There comes a moment in every musician’s practice routine when they stare at a piece of music and think…
“I have no idea how I want to play this!”
Practicing the nuts and bolts of a piece (technique, rhythm, instrumental fundamentals) is relatively straightforward (most of the time, anyways), but musical interpretation opens up an entirely new realm of possibility.
Phrasing choices and musical interpretation of a piece will depend greatly on the genre, style, era, and a multitude of other factors. Here are a few suggestions to help you experiment and create a more compelling phrase:
- Identify the phrases. It’s hard to build a better phrase if you don’t know where the phrase is! If you can’t identify a phrase by looking at the music, and it’s not obvious when you play it, try singing it. Notice where you naturally breathe and where you feel the need to emphasize certain notes. This will give you a good indication of where the phrases fall.
- Follow the contour. Musical contour is simply the “shape” of the notes. Do they go higher? Lower? Center around certain pitches? Jump in all directions? Once you’ve identified the musical contour, the phrases are much easier to organize. Easy phrase ideas are to get louder when you go higher and softer when you go lower. You can also switch things up by playing softer as you get higher and louder as you get lower.
- Exaggerate the dynamics. Your dynamics are probably not as pronounced as you might think. This is because they will sound different to you than they will listeners, so record yourself to get a different perspective. Work on building a larger dynamic spectrum by exaggerating all of your dynamic markings.
- Don’t breathe in the middle of a crescendo. There’s nothing more anticlimactic than…an awkward pause when you’re trying to build musical tension or suspense. Plan your breathing spots so your breaths don’t interrupt crescendi, decrescendi, or other important parts of the phrases.
- Embrace rubato. Rubato is one of the most important tools in your musicians toolkit. Rubato is when you break time by speeding up, slowing down, or elongating certain notes to add musical drama. How do you know where to add rubato? Find the notes that stick out to you – are there any notes that feel especially poignant? Accentuate these with a bit of rubato to emphasize these even more.
- Take time at the ends of phrases. Build suspense by delaying the resolution. Add a ritardando or other musical element to create musical tension.
- Don’t ignore the rests. Rests are part of the music too! Even though you’re not playing, you can create musical drama and tension by incorporating the rests into your interpretations. You can elongate rests to add suspense, let the music breathe, and a wide variety of other ideas to help build better phrases.
- Play musical charades for new ideas. If you’re still struggling to find a phrasing or interpretation that works, pretend to be someone else. Ask yourself how other musicians might play this phrase, then try to imitate them. This exercise is not meant to copy other musicians but instead to help you expand your phrasing flexibility and develop your own unique interpretation.
- Switch things up. Once you’ve found an interpretation you like, don’t copy+paste the same musical formula for all the phrases. Variety is key, so find new and exciting ways to play each phrase.
- Don’t commit to one interpretation. Music is not a static art – it changes and grows with musicians, and your interpretations should reflect that. It’s fine to have a general blueprint of how you want to phrase a piece, but every performance should feel fresh and new.
I hope this helps you create more compelling phrases!