How to phrase: build in pauses

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As cello students, we have to learn how to hit our notes in the middle, wham, right in tune first time. Add the carefully planned shifts with their pre-shift preparations and post-shift accents or lack of accents. Each shift is as carefully planned as a military maneuver.

Contrast this with melodies in the pop world or, better, the jazz world. I say better because jazz has a richer vocabulary and tradition regarding the melody (plus a lot of great melodies). Not dissing rock or pop for melody, but it’s not as rich. So lets look at jazz melody phrasing.

I have heard and read many guitarists say that they model their phrasing, take their inspiration for phrasing, from sax players. The sax is, of course, a great melody instrument and the list of famous sax players is long. The thing about a sax is you have to breathe (no circular breathing as far as I know, a la didgeridoo players!). You play a phrase, then you breathe. There are no notes being played while you breathe! So it’s like a wave form or something, with ons and offs. The listener hears notes, then silence while the saxophonist (or trumpeter, or flutist, or, or…) breathes, then sounds, then silence. Many guitarists adopt the same kind of approach. Anyone who has ever listened to music (seems funny just to write that) is just accustomed to this type of musical expression – play/breathe/play/breathe. There are many exceptions of course, but when we’re talking melody, and not a rave up or a rock out or a fusion barrage, it’s often like this.

What is not like this is when a large orchestra or a large vocal group is performing. Typically you do not get that kind of music/silence/music/silence pattern. There are so many musicians, and usually the sound is filled up. I’m not  talking about playing loud/soft, obviously, that’s normal. I’m talking about play/stop/play/stop. And that’s a major difference between two types of musical expression.

Now, I’ve also heard that sax players take their inspiration from singers, how their favorite singers phrase a melody. The gold standard for singer’s phrasing can arguably be summed up with two names: Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra. Man, those guys can spin a phrase. These two, and of course a plethora of other great jazz and pop singers, they all had to breathe. And the great American songbook, plus all those great Broadway show tunes, all those terrific tunes written by terrific songwriters, not to speak of the blues, they all acknowledged that singers have to breathe. So the songs were often written that way: sung phrases followed by pauses in the vocal line while the accompaniment, whatever it was, would comp along musically as if it were the most natural thing in the world. The singer gets to breathe, rest a little, get ready for the next line in the verse or chorus.

So, you the cellist, when you’re playing melodies in a pop vein, or a jazz vein, or a rock vein, or a folk vein, etc, you have a different set of physical attributes: you don’t have to breathe musically. A bowed instrument can keep tones going forever, or at least until you drop of exhaustion or the audience has gone home. (There’s a video somewhere where Gregor Piatigorsky is holding a master class, and he talks about the bow in terms of a hula hoop, meaning there’s no end, just a continuous sound.) Classical cello sonatas and suites and trios and quartets and all the repertoire that we grew up on and studied and played over and over, none of that is written to acknowledge a singer’s need to breathe. We developed, hopefully, a beautiful tone and a relaxed bow arm, with minimal crunch on the bow change from down to up or up to down. We can play for minutes at a time w/o the need to stop and rest.

But the question is: should we go on and on and never build in a pause? The answer is pretty much no. If you’re playing in a rock band and get a solo or a chance to stretch out, you should consider phrasing that builds in points in your solo where you stop and “breathe”. Use that moment to literally breathe and collect yourself, get your bow arm ready for the next dramatic entrance. This also gives you the chance to show off a little, move a little, make your movements bigger than they have to be. I can tell you based on my experience that audiences like it when the cellist is obviously enjoying music, moving with the beat, showing emotion in your face, all that. If you sit and behave yourself like you’re in the middle of the cello section of a large orchestra, no one will notice you.

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