Monday, April 25, 2022

Phrasing Strategies PMC Travel Voucher Program

4 Strategies for Introducing Phrasing to Young Players
by Caleb Evans
Educational Representative, PMC Springdale

When educators start beginning band students, we rarely see the culmination of their musical career as checking boxes: playing right notes, rhythms, and dynamics. Much to no one's surprise, educators are usually much more idealistic. In their mind, the student's musical journey more often ends in "expressing yourself in a new special way", "creating art", or "immersing oneself in culture and beauty."

One of the largest obstacles to having fantastic performers is the fact that a certain degree of mastery of the former (playing right notes, rhythms, and dynamics) needs to come before an understanding of the latter (advanced phrasing and expression). In other words, a student that is struggling to remember which key to press to produce a G# is usually not going to be a master of phrasing. Consequently, this becomes one of the most difficult bridges to cross as a music educator. How do we get our students to understand phrasing to get to that "next level"? How do they get from playing the right notes to performing music? Below are four strategies to solve this problem that I've found useful in my private instruction.

  1. Relate it to speech.

    A simple comparison to describe phrasing to any student is to relate it to something they are already masters of: talking. Students already know what happens when we place different emphases on words in sentences:

    • "I never said she stole my money."
    • "I never said she stole my money."
    • "I never said she stole my money."
    We can explain phrasing by showing that music works similarly. It's one thing to say these different sentences at different volumes, speeds, and rhythms, but if we say the sentence without any emphasis, then it can lose the meaning we are trying to ascribe to it.

  2. Limit abstraction and maximize concrete, actionable instruction.

    Students are familiar with language like "put your finger here and you'll make a G#", "you count this rhythm like '1 & 2 &, & 4'", and "use more air." While these statements might be difficult mechanically or mentally for beginners to achieve, they are all concrete things that require little abstract thought to accomplish. They have a clear, physical process to achieve an observable result.

    In contrast, the subjectivity inherent in the idea of "phrasing" causes it to lack a clear process and end result, and therefore requires more abstract language to describe and teach. Your students will have a harder time dealing with terms like "feeling", "shaping ideas", and "emphasis." How do I, as a 7th grade sax player, "shape my ideas"?

    The answer is in bridging the two - instead of reaching straight for the foreign phrase "shaping ideas", explain mechanically what you are asking for: "If you were going to play a louder note in this melody, where would you play it? A softer note? Where would you go slower or faster, and why?" Once you've established what students can do to mechanically achieve the abstract goal, then you can then begin adding back in the abstract language. Connecting the concrete and the abstract adds stable ground for the student to stand on, and, for the student, feels less like a shot in the dark and more like a shot in a fluorescent lightbulb-lit band room.

  3. Look for a Tension Point.

    As another example of strategy 2, I teach my students to look for tension/arrival points. After an introductory explanation of the concept of tension in a composition, I have students mark the point of highest tension - usually the highest pitch in the phrase, a cadence point, or the most rhythmically dense section of music.

    Once this is established, we can see how the composer leads up to and comes away from this tension point. From there, the discussion naturally leads to how we as musicians can enhance and interpret the composer's intent: by using changes in volume, increasing or decreasing emphasis on certain notes, or slowing down or speeding up our tempo. This exercise is useful for any intermediate level up to the collegiate level - I used this strategy countless times throughout my education, and it always helped to show a clear goal for phrasing in my performances.

  4. Eliminate Mechanical and Mental Ability Barriers.

    Beginning music students are fundamentally predisposed to thinking of music as ink on a page. Their low level of mastery of the instrument does not encourage experimentation with interpretation of phrasing in music. We can combat this by having students maximize their comfort level with a short (1 phrase/8 bars) piece of music. Once a piece has been mastered and memorized, the student is then free to experiment and play with phrasing and making the piece of music their own.

    Additionally, we're now free to actually introduce lessons that revolve around phrasing. For example, we can ask the student to play the piece with a certain type of feeling. "How would you play Go Tell Aunt Rhody if you were trying to make the audience feel sad? Happy?" While the student will surely lack some skills that would enhance some of these ideas, you will be building a phrasing skill set along with a mechanical and mental skill set, instead of building a phrasing skill set after a competent mechanical and mental skill set has been formed.

Caleb Evans Caleb Evans graduated from the University of Arkansas in 2017 with a Bachelor's of Music Education, and from Baylor University in 2019 with a Master's of Music Performance in Percussion. Caleb shortly maintained a healthy private studio in DFW before moving back with his wife to his home area of Northwest Arkansas. Here he continues to work as a passionate advocate for music education, and uses his expertise to assist band programs in the area. Caleb's teaching experience is extensive: he has maintained high level private lesson programs in TX and AR, and has teaching experience with the Crossmen Drum and Bugle Corps, Vigilantes Indoor Percussion, the Baylor University Drumline, and several BOA competitive high school programs. He has also designed, arranged, and produced competitive sound design for high school BOA marching shows. He has a newborn daughter, a wife who works in music education, and two spoiled cats residing in Bella Vista. In his spare time, Caleb enjoys philosophy, writing music, working out, and cheering on Arkansas football.

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