4.1 Phrasing

What is phrasing? According to Wikipedia: 

“Musical phrasing is the way a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music to allow expression, much like when speaking English a phrase may be written identically but may be spoken differently, and is named for the interpretation of small units of time known as phrases (half of a period). A musician accomplishes this by interpreting the music—from memory or sheet music—by altering tone, tempo, dynamics, articulation, inflection, and other characteristics. Phrasing can emphasise a concept in the music or a message in the lyrics, or it can digress from the composer’s intention, aspects of which are commonly indicated in musical notation called phrase marks or phrase markings. For example, accelerating the tempo or prolonging a note may add tension.”

Source: Wikipedia

From this we can say that tempo rubato, dynamic changes, and articulation are tools that musicians use to communicate phrasing. For example, when you are playing or singing and want to phrase towards the beginning of the third measure, you most likely achieve that by some (or all) of the following:

  • increasing volume and/or intensity of tone towards your destination. 
  • taking extra time as you arrive to make your arrival at the destination more pronounced.
  • varying the articulation to give emphasis to the most important note. 
  • decreasing volume and/or intensity as you move on from your destination, probably regaining the previous tempo.

Choices like how much louder you get, at what point you start getting louder, how much you slow down, what kind of stress or accent you use when you get there, and so on, are of course infinitely variable and (hopefully) different every time. 

When we consider how to “do phrasing” as a conductor, we need to communicate all of this with our physical gestures. The two most crucial aspects are arguably variation in dynamics and flexibility of tempo, both of which we have looked at in the previous chapter. Simple!

In most cases, phrasing will not be notated in a detailed way. It is left to the interpretation of the performers. From our point of view as conductors we must consider an important point: when we are communicating information that is not notated in the parts, we will usually need to use more exaggerated gestures in order to get the point across. On the other hand, if the music says slow down, and the conductor slows down, they are simply reinforcing something the players can see for themselves. 

This explains why phrasing (and thus conducting) music of the classical period is in many ways so much more difficult than later Romantic and 20th Century works. Mahler is a great example of this: take a look at any score page of any of his orchestral works and you will see that not only does he give us vast amounts of information about what to do, he also often tells us what not to do! Haydn or Mozart, on the other hand, would often write a dynamic in measure one and nothing else apart from pitch & rhythm for 16 or 32 measures. All the detailed phrasing must come from the performers, and if you are the conductor that’s your job!

The next workbook extract explores this topic. Although Holst is certainly not a composer of the classical period, he did often write simple music based on Folk Song with very little phrasing notation. Of course, the essence of Folk Song is that it is an aural tradition and so the absence of detailed notation of aspects other than pitch and rhythm is not surprising. In this beautiful song he asks the accompaniment to play pianissimo and the melody to be piano. Apart from the phrase marks/ slurs, there are no indications of dynamic contrast, rubato, or articulation. 

In the first three videos the conductor gives a very simple and elegant interpretation. 

Start with that and then go on to what we’ve called the “Extreme Makeover Version”. The ensemble had the same music but the conductor goes completely over the top with rubato, dynamics and articulation in a ridiculous manner. (I can say that because it’s me!) Of course we are not suggesting this is an appropriate interpretation of this music but we do recommend the exercise as a way of developing the ability to make an ensemble do anything you want. By being so extreme you will quickly get a sense of what is actually possible, and whether you are able to communicate what you want clearly, and early enough. The added benefit is that it forces the ensemble to pay attention to the conductor, so it is also excellent training for them.

In contrast to Holst, Elgar was a composer who notated a lot of phrasing. The next excerpt is the first ten measures of his Enigma Variations. You will see there is a huge amount of information about dynamics and articulation. However, even with this amount of detail the notation doesn’t tell us everything. A good example of this is the performance tradition that has developed surrounding the marking “ten.” in Elgar’s music. Obviously this is shorthand for tenuto, but what that doesn’t tell us is that the tradition is to play the notes with that marking just a little bit longer than their true arithmetic value. Sir Mark Elder, perhaps the leading living interpreter of Elgar’s music, refers to this as “the Malvern inegale” after the town in Worcestershire that Elgar lived from the age of 34 until his death.

You will see how in this video; the conductor gives space for this rubato to happen but doesn’t try to control it too specifically – to do so would lead to a very unnatural result – and is most active when regaining tempo after the slowing down.

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