Graceful Phrasing

digital illustration from photosFrom my privileged perch in the corner of rooms where music is being studied, rehearsed and discussed, I hear all sorts of interesting and enlightening things on the musical topics at hand. Also, plenty of stuff that goes right straight over the top of my pointy head. After all, I’m hanging around with a bunch of scholarly and often exceedingly experienced musicians, and they’re speaking their own language, one that has jargon and concepts far beyond the reach of someone who took five years of childhood piano lessons and a few voice lessons, all without ever actually learning to read music. My poor teachers had no idea how far in over their heads they were in taking me on, but I must assume that most of them figured out my scam of ‘play [or sing] it for me so I can hear how it should be done’ so I could learn it by ear in lieu of figuring out why the notes never seemed to be where they were supposed to be in my fancifully dyslexic internal designs. In any case, I rarely hear musicians talking without getting off course myself a few (million) times along the way.

It’s not all that different, for me, from sitting in on a conversation between those speaking, say, German, Swedish or Norwegian, Spanish, French or Italian: if I already know the theme of the present discussion and a few of the key words, and can suss out the attitudes of the participants to the topic, I may be able to follow the conversation in a vague, generalized way, and nod yes or no on occasion with pseudo-intelligent accuracy. But could I actually participate in the talk? No, don’t make me laugh! Contribute anything meaningful? Not an atom of a chance!

All the same, the musical musings I overhear have a certain advantage as far as I’m concerned, since the discussion of music necessarily entails terminology (not least of all, the Italian words and phrases that are the lingua franca of score study and rehearsals), and to the quickest and clearest way to describe something musical on the fly is often to simply burst into song on the spot.

How one conducts or performs the phrasing in a musical work does a lot to determine not only its flow from beginning to end, but how text, textures, colors, sonorities, melodies and meanings may be enhanced or diminished, heightened or made more subtle. The way one phrases a discussion of music in front of a non-musician can, as I’ve found, affect how much she understands what’s being said, suggested or sung as well. Ultimately, I find that many such opportunities for listening in not only enhance the eventual performance but also my enjoyment of the preparations for it, which can stand alone as entertainment or, who knows, even education.

And if it sounds mellifluous and marvelous along the way, the invitation is almost always accepted, even by this ignorant listener. Just as when I listen to entirely unfamiliar songs and performances and sometimes take quite a while to warm up to them, hearing chatter among real musicians of any level gradually helps me to learn a bit of the way that they approach their work and play and to understand their still-mysterious language. I may not know much, but I know that there’s a lot to learn to like!digital illustration

8 thoughts on “Graceful Phrasing

  1. I love listening to music but the nuts and bolts of it are an entirely foreign language to me. It must be lovely to grasp some of the interactions between musicians and I have no doubt that that adds greatly to the enjoyment of a piece.

    • Immeasurably (if I can be allowed to put it that way)! I like listening even to stuff I can’t understand in the least, but for true delight I prefer the stuff I’ve had explained a little and gotten to know over time.

  2. I love your description of phrasing a discussion of music. I’ve played classical piano since I was 4, and there is playing what is written and then there’s interpretation. And if someone is technically good AND they do wonderful interpretation, then there’s magic!! WONDERFUL images btw! Love them!

  3. Kathryn! Lovely and insightful writing as usual! I follow your blog faithfully and it amazes me the parallel I can draw from the content of your posts to my own life.
    Your descriptions of listening in on musicians’ conversations evoked a memory of a memorable conversation I had with a fellow pianist. It was a discussion of how to best play a three-note-cluster after a hellishly difficult passage leading towards the climax and two earth-shattering glissandi (sometimes the playing was so bad because of the difficulty that the whole passage came out earth-shattering) that were the climax at the end of La Valse. My dear friend said emphatically: “Honey, when you get to these three notes, remember to just whack the crap out of it!” Except she used a far spicier word than “crap”. The suggestion wasn’t terribly elegant, but it was stunningly effective. Therefore, many times, when I have a conversation with a musician, mostly myself, since we pianists are a lonely bunch, it is this phrase—“just whack the hell out of it” that pops into my mind. It serves me quite well in the sort of repertoire that I gravitate towards. Although, it does explain the peculiar effect of my Mozart playing on people–somewhat terrifying…

    Looking forward to your next post.

    • Darling XB! You made me laugh. You also made me miss you! We’re far overdue for a visit. I’ll have a look at the calendar and send some thoughts to you shortly.

      For now, your excellent how-to-play story reminded me in turn of one of my own early piano lesson days (when I was not just amazingly-mediocre as I became later but still actively-terrible!) and one of my teachers suggested this strategy for coping with recital mistakes: make the same mistake again when you get to the repetition, and do it with confidence, so it’ll seem like it was supposed to be there. I’ve probably long since gone far beyond her modest goal of making a mistake sound intentional, into the territory of making it seem there had never been a correct way to play in the first place! :O !!! Pretty sure your *worst* day of playing has always been infinitely better than my *best*. šŸ˜‰


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