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Guitarists, pianists and percussionists have the luxury (or is it a curse?) of not having to provide wind for our instruments. Vocalists, woodwind and brass players spend years developing their stamina and breath control while most other instruments don't have to consider this particular problem at all. Unfortunately, as these musicians build these skills, they also (either actively or subconsciously) build their ability to shape phrases.

You can liken a musical phrase to the sort of phrases (or sentences) you encounter in the English language. Phrases can stand alone: "He went to the store", be terse and brief "Go home!", or awkward and/or incorrect "How old that dog is?"

Generally, we subconsciously shape our phrases as we speak, and most people are masters of this. We usually automatically raise the pitch of our voice near the end of a phrase to ask a question "What did he think he was doing?", if we are agitated we may phrase in short staccato bursts "Please ... do ... not ... do ... that ... again!" We are such masters of phrasing and interpreting phrasing that we can often infer subtle meanings from phrasing (the use of sarcasm), and we can even sometimes guess what was said by listening to the way it was said even if don't hear the words or if it was spoken in a different language.

Here are some thoughts/exercises:
  1. Play many solos focused not on licks or scales or even "right notes" - try to project every emotion you can think of. You would likely speak differently if you were happy or sad or angry or afraid, and this would be reflected in the words you choose as well as the speed at which you say them and the inflection of the words. Be angry, and let your phrasing reflect that. Be heartbroken, and reflect that too. Imagine how you would need to play so that a listener 3 weeks from now would hear a recording and say (wow! he was sure upset when he recorded that".

  2. Sing out loud to yourself while you play, and play what it is that you are singing. I recommend writing your own lyrics on the spot. This will force you to pause as you breathe, and follow a natural sort of phrasing (likely based on your emotional state). Don't worry about feeling foolish as you do it.

  3. Play melodies or solos that you already know differently. What would happen if the first notes were all a lot slower then usual? What if you put pauses here and there?
Phrasing therefore can greatly impact or subtly shade our verbal statements. We should endeavor to bring the same details and skills to our playing language. This is a non genre-specific skill; it does not matter if your focus is rock, blues, jazz or polka. This is a non-technical skill; it does not need to be practiced in all 12 keys or with the diminished whole-tone scale.

Jeremy Cotton is a professional educator and performer in the Cincinnati area.