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Imagery and Ensemble Balance

Jerry Nowak | January 2016

     When students think in terms of expressive phrasing concepts while playing, intonation and tone quality both improve, even if they are not addressed directly. Expressive playing concepts are designed to stimulate imagery skills in individual, small ensemble, and large group performances by focusing on those moments when musicians make creative decisions. Applying these concepts will save rehearsal time and lead to a more expressive performance. The concepts should be used with students who have reached a minimum intermediate level of performance (grade level two and higher), but many of the concepts may also be applied to less experienced students and to string players.

Notation to Imagery to Performance
    Professional musicians play every sub-phrase twice, first in the mind (imagery) and then echoed on their instrument. The first performance in the mind contains all the phrasing for an interesting expressive performance, including intonation and tone quality. Conductors and teachers should address rehearsal and performance comments to the moment when the musicians make performance decisions – during the imagery process before they play.

    All aspects of expressive playing are based on breath control. Almost all student ensembles I have heard over the years breathe in pace with the tempo, which exhausts their air quickly and leads to struggles to move air, which in turn causes a loss of control, tone, and pitch. The initial inhalation should take about two seconds regardless of the prevailing tempo. A conductor should always make two gestures when starting the ensemble, regardless of the indicated tempo. The first is to bring the instruments up into a playing position, and the second is to take a two second support breath and give the beginning gesture. Ask musicians to breathe simultaneously with you while imaging the first sub-phrase. It is helpful to indicate the tempo beforehand to allow concentration on the timing of the breathing process. This routine should be used during rehearsals as well as performances.
    Each of the following examples will be analyzed for sub-phrase groupings and phrasing concepts that may be applied to the orchestration of the moment, aiding in creating an expressive and balanced ensemble.
Accent-and-Taper vs. Bold Style Articulations
    Accent-and-taper articulation is more common than bold accents, which are usually reserved for climatic moments, ending chords, and some fanfares. A sound image of the accent-and-taper-style articulation is an accent followed by a dimimuendo of the sustaining part of the tone. Pablo Casals used an example of the accent and taper as the natural decay of a well-tuned timpani, bass drum, or gong. Use an accent-and-taper articulation on all long tones. The conductor must be sure to establish the style because one person playing a bold articulation can ruin the accent and taper moment.
    In the following example, the opening fanfare style chord should be played as an announcement. Notice that in measure two, the accent is moved to the second beat in the bar, creating a syncopated moment. A bold-style accent is assigned to the final chord.

The Taper and First Tone of Phrases
    Certain aspects of expressive phrasing directly affect ensemble balance and the clarity of the musical elements contained in the score. One step to good balance is to make sure all long tones within each line taper so other interesting elements prevailing are noticeable. In addition, the first-tone principle calls for first tones of sub-phrases to be clearly presented so that the audience may notice the activity (entrances), especially in contrapuntal music.
    In the following example, notice that all the melodies progress over the pulse and barline. It is the nuance (especially the light tones in each grouping) within each sub-phrase that makes each moment noticeable to listeners and enjoyable to play. If any of the notes are fully sustained, the other activity at the time will not be noticed thereby ruining the ensemble balance.


The White Ensign by Jerry Nowak (Northeastern Music). Used with permission.

Expressive Phrasing and Note Emphasis
    Emphasis on the important tones in a phrase may be achieved either by playing the tones we wish to stress at the prevailing volume and the unstressed tones at a softer volume, or by playing the tones we wish to stress louder than the unstressed tones at the prevailing dynamic. Each results in quite different phrasing and style with the first version being the most expressive.
    The first version is animated with accents. Using the indicated mf dynamic on the accented tones (marked with an asterisk) and playing the tones in between lighter results in a wonderful expressive performance. This technique also helps focus the mind on the sub-phrases. Playing the accented tones louder and the tones in between at the indicated mf dynamic results in a performance that is quite heavy and labored in style. Use an accent-and-taper articulation on the accented quarter notes.


    The following legato example results in the same expressive performance as the animated example if the mp if applied to the important tones in the melody and the others in between are played as light expressions.


Section Playing and Expressive Phrasing
    Musicians playing second and third parts should play with the same expressive sub-phrases as the lead part, but the difficulty in this is having to do so without the lead part’s melodic content. In the following example, which shows the three parts as an ensemble section and then each part isolated for analysis, there is a significant difference in contour between the first part and the second and third parts. In spite of this, to sound good, the expressive phrasing must be the same in all parts. Conductors may find it helpful to mark inflection indications in the second and third parts.

Anacrusis Sub-phrasing
    When playing an anacrusis (pickup), players should think in terms of the first tone of resolution. This will allow for the proper inflection in the anacrusis, leading to its resolution. It is worth noting that this may also occur as sub-phrases within phrases.

Tones of Short Duration, On and Off the Pulse
    Light, short tones off the pulse that resolve to stronger, longer tones should be played lightly and as forward-looking pickups to the stronger tones.


    Emphasized short tones on the pulse resolve to lighter longer tones. The emphasized short tone followed by a lighter longer tone is accomplished by using as slight stretch with the air on the shorter tone. After the stretch (contraction), the result is a naturally lighter longer tone without a struggle.


Dynamics and Ensemble Balance
    Each dynamic level from pp to ff has a top, middle, and lower degree of volume. When a section of a piece has all parts marked mf, there must be an adjustment according to the importance of each element as related to the balance of the entire ensemble. The following graph, from soft to loud, indicates a spectrum of the possible dynamics.


    When mf is indicated for the entire ensemble, assign unison or harmonized melody an mf+, and assign sustained harmonic accompaniment, rhythmic harmonic accompaniment, and rhythmic accompaniment an mf-. Countermelody (above or below the melody in augmentation or diminution) can remain mf.

Tension, Resolution and Ensemble Balance
    Melodic tension and its natural passive resolution must be used in the other elements present in the score during the passive resolution. They may be whole-step tensions or half-step tensions, of which the half-step tension is more noticeable. The non-tone chords that create tension are accented passing tones, accented neighboring tones, appoggiaturas (downward resolution), retardations (upward resolution), and suspensions (downward resolution). (Key – whole-step (mildly tense): MT, half-step (tense): T, accented passing tone: APT, accented neighboring tone: ANT, appoggiatura: APP, retardation: RIT, suspension: SUS.)


Crescendo and Diminuendo by Sub-Phrases
    During a crescendo and diminuendo in a melody that contains variations in contour and rhythm, expressive phrasing should be applied during evolution of the dynamics. The changes are made by sub-phrases rather than note-to-note. All the subtle and obvious nuances of the style should be retained as the crescendo or diminuendo develops.
    The taper on the long tones allows for the next phrase to develop towards the conclusion of the crescendo and diminuendo. The dynamics in parentheses indicate a possible steady evolution of the dynamic and would not appear in the written part.

Rising Lines and Ensemble Balance
    In a rising line, the upper tones will be heard because of the natural tendency of the rising line to increase in volume. The lower tones of the line must be played with a little more emphasis (mf+) to be heard through the rest of the ensemble. Tapering the long tones will help the beginning of the tenor line be heard. The sub-phrase grouping in the tenor line is determined by the articulation of the slurred and staccato tones.


Crescendo and Diminuendo by the Numbers
    When there is a crescendo or diminuendo on one tone or ensemble chord, an evenly paced change in volume can be produced by using a singing counting system. Set the tempo and have the players sing on one pitch while counting from one to five and crescendoing from mp to f. Students should then immediately count down back to one, reducing volume incrementally back to mp. Coach the singing until the result is satisfactory. In the example below, students will be more likely to sing the crescendo well; students tend to rush the diminuendo and get to the mp too soon. As an exercise, vary the dynamic parameters and number of beats.


Leaps to High Tones in a Melody
    Leaps to weak or partial beats in the meter should be light expressions. Inexperienced players tend to play high tones with emphasis regardless of where they occur. This is also possible with downward motion.
    In legato passages, use a mild stretch with the air on the tones on the pulse to achieve a light expression on the upper notes.


    For animated passages, use an accent-and-taper articulation.

    Leonard Bernstein referred to syncopation as either an unexpected accent or the lack of an accent when one is expected. This is based on the natural strong and light beats in the prevailing meter.
    When playing in an animated march style, use accent-and-taper articulation on the syncopated tones, marked with an asterisk. Be sure that there is a high contrast of dynamics between the lighter staccato quarter notes on the downbeat and the accented syncopated second beats.

Repeated Tones
    Avoid exact repetition by varying the expressive phrasing of the repeated tones. The following melody has two clear possibilities. When the music has two repeated tones, as in measure seven, use meter as a guide for emphasis. Although the quarter notes are all accented, this does not mean that they are played the same. The style of the piece will help determine which version should be selected.
    This repeated tone motive uses an animated, over-the-bar-line sub-phrase grouping (3-1-2) to avoid exact repetition. In measures two, four, and six, the last tone is light because the line does not resolve.


    This repeated tone motive uses a more flowing, over-the-bar-line sub-phrase grouping (2-3-1) to avoid exact repetition.

Repeated Phrases
    Avoid exact repetition by varying the expressive phrasing of a repeated motive. Use both the meter and the motive’s position in the phrase as a guide.
    This first example has three sub-phrase repetitions. In measure one, the second repeated sub-phrase uses a lighter expression to avoid exact repetition; this is common in three-sub-phrase repetitions within the meter. In measure two, the three repeated sub-phrases use a slight crescendo to avoid exact repetition and progresses well to the cadence.


    This is a two-note sub-phrase repetition with various placement in the prevailing meter. In measures one through three, all the tones are accented but not played exactly the same. The inflection follows the natural placement of the two notes in the prevailing meter in four. In measures three and four, the short notes on the pulse resolve to lighter, longer tones as stated earlier. In measure three the placement is within the meter, while in measure four it is over the meter.

Rests and Upbeat Notation
    When playing tones on the upbeat or partial beats following a rest, the rest should be felt with the same style and character as the following tone.  My famous teacher, Charles Russo once remarked after I had played an accented upbeat following an eighth-note rest, “Jerry, you did not play the rest,” meaning that the tone I had just played had no style or character. 
    Notice that the arrows and dynamics are placed over the rests. The emphasis should be on thinking ahead and using the rests as a means of playing the following tones with style at the indicated dynamic.

Rising Lines That Do Not Resolve
    Rising lines that do not resolve to a strong beat in the meter are usually light expressions, as they leave the listener hanging on a weak or partial beat. In the below example, measures one and two have unresolved rising sub-phrases ending on partial upbeats. The first sub-phrase in measure three ends on a weak beat in the meter, and the second sub-phrase ends on the upbeat of beat four. A slight diminuendo should be applied to all the examples.

Rubato Phrasing: Fermata and Tenuto
    In Italian, fermata means stop and tenuto means hold. The term fermata is quite clear in common usage, but the term tenuto should be indicated with ten. written above the tone. There was a time when a straight line written at the note head would indicate the same instruction, but this marking has since taken on various connotations over the years and is no longer a clear indication.
    In rubato playing, sub-phrase groupings should evolve out of the ebb and flow of the phrase as a whole. The tenuto indicates that the tone should be extended beyond its normal length and usually played with a taper. The length of the extension is determined by the tempo and phrasing appropriate to the style of the piece and historical period. The following melody should be played in the lyrical style of the romantic early twentieth century music.


    The degree to which music should slow down during a rallentando is relative to the tempo that precedes the pending change. Subdividing the pulse is helpful in slowing down at an even pace. Be sure to continue to slow down to the end of the rallentando before continuing on.
    The rising line in measure one below does not resolve, so analysis indicates that a diminuendo is indicated. Coming out of a moderate tempo of a q = 84, avoid suddenly slowing down by pacing the rallentando over all eight eighth notes, using subdivision if needed.


Common Accompaniment Patterns
    Accompaniment configurations should be expressively phrased, as they contribute to ensemble balance by adding stylistic rhythmic activity. Notice that each example has light expressions within the pattern.

Meter in Four Patterns


Meter in Three Patterns

    Imagery must be correct before performance will be, and it is important that this be implemented into rehearsal. Incorporating the above teaching concepts into daily rehearsals will improve your students’ artistic playing and an ensemble’s expressive musical performance.