Remedies for Style and Phrasing

John Barcellona | April 2011

The following is a prescription of 30 suggestions to improve musical style and phrasing.
1.    All notes within a phrase are not created equal. Many flutists give each note within a phrase the same weight or emphasis. This creates a monotone melody void of musical expression.

2.    Determine which note is the high point of the phrase. The high point of the phrase (which isn’t necessarily the highest pitch) receives the most emphasis. Notes before the high point lead toward it (crescendo), while notes after the high point lead away (diminuendo) from it.

3.    When looking for the high point(s) of a phrase, always consider the metric accents. Beat one is often the strongest beat in the measure so look there first. However, when modern composers want to shift the high point or point of inflection, they often change the meter.

4.    Emphasize motion. Within a phrase, some notes have more motion than others – both rhythmically and harmonically.

5.    Lean on the first note of a slur. This was one of Louis Moyse’s cardinal rules of phrasing.

6.    Sing phrases before playing them. Pay careful attention to which notes naturally receive the emphasis. Play the phrase on the flute using the air in the same manner.

7.    Be aware of the flute’s natural tendency to play louder and project more in the high octave. The craft of compensating for this natural tendency, when the music demands something else, should be developed. Maintain-ing the same dynamic level on a descending melody, for example, may actually require a crescendo.

8.    Execute inflection within the mood of the music. If the music is playful, bounce or poke the points of inflection. However, within more expressive moods, gently emphasize or caress the high points of the phrase.

9.    Give long notes direction. Some-times a long static note is desired, but most often long notes are leading somewhere (crescendo) or falling away from a point of inflection (diminuendo).

10.    Crescendo on a tie. When a long note is tied to proceeding shorter note values, (for example a half note tied to four 16th notes), crescendo on the tie, thereby making the shorter notes sound as if they grow out of the tied note. Too many wind players leave dead spots between ties and shorter note values, which interrupts the flow of the phrase.

11.    Learn to play perfectly in time unaccompanied. This is the most difficult rhythmic discipline because there is not anything else to synchronize with. Longer note values have a tendency to be rushed. Developing this ability is essential for successful orchestral auditions.

12.    When making a crescendo, compensate for the natural tendency to rush. When playing legato, make the notes feel slightly longer as the crescendo is made. When playing staccato, make the spaces between the notes feel longer.

13.    When making a diminuendo, compensate for the natural tendency to drag. Legato notes should feel shorter in length as if rushing. Spaces between staccato notes will similarly feel shorter.

14.    To play evenly, anticipate key resistance. Many inexperienced flutists move their fingers as if typing on a computer keyboard where all key resistance is equal. As a result, they rush and drag as the key resistance changes from note to note. For example, ascending scales are more resistant than descending scales. When ascending, we lift the weight of the fingers against gravity. All flutists know which fingering combinations are more resistant and take more strength and energy to execute in tempo. By consciously anticipating these differences, playing becomes more even.

15.    Staccato length is determined by the mood of the music. Staccato means separated (not necessarily short). Longer staccato notes with less space can be used in lyrical passages, while playful, energetic passages call for a shorter staccato length. There is no standard rule – experiment.

16.    Slow movements automatically mean maximum note lengths. Play the last notes of phrases up to the following rests. Any shorter note lengths will be indicated by the composer.

17.    When making a crescendo, articulation strength should increase exponentially. Instead many flutists lose the clarity of articulation. When adding more air to play louder, articulations should feel much stronger (more air pressure behind the tongue).

18.    Increase the depth or amplitude of the vibrato during a crescendo. Otherwise, as a note becomes louder the presence of the vibrato diminishes.

19.    To balance large ascending skips, crescendo through the lower note, then play the upper note at a volume that matches the lower note.

20.    When playing after a short rest, (for example, a 16th rest followed by three 16th notes), think of entering early so the notes can be stretched out evenly within the beat.

21.    Do not drag when playing repeated notes. This is a natural phenomenon on all wind instruments. Think of moving repeated notes forward.

22.    The great players often use slight rhythmic distortions to bring music to life. Playing exactly even and perfectly in tempo can be musically boring in many situations. For example, in Prokofiev’s famous Peter and the Wolf solo, playing the G-major seventh arpeggios evenly doesn’t quite recreate the darting and dashing flight of an excited bird. Rushing forward slightly as the arpeggio descends brings the birdlike free flight to life.

23.    Make use of unmeasured rubato such as in Romantic Era pieces. Let the tempo bend and flex as the moods and dynamics change; rush for crescendos and relax for diminuendos. Roger Stevens (former flutist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic) called this technique ebb and flow. For example, when performing the introductory solo in Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun, instead of counting steady eighth notes, try rushing forward slightly during crescendos and slowing during diminuendos. Overall it works out to be about the same amount of time as playing with a steady pulse, but it is much more expressive.

24.    Make use of measured rubato. Within a steady tempo, slightly adjust the distribution of notes while keeping the tempo steady. For example, stretch the first 16th note and rush the second, third, and fourth so the following downbeat occurs on time. This example is a common use of measured rubato for the interpretation of appoggiaturas in urtext editions of Mozart flute concerto scores. Editors in other editions have changed the appoggiaturas to straight 16th notes. Mozart wrote the important 16ths as appoggiaturas so they would be stressed.

25.    When playing in the Classical Era style, remember these three national influences: German precision, French elegance, and Italian bel canto. For German precision, execute all rhythms and note lengths precisely and consistently. For a French elegance, play with a certain amount of lightness.  The 18th-century Italian bel canto opera style includes effortless technical facility and lyrical sensitivity.

26.    Keep all your button holes the same size. This was a favorite quote of Harold Bennett (former principal flutist with the New York Metropol-itan Opera). He was referring to maintaining the same note lengths within a phrase. This helps maintain the mood that has been established.

27.    To play lightly, take the weight off phrase endings. Emphasizing the last note of a phrase creates a heavy cumbersome mood.

28.    Follow the contour of the line dynamically. This was one of William Kincaid’s favorite phrasing axioms. Crescendo as a scale or arpeggio ascends and diminuendo on the descent. This can be used effectively in the same Prokofiev arpeggio mentioned in #22.

29.    Strive to eliminate flarp! When flutists play ascending intervals they tend to go sharp, while descending intervals tend to go flat. Practice octaves with a tuner. If the tuner displays a correct octave and it sounds flat on top or sharp at the bottom, you
suffer from……flarp!

30.    When interpreting a piece of music, the first place to look is the upper right hand corner of the page. In other words, look at the composer’s name. Your main role is to interpret the ideas of the composer – always consider his marks and suggestions before attempting to add or change anything.