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Past the Page, Moving from Reading Notes to Beautiful Performance

Steve Rhodes | April 2016

    We spend countless hours instructing students how to navigate the nomenclature of music, but as Alice Parker1 stated in The Anatomy of Melody, “My belief is that a page of music conveys about five percent of the information needed to perform it.” This suggests that the written page at best conveys only part of what a musician needs to know for a successful performance. The process must move beyond the written page to include an internal sense of what provides creativity and soul to a performance.

Score Study
    Score study is an ongoing process that empowers a conductor to hear the score in such a way as to know the parts both individually and collectively, making it possible to anticipate what comes next in the music without looking at the score. The macro-micro-macro approach to score study is recommended.

    Learning a score is not simply a matter of memorizing what note follows another. Rather it is the process of discerning the composer’s intent. Begin with a brief scan of the overview of the piece, casually turning through the score. Points of interest include: key signatures, time signatures, tempo, major section changes, the overall simplicity or complexity of the piece, and groupings of instruments.

    Each successive look at the score takes the conductor deeper into the process. The first thing to look for is melody and whether it is major, minor, modal, pentatonic, or synthetic. On the second pass through the score, analyze the harmony. This should be followed by study of phrasing, development, style, meter, rhythms, transitions, cadences, modulations, groupings of instruments by color, overall form (binary, rondo, sonata, through composed, programmatic), and contrast.

    Finally, take the small building blocks and gradually piece them together until the work is again seen as a whole. By now the conductor should have a working knowledge of the tonal and harmonic scheme, overall form, and style as intended by the composer. After some initial analysis, begin the rehearsal, realizing that more analysis will be necessary as the process evolves. This also spurs thought for determining what elements of the music exist outside the printed page.

    It is during rehearsal that a true back-and-forth between what is on the page and what is not begins. Rehearsal is where the process towards attaining perfection becomes paramount, from how to approach the first run-through to how style is taught, technical problems are addressed, intonation difficulties are resolved, and all the minutiae from one measure to the next involving tone quality, accents, articulation, and balance are addressed. Michelangelo once said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Simply put, Michelangelo understood that his task was to eliminate all the stone that was not the intended object. Likewise, our job is to eliminate everything that doesn’t constitute the piece of music at hand, from the notes on the page to the unprinted subtle refinements. A block of marble is sometimes sacrificed to early sculpting attempts, but musicians get to try as many times as necessary until the product is refined. While methods for achieving this include an exhaustive list, here are a few suggestions, some of which may seem a little outside the norm.

Learning the Notes
    British oboist Léon Goossens2 said, “It is most important to eliminate the garbage between the notes so there is no noise.” Eliminating the garbage between the notes means finding the most efficient method of achieving technical mastery of a music passage. To begin, practice slowly. Repeatedly practicing too quickly is similar to the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different outcome. Clarinetist Eddie Daniels2 said, “I slow things down so much, it’s maybe to the point where I’m playing sixteenth notes as though they were whole notes, and I listen intently to each note.”
    Students are especially prone to working out a passage too quickly, so I tell them to reduce the tempo to where they cannot miss a note – so slow that it is boring. This usually takes several attempts, until the optimum slowness is achieved. Practicing slowly allows musicians to move smoothly from one note to the next, thus eliminating the garbage. The aim is to smooth the transitions between notes before speeding up the tempo. Continue by increasing the tempo by small increments. The subsequent repetition allows the sequence of notes to become second nature.
    If a musical passage remains problematic, here are three suggestions. First, when working out a sequence of several notes, the initial attempt usually involves starting over multiple times at the beginning. After working at a slow tempo, if attempts to speed up the sequence are unsuccessful, try playing the sequence backwards. This provides a different perspective to the fingering pattern. After a couple of times through this process, playing it forward usually goes better. Granted this is only practical with individual practice or ensemble sections playing the same line.
    In similar fashion, when practicing an extended line, try starting towards the end (the last measure or two), then work back gradually, adding notes and measures until arriving at the starting point. This is more efficient than starting at the beginning of the passage repeatedly and never reaching the end with satisfactory results. Shifting the focus to the end of the passage insures a more balanced number of repetitions for the entire line.
Another option is to focus immediately on the problem spots at the next practice session. Rehearse them and then play through the piece without stopping; this provides a more accurate gauge of where real progress has been made as well as identifying what spots need to be isolated next.

Problems in Articulation
    When working for consistent articulation, there are a couple of areas that might be cause for concern. Sometimes wind players do not separate level of volume from level of attack. For instance, when playing at fortissimo they tend to accent the notes accordingly, even when not indicated. Conductors should work with their ensembles to distinguish between the two.
    Another critical point for wind players is fast articulations. The faster the articulation, the more the tongue inhibits the airstream. As a consequence, if the notes do not respond smoothly, the fingers and the tongue get out of sync, slowing the process down. When this happens players need to be reminded to keep the air speed up and push more air through the instrument while tonguing. If the sequence of fingerings is working smoothly and the airstream is no longer inhibited by the tongue, the passage should play at a higher speed.
    To encourage better airflow, have the students direct fast, cold air on their hand placed about six inches in front of their face. Then have them tongue several times in a row without stopping the airstream, feeling as close to the same amount of air on their hand as possible. Have the students use the same amount of air on a set pitch such as concert F, tonguing at whatever tempo is deemed necessary. After these steps, apply the same concepts to the original music. Conversely, when playing slower articulation in a marcato style, it is important to develop the ability to play several notes, each one establishing a somewhat separate burst of air all on one breath.

    Style is crucial when considering the composer’s intent. Knowledge of the time period when the music was written as well as other works of the composer is necessary. This is the point at which going beyond the printed page becomes crucial. For example, one must determine what a particular notation might or might not mean in the context of the music at hand or by preconceived ideas. One has to interpret what is meant by such symbols as:

Each of these markings comes with questions:

1. How short is staccato? Is it always half the value of the note? Does it depend on style period or tempo?
2. How long is tenuto? Should there be any space between the notes for the sake of clarity, or are they completely connected?
3 and 6. Is there any space between accented notes? If so, how much? If not, how do these two markings differ?
4. What does this mean? Is it any different than playing in a marcato style?
5. Is this shorter than marcato, presuming there can be agreement on what marcato means?
7. How much accent does this note get? How long is the note?
8 and 9. Although the definitions are consistent, what determines the length of implementation?

    Francis McBeth took five of these symbols and requested definitions from fourteen established conductors and composers. As expected, the answers were somewhat inconsistent.3 Given this lack of uniformity, it will be necessary to decide what these markings mean for each composition studied.
    Here are some markings common in wind parts.

Given a tempo of q = 120 or faster, there are decisions to make about performance. First is whether the notation is to be played in a marcato style. Even if no designation is given, the markings suggest it anyway. Marcato translates as stressed or distinct with emphasis. To that end, the quarter notes and eighth notes need to be played less connected. The opposite is true of the sixteenth notes. It is confusing and counterproductive to indicate staccato on sixteenth notes at a fast tempo. At that tempo, the notes cannot be played any shorter. The staccato markings are likely meant to provide greater clarity for the articulation, but that is contrary to the definition of staccato. The result is unhelpful, especially with less experienced players. In an effort to play shorter, tone projection often drops and the tongue gets sluggish, causing the tempo to slow down because the tongue is blocking the airstream excessively.
    To counteract this effect I request that players articulate each note with plenty of front, push more air through the melodic line, and play the notes full value. The sixteenth notes will be heard with greater projection and will be tongued with more consistency without dragging.

    Although the end result does not produce sixteenth notes that are twice as loud, it does provide a more consistent volume across the measure. It also means that a correct rendition may be somewhat contrary to the original indication on the page.
    The space between accented notes is also important. The following excerpt is from King Bombardon by W.P. English:

Providing a slight space between the notes enhances the accents. Tonguing the note already provides some space in the sound, and tapering the air at the other end of the note further defines the note and enhances the implied marcato style. In this example, spacing all the notes, both on and off the beat, provides additional clarity in the interplay between the two lines. The result should sound something like this:

    As a general rule, playing in a marcato style applies to all the notes, not just the shorter ones. However, avoid shortening notes to the point that the music sounds brittle. If this happens, suggest to the players that they should feel the separation more than hear it. The goal is to provide clarity for each note, not just require space between the notes.

Finishing Phrases
    One of the rules for reading music is to look ahead. By anticipating what comes next performers lessens the potential for having to stop. However, there are situations where it is necessary to maintain attention in the moment a little longer. When the music finishes one section and transitions immediately to the next (for example, the second strain of a march leading into the trio), students sometimes lose focus on the end of the first section in anticipation of the next. When this happens rehearse the first section to its conclusion and stop. Once this sounds acceptable, introduce both ideas together again.

Finishing Notes
    Be sure wind players learn to stop the sound at the end of a note by tapering off the air instead of using the tongue. Although this is a foundation of good playing, it is not always followed.

Shaping Phrases – Hear the Rainbow
    The great cellist Pablo Casals suggested that all music is a series of rainbows.4 These are especially obvious when viewing the arcs written above most phrases. Make sure players adhere to these marks by creating a logical rise and fall of dynamics, while also understanding that successive arcs do not necessarily indicate the same dynamics and intensity. Also, there are times when a rainbow is needed, even though no indication is provided; a musical line should have direction – either gradually getting louder or softer, but almost never remaining constant. This is especially true when the same pitch is reiterated over and over again.

Shaping Notes
    When a phrase or melody seems dull and lackluster, equate the musical line to a spoken sentence in which each note is a separate word. As each word in a sentence has inflection and emphasis, so should the player strive to provide each note its own presence.

    Determining the correct balance is an ongoing process that must take the importance of each line into consideration. Focusing the ensemble’s awareness on each separate musical idea allows the players to understand how their parts fit. Avoid presuming students understand this without discussion. Conversely, directors should not ignore a line solely because it is not the melody or worse, because students struggle to play it correctly. Avoid keeping a part softer than indicated, hoping no one will hear it. Instead, directors should teach all lines and impress on the players the importance of each line. One would think that this goes without saying, but it does not.
    There are two ways to promote better understanding of balance between musical lines and across the ensemble. First, have everyone play pianissimo. When everyone is playing soft, the parts collectively can be heard more easily. After identifying all the parts, establish each part in balance at the appropriate dynamic level, as required by the interpretation.
    Second, if the room allows it, arrange the entire ensemble in a big circle, so everyone is facing each other. This allows everyone to hear more parts than when they are in respective rows, and players sitting in the back row have the opportunity to hear the players who normally sit in the front row. Students enjoy the change of pace this setup provides.
    Dynamics written on the page should allow for personal interpretation at times. Solos that are marked p need to be heard, and brass parts marked ff should not bury the rest of the ensemble. Sometimes written dynamics should be considered a suggestion; the number of players in a particular section (too many or too few), hall acoustics, and confidence of the players can all affect the music. To evaluate this, conductors should occasionally step away form the podium to get a better sense of what the audience will hear. Also, when a new line, either solo or sectional, makes an entrance the first note or two should be louder than indicated if the dynamic is softer than mf so audience attention is drawn to the new idea immediately rather than several notes later.5

    Musicians usually understand they are responsible for mastering the notes on the printed page. They may not always realize that they are permitted to go beyond the page to discover the magic of the music as the composer intended. Strive to unlock the creative qualities of each piece of music.   

1 The Anatomy of Melody, A Cautionary Note, by Alice Parker, p. xxi.
2 The Mastery of Music by Barry Green, p. 86-87.
3 Effective Performance of Band Music by Francis McBeth, p. 18-29.
4 Casals and the Art of Interpretation by David Blum, p. 21.
5 The Dynamic Orchestra by Elizabeth A.H. Green, p. 12.