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How to Decide on Musical Phrasing and Play Guitar More Beautifully

We all want to play beautifully. We all want to play music that’s flowing and fluid and expressive.

And that’s all well and good. But when we sit down and pick up the guitar, we’re faced with the next question: “So…What do I actually DO?”

Contrary to popular belief, playing a piece a thousand times will not make it beautiful, as if by magic. There is no amount of polishing that can make music anything more than polished. It takes something else.

And to consistently create that special something, we have do more than play the notes in rhythm. We have to do more than not squeak.   We need loftier goals than that.

The #1 Goal of Music: Generate a Feeling

Before nit-picky technique, before theoretical analysis or historical context, there is one primary goal of all music:

Make me feel something. Generate a feeling.

As Victor Hugo said, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”  Victor Hugo

Feelings are for Listeners First

So the goal of music is to create a feeling.  And our goal as a performer (at any level, even beginner) is to create the music that will create that feeling.

We love to see performers enjoying themselves. We love to see passion and heartfelt emotion. But only when we feel it, too.

When we see a performer in the throes of personal emotion without the technique or skills to elicit those emotions in us, we often see them as juvenile, amateur, and/or self-indulgent. We equate it with bad acting.  We roll our eyes.  We secretly want our money back.

Instead, our role as performer is to set the stage for the listener to feel something. If we also feel something, great. If not, well, “them’s the breaks”.

It’s not about us.

“Trust me, Lady….

I have a former teacher who told the story of a woman coming to him after a performance. She cooed, “Oh, I would just love to feel what you’re feeling when you played that!” To which he replied, “Trust me, Lady, you don’t want to feel what I feel up there!”

Which also begs the question: If she didn’t feel the intended emotions, did he do his job?

Either way, the emotions we feel as performers are often different than those felt by listeners. We have a different relationship with the music at that point. We’re focusing on different things.

Now, to brass tacks……

The #1 Goal When Playing Music: Keep It Moving

While the goal of music is to create emotion, our goals as performers are more pragmatic.

And the number one goal is this: Keep it moving.

We have to keep the ball in play. When the action stops, the listener’s attention will drift. Then we have to start over at square one.

As in any good book or movie, there can never be a good place to stop. Each chapter leads to the next. Each scene pulls us into the next. A momentum always compels us forward.

Keep the Flame Alive (by not blowing it out)

If our main goal is to keep things moving, we also have this goal: Don’t do anything that stops the action.

There are a thousand missteps that can “break the thread” and distract listeners.

And part of the musical journey is learning what those are and how to avoid them.   If we stay on the lookout for quagmires and quicksand, we’ll get better at spotting them.

Music Doesn’t Play Itself

If you ever hear someone say that they choose to “let the music speak for itself”, run the other way. This is code for: Bland playing ahead.

Beautiful music is a collaboration between the composer and the performer.

Sometimes, the strength of one can disguise the weakness of the other. But the best musical experiences are an equal collaboration.

Beautiful music is a collaboration between the composer and the performer.

Likewise, a role in a play is a collaboration between the writer and actor. If an actor decides to “let the script speak…”, the performance will fall flat.

This means we have an active part to play. We have to show up and get involved. If we only play the notes and rhythms, it will be equal to an actor just reading the lines.

Sometimes the best choice may be to play in steady time with little variation in volume.  But this should be an intentional decision, not a default.

Yes, we have to play the right notes at the right time. But that’s only a starting place – a foregone conclusion. If not, there would be no difference between Robert De Niro and the local high school drama teacher. And there is.

Small Moments Make Music….

All music (like life itself) is made of many small moments strung together.

The quality of each moment determines the quality of the whole.

…and Decisions Make Moments.

So the only way to play a piece beautifully is to play one moment beautifully. Then another. And the surest way to play one moment beautifully is to make musical decisions.

Each musical moment will have, in part,

  • the rhythm,
  • the tone quality,
  • the volume of each note (dynamics),
  • and the way one note connects to the next (articulation).

We have the power to choose what we do with each of these and other elements. Or we can ignore them and hope for the best. Either way, we’ve made a decision.

Part of maturing as a musician involves learning how to make more effective decisions. Over time, we discover ways to handle common patterns so they communicate as intended.  We find ways to craft each moment to make a stronger whole.

Be a Great Storyteller

One way to increase our chances of playing beautifully is to show up with the intention to play beautifully. (Not only play the notes, but play each note just so. More on this below.)

To do this, we become storytellers of a sort. We explore the piece in our practice.  We discover what moods or emotions the composer intended.

Then, we practice bringing out those emotional elements of the piece.

To be a great storyteller, we can follow the rules of storytellers everywhere…..

Remain Consistent

We would become confused if an actor changed his/her accent in the middle of movie. And likewise, we become confused when musical choices change midway through a piece.

A common example we hear from beginning players is this: slowing down at the hard spots.  When we play an inconsistent rhythm, we break the spell and distract listeners with the technical difficulty.  They’re no longer listening to the music, but instead just hoping everyone gets through it alive.

The same holds true with other elements of the music.

And like the actor above, we can change and morph as we wish.  But only within the limits of the context we’ve created.  The storyline can explain the change in the actor’s accent, and we’ll buy it.  In the same way, we can slow down and speed up the rhythm, but we have to structure it so the listener finds it believable.

Another example of consistency:  If we have a passage with a slur, and later in the piece we encounter the same basic passage but in a different key (or in a different place on the guitar), then we can put the slur in the same place.  This helps listeners recognize that it’s similar material.  With these two passages, we can also phrase them similarly (similar swells or fades, notes connected in similar ways).  This may make the passages more difficult to play, but it will sound better.

Be Congruent (Listeners are Smart)

Also like the actor changing accent midway, we also notice and become distracted by incongruent (“out of character”) choices.

Sometimes a player will set the character of the piece (lively, moody, triumphant, sentimental, etc.).  But then he’ll change to something completely different for a note or a measure. This seems out of character.

Even if the out-of-character spot is lovely on its own, it detracts from the piece as a whole.

Some pieces do have a contrasting middle section (often marked by a change to the minor key, or a change in overall speed, or both). Even here, listeners need to believe that it’s “cut from the same cloth”. It’s a different side of the same character, not a completely different character. The softer side of the brute, or the angsty side of the moper.

Short pieces (under ~5 minutes) will usually have just one emotional core. There’s one mood or character plus perhaps the “other side of the same coin” (a different perspective of the same character).

Food for thought:  What else makes for good storytelling?   How does that apply to music?

How to Play Expressively

So knowing all this, how do we actually play expressively? How do we decide what to do? How do we move beyond just playing notes and start playing music?

#1: Make Decisions (You can always change them later)

One of the best habits we can cultivate is that of making decisions.

Once we decide how loud or soft a note should be, or how one note will connect to the next, we begin listening. And when we listen, we hear more.

When we’re faced with a decision, we get curious. We examine the different options and weigh the pros and cons.

This is where guitar practice becomes a deeper exploration.  It’s far more rewarding than technical work alone.

The decisions themselves matter less than the act of deciding. We can always change our minds later. We can realize some new opportunity in the music and change course. And we will. Our music is ever-evolving, just as we are.

Note: As a bonus, our technique and skills improve much more quickly when faced with the challenges of playing our musical decisions. We elevate beyond technicians and become musicians.

#2: Ask: Does This Keep it Moving, or Drain the Energy?

When making musical decisions, keep our #1 goal in mind.

  • Does this keep the action moving?
  • Does this decision help keep the listener engaged (while remaining consistent and congruent)?
  • Does this decision bring the music to a stop, or propel it forward?

Asking these questions puts us on alert.  At first, we may not know exactly what we’re looking for.  But over time, we notice more and more opportunities to enliven the music.  As the Good Book says, “Seek and ye shall find…”

Warning Sign: If you find yourself wanting to stop at some point when you play the piece, or your mind drifts, you may have found a spot that brings the music to a stop. This is common at section-endings or on long notes. Notice these and rework them so you crave the next note. If you want to stop, so will anyone listening.

How to Practice Playing Musically

As we move toward more expressive playing, our practice will reflect this. At first, we may find it difficult or it may feel foreign. This is natural. In time, making musical decisions and practicing them becomes comfortable and enjoyable.

To communicate our decisions, we’ll need the proper tools.

Practice the Tools of Expressive Playing

In our practice, we hone the tools and techniques we use to play with expression. W speed up our progress (and enjoyment) by focusing on the tools we’ll use in our pieces.

Classical Guitar Technique

Regardless of how well we conceive a piece, and how brilliant the musical decisions, if our hands can’t make it happen, it will fall like a soufflé.

The better our hands work, the more beautifully we can play. Beautiful music requires more than technique, but technique is required. (Otherwise, it becomes a game of, “Look what I can’t do!”)

Many players get stuck in this study and never move past the desire to play cleanly. Of course we all want to play cleanly, but music needs more than cleanliness. (See above for the #1 goal of all music: emotion.)

Dynamics

Dynamics are louds and softs, swells and fades. This is one our main tools in expressive playing.

When we can turn on a dime, when we can swell and fade at will, worlds of expression open.

The more control we have over volume, the more we can do musically. This is one reason the piano rendered the harpsichord obsolete.

In our practice, we can practice playing at different levels of volume. We can practice getting louder and getting quieter. We can practice bringing some notes out (accents). We can practice noticing the volume of each note.

Side-musing: The closer we can emulate human speech, the more emotionally potent music becomes. Music that emulates speech (not just singing) touches us on some deep subconscious level. It makes sense in some primal way.   This may partially explain why Eastern and Western music “feel” so different, depending on our native tongue).

Articulation (i.e. connected vs separated)

While “dynamics” is loud vs. quiet, “articulation” is, in part, short vs. long.

For example, here are 3 different articulations:

  • Each note connects with the next, with no gaps.
  • A split-second of silence separates each note.
  • Each note sustains (rings) while the next plays.

In practice, we can master connecting each note to the next. We can master playing staccato (short and separated). We can learn the 1001 ways to play each note, and become able to choose the right option for each note of our pieces.

Tip:  Unless you have a specific reason to do otherwise, play everything as smooth and connected as possible.

Rhythm

Rhythm is how a pitch exists in time. And just as dynamics and articulation shape a note or chord, so does rhythm.

In the first moments of a piece, we tell the listener the speed of the piece. We set an expectation. Then, we either meet that expectation, or go against it (for better or for worse).

We slow down, we speed up. We place certain notes before or after the expected beat. We wait a split-second long to play a note, or we come in early.

Rhythm can be every bit as much an expressive device as dynamics or articulation.

But all rhythmic expression depends on our ability to keep steady time. To begin with, we must be able to play with steady time.  Otherwise, our attempts at rhythmic wizardry will come out disorganized, confusing, or as parody.

So in our practice, one of our jobs is to ingrain steady time, for which we can use a metronome.

Progress, Not Perfection (It’s a Lifetime Journey)

This stuff takes forever. Literally.

The best musicians on every instrument are still pushing their boundaries. Each day they stretch their understanding and ability to make musical decisions.  And they train the skills needed to communicate those decisions. This is what being a musician is about.

In each practice session, we can get a little better at technique, dynamics, rhythm, and the rest.

We can make new decisions and work on mastering the decisions we made yesterday. We can try new things. We can build new habits.

Like a dog with a bone, the point is to chew on it. Not to finish it.

 

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4 Responses to How to Decide on Musical Phrasing and Play Guitar More Beautifully

  1. Erin August 15, 2017 at 3:49 am #

    Lovely article, Allen! You keep my mind thinking… while I have very little time to practice these days with 3 children. It’s good to have something keep me going. And it’s also great that this applies to all music, not just guitar. For now, I’ll keep reading and one day, get back to playing 😉 Cheers!

    • Allen August 15, 2017 at 8:08 am #

      Thanks, Erin,
      Great point!
      All the best,
      Allen

  2. John Williams August 13, 2017 at 1:38 pm #

    Very informative and very logical. I am learning that to be patient with myself because there are times when I would rush to finish a book. Only to find that I have to go back and rehearse techniques I should have learned before(if that makes any sense). Thanks for the knowledge and keep it coming.

    • Allen August 14, 2017 at 4:39 pm #

      Thanks, John!
      Best of luck with everything,
      Cheers,
      Allen

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