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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Phrasing

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This week I’ll return to my daytime blog writing as last week went a bit deep. I was tired and drinking my post gig beer!

Today I want to talk about phrasing.

A musical phrase is the equivalent to a sentence. A sentence has a series of words which are formed to make sense and convey a message. If I gave you 6 words made up of nouns, adjectives and verbs, I would like to think that you would use those words wisely to construct a sentence which didn’t sound random. You wouldn’t finish a sentence with the word ‘the’!

Forming musical phrases is very similar. You have to get the notes in an order that is pleasing to your ear (and if you are a professional musician then you probably need to make it sound nice to an audience’s ear too).

While I would love to explore constructing the actual notes, I’m going to skip this for today and imagine that the phrase (or series of notes) is already known (written with notation or otherwise). I want to talk about the delivery.

Yesterday I taught a piano student. He works really hard and practices most days. He always learns the notes and has a decent stab at the rhythms. Something is missing though. He was playing me a version of Miles Davis’ All Blues and although I recognised it, to me, it didn’t sound right. It was his delivery of the phrases that was off.

Now, there were some technical elements that could easily be addressed. His swing rhythm was not present and some of his technique meant that the phrases were a bit clumsy, but even when I rectified these problems, it still wasn’t right.

The problem, I realised, was that he had never heard the song before. He was working from the notation and although he was cracking the code, there was no performance or soul in the delivery.

I often talk to my students about the importance of this. Phrasing can only really be learnt through the aural traditions. Yes, it’s a combination of dynamics, articulation, accents, extended technique, time and feel but to truly ‘know’ how a phrase should be played, it’s down to experience. My student had only his limited experience to fall back on and he had never ‘experienced’ the sound of Miles Davis and that particular tune. If I was to describe to him that a Lychee has a sweet, floral taste, he still would not have the experience of ever tasting a Lychee. It would be completely alien to him and he would only have some vague descriptions of what he might expect.

Carrying on with a different analogy: I sometimes use the analogy of accents and dialect. If you move from one part of the country to another you will notice that over time your accent will change and you will become familiar with local dialect. If you move to another country you may even end up speaking a new language and this is done through listening and repetition. Ok…so maybe you need to study a bit too, but it’s surprising how much the brain can take in when you just allow it. Impersonators like Rory Bremner have a knack of listening out for the particulars of speech/mannerisms and copy with relative ease, but when listening to an interview he admits that some characters have to be studied and repeated for some time.

In summary, I told my piano student to go away (politely!) and listen to nothing but Miles Davis for a week. Not the coolest thing for a teenage boy to do perhaps, but an exercise in immersing yourself in the style.

So, what would I expect of him next week? Well, this depends on how well he listened to the music. It’s not just a case of having the music on in the background. You have to actively listen. Maybe even ask some questions as you go and find out the answers by playing/clapping/singing along. In a week you can expect a slight improvement, in 6 months a radical improvement and a decent impersonation of the style within a few years. These are the timescales I would suggest – I know some of you readers are keen to know!

If my actions were a success I will let you know. If he decided to ignore me and listen to nothing but Justin Bieber all week then I will let out a long sigh and never mention it again!

Have fun exploring the music this week and if you want to let me know what style you are immersing yourself in then leave a comment below.


2 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Les Whiteman
    October 31, 2016

    Jay, you are an inspiration to me, and all that you teach. I talk to you, you listen, and give me a good explanation of what I require,and what I need to know. Thank you.

    • Jay
      November 1, 2016

      Thanks Les, much appreciated.

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