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Five Aspects of Great Musicianship

Gerry Miller | April 2014

Editor’s note: The Instrumentalist profiled Gerry Miller in April 2013. We asked him to follow up with more detail about how his program works throughout the year.

    As the school year begins to fade and our longing for summer overtakes our thoughts more regularly, I find that our ensembles are often performing at their very best. Hopefully, teaching the ensembles in April and May is no longer hampered by unrefined technical phrases (although we can occasionally find a nugget here or there that needs some polishing) or tone qualities that stick out. More often, whether we are finalizing preparations for our formal contest or for a festival or trip performance, we are truly blessed with the opportunity to refine our students’ musicianship inside the concert program we have labored so diligently to choose and have all worked so hard to perfect.
    I often compare great musicianship in an ensemble setting to a wonderful evening spent talking with old friends. We all know the personalities involved, much like the instrumentalists in our ensemble – we have our quiet, shy friend who doesn’t say much, our loud, boisterous companion from high school that blurts out whatever comes to mind, and even the mild disruptions from our young children as we talk. It is a conversation – a verbal dance – and much like the art of great conversation, there can be times when things don’t seem in focus, such as being unable to hear something we desperately want to hear, or something that seems out-of-place or off-color. In developing the conversational abilities of the ensemble, thus deemed our musicianship, we divide the dialogue into a five key areas: phrasing, style, dynamic contrast, tempo, and musical markings.

    In returning to our analogy of musicianship as a great conversation, I often demonstrate to my students how we use phrases in the English language. There are short phrases and long ones; some phrases end with periods, while others end in commas, exclamation points, or question marks. Some phrases ascend, while others descend; there are the rarest of phrases that grow to one important word, then diminish down to the end (think Shakespearean sonnets).
    As conductors, it is our task to consider the shape of each phrase and how we envision that shape traveling through and communicating the ideas within the music. We often begin, in our score study, with a diagram of each phrase. Most composers today offer plenty of rehearsal markings, and making a list of these along the left-hand margin, then diagramming the shape as rectangles, triangles, and trapezoids, helps greatly in determining the overall phrasal language, as well as the apex points within a piece or movement (see instrumentalist for some examples).
    Frequently, we find that one of the fundamental hindrances to great phrases is that students do not finish phrases with the same energy they have at the start. To demonstrate the concern, we often ask the ensemble a simple question, such as “What did you have for breakfast?” with a lift at the end, versus the same question as it diminishes into the word “breakfast.” We ask, “Don’t you hear the desperation? Do you want every phrase to sound so desperate and weak at the end?”
    We have also found that using an index of shapes, much like the ones we used to diagram the apex points in the work during our score study period, helps students understand the variety of phrase-types requested of them. Phrasing is, after all, a byproduct of air. We often joke with them by trying to read a really long sentence, such as those legal disclaimers from prescription drug commercials, without pausing for a breath; it is laughably impossible. However, by using the subtle context clues the author provides (commas, semicolons, and logical break points), we often assemble fully understandable sentences with little difficulty. Musically, phrase length is principally influenced by air.
    Therefore, revisiting how we breathe becomes vitally important. We spent a great deal of time in January and February emphasizing methods for proper breathing; it is now important that we verify these practices being put into place in the repertoire. Once we have established that everyone in the ensemble is breathing appropriately, and that the volume is consistent and correctly shaped, we can begin to address phrase length as either a one-breath phrase or a stagger-breathing phrase. With stagger-breathing phrases, we create breathing points – sometimes by assigning students letters (letter As breathe at a certain spot, then Bs breathe), sometimes dividing by parts (first clarinets breathe in measure four, then second clarinets breathe in measure five), or by assigning individual breaths to each player in the ensemble. Regardless of when students breathe, the sound must be one that matches the desired shape.
    To exemplify phrase shapes in a more digital format, we shift to the Tonal Energy app. This app can be displayed on a projector screen or large monitor from many mobile devices. The scrolling Analysis tab allows students to see how their section shapes, and how that shape melds with the rest of the ensemble. Once we set some norms in place, it becomes an efficient process to copy and paste one paradigm over to new phrases until a work flows with grace and ease.

    As a young director, I found that adjudicators would often criticize the style with which my ensemble performed certain works; most of their remarks centered around the ensemble performing with a same-ness that wasn’t always stylistically appropriate. I remember talking with a veteran director who put things in perspective for me: “when [judges] talk with you about style, they’re primarily focusing on the back of the note.” In our formal preparations, we spend so much time fixated on starting notes together, and maintaining energy through the note, that we can easily neglect the back of the note. In reality, there are only a few discernable options with which we can treat the backs of the notes: 1⁄2 value, 3⁄4 value, 7⁄8 value, and full value. How we use these inside of the repertoire is entirely up to us and is only limited by the palette available to the students in the ensemble. We might utilize the 1⁄2-value space, which feels very wide, light, and sparse, on a march or a transcription of a Baroque piece for band. The 3⁄4 value works well with British marches, most fanfares, as well as dense, accented chords in contemporary writing, where listeners benefit from a moment before the next voicing arrives. The 7⁄8 value is arguably the hardest to clarify: it requires just a sliver of light to pass between each note – like the boards on a fence – so that no two notes touch, but they maintain a connected feel. We don’t feel that there is a prescripted use for the 7⁄8 style, but if 3⁄4 value feels too separated and full value feels too connected, this is likely what we are aiming for. Finally, the full-value or connected style is utilized for nearly all lyrical playing as well as dramatic allargando moments in orchestral transcriptions and similar works.
    The task of matching style is sometimes hindered by individual instruments sticking out past the prescribed value. To avoid this, we often have staggered values inside the ensemble. For example, consider the standard orchestral-impact ending with a short I chord, followed by a short V chord, followed by a long I chord. Depending on the tessitura, the highest instruments will sometimes eclipse the lower instruments in note-length, hanging past the 3⁄4-value we might be seeking. To avoid this, we sometimes have the soprano voice perform 1⁄2 value on the short notes, while the altos play 5⁄8 value, and the tenors play 3⁄4 value. We finish with the basses at 7⁄8 value to add resonance to the chords. Although we may not have strictly defined 5⁄8 and 7⁄8 value for the ensemble (at a fast tempo, this is nearly impossible to discern), students grasp their role in the release point, and as a result, the ensemble’s sense of style and resonance will improve dramatically.
    Consider each work in full. Does it adhere to one style throughout? Most marches will, although the Trio sections can offer some variance. Overtures may shift from one style on an A section to something entirely different on the B section. The ensemble should rarely change their approach to the backs of notes with each new phrase, but it may be necessary to change it midway through a work to reflect the ideas of the composer.
There is not necessarily a right-versus-wrong approach to how to treat the backs of notes, although some judges can make it seem that way. If the entire ensemble is performing a march with notes at 3⁄4 value, and it is done together and neatly, even the toughest of judges would offer a platitude like, “that’s not how I would have done it, but it works.”

Dynamic Contrast
    For many years, the go-to phrase for judges seems to be “I could use more dynamic contrast.” In Pablo Casals’s The Art of Interpretation, he states that we must make a volume difference of 10% or more for the audience to perceive even the slightest dynamic contrast. We describe dynamic contrast to our ensembles by using the visual metaphor of actors in stage makeup. Most students have seen a friend performing in a theater production, and from a distance, the friend looks as he normally does, with features that are easily discerned from the back of the auditorium. After the performance, however, they approach the friend and see that, in stage makeup and up close, his facial features appear completely over the top. This isn’t to say that use of dynamic contrast should appear gross at close range, but it should feel over the top to most young performers. If we were to look back at our decibel-meter (as mentioned in the March 2014 article), we seek a crescendo from mezzo-piano to mezzo-forte to rise approximately 2-3 decibels. A volume change from forte down to pianissimo would likely drop 9-10 decibels (nearly half-volume, based on the logarithmic function of decibels). It is useful to practice these changes from section to section, then match them inside the ensemble with appropriate considerations for melody and accompaniment instruments.
    In addition, composers often employ special dynamic effects, the most common of which is the forte-piano. For these effects, we brainstorm for a word that best communicates the composer’s idea. With forte-pianos, we use the word zoom. We begin by having the ensemble say zoo as fast and strong as they can, then pressing their lips together for the mmm as quietly as possible. The result, by using common, spoken words, is often a good demonstration of how the air must remain fast as it transitions from forte to piano quickly. Every dynamic effect in our music can be exemplified with a word, and through that word, students will develop an understanding of the direction of the air utilized to accomplish the composer’s desired sound.
    A final consideration (and, at times, a hindrance) in creating great moments of dynamic contrast is the general direction of the musical line. On most instruments, descending lines naturally decrescendo with consistent air. So, to maintain the volume of a descending line, we advocate flowing air towards the back of the phrase to facilitate volume stabilization. Similarly, when the melodic line ascends, it will naturally louden. As a result, we have students back off just slightly as they ascend (ensuring that tone and pitch do not suffer) so that the tops of phrases do not jut out of the texture unnaturally.
    It is necessary to consider descending lines that crescendo (using substantially more air), descending lines that decrescendo (maintain air speed/volume and let the physics of the instrument work), ascending lines that crescendo (maintaining air speed/volume), and ascending lines that decrescendo (backing way off the air). Of these, the last is the most difficult. This process may require quite a lot of time to codify, but in the end, the ensemble’s use of dynamic contrast will be clear to the audience and adjudicators.

   An appropriate mastery of tempo in the ensemble requires diligent research on the part of the conductor and constant work with an audible metronome in both sectionals and full rehearsals. During our research, we look for at least three recordings of the works in the repertoire, and we clock each tempo on a chart. We try to be extremely diligent – finding each ritardando’s pace as it slows, as well as the most subtle of tempo transitions and mild alterations. We make a grid of tempos for each recording so that we can compare and contrast those things we liked in one recording versus what we may have disliked in another. Ultimately, we need to find what works best for our ensemble inside the given literature, but having a well-researched opinion will offer the best chance at success.
   An audible metronome is the second most important ingredient in a dialogue about tempo. After offering clinics in band halls near and far, I don’t think it matters if the metronome is in the front, the back, or on the sides of the concert ensemble (marching band is an entirely different discussion), as long as the metronome is audible to every performer in the space. The use of subdivision can help clarify many phrases, as well as aid in finding where the ensemble is pushing or dragging the tempo. Ultimately, a well researched and evenly paced performance will present little criticism in regard to tempo.

Musical Markings
    When we reach the final stages of preparation, the students are often questioned about their ability to play everything the composer chose to place on the page in front of them – every crescendo, every accent, and every Italian word. As well, we must consider if every musical marking is being communicated all the way to the back of the concert hall. The best test can be done quite simply: choose any phrase from the music and strip away everything but the notes and rhythms. Print the phrase out and ask a section to perform the phrase as it appears in their music, adhering as best they can to every musical marking on the original page. Ask students to write what they hear and see what responses are offered. For example, the horns may feel like they are accenting a low A, but the accent doesn’t resonate because the note is low in the tessitura, and students are struggling to play it with a centered sound. We may find the same with descending lines that crescendo, or fortepianos on high notes in the woodwinds. Many times, students feel like they are performing the musical markings, but these are frequently lost in the complexities of the demands of the repertoire. Helping the ensemble understand how exaggerated these effects need to be will greatly enhance a performance’s appeal to audiences and judges.

In Conclusion
    It is our hope that, with all the work we have undertaken, our ensembles will be able to offer musically fulfilling performances for our audiences and adjudicators. We want to make contests and festivals worthwhile experiences designed to help each student showcase growth over the course of the school year. Our time on-stage should feel enjoyable, and, through the translation of music from the composer’s mind onto the printed page and into our instruments, it is our hope that we elevate the experience and add an additional dimension to everyone’s understanding of the repertoire we have chosen.