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Do your students know how to play effective phrases?

I’ve done sectionals with a bunch of students over the last two weeks on their CMEA music, and I keep noticing a pattern of students failing to play effective phrases. Students tend to play a little crescendo on each longer note, so each note starts slightly softer than the one before it ended. I call this a “Wah-wah” dynamic.

I’ve also been working on this with my private lesson students over the last month or so as they’ve started working on their recital repertoire. I think there’s still time, even with only one or two class periods left before you go to festival, for you to make some meaningful dynamic changes that will communicate the phrases more effectively.

Dynamic relationships within the phrase

The biggest things that can prevent a phrase from being effectively expressed are the dynamic relationships between notes within the phrase. By this I mean that executing really smooth crescendos and decrescendos through moving notes begins by making sure that the ending dynamic of one note matches or is only slightly different from the beginning dynamic of the next note. (Or, not playing with wah-wah dynamics!) Once your students understand and use those dynamic relationships within phrases, your band’s performance will improve.

I want to give you an example from repertoire that I have a copy of and that I think you’ll be familiar with. Let’s take as the example Holst’s Second Suite, the Second Movement, the opening oboe solo. It’s presented to the player completely without dynamic indication except “p”. If we’re going to communicate a meaningful phrase, we hope that the oboist(s) will add some dynamic contrast. Perhaps you would dictate that dynamic contrast to them in rehearsal. Maybe it would look something like this:

And maybe it would sound something like this. (I’m doing my best exaggerated example of teen oboe playing)

Did you notice how on each quarter note I gave a little crescendo as if I was trying to play expressively? I don’t know where this comes from, but students tend to put a crescendo randomly on long value notes when they’re trying to be expressive, then the following note begins suddenly softer and also crescendos. If we don’t show them how much better it sounds to play a smooth crescendo where the end of one note matches the dynamic of the next note, they rarely get there on their own.

Compare that recording to the following audio sample, I’m playing the same musical idea and smoothly changing dynamics through the phrase. I hope you’ll hear how each note’s dynamic has a clear relationship with the note that comes before and after.

One of the things that makes professionals sound so good is our awareness of dynamic relationships between notes. This is one of the aspects of professional performance that you can teach your students right now!

How to teach dynamic relationships

I’ve found that the best way to teach about the dynamic relationships of notes is to first have a short discussion with students about what they’re doing, and ask them to listen for that as they play. Then I have them play the section again, and we talk about what they noticed after that second repetition. I love how they can typically hear the weird dynamics that they’re playing after I point out that it’s happening.

Then, the next step is to have them decide the dynamic relationship that they WANT to portray, write in some guidance on the music (I use a number system for dynamics, but you could use “mp+” or “mf-” to show gradations of dynamics), then play it again and adjust their dynamic performance.

The other best tool that we all have in our pockets is our phone! It’s so easy to make a quick recording of a section, then play it back to see if the dynamics are working properly or if they’re accidentally doing “Wah-wah” dynamics. Students can easily record their solos at home to check on the effectiveness of their dynamics, and you can ask to hear recordings of sections that need work. I love using technology this way!

I hope that you notice and are able to correct any wah-wah dynamics that you hear in your ensembles before you go to festival!


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