This is something I prepared for one of my choirs some time ago to help them think about phrasing and musicality. Even though I wrote this some time ago, it still represents much of what I think is important. I began with the quotes I gave in an earlier blog:
Harpsichordist and Pianist Ralph Kirkpatrick: "The essential expressive quality of a melodic interval lies not in the notes themselves, but in the space between the notes, in the manner in which one gets from one note to another."
Conductor Robert Fountain: "Not just the desire, but the passion to keep the line going."
Composer Virgil Thompson: "Is this music just a piece of clockwork, or does it also tell time? . . . have I been moved or merely impressed?"
When we speak of a person or ensemble being "musical," our impression often comes from the ability to sing or play with beautiful phrasing. While this is not the only thing that affects our perception of "musicality," it is hard to imagine a truly musical performance that is poorly phrased. Phrasing is the heart and soul of music-making, and without it our singing will be wooden and unmusical. This is then a primary concern for us, from the very first rehearsal. We can't spend lots of time getting pitches and rhythms right and then "tack on" phrasing at the end--we must begin to know and shape each phrase from the beginning. Decisions about diction, dynamics, articulation, etc. come from our understanding of the phrase, not the other way around.
So, what do we mean by "phrasing?" All analogies are imperfect, but I'll start with an analogy to language: a phrase in a sentence is a unit that makes sense in and of itself (though it may be incomplete by itself), built of smaller building blocks (words). In the same way, a musical phrase is a group of smaller building blocks (notes) that are put together to make sense or cohere. Writers use punctuation to let you know where phrases begin and end, and composers use rests, slurs, breath marks, etc. to give hints about phrasing.
We first have to know how long the phrase is to phrase well, make decisions about whether we have two-bar or four-bar phrases, decide where to breathe, etc.
Next, just as a good public speaker or actor can speak in such a way to communicate the meaning of the words, we can sing in such a way to communicate the meaning behind the notes. Here my analogy breaks down somewhat, as the actor has more freedom than we do (the composer has already outlined rhythms, pitches, etc.). However, it's clear that any good speaker or singer doesn't give everything the same emphasis. Read that last sentence aloud giving each syl-la-ble e-qual em-pha-sis, if you're not sure what I mean. And this leads to perhaps the most important point:
All notes are not equal in a phrase.
We make our decisions about which notes are "more equal than others" in several ways:
- sensitivity to melodic shape and contour (rise and fall of the musical line)
- sensitivity to harmony (tension-release)
- sensitivity to the natural word accents in the language (which syllables are stressed and which are unstressed)
To give overall shape it may be helpful for you to think of a "goal" word or syllable that the phrase moves toward (more intensity, volume, etc.) and then away from. Only rarely will any two consecutive notes have exactly the same volume, intensity or emphasis.
If we are to give phrases shape, we have to know where each phrase is going and how much intensity to give at the peak before we begin the phrase. You have to "hear" it already in your mind. And also remember that the end of the phrase must be as carefully shaped as the beginning.
In addition, we need to have a sense of the character of each phrase (perhaps with emotional terms such as joyful, sad, or majestic) in order to communicate the composer's intention. We have a wide variety of articulations (legato, marcato, staccato and everything in between) to help create the character of the phrase.
In addition, we can deal subtly with tempo--is a tempo rubato important in a particular piece to give shape to the composer's music?
Phrasing creates meaning in what we sing. Therefore we should never sing just collections of notes, but give shape to beautiful and expressive phrases.
If you have ideas to add to this, please do!