Diversity in Phrasing

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

What performance tools do we consciously employ to be musically expressive when revealing these hidden opportunities? 

Many young brass students are told to “sing” with their instrument or to “bring out the music.”  These are good objectives.  Unfortunately, I have witnessed a disturbing number of brass players offer realizations of the music that are shallow and suffer from a lack of imagination.  This is often due to their lack of diversity when it comes to phrasing.  Subsequently, brass music and brass performances are seldom associated with elegance and refinement.  “Bringing out the music” is often translated in a young brass player’s mind as, “Play with more vibrato and/or louder.”  Overuse of one or two performance devices can be crippling to the artistic growth of a player.

Assuming a basic level of instrumental proficiency, we have at our disposal volume, articulation, rhythm, pitch and sound color, yet how many of us seek to use these tools in a balance and conscientious way?

This is the pipe wrench of performance tools.  All players can wield it to a certain extent and all listeners can hear it being use.  Brass players are particularly apt to overuse and abuse this rather blunt tool—periodically emerging from a block of rests to bludgeon woodwinds, strings and audiences about the ears with it.  Even as soloists, when brass students are instructed to “sing” with their instrument or to play more musically they will pullout this tool without considering any other.  They believe that bringing out the tension in the music simply means to play louder and when the music is less tense play softer.  It is this narrow minded approach to phrasing that often makes brass performances sound one dimensional and unsuitable for baroque and classical period music.  Although it may be possible with enough ingenuity and time to built a fine China cabinet using only a pipe wrench, a much better product will surely result from a more imaginative and balanced use of performance tools.  Because changes in volume are relatively easy for the average listener to hear, if overused, they can quickly become the least interesting of performance techniques.

Following the notated accents in a piece is being responsible, not necessarily imaginative or musical.  Utilizing “ta” exclusively through a rhythmic piece or “da” exclusively through a lyrical one can become very mechanical sounding.  String players use a myriad of bow strokes that are not marked by the composer to create an affect and, if we are attempting to sing through our instruments, we should not forget that vocalists spend years developing their diction and using the distinction between consonant and vowel sounds in a given text to further articulate expressive points in the music.  In fact, composers are very aware of how the beginning of a word relates to the affect of the music.  A brass soloist should not try to articulate every note differently but should certainly avoid articulating all notes the same, especially while playing a vocal transcription—a piece whose affect is, in part, dependent on such variety.  Bringing attention to a special note or series of notes in a phrase by slightly changing its/their articulation shows an added flexibility to your phrasing and alleviates the necessity to crescendo into all of your “special” moments.

Without changing the tempo of a passage, a performer can draw attention to important moments in the music through minute shifts of its rhythms against its pulse.  This can serve to draw a listener’s attention to a change in the momentum of the music (e.g., playing one or several notes on “the front side”or “the back side” of the beat), a change in its timbre (e.g., slightly shortening notes in brighter textures) or even its harmonic tension (e.g., holding a exceptionally dissonant note a few milliseconds longer before resolving it).  Whether one is making dramatic rubato in romantic music or acute momentary manipulations in less elastic music, rhythm is a difficult tool to use.  Its use requires a strong sense of tempo.  However, when administered with subtle precision, it more clearly endows a performer’s phrasing with character than any other performance tool.  Great performers from Glenn Gould to Wynton Marsalis have all mastered the discreet manipulation of this tool to reveal special moments within phrases.  The use of this device should be conscientiously considered and applied when developing one’s interpretation of a musical line.

The technique of inflecting the pitch of a note higher or lower to magnify a change in musical tension or character should be transparent and used sparing.  It is important to do this within the boundaries of “in tune”.  It is quite common, for example, for a cellist playing, say,  a slow movement of a Bach cello suite to slightly bend a dissonant pitch towards its resolution at a cadence (e.g., leading to tonic).  This increases the inherent harmonic tension of the moment giving the line more direction.  In jazz music, pitch inflections are used even more freely and apparent than in classical.  The key is to hear and understand when “just” intonation verse “tempered” intonation is being violated so that our playing never breaks the “in tune” boundary.  If your just and tempered intonation is good, it is simply a matter of learning how far away from those tunings you can inflect a note before good tension turns bad for any given register and tempo.  Once this is understood, actually doing it on the instrument is not difficult yet shows a mature diversity in your phrasing.

Sound Color
Whether you call it “timbre”, “color” or “sound quality”, it’s, arguably, the most important component of your expressive voice.  Unfortunately, brass players tend to base decisions on what timbre to use on only two criteria—who the composer is and whether the music is lyrical or not.  Using vibrato is certainly a means of enlivening one’s sound.  Unfortunately, many performers are under the misguided belief that vibrato alone will actually change the color of one’s.  Many brass players will perform an entire phrase or movement (or even an entire piece!) using only one sound color, content with simply letting the manifestation of the written pitches generate any and all coloristic changes in the music.  Identifying places within a phrase where a subtle change to a complimentary sound color can highlight and supplement similar changes in the notation is the sign of a mature artist.  It could be one note or a series of notes and can be done at any tempo.  A rudimentary application of this type of manipulation can be heard when a jazz player uses a halve valve on a particularly “blue” note or when a performer changes his or her vibrato intensity.  Conversely, when a performer is responsive to the many shades of color in any given progression of harmony or melody, true artistry is reached (listen to any recording of classical guitarist Sharon Isbin).  It is not a difficult task to make slight changes to one’s sound color on a brass instrument.  However, it does take a high level of sensitivity to the often-subtle changes hidden within a composer’s notation to recognize where these changes could and should happen.

Take a look at the following examples of how these ideas could be applied.


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