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The Art of Inflection

Patricia George | October 2013

Learning to play musically is similar to learning to speak. Babies listen for many months before uttering their first words. Then they practice speaking the babbling syllables over and over, while refining the inflection to form words until they can be understood by all. 

    The same process applies to learning music. Often those who naturally have strong listening skills progress through their studies quickly and become outstanding musical players. However, less talented students usually are taught the notes first and then add musicianship later. This process meets with limited success because students do not have the aural or intellectual background to understand the reasons for changes in dynamics, articulation and tempo that lead to a musical performance. It is much better to teach the art of inflection from the beginning lessons. 

Square Note
    Before teachers can work on inflection, they should teach students to develop a core sound that will become a baseline for future experiments. Using a tuner, have a student play one note (Bb5) blowing the air at an even rate so the needle on the tuner is still. At this point, the only concern is to keep the needle straight, not whether the note is flat or sharp. Students should demonstrate good body alignment with the head balanced on the spine, the shoulders aligned over the hips, and, if standing, the hips aligned with the ankles. The arms and the jaw should be hung to keep any tension from building in the body. The note may be started with the HAH or the T syllable. Often the HAH syllable is a better choice for this exercise because the beginning of the note will not be as sharp as it is with the T. Once the Bb5 is well-produced, ascend up the one-octave scale in whole notes at MM=60. The goal is to begin each note cleanly while keeping the tuner needle still.
    Describe the shape of this note to students as a square. It is the same dynamic from beginning to middle to end. Square shaped notes are played most often. When flutists play scales, the objective is to have a square-shaped note for each pitch. 

Triangular Shaped Notes
    Flutists often change the shape on longer notes, notes before a breath, and those at the end of the phrase. The shape of these notes is usually a triangle. A triangular-shaped note starts as a square note but then diminuendos or tapers toward the end. Francesco Saverio Geminiani (1687-1762) was one of the first composers to describe how a player should shape a note. His treatise, The Art of Playing the Violin (1751), used lines for straight or what I call square notes and wedges for notes where the player either made a crescendo or diminuendo. Geminiani’s orchestral work, Enchanted Forest, includes wedges above notes of longer value. I have often thought that if you took the shading away from Geminiani’s wedges, you would have the modern day crescendo and diminuendo

Football Shaped Notes
    In the Bel Canto school of voice technique, the messa di voce was used extensively. The messa di voce today is referred to as making football-shaped notes and is executed as the hairpin markings sometimes seen on a note of longer value. In vocal technique the singer made a crescendo and then a diminuendo on a whole note. Football-shaped notes are generally not considered a good choice for modern wind players. 

Strength of the Beat
    The principle of the strength of the beat was used extensively in the Baroque and Classic eras. Since most movements were based on dance forms, it was important for the dancers to know where the stress or inflection was so they would know when to move their feet. Many other composers of later periods also use the strength of the beat principle.  
Look at the example below. In this measure there are two quarter notes. Following the strength of the beat rule, the one on the first beat would be played stronger than the one on the fourth beat. 
The following example also illustrates this rule. 
Notice that the first two notes begin on the first beat and the second group of two notes begins on the + of beat three. A good musician would play the first group of notes louder than the second because of the strength of the beat rule. 
    As a second consideration, notice that both figures include two notes. Generally since the time of the Baroque, whenever two notes are to be played together, the second note is softer than the first. If these two notes are slurred together, this gesture is known as a sigh figure. This gesture began early in the history of music as composers employed text painting as a compositional tool. The two notes were set to words like Lov-ing, Dy-ing, Cry-ing, etc. where the emphasis is on the first syllable of the word. Sometimes the note after the pickup was a chord tone while at other times it could be an appoggiatura or suspension. Composers often added a trill to this note for added emphasis.
    In the Baroque period this gesture was often preceded by a pick-up note. During Mozart’s time, this gesture was called the Mannheim sigh because the Stamitz family as well as Mozart used this gesture while working in Mannheim, Germany. The pick-up note is played softer than the first of the two-note gesture. I teach this figure by saying, “Lift, strong, weak.” The legendary flute pedagogue Marcel Moyse taught this inflection by using the common phrase “I love you.” You can say these three words in three ways: I love you, I love you, and I love you? When playing a Mannheim sigh gesture, the correct version is I love you. 
    This next gesture is the basis for the William Kincaid/Marcel Tabuteau phrasing technique that was taught at the Curtis Institute in the mid-1900s and passed on through Kincaid’s legacy of outstanding students.
    Since the first beat of four sixteenth-notes proceeds a rest, this gesture would be played with a decay or diminuendo from the first sixteenth. The second grouping of four sixteenth-notes crescendos from the first sixteenth to the last sixteenth which lands on a beat. This first gesture is a perfect example of coming away from the beat while the second gesture is a perfect example of going to the beat.  
    The next example illustrates the principle of the dactyl and the anapest used in poetic meter. The dactyl is a long syllable followed by two short syllables and the anapest is the opposite (short, short, long). 
    However in music we inflect the dactyl like poetry but the anapest we do the opposite by giving the strongest inflection on the first sixteenth-note. In music the eighth-note is played half value and a rest or articulatory silence is inserted where the second half of the eighth note would be. How long the articulatory silence is depends on the tempo of the passage. In faster passages the silence is longer than in slow passages.  
    The last example is concerned with the rule of the dot. If the passage is articulated, the dot is played as an articulatory silence. If the two-note gesture is slurred, the player decays or diminuendos to the time of the dot. The note after the dot is played softer than the first note. 
    Learning to play these gestures with dynamic inflection takes practice. To teach these concepts Mark Ostoich, the oboe professor at Cincinnati Conservatory, begins by having his students play scales tonguing four quarter notes to each pitch using the strength of the beat rule. This means in 4/4 meter, the first beat is strong, the third beat is less strong, and beats two and four are weak and weaker. Once they are successful with this, he asks them to add in eighth notes after each numbered beat. Of course, the eighth-notes are all played less following the hierarchy of the strength of the beat rule. 
    Flutists often have trouble counting the numbers in their heads while playing and often think that counting is feeling the pulse as it goes by. Counting is counting. Using a metronome with a voice setting will provide aural stimulation to help you learn to count in your head. Nadia Boulanger said it best when she said, “To live you have to count. One who counts best lives best.” Once these simple rules have been mastered, the music performed becomes much more engaging and interesting.