Intelligent Design

by Kenneth Amis
Tuba player of the Empire Brass, Assistant Wind Ensemble Conductor at MIT

How do we shape the music that we play? Most of us begin this task by following the composer’s markings on the page. However, every nuance and gesture that contributes to a brilliant performance cannot and, for the sake of spontaneity, variety and logistics, should not be included in a score. Composers write “notes” that, as the word implies, only offer an outline of what a performer is required to do. In order to realize the full potential of the music, a performer must supplement the markings on the page with his or her own interpretative gestures which should be based on a balance of objective and subjective realizations.

There are a couple of problems with passing delivering a performance based on only subjective analysis. Indeed, a performance of this standard can sound good to many people. However, learning how to phrase music with the only criteria being that it “sounds good” is a sure way for a student to miss expressive opportunities. Sounding good should be the minimum requirement for a performance.

Overwhelming amounts of subjectivity in a player’s analysis of a phrase can blind them to the form and structure of composition thereby limiting their knowledge and, by extension, their potential for a truly brilliant performance. It also leaves them defenseless to critics and offers nothing to those would do not share the same subjective views. There should always be an intelligent and objective design behind a performer’s more subjective decisions. Analyzing a phrase objectively and then consciously utilizing multiple performance tools will not only offer admirable qualities of an interpretation to those who may criticize its more subjective elements but also maximizes your ability to connect with a diverse audience.

The first step in preparing a well crafted phrase is to understand what makes it unique and/or essential to the music. Having knowledge of the theory behind the genre in which you are working certainly helps; however, having an aural familiarity with the genre is critical. If you are working with unfamiliar music, it is important that you listen to enough music of that genre (or that composer) so that your ears become acclimated to its musical characteristics. This will facilitate your aural awareness of various distinguishing moments in a piece, even if you do not understand the theory behind them.

These hidden moments—hidden because they are not made obvious to the performer by the composers’ dynamic, articulation or text markings—represent opportunities for profound musical expression. Capitalizing on these opportunities by revealing them to an audience offers more of the music to your listeners and makes your phrasing, at the very least, more commendable than phrasing that simply sounds good but shows nothing beyond the music’s superficial qualities as indicated by its notation. Having a working knowledge of the theory behind a piece of music becomes extremely helpful when working on avant-garde music or music whose theory falls outside of teachings of Bach and the Common Practice Period—the theories we are most familiar with today.

So what do these hidden expressive opportunities sound or look like?


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