phrasing musical unity classical guitar
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More Flow in Your Pieces, Using the Concept of Unity

At first, it’s hard enough just to play the notes of a piece.

Once we have the spare mental bandwidth to think about phrasing and expression, we are faced with new musical decisions. How we make these decisions depends on the tools and experience we have available.

One tool we can use to decide on how to play our pieces has to do with the concept of “unity”.

A Piece of Music is a Mini-Reality

Like story-telling of any kind, our job is to create a “mini-reality” for our listeners. We do this through the music we choose to play, and how we choose to play each note.

As with any story, we create a set of rules that govern the story and create the “world”.

For instance, a Bach prelude has a certain “feel” and sound that lasts throughout. And while there may be surprises in the harmony (chords) or melody, those surprises will be believable given the context of the piece. There will nothing so different that it breaks the fabric of the piece’s reality (such as a cha-cha-cha section or ragtime interlude).

Another piece may wildly shift styles, feels and sounds. Once established, this becomes the mini-reality. Further surprises are now expected and welcomed.

Make Your Listeners Feel at Home

One of our goals as performers (of any level) is to give listeners a positive experience. We want them to enjoy what we play.

And for listeners to feel safe, they need to trust us. They need to feel that we know what we’re doing. They need to immediately sense that we are under control, and have their best interests at heart.

With trust, they can suspend judgement, relax, and more fully immerse in the musical “story”.

Note: Some music is challenging or demanding to listen to. Many 20th-century and modern pieces fall into this category. Pieces like this require that we fully understand the music, so we can then communicate successfully to listeners.

Create Music that Communicates, by Limiting Ideas

One of the ways we can help listeners to understand and enjoy the music is to limit the ideas we at one time.

Musical ideas are the choices we make about every aspect of how we play each note and phrase. More on these below.

This is akin to the classic notion of “less is more”.

If we draw similarities between phrases, the listener will recognize familiar material and feel more at ease. And by recognizing the similarities, they can better appreciate the differences.

Like a character in a play

As an analogy, we can use the idea of a character in a play.

A character has one vocal accent. He walks a certain way. He uses predictable speech patterns. He acts in predictable ways, given what we know about him.

If the character we have seen hunched and slow suddenly appears upright and agile, we may not even recognize him as the same character. This confuses us and we miss part of the story.

Likewise, we can sculpt a piece of music around familiar themes and tendencies. This allows listeners to better track the flow of the piece.

But how do we actually do this?…..

Unity: Phrase Like Material Similarly

One of the ways we can create unity (connectedness) in our music is to phrase like material in similar ways.

“Like material” is phrases or sections that share common traits. They are similar in some way.

Composers use patterns throughout a piece of music. These patterns could use rhythm, notes, harmony (chords) or a number of other characteristics. They then change them slightly through out the piece, or use them in different ways.

When we find these (by looking for them), we can make global decisions about how we’ll play them each time they arise.

In Capricho Arabe, we have a repeating bass pattern. Each repetition can be be treated similarly.

Some of the common elements we can notice and connect are:

Rhythm

Using accents, rubato (speeding up and slowing down), and note placement, we can treat like material similarly.

Dynamics

We can shape our phrases with consistency using dynamics. For instance, most of the time we can get quieter when a melody goes up in pitch, and louder as it falls. We can make repeated notes get louder. Or we can use any other desired pattern globally throughout the piece.

Articulation

Slurs, staccato (short, clipped notes), legato (smooth and connected) can all be used to draw connections between similar phrases or sections.

Tone

We can use our tone quality to create sounds that act as “voices” for the phrases in our music. Similar phrases can share similar tone.

Fingering

How we finger our music can connect or separate the material. For instance, consider a pattern of notes that repeats several times. If string crossings or slurs are inconsistent, the pattern will be less fluid and distinctive. We can create more unity between them musical ideas by choosing fingerings that work across all repetitions.

Note on fingerings: Many editors of guitar music choose fingerings based on ease of playing or convenience (especially regarding open strings and slurs). This is nice for the hands, but often doesn’t sound as good as fingerings chosen for musical reasons. These can also obscure the musical ideas within the piece, because we may not recognize the similarities between phrases.

Practice Like Material Together

To put musical unity into effect, it helps to practice like material together.

If an idea repeats throughout the piece, we can play the similar parts back to back.

Practicing them together will crystallize the similarities in our minds. And it will help us treat them alike.

Start Here, But Stay Open to Other Options

As with any musical “rule”, this idea of unity does not work for all occasions. Unity is a musical device or tool we can use to better understand our music.

We will not always choose to phrase like material exactly the same. Still, recognizing the similarities and practicing them together will help us to better communicate the music to listeners.

Phrasing like material similarly works enough of the time to make it a great starting place and default method in our practice. We can make this the rule, with full awareness that there will be exceptions.

Stay Alert and Intentional

The most important element in phrasing is intentionality. The more aware and intentional we are with each note, the more convincingly we’ll be able to communicate it to listeners.

By looking for phrases that are similar, we can better understand our music. This helps us to speed learning and improve memorization.

And as we find more places in our music that demand musical decisions (i.e. “How will I play this?”), we explore music more deeply, and learn to listen more attentively.More Flow in Your Pieces, Using the Concept of Unity

allen mathews classical guitar

About Allen Mathews

Allen Mathews learned guitar as an adult, and has been a full-time guitar teacher for almost two decades to students age 4 to 96.  He has taught classical guitar at Reed College and Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and has been a guest lecturer and clinician at schools and universities throughout the U.S.  Allen is often praised for his creative teaching abilities, and his dedication to helping adults learn classical guitar.  He has a popular Youtube Channel offering regular classical guitar tutorials, and has gained fans worldwide for his weekly emails and articles at ClassicalGuitarShed.com.





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