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Phrasing Made Simple
New: La Simpleza del Fraseo en Espanol
Phrasing music in a natural way does not have to be mysterious or complicated. In order to play music as if you are speaking your mother tongue, you must first know when the musical “words,” “phrases,” “sentences,” or “voice” (a.k.a. “musical event”) begin and end.
I. How to tell where a “musical event” begins and ends
A. Look for space
1. Space in time (rhythm)
2. Space in pitch (leap of a third or more, depending on the predominant interval of the passage)
B. Look for change in direction
1. Notes traveling up (usually step-wise, but may also be arpeggiation)
2. Notes traveling down (usually step-wise, but may also be arpeggiation)
3. “Terrace” motion
C. Two notes of the same pitch (in a melody)
1. The first note is the end of the old “event”
2. The second note is the first note of the new “event.”
D. What not to look for – the beginning and end of musical events usually do not occur at:
1. Bar lines
2. The beginning of beams (8th notes, 16th notes, etc.)
3. Beams and bar lines show the rhythmic groupings of beats and measures, not the phrasing!
II. How to show the beginning of a new “musical event.”
A. Most common musical means
1. Delay the first note (last note of previous “event” held longer)
2. Pause before the first note (silence between last note of previous “event” and first note of new “event”)
3. Accent the first note of the new “event”
4. May use any one or more of the above
5. Almost always, must be done very subtly
B. Other musical means to show the beginning of a new “event.”
1. Dynamic change
2. Articulation change
3. May use one or both of the above
C. Technical means to show the beginning of a new “event.”
1. Shift (often, Simandl-Plus accomplishes this)
2. Change string
3. Change bow direction (or a “hooked” bow)
4. May use any one or more of the above
III. What to do musically with the body of the “event”
A. Direction of notes
1. If notes go up, get louder
2. If notes go down, get softer
a. On the double bass, acoustics may do this automatically
b. Might even have to compensate in just the opposite way, especially if the notes get low
B. Three functions of notes
1. Going to something
2. Coming from something
3. Is the something (the “goal”)
a. Often, the goal note is on a strong (stable) beat, and/or a non-harmonic tone, especially appoggiaturas.
C. What to do with the three functions
1. If they are going to something, get louder
2. If they are coming from something, get softer
3. If it is the goal, play it the loudest
4. If possible, arrange the bowing so that you use an up-bow for notes going to something, and a down-bow for notes coning from something.
D. Conveniently, the direction of notes will often coincide with the function of the notes.
1. When notes go up, they are usually going to something - you should get louder.
2. When notes go down, they are usually coming from something - you should get softer.
Improving Your Sightreading
Whether in a rehearsal, a performance, or an audition situation, almost all musicians want to improve their sightreading skills - and rightly so!
Most everyone has heard the old advice of checking: the key signature, the time signature (meter) and the tempo marking. That's fine, but let's take a closer look at each one, and even add some other things to look for.
First off, for the key and time signatures, and tempo markings, in addition to committing to memory the markings at the beginning of the work, take note of the changes that occur in the piece. The changes of these parameters is often what goofs players up.
So for key signatures, look at the key signature at the beginning, but also look for the changes in key. Determine whether the key (or keys) is in major or minor.
Now, here's the best part: look for the tritone in the key. A tritone is an interval of three whole steps. In the major mode, it is the interval between the 4th and the 7th degrees of the scale. In natural minor, it is the interval beween the 2nd and the 6th degrees in the scale
So how do you find the tritone? Just look at the last accidental in the key signature -that's one note in the tritone. Next, imagine what the next flat or sharp would be if the key signature had one more accidental. That note in its "natural" version (without the imaginary flat or sharp) is the other note of the tritone.
For example, say you are playing in B-flat major (two flats: B-flat and E-flat) the last flat, E-flat, is one of the notes of the tritone. What would be the next flat if there were one more flat in key signature? A-flat. The "natural" version of that note - A-natural, is the other note of the tritone. E-flat and A-natural is the tritone of B-flat major. Those two notes (with that "spelling") cannot be found in any other major key, and they are the two most likely notes that you will miss when sightreading.
Let's try a sharp key: A major. The last sharp is G-sharp. The next sharp would be D-sharp if we were to add one more sharp to make it E-major. But we're not in E-major, we are in A-major, so there is no D-sharp, it is D-natural. The tritone for A-major is G-sharp and D-natural.
You should mentally "brand" the two notes of the tritone on your forehead so you don't miss them, and do this for all key changes that occur in the piece. Remember, these are the most missed notes when sightreading. Don't let it be you!
Time Signatures (Meters)
Regarding the time signature(s), be sure and look for any changes! But also determine whether the meters are simple or compound. Simple meters are those in which the beat is divided in the powers of two (2, 4, 8, 16, etc.) like 4/4, 3/2, etc. Compound meters are those in which the beat is divided in multiples of three (3, 6, 12, etc.) like 6/8, 6/4, etc.
With tempo(s), look at the tempo marking at the beginning, but, (you know it), look for tempo changes! Look not only for tempo heading changes, but also gradual changes such as ritard, accel., etc.
If you are in an audition situation, set you tempo according to two things: 1) the tempo marking (of course), and 2) what looks to be the most difficult passage in the piece. Look primarily to the words in the tempo marking (Allegro, Andante, etc.). Metronome can be helpful, but very often they are questionable, and you may not be able to play it up to full speed anyway. Choose a tempo that preserves the spirit of the word tempo marking, but that you can still play the most difficult passage without changing the tempo. Changing the tempo simply to accommodate your technique is not very impressive!
Finally, if you still have time, look for clef changes, dynamic changes, changes from arco to pizzicato, even if you need to use a mute.
This may seem like a lot to think about, but with practice (try sightreading etudes) you'll be amazed at how quickly and automatically you can peruse all these things!
Reading Tenor Clef
It’s so unfair! Cellists have it so much easier when reading tenor clef: tenor clef sounds a perfect fifth higher than the corresponding location of the notehead in bass clef. Because the cello is tuned in fifths, all they have to do is read it as if it were in bass clef, and play it on the next higher string!
For us bassists, whose instruments are tuned in fourths, such a convenient little trick will not work. Aside from the truism that the little “arrow” of the “3“ of the tenor clef points to “middle C“ (the lowest C on our G-string), there is precious little guidance on how to read this clef.
First, let’s talk a little bit about what not to do. I do not recommend transposing the music. In other words, don’t read it as if the music is in bass clef, then figure what the note is a perfect fifth higher. This method only adds an extra mental step and will slow your reading and learning. Instead, I recommend that you actually learn to read the clef as you probably already have for bass clef, and maybe even treble clef.
When learning bass clef, you probably learned the time-honored method of identifying the lines (from bottom to top) with the acronym from the sentence: Good Boys Do Fine Always, and the spaces All Cows Eat Grass. In all my years as a bass performer and teacher, I had never encountered similar sentences for learning tenor clef. So, I decided to make up some myself!
The lines (from bottom to top) for tenor clef: Do Fat Alley Cats Eat? (The “D” in “Do” is the open D sting on the bass). And the spaces (from bottom to top) for tenor clef: Even Good Boys Dawdle. Admittedly, these sentences are just as corny as the ones for bass and treble clef, but they work just as well.
The one convenient trick for reading the ledger lines above tenor clef is simply imagine that there is a bass clef sitting right on top of the tenor clef. The lowest line in bass clef is a G, and the lowest ledger line above the tenor clef is also a G. The second to the lowest line in bass clef is B, and the next higher ledger line of the tenor clef is also a B, and so on.
The ledger lines below tenor clef? Fortunately, they are rarely used, so you, at worst, might have to memorize one ledger line at the bottom (a B). In fact, tenor clef doesn’t usually go below the middle line of its staff. Any notes lower than that might as well be in bass clef. So, you really only need to become intimately familiar with the upper half of the clef anyway.
For practice, I recommend making flashcards — one for each of the notes. Notate in tenor clef one note on one side, and the corresponding note in bass clef on the other side. Shuffle them all up, draw the top card while looking at the note in tenor clef, say the name of the note, then play it on your instrument. Playing the note is important to make sure you play the note in the right octave, and that you make the immediate connection to what notation
corresponds to what note on your instrument. Of course, check your response with the note in bass clef on the back side of the flashcard.
I do recommend that you make your own flashcards, because just the effort of making them yourself will go a long way toward learning the clef. If, however, you prefer not to go to the trouble, Bass Profondo has ready-made flashcards for only $6.44. Visit The ASODB Shop section of this website for details and an order form.
Good luck with your little adventure of learning tenor clef!
Playing Better in Tune (Intonation Systems)
This tuning system is based on the circle of true Perfect 5ths (approximately 702 cents in equal temperament). You use Pythagorean when playing melodically (one note at a time), especially when unaccompanied. This is the tuning system that string players use the most.
There are three ways to think about Pythagorean Intonation:
1) Think flats flat, and sharps sharp.
How you think of naturals depends on what they are canceling:
If they are canceling a sharp, they are behaving as a flat, and therefore should be played flat.
If they are canceling a flat, they are behaving as a sharp, and therefore should be played sharp.
2) Think whole-steps wide, and half-steps narrow.
3) Emphasize the quality of the intervals:
Major intervals – wide
Minor intervals – narrow
Augmented intervals – really wide
Diminished intervals – really narrow
Perfect intervals – right on
This tuning system is based on simple whole number ratios of the hertz (frequency) between two or more pitches. It is used when playing harmonically, i.e. double stops or exposed, sustained chords or intervals with another instrument or ensemble.
Just intonation is the opposite of Pythagorean intonation:
De-emphasize the quality of the intervals:
Major intervals – narrow
Minor intervals – wide
Augmented intervals – really narrow
Diminished intervals – really wide
Perfect intervals – right on
This temperament is based on dividing the octave into 12 equidistant half-steps, and is used for fixed-pitched instruments such as the piano.
You should use this system only in two situations:
1)When playing chromatically, and
2)When playing an exposed passage in unison with a fixed-pitch instrument.