Using a text to understand phrases and rhetorical aspects in music

In order to achieve clear articulation and various kinds of intensities within a phrase, it is helpful to find a text for musical motives.

One of the particular qualities of speech is that the words never stretch the intensity until the very end of each syllable, and the meaning is built through a longer context between the words. The same happens in music: the context of single notes is building a phrase which rises to a peak before relaxing again, although this does not necessarily happen continuously on each note.

Finding a suitable text and then singing (or at least speaking) it can serve as a great tool for experiencing the natural flow within a phrase.

As soon as the students try to follow the text on their instruments, the understanding of the phrase becomes more obvious, and less theoretical explanation is required by the teacher.

Conducting can improve sound, phrasing and clear musical gestures (strings)

The ability to shape natural phrases and make clear musical gestures requires natural and very relaxed breathing to enable musical excitement and relaxation. A high energy level and intensity during a performance are essential to making a convincing musical statement.

In other words: it needs the involvement of the whole body, not just the brain.

A good conductor motivates the orchestra and initiates the right pulse with clear gestures and body language.

To stimulate these qualities in our students, we could motivate them to breathe on upbeats and lift their arms while conducting in the same way they should feel when playing their instruments. Especially with strings, the similarity in the use of the bow and the use of a baton is obvious. The upbeat (upbow) prepares for the initial start of the bar where the most energy is necessary, and the side motion(s) in conducting means a relaxation in the bow until the upbeat again connects to the new first beat with different intensities within a longer phrase.


Burzik's studies relating to the lack of effort in musical performance refer to Paul Rolland's experience in the early 1970's. The violinist and educator of Hungarian origin emphasised the need to counter the "rigor mortis" so widespread among instrumentalists in favour of a naturalness of movement whose base resides in the kinaesthesia where this term indicated the perception of self.

If we want to imagine a synthetic "list" of "experiences" that an ensemble should be able to assume as a study activity, at least four points should be listed:

  1. Singing and moving

    An ensemble sings the work to be studied, moving in time and making movements with the arms outstretched to lengthen the muscles and internalise the rhythm. (exemplification taken from Havas, Katò, "A new approach", Kato Havas and Lakeland Home music, 1991).

  2. Dancing

    Activities carried out by Steven Player, the well-known choreographer and dancer, during the 2016 and 2017 ECMA-sessions held at the Music School of Fiesole, led the members of the ensembles on to an extraordinary path, through the practice of some of the most important baroque dances. This led to a greater awareness and perception of their bodies. These perceptions made them physically more effective; embodying the rhythmic pulsation made them more logical and spontaneous and coordinated with the sound.

  3. Body percussion experience

    Body percussion is used extensively in music education, because of its accessibility: the human body is the original musical instrument and the only instrument that every student possesses. Using the body in this manner gives students a direct experience of musical elements such as beat, rhythm, and metre and helps a student internalise rhythmic skills.

  4. Theatrical improvisation exercises

    Each member of the group imagines being a wax statue, and in turn the teammates make him assume a different position and then exchange roles. Again, all the members of the group pass an imaginary ball, changing direction abruptly and increasing the speed to develop their reflexes, their ability to listen, and their perception of the intentions of the partner.

Reading, understanding and realising the score

Exercises on the score

  1. Listening actively to the music as a whole whilst playing is a key skill that students must learn. They must be able to “hear the score” while playing. Stopping to consult the score to see what the others are playing is a sign of poor listening skills. Swapping parts in selected passages may help with perception. This is a highly effective exercise that rejuvenates the interaction between the performers and helps them see the bigger picture.

  2. Playing straight from the score can give the performers an instant idea of all the different parts. Always having the score, and therefore also the complete music, in front of you has obvious advantages in that it speeds up the teaching and learning process and makes it more effective.

  3. Carefully analysing the score is without doubt the best way of preparing a work. During the first lesson with a new group the teacher should introduce them to the “analytical tools”. They must be given an introduction on how to annotate phrase lengths, chord symbols (function) and degree of exposure (first/second parts) in the score. Everyone should have their own score. A rudimentary analysis of the score should be set as homework, and before the second lesson the teacher should check the students’ analyses. The students play from their respective parts during the chamber music lesson but should have the full score “in their heads” and keep it to hand.

  4. It is highly recommended to discuss the interpretation of the score together. Time should be set aside for this on a regular basis. Fundamental stylistic elements such as melodic/harmonic (rhetorical) figures, articulation, tempo, dynamics and musical terms (usually Italian) that describe the musical expression should be reviewed. The teacher should ask trigger questions and stimulate the students’ collective imagination: What was the composer’s intention behind this notation? How are the phrases structured; what about the instrumentation? What kind of character can you glean from the score? Which tonal qualities do you feel could realise the nature of the music?

Connecting to the dramatic aspect of performing chamber music

When a student chamber music group is confronted with a complex work they often struggle to find a way to perform it convincingly. By the time they have managed to find a way of playing it at a technically acceptable level and with reasonably good ensemble they quite often run out of ideas in terms of how to bring the music to life. Even with their best effort and very good coaching they can still sound mechanical and uninteresting and find it hard to take their performance to the next level.

If this happens, it can be very helpful to draw a parallel to what actors need to do when they are tasked with interpreting a text. They are challenged with a string of words that could in fact mean quite different things depending on how they are read out loud. Actors need to understand the deepest content of the story and find a way to deliver it convincingly to the audience. They are finely tuned into their co-actors’ every move and need to be totally flexible and spontaneous in case one of their team does something unexpected.

We musicians have a musical text in front of us; a row of notes that can evoke quite different emotions depending on how they are interpreted. The description above might just as well be about musicians as about actors. Our challenge is in fact very much the same. We need to bring our musical text to life and find a way to interpret it; to translate the story hidden in the music in such a way that it evokes feelings in the listener and touches them in a palpable way. This is of course more abstract than speaking actual words, which makes it all the more challenging. Therefore, it can be very helpful when the student is having trouble finding a way to play a theme convincingly to get them to think about the music in terms of a theatrical play. What sort of a character would the first theme be? What emotion(s) would they associate with this character, and what does this character experience as they develop through the piece. If the second theme were a character, who would they be and how would they relate to the first theme? And so on...

Embodying the music

Feeling the pulse and the rhythm physically in the body can be very helpful when facing rhythmic challenges. It is quite easy to play correctly with the metronome, but it is much more difficult to find the agogic swing in the music as a group.

Ask the students to put their instruments down, stand up and link arms. Get them to walk this way in the pulse of the music and either say the rhythms or sing their parts. This will help them find a common general pulse and give them a deeper understanding of the complexity of their rhythms.

They can of course do more or less the same by clapping their hands and saying the rhythms, but linking arms and physically moving together gives them a deeper understanding of how to actually breathe and play completely in synch with each other. Physically moving with the natural flow of the music with linked arms puts the music in our bodies and helps us feel it together; ensemble will be easier and more natural.


Performers of classical music are, in a way, squeezed into the framework of musical text, i.e. they have to perform precisely and qualitatively the material expressed in notes. As a result, the line between text performance and creativity becomes very blurred. If one concentrates only on the quality performance of the written material, there is a danger of losing touch with space, time and ensemble colleagues. One very valuable method that helps liberate the hearing, sensitivity and creativity of ensemble members is improvisation. Qualified teachers who have developed their own methodology should conduct such improvisation sessions. It would be highly useful if an ensemble attends at least one or two improvisation lessons during a semester. However, simple improvisation exercises can be performed during a chamber ensemble or string quartet lesson or rehearsal. Exercises can be created both by the ensemble coaches and the members of each group.

Suggested exercises

  1. Following a discussion on mood, sound quality, sound range and tempo development, an ensemble improvises by playing a single note for 2 minutes (e.g. in the tonic of the key). The timbre, length, attack, pitch and dynamics of the note should be selected in relation to ensemble partners. Such an improvisation exercise must embrace the beginning, elaboration, climax and ending. This exercise helps to develop hearing sensitivity to the sound of ensemble colleagues and to enhance reaction and the feeling of time.
  2. This exercise is intended to develop the feeling of ensemble pulse and is played from sheet music using improvisation methods. A piece can be started either by all ensemble members or just one of them with the others joining in gradually, as they see fit. At the beginning of the exercise, not all notes are played; just one note per bar or per two bars is played and then held. The main point of this exercise is to feel the general pulse of a piece. Even though not all notes are played, the tempo and time should flow at “normal” pace. Gradually, more and more notes are added until a piece regains its original form. During this exercise, it becomes obvious who tends to hurry and who is inclined to slow the pace. Often, after several bars it is possible to hear that the pulse of ensemble members is different, and by adding more and more notes it turns out that ensemble members get lost in time completely.