Just A Passing Sentence

When it comes to an awareness of language being useful in lessons, the unit of currency is the phrase. Some sound more like clauses than complete sentences but this is not important. What is important is that the pupils can spot when one ends and another begins. There are three main clues – in order of decreasing obviousness:

The appearance of a rest – the silence creating an undeniable separation
A long note – the decrease in activity bringing the phrase to an end
A new beginning which is the same as that of a previous phrase (less easy to spot)

I like to insist that the pupils differentiate between a rest and a long note as silence is not the same as mere lack of activity.

I am keen that pupils are aware of phrases for two reasons:

(1) Shaping the phrase

The great Russian chess trainer Mark Dvoretsky saw the endgame as the most important of the three sections of a chess game. A good ending allows recovery from any clumsiness along the way; a great opening or middle cannot remain great if followed by a poor ending. With the exception of very dynamic music, the end of a phrase should decrease in intensity, otherwise it can sound as though it were cut down in its prime. It should be laid down to sleep gently and not dropped into the cot from a great height. I would contend that a burgeoning awareness of how to end a phrase is the first step on the road to being a musician, as opposed to someone who simply plays music.

Just as every sentence contains a verb, each musical phrase reaches a peak. The similarity is that this is where the action is e.g. increased volume, perhaps slight acceleration towards this point and a deceleration away from it. This point is usually somewhere between the middle and the end of the phrase – 0•61803% of the way through, if Fibonacci is to be believed.

(2) Understanding the structure of the piece as a whole

For a listener, a piece of music is much more than the sum of its phrases. For someone learning a piece, it can be helpful to lose sight of this. To perceive the structure, all the phrases need to be numbered with identical phrases bearing the same number while similar ones are lebelled 1, 1a, 1b etc. Having experienced this through playing, pupils are more likely to make use of repetition and variation in their arrangements and compositions. Many pupils do not resort naturally to repetition in their music writing – possibly as it is considered cheap or even dishonest in other subjects. However, the abstract language of music is bound together by repetition. One spin-off is that numbered phrases also help pupils to chart their progress while learning the piece.