One of the greatest tools students have gained in the last hundred years or so is recorded music. If we can agree that one aspect of music is that it is a language, and how we phrase the music is our method of communicating that language in our own personal way. I learned how to phrase from hours, days and years of listening to, primarily, recorded music, but also live concerts. This is similar to how babies assimilate their vocabulary, syntax, accent, and grammar in speech, and for musicians it is just as important. As a professor, I am often asked "How do I phrase?" (NB..the easier question to answer is "How should I phrase this?"...that I always have some ideas for) But there is no quick answer to "How do I phrase?" Usually, I liken music to language, and point them to recordings (solo violin showpieces can very effectively demonstrate simple phrasing principles, incidentally) and ask them to only focus on the phrases and how they breathe and live when listening. I don't believe there is a fast way to teach phrasing. I've read some books which break it down in a pseudo-scientific way, but the personal communication aspect of phrasing is inherently gone when a phrasing "method" is employed. I will to admit to some basic ground rules, but the universal theory of phrasing has not entered into my world..yet.
As a result of all this listening I do, I certainly have become aware that sometimes my perception of a phrase when practicing may not necessarily be my own. Often times I have caught myself emulating a style or exact approach to a line. While there is nothing wrong with this per se (especially if the style that you are emulating is particularly great) it can lead to problems when you formulate your own ideas about a piece you are working on, and the phrasing that is influencing you may not suit the needs of your interpretation.
I encountered this while working from the manuscript for Ponce's Sonata Romantica. It is impossible for me to not have Segovia's recording, and a hundred others, rattling around in my head. Again, this is not necessarily bad, but having a clean slate to look at a piece with can be a useful way of learning our own voice on the instrument. The development of the 1st movement provided a challenge to my influences harmonically (due to drastic note differences), and in phrasing (as a result of note differences) and the coda posed questions about how I assumed the movement should finish dynamically, and how a semi-tone alteration changed my perception.
The first case:
Manuscript Source: 1st movement (m.77)
Equivalent measure: Segovia Edition
I could find no harmonic or motivic evidence in the rest of the movement to make a case for one or the other. Dead end. After consideration, I have developed a hypotheses. Remembering that the manuscript version was performed on piano for Segovia when the two met to discuss the piece, I decided to crack my knuckles and fumble through the measures on a piano. At first it sounded similar to a guitar rendering, and then I noticed the dynamics - the sforzando on the chord in the manuscript. After several tries, I managed to make a sforzando, but something still wasn't right. Looking at the Segovia edition, I noticed the piano symbol after the initial chord. Assuming that this is what was missing from the manuscript, I tried it out. For me...mystery solved. On a piano, the sforzando creates a percussive effect and followed by a soft sotto voce ositinato, the figure sounded proper. When performed in this way, the differences between the two were clear, and both were satisfying. The manuscript version on a piano provided interesting contrasts in texture. There were two layers to the figure: the violent percussive effect, followed by a murmuring.
I have not been exactly able to recreate this effect on a guitar. I still am looking for the right sounds, but the dynamic range of the guitar may not allow me to simulate what I heard. If I can't ultimately solve this issue, I probably will use the version from the Segovia edition. What works on piano as a gesture doesn't always work on a guitar as a gesture.
The second case.
Manuscript. 1st movement (mm. 86-88)
Initially, I just couldn't make sense of the manuscript version. It sounded weird to my ears (again, maybe due to my perception of the piece through recordings and teaching) and provided an unsatisfying resolution to the A-flat chord. I enjoyed the manuscript material throughout this section (lots of different notes..check it out) but the lead up to the cadence just didn't sound right. My first instinct was to make a "Frankenstein" version containing what I liked about both:
BUT...when I sat back down, I realized that I was not the creator of this piece, and it must work..the problem is me. I isolated the bass in the manuscript version, and it sounded good. Then I isolated the top part..it sounded good as well. Why not together?
One of the techniques for practice I learned from the great Hubert Kappel is called "rotating focus". I'll discuss this fully in a future blog, but the basis of it is the you have to shift your cognitive perception from one aspect of your playing to another on individual passes through a section of music. I usually use this in a technical manner, but it helps in interpretive issues as well. We all have played a contrapuntal Bach work and focused on the bass, or the top line..but it is not what we immediately think of in a lot of Segovia repertoire. This seems like a very basic technique I'm outlining, but done properly, the results are fascinating. So after another pass at the manuscript version, I balanced the voices evenly, but my mind's eye was on the bass. Perfect...sounded fantastic. It then is a simple matter to balance the voices so the bass bears the focus and the chords "fill time" and enrich the harmony. (Note to students...you can easily achieve this balance by arching the wrist upwards slightly. This serves to weaken the finger stroke while allowing more nail on the thumbstroke. Not the only way to do it...just one of many)
What went wrong initially was where I had perceived the motion in the phrase. After years of hearing the Segovia edition, I had heard the important motion lying in that inner voice, while the bass reinforces the harmony:
The third case.
Manuscript version. 1st movement. (mm. 149-150)
So, in practice, try to challenge your perceptions of a piece. Make sure you are not solely relying on what you've heard before. Explore the phrases and sections, alter your voicings, try new fingerings, and maybe you'll be able to communicate your voice through the music. I once heard the great performer and teacher, David Tanenbaum, refer to this time of his practicing as his favourite: the time in which you can discover your interpretation. This "discovery time" should make up an important part of your practice day and is essential in developing your intimacy with the music.
See you soon.