate suggestions on how to end a phrase so that there is some sense of release before the next one starts -- specifically what is the combination of diminuendo and changing vibrato speed/amplitude to achieve a nice ending so that there is a little air between phrases, so to speak. Thank you.

Replies (34)

April 9, 2020, 4:45 AM · Tom, you need to put a subject for your post as people can't come in and join the conversation without it.

I think there are infinite ways to end a phrase nicely and that depends on so many variables that it's impossible to have hard and fast rules for it.

April 9, 2020, 12:44 PM · Well said, Jeewon. And Tom, you're still in urgent need of a title...
Edited: April 9, 2020, 1:32 PM · You cannot finish the phrase beautifully (in accordance with the idea of composer), if the image of this ending doesn't exist in the brain previously. For this you should use singing with your own voice.
April 9, 2020, 2:21 PM · It honestly depends a LOT on the phrase and the composer before we can give you good ideas. Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev will all have different requirements and "tasteful" interpretations.

Mozart will like you to lighten up and take the bow of the string. By contrast a romantic composer like Tchaikovsky probably wants you to increase speed, weight, and vibrato for a very dramatic ending. Is there a particular passage you are having trouble with?

Edited: April 9, 2020, 3:09 PM · Think about your problem like this - If you want to put some space and a diminuendo at the end of your phrase, thinking purely in terms of the bow, then you probably want to end at the tip of the bow. Which means that you need to spend most of your bow beforehand, so you now need to plan to be moving your bow quickly at first, get to a certain point near the tip, and slow down - The variables of how quickly at first and at what point near the tip do you slow down are for you to decide and experiment with, with the vibrato portion also being up to you. Then you need to find the right amount of space to wait until moving your bow for the next phrase.

If you are goosing the end of the phrase, then you are moving your bow too fast where you should be moving it slow. It sound ridiculous written out, but while it's actually pretty simple, that doesn't mean it's easy. Try just phrasing on open strings first, and then add the left hand in.

Edit: I'll leave the stuff I already wrote below, even though it's a little redundant having actually read your whole post.

Often, the indicated dynamics will tell you exactly what you need to know, as a big part of indicating phrasing is by dynamics. Some phrases also need some space to breathe, and beginner players can often not put enough space (meaning a pause (meaning no sound)) in between phrases, with the effect being that everything runs together and becomes indistinguishable, like writing a paragraph with no punctuation.

The actual use of your bow is what determines your phrasing to a large extent (meaning you can't just will phrasing into being by thinking happy thoughts), so if a phrase isn't coming off, you need to plan your bow distribution accordingly. To a lesser, but still important extent, your use of vibrato can tie notes together and emphasize a phrase through continuity of sound quality, or through contrast of sound quality.

April 9, 2020, 4:09 PM · I'll answer based on what students and amateurs tend to do:

-They tend to "goose," or accent, the end of the phrase.
-They tend NOT to taper notes, especially on up-bows.
-They tend not to decelerate, or attempt to distinguish which phrases in a movement require more rubato and which need less.

So, most of the time, and especially in classical phrasing and specifically with appoggiatura, a beautifully ended phrase is a tapered phrase.

I would suggest work on your diminuendo for both up and down bows, work on tapering the vibrato to match, and working on varying degrees of rubato.

When timing, taper, and vibrato all work together, you can end a phrase beautifully. It's not rocket science.

April 9, 2020, 6:20 PM · " what is the combination of diminuendo and changing vibrato speed/amplitude to achieve a nice ending so that there is a little air between phrases, so to speak"

You've answered much of your own question. Think of a phrase as speaking, singing if you can, and try to say something, not necessarily be "beautiful" as that's a lot more vague, subjective, and context dependent, and take a breath.

Edited: April 10, 2020, 3:13 AM · We tend to forget (don't we?) that the notes on the page are just an agreed code approximately representing the actual music that needs to be appropriately inflected and phrased. Unless explicitly instructed to the contrary by expression and articulation marks we tend to (actually “are taught to”) join the notes together end-to-end, like bricks. In orchestras this applies fairly stringently, since if everyone were to introduce their own phrasing the result would be chaotic. In small groups like string quartets we also have to be sure we all make the same phrasing or again it would sound all over the place.

But did you ever follow the music of a song sung, say, by Frank Sinatra with the music? Note lengths and rhythms, even pitches can be so far removed from the blobs on the page that you'd sometimes hardly recognise the song from the notation. Long notes occurring at the end of phrases are scarcely ever held to their full length but dwindle off into a humming noise. Lately I've been having a lot of fun experimenting with this. I'm decades too late ever to be able to play in a jazzy or swing style, but I'm sure there are plenty of circumstances in which having these styles somewhere lodged in your head can subtly and usefully find its way into your playing.

Edited: April 10, 2020, 4:57 AM · Otoh, Sinatra claimed to have modelled his phrasing on Heifetz.

Tom, not all phrases end on a diminuendo, but I know what you mean. Practise your musicality on your scales. Non-musicians are sometimes heard to say things like, "Casals could make a scale sound like music," but that's what everyone should be aiming for.

April 10, 2020, 7:48 AM · You can make all of the foregoing excellent suggestions easier to implement by planning out your bow distribution with phrasing in mind.
Edited: April 10, 2020, 8:09 AM · I think it is more helpful to look at this as a musical problem rather than as a technical one (though obviously you have to use technical means to achieve any musical result).

So what you need is a clear idea on how the phrase is supposed to sound (often it tapers out at the end but not always); you need that idea before you take your bow in hand and play; you have to"hear it in your mind" as they say.

Then you go and try to produce that phrase you are hearing in your mind using bow speed, contact point, vibrato or anything else you think will help.

Sometimes it is useful to think like a wind player: They have to breathe in between phrases, so they leave pauses--if only to avoid dying from lack of oxygen. These pauses also help shaping phrases, sort of like a period at the end of a sentence.

"Hearing in your mind" is also helpful for intonation BTW.

April 10, 2020, 11:24 AM · I am not sure if I understand your question right - but I'll give my two cents to it, anyway. ;-)

First of all, you have to know exactly how you want that phrase ending to sound like (singing helps a lot, here!). Then, you can work on figuring out how to execute it, technically.

I would suggest you work on one phrase at a time, and really end it nicely (see above), without thinking about what follows.

Then, you work on the beginning of the next phrase and find out how exactly you have to begin it - which part of the bow, which kind of attack etc.

Then, you go back to the phrase before and practise how you manage to get to that new starting point right after your nice phrase ending.

Sometimes, you can manage to directly end a phrase at that part of the bow where you need it to be for the following phrase, but sometimes, you will have to end that phrase without a hurry and take some time for a completely new beginning, elsewhere. Depends on the music.

April 10, 2020, 12:28 PM · Hint for ending a phrase: make sure you don't lift the bow as you decelerate. Often this happens when we feel rushed to go on.

However, no matter how beautifully we taper the phrase, once the bow is lifted, we've effectively lost control of the sound and the phrase will sound "chopped off." Yes, it might ring a little, but that's not the same.

Edited: April 10, 2020, 1:44 PM · Ending a phrase with "ya know" has established pretty wide acceptance. ;-)

My personal challenge has been more along the lines of not saying "uhm" too many times, during live interviews. LOL

April 10, 2020, 11:23 PM · Thank you for all of this great useful information. One quick follow up question: Are any of these mechanical devices of use in creating the end of a phrase (we are talking something on the slower/more melodic side).

- reduce vibrato amplitude
- reduce vibrato frequency
- move the bow towards the fingerboard at the end
- better to reduce bow speed or bow weight?

April 10, 2020, 11:23 PM · Thank you for all of this great useful information. One quick follow up question: Are any of these mechanical devices of use in creating the end of a phrase (we are talking something on the slower/more melodic side).

- reduce vibrato amplitude
- reduce vibrato frequency
- move the bow towards the fingerboard at the end
- better to reduce bow speed or bow weight?

April 11, 2020, 12:07 AM · I'd say all of the above may naturally happen when tailing-off a phrase (apart from reduction of bow speed?) but I think you're being overly analytical!
Edited: April 11, 2020, 12:15 AM · What Steve said.
Do it by feel when you've got enough experience and bow technique.
Don't do it by numbers.
April 11, 2020, 4:50 AM · An interesting divergence of views! I think the nub of the issue is Jeewon's "in classical music". Classical I think is the only form of Western music that's primarily top-down didactically driven, to coin a phrase "more taught than thought". Actually some of us learned to play the bottom-up way, which does work as long as you have a fairly good grasp of the technical basics. I certainly wouldn't claim any superiority for that approach which seems to take most of a lifetime, but what you learn you don't easily forget.
April 11, 2020, 6:58 AM · You're quite right of course, but with a lot of conventionally trained players musical development seems to stop as soon as they finish taking lessons in their early 20's if not before. I'm thankful to still be discovering things
April 11, 2020, 8:50 AM · I was going to mention that a description shouldn't necessarily be employed as a prescription, then decided not to say anything.
Then I realised there's another example of the danger of using a description as a prescription: - vibrato!
Analysis shows that you don't vibrato above and below the correct pitch - it is weighted below the correct pitch. But you must nevertheless still use your ears. You mustn't play flat and assume that the vibrato will bring you up to pitch!
April 11, 2020, 11:36 AM · Alls I know is that I often think I'm doing one thing when it turns out I'm doing another, and I don't realize it until it's pointed out to me, and often a few times before I really get it. So I usually spend too much time phrasing something wrong or insufficiently, and then when I finally go and plan my bow-distribution according to what notes have what bowing, what notes are in the phrase, and the dynamics, the phrasing I thought I was doing magically appears.

If you know what you are doing, then the music you hear in your head comes out of the instrument, and when you don't know what you are doing, you have to work from the other direction, and you realize that every musical decision is a technical (or series of) decision, and that expressive decisions can indeed be broken down into a serious physical steps - Otherwise no one could ever learn how to play violin. And yeah, you still need your ears and judgment the entire time.

Over time, these things all become incorporated in a more holistic way into one's playing, but if someone stubbornly insists on doing something they don't yet know how to do, then they are baking delusion into their playing.

Edited: April 11, 2020, 11:54 AM · @Christian, that's well said, but isn't it odd that only Western classical music seems to emphasise instruction, scrutiny and correction with the insistence that there's a "right" way of playing that you won't discover for yourself. And I certainly don't subscribe to the view that "every musical decision is a technical (or series of) decision, and that expressive decisions can indeed be broken down into a serious physical steps". Although it's once or twice been pointed out to me that something in my playing is "all wrong", it's been more than 50 years since I last tried to do anything about it; my technique may not be much more advanced than it was back then but it hasn't hampered my musical (in italics) development.
April 11, 2020, 12:17 PM · If that is true, it is odd. I would make an analogy to "western medicine" and "alternative medicine", or whatever particular tradition, whether it's "Traditional Chinese Medicine" or Ayurveda. These are all things with value, but once some particular herb is confirmed to have some effect, through testing and the scientific method, it becomes part of "western medicine", which doesn't negate the value of the tradition where it was a given that the herb had that effect.

And not having been trained in fiddling traditions, or other methods, I believe that there are probably many traditions outside of western classical music that have a systematic approach to learning the instrument - I imagine plenty of fiddling traditions do have a systematic approach to learning their music, and I would bet that it's true of Carnatic music as well. I also don't know the evolutions of those traditions, but learning an instrument needs only be as technical as the requirements of the music, so if you aren't shifting above 3rd position or various other things, then your technical facility will be fine until you are playing music where you shift above 3rd position.

And I think it's unfortunate that there is a perception (sometimes among teachers and players in the classical tradition) that learning classical music is about a learned lack of individuality, which shouldn't be farther from the truth. Like any language, there are fundamentals and acceptable ways of pronounciation, and someone with a powerful command of the language is then best equipped to stretch the language itself - Not everyone can put the amount of words into the English language that Shakespeare did. And forgive me if I mischaracterize other fiddle traditions, but I understand that there is a fair amount of learning by rote, where a student learns the exact licks that the teacher performs - That is its own form of apprenticeship, and I really doubt that that student is prohibited from making changes or doing anything interesting with those tunes once they become proficient.

Katie Glassman is a fiddler that lives in Boulder, CO, and is quite accomplished. She has won championships, and among the things I noticed when I saw her play up close a few years ago, is that her technique looks quite "conventional". Well, she studied violin performance at the University of Colorado. I can't remember what she said about the timeline of her learning fiddle vs classical, but it looks like she can play both styles, which I don't think any fiddler without some kind of systematic technical education could do. If I wanted to learn fiddling, I would want to take from someone like her.

April 11, 2020, 12:18 PM · "isn't it odd that only Western classical music seems to emphasise instruction, scrutiny and correction with the insistence that there's a "right" way of playing that you won't discover for yourself."

Indian classical music differs how?

April 11, 2020, 12:27 PM · I dunno, I've taken fiddling instruction in group classes (in various styles), and been given very specific technical corrections in those environments, in particular how the style's technique is different from traditional classical technique. The argument goes that the style's characteristic sound is partially dependent upon particular technical approaches.
April 11, 2020, 12:37 PM · @Gordon. I dunno about other nations' classical music. I should say " the west, only classical..". @Lydia, it seems to be a very recent development that genres like folk, jazz, rock etc are being taught in conservatories and elsewhere, where in the past they've been purely aural traditions. I'm not sure that's a good idea, compromising what you might call their vernacular "authenticity".
Edited: April 11, 2020, 12:51 PM · @Christian. Concerning your medical analogy, our concern has been to turn medical treatment into a science. Do we want to turn classical music into a science?
Lastly (or maybe not..) I'd cite rock. Guitarists have become very slick lately, but Keith Richards's open G tuning was acquired purely through the aural tradition (aided by some technology)
April 11, 2020, 1:42 PM · I think the Chinese maxim: 'learn everything and then forget it', fits here. Indeed, its the very basis of classical training - not only for music but also classical art, dance, etc. etc. Do what Jeewon (and others) first said - learn how to do all those left and right hand methods as technical exercises until they are fully incorporated and require no thought. Then forget them and play with your musical heart - the practical study will give you the technical tools to achieve your musical intent. And if you need to develop your musical intent, do as Nachum suggested - sing it.
April 11, 2020, 1:44 PM · The whole point I'm trying to make is that "classical music" builds on itself and incorporates various other traditions. It's not a science, although there are various aspects that can be measured and tested according to the scientific method. I think your premise here is flawed. Learning to play an instrument can and should be done methodically - That's the stuff behind the curtain. The audience doesn't care how you arrived at your performance as long as the performance sounds good, just like the audience doesn't care that a magician isn't actually a wizard, using superpowers to do tricks, as long as the tricks are done well.

I'm not sure how Keith Richards learning about different tunings by someone telling him about it or showing him it argues against someone getting told or shown something from a teacher. Sounds like he got a lesson and learned something from it.

Just because someone is teaching something in a school, or in a tower, or in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean doesn't mean that their instruction is any less authentic. If you wanted to learn about southern rap and hip hop more broadly, you might go to some open mics or this or that and find a crew, or you might go to Rice University and attend the course taught by Houston rap pioneer Bun B.

You lose nothing by getting more education. While art can certainly benefit from having certain boundaries, no one is prohibiting someone who studies classical guitar from using an open G tuning. A real artist, regardless of level instruction, needs to be thoughtful and take the time to find their voice, and someone that has had more instruction in more different kinds of techniques now has more tools to work out their own own voice and contribution to art.

All it's saying is, here is how you do something to sound like this. You don't need to go grasping blindly to find this technical solution, because we already have a good way to do it. If you find a better way, then we are going to remember that and incorporate it into how we do it, just like we did for all the other things we previously remembered.

Edited: April 12, 2020, 2:47 AM · Christian, I'm find getting hold of your arguments a bit like rescuing soap from the bath!
"Learning to play an instrument can and should be done methodically". When I hear the word "should" I go into donkey mode so I'll clarify my opinion that I don't believe phrasing "should be" an aspect of playing that you find out for yourself but I am saying it "can be" and for most of us who stopped having lessons in our teens probably "is". The only thing I can remember being taught about phrasing was that the first note in each bar of Bach's D minor Gigue should be emphasised and slightly lengthened, which I then thought rather ridiculous and still do. Then "The audience doesn't care how you arrived at your performance as long as the performance sounds good" which seems to argue my point for me. Learning from a teacher is good, learning that you don't always need a teacher is vital
April 12, 2020, 12:17 PM · Steve, beforehand, you set up some kind of false choice that assumed a lot of about what classical training does or doesn't do. If I had stopped taking lessons in my teens, I would probably have a lot of ideas about what classical training does or doesn't do that are pretty limited to my own experience of not being taught by a very good teacher with a very good method.

Forget about the term "classical music", and just focus on "teaching" or "learning".

If a student knows how to phrase convincingly, then a teacher will not correct the student. If the student doesn't know how to phrase convincingly, then the teacher should correct the student, which a good teacher in the classical tradition will do, which a good teacher in the fiddle tradition will do, which any good teacher will do. Unfortunately for my teenage self (and it sounds like for your teenage self), not all teachers are good at what they do, and fortunately for myself now, my teacher now is firmly in the classical tradition and can explain to me in detail on how to phrase something, because as clever as I know I am, I don't know what I don't know.

So sure, I agree with your modified point in your last point, and I continue to disagree with the anti-intellectual position you express in your previous posts.

April 12, 2020, 1:11 PM · I'm happy to go with that. I don't think I've ever been accused of anti-intellectualism before, but when it comes to music it's not too far from the truth!
April 14, 2020, 3:08 PM · After listening to that Katie Glassman video, all I can say is "wow". Yes, I can fiddle Red Wing myself, but nowhere near that well. On the other hand, I'm just now taking a look into Baroque stylings and the ornamentations that soloists add to give the music their own personal touch, and it's very much the same. There's a solid rhythmic and tonal base - which can and should be learned thoroughly - plus all sorts of improvisational filigree to spice it up. I'll end my phrase there for now.

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