I spent much of my early career being confused by the term ‘phrasing’ and it’s inconsistent application. What does it mean for the pianist? Well, it can actually mean three different things:
Whether a phrase is legato (joined together and smooth) or staccato (short and detached) or a combination of both.
Creating a ‘breath’ between musical sentences or phrases.
Dynamics can be considered phrasing in that they can ‘shape the phrase’ by making it louder or softer.
There are several confusing things for the less experienced pianist:
Melodies that combine staccato and legato.
Melodies that have phrasing marks above and yet staccato notes underneath (indicating the musical sentence but detail within).
Phrases with staccato marks that also include the use of the sustain pedal (often meaning that the notes should have a ‘light’ effect.
Different contacts that require different degrees of staccato, effecting the shortness of the notes.
For really expressive playing, more dynamics are generally required than are written on the score. Even a phrase or section marked f will not necessarily be entirely loud. It’s the gradation of tone that makes for expression.
This is a completely different kettle-of-fish! Many people believe that because they can play the piano they can immediately play the organ, but there’s even more subtlety to the ‘touch’.
Legato touch can still apply, but pure legato is used less often.
The ‘normal’ touch, termed ‘detaché’ actually requires a very slight articulation or ‘consonant’ to every note. I teach it as trying to achieve legato with one finger.
Staccato can still apply, but, as for the piano, there can be degrees of staccato.
Larger ‘breaths’ can be required between phrases.
An organ naturally sustains sound, whereas on the piano the sound naturally fades. The organist’s most significant challenge is to create the ‘air’ or ‘light’ between notes whereas the pianist’s main challenge is to make phrases ‘sing’ by joining them together. As for the piano, nothing is ever so simple!
A good organist performance includes a wide variety of detaché with smaller and larger ‘gaps’ between notes. The challenge then is not to alter the pulse whilst changing the degree of articulation.
In French romantic works is not uncommon to deliberately slightly overlap notes when playing legato to create a really luscious, smooth effect.
As for the pianist, there can be different degrees of staccato.
Articulation becomes the main form of expression because playing a note harder or softer makes no difference on the organ.
The consideration as to whether or not ends of phrases should demand a slight extra amount of time to showcase the musical sentence can spark a significant debate depending on the piece, era and nationality of the work.
The Singer’s Phrasing
The singer has much more options for expression. Many are in common with keyboard instruments, but there’s so much more.
Detaching notes using staccato and legato are common placed.
Where to take a breath can spark debate. I was brought up with the concept that if you had to take a breath in a long phrase that you were not as good a singer and breath management is important, but I truly believe that the quality of the music should come first and thus a well-placed breath can make a huge difference to the performance.
Tone colour can have significant variety. It can include elements of ‘chest’, ‘head’, ‘nasal’ or singers can ‘sing into the mask’, or create a feeling of ‘warmth’ or other emotions. The range is endless.
Long notes don’t have to fade as on the piano, or stay the same as on the organ. They can crescendo, diminuendo, or a combination of both and they can change at a steady or sudden rate. These latter techniques can create significant levels of expression.
Vibrato is another way to create detail within a note, usually longer or particularly at the end of phrases. Vibrato can be fast or slow and can change speed. It is very common for pop vocalists to use ‘delayed vibrato’, starting with a smooth note and then adding slight fluctuations.
The movement between pitches is very different to the organ and piano because it is possible to have very slight glissandi or very significant slides rather than treating notes as blocks. It is very easy for pianists and organists to still sing ‘blocks’ because that is the way that they play.
Phrasing can also involve singing before or after the beat. This is less common in keyboard playing. ‘Backphrasing’ for instance, is a very common Jazz singers technique that requires the band to maintain an extremely rigid beat as the singer moves slightly out of sync with it to gain another level of expression.
So, the next time you are asked about ‘phrasing’ or ‘expression’ be prepared to open a huge debate! Have you got ideas to add to my list?!
Dr Robin Harrison PhD BMus(Hons)/GradRNCM FNCM ARCO LTCL DipLCM PGCE(QTS) MISM is an experienced holistic piano, organ and vocal/singing teacher in all styles (pop, classical, musical theatre and jazz) and is a particular expert in pedagogy at all levels, from beginner through to advanced diploma.
He currently has an offer on for 30 minute lessons: Buy4Get1stFree