Expression is not the result
of inspiration. Expression is the result of study, practice,
and the lifelong acquisition of taste. Begin by studying the
music. I don't mean to just play through it; I mean to really
look at it, and figure out what you want to do. You should know
the structure of every single phrase; you should have a plan
for every note in every phrase. You also need a plan for the
whole movement, the whole work, even the whole concert.
Every journey begins in the same way: you get in the car, but
you don't start driving until you know where you're going and
how you mean to get there. Careful drivers will even have a back-up
plan in case the preferred route is blocked or congested. Once
you have a plan, you can indulge in detours: if you want to stop
at a scenic overlook, or pick up your laundry, or enjoy a meal
at a restaurant, it is still part of the big plan, and the trip
will be successful. Your musical preparation must be every bit
as careful. You can't get what you want if you don't know what
Look at each phrase and decide how you want to shape it. Let's
consider the first phrase from the Barret Melody No. 1.
First, we need to identify
the intermediate punctuation point within the larger phrase.
Then, find the most important note. This is the note that the
preceding notes propel towards, and the following note(s) relax
away from. In this case, the "C" was chosen because
of its placement on a strong beat, and the underlying harmonic
tension. Be careful to design the phrase shape according to these
logical musical processes, and not for arbitrary reasons ("it's
the highest note...")
Now, practice the phrase
on one note:
Repeat this as often as necessary
to get a really smooth result with excellent contrast between
the loudest and softest. Don't be afraid to exaggerate the contour.
You should play a very beautiful long tone with a slightly lopsided
shape (i.e. the climax is not exactly in the middle).
Then, without changing anything, make the same shape with your
air and put the notes on that shape. Don't move your embouchure;
don't meddle with the shape of the air. Do it exactly as you
had it when it was just a long tone, except that you will move
your fingers and your tongue. Try very hard to make it really
pure. Often, students will anticipate problems (the downslur
to the A, and the more strident tone color of the C, for example)
and make corrections without being aware of it. Play the long
tone with notes on it you will probably find that you need
to make no corrections at all; at most, there will be one or
two small adjustments. Do not fix mistakes before you've made
them. Play the pure version first, then make any minor adjustments
Many, many phrases work in just this way: a long tone with notes
on it. The contour of the long tone will vary sometimes
the peak comes near the beginning, sometimes near the middle,
sometimes right at the end. But the concept is the same every
time: make the shape with your air, put the notes on that shape.
(Note: if you refer to the published version of this particular
Barret example, do not be distracted by the diminuendo printed
in the first measure. Barret often uses diminuendos to indicate
the beginning of a note grouping see below. He does not
necessarily require a reduction in sound. Paradoxically, even
a crescendo is permitted.)
Music must sing. Play with the notes riding on the air, and your
phrases will have more power and more integrity. Music must also
speak. You must find punctuation points within the phrases that
give the music grammar and inflection. Speech, whether written
or spoken, is full of punctuation and inflection. There are commas,
full stops, colons, quotation marks, paragraphs, and a dozen
other marks placed in the text to tell the reader how it is meant
to be spoken.
Music has punctuation marks
just like speech, but they are only rarely printed in the text.
You must find them for yourself. At least two questions must
be answered before the music can make sense: Which notes belong
together? and, What inflection (up or down) should they be given?
Notes are grouped into little phraselets words and phrases
that accumulate into sentences and paragraphs. These words and
phrases rarely conform to the barlines. Instead, they progress
over the barlines to propel the music forward.
Except for giving very important
metrical information, barlines are provided only as a visual
aid to reading the music. In terms of musical grammar, they are
no more important than the end of a text line in a book. You
don't stop reading at the end of the text line; you stop reading
when you see a period or other punctuation mark.
Nor is musical note grouping governed by beats or beam groupings.
Music almost always moves over barlines, across beats, and across
beam groupings. To illustrate, let's apply this note grouping
idea to a slightly more complex example from Ferling etude No.
Here is another example,
this one from the second movement of the Vivaldi oboe sonata
in c minor. It is possible to arrange the groupings a little
differently than I have done; the important thing is to have
some arrangement clearly in your mind as you play.
Of course, even after deciding
how to punctuate a passage, many different presentations are
I saw John with Clara.
I saw John with Clara.
I saw John with Clara.
I saw "John" with Clara.
I saw John. With Clara.
Once you know which notes belong together, inflecting them properly
is made much easier. Inflection on wind instruments is based
on the string technique of changing bow strokes. Put most simply,
the bow must travel either up or down. Observe a good string
player and notice how bow direction changes the inflection of
the music. Up-bows are often preparatory in nature, while down-bows
are more emphatic. (We can also develop tone color from observing
bow technique: bow pressure, bow speed, and the bow's proximity
to the bridge all affect the quality of the sound).
u = up-bow
Take a look at the first
two notes of the following examples and see which seems the most
Clearly, the third example (up-down) is the only possibility.
Everything else will sound and feel very awkward. Not all examples
will be as clear-cut as this one often, the arrangement
of up- and down-strokes can be complicated and open to debate.
What is important is to make an intelligent decision and to present
it convincingly. String players have a decided advantage in that
their inflections are not only musical but also visual. Even
if the musical effect is weak, it is at least partially bolstered
by the visible motion of the arm. As wind players, we do not
have this advantage, so our presentation of the musical gesture
must be very clear and audible.
Elements of Music
The four elements of music
are, in order:
Meter is listed first because it is impossible to have music
without it. Even musics that contain only rhythmic elements have
meter; without it, the music has no tension and no release. Meter
is often the least carefully observed instruction printed in
the music, but composers think very hard about the meter they
assign to a composition.
So, this example
must be played
Only if the meter were 18/16,
would the last example be correct.
Sometimes, by using accents
or other marks, composers indicate temporary shifts of metric
Because of the accents, it
would be correct to play this example
Hemiola is a more subtle version of the same thing. Frequently,
especially in baroque music, composers intend a shift of metric
emphasis but do not specifically indicate this in the score.
It is most frequently found at cadences, such as in this example
from the Marcello Oboe Concerto.
This is what is printed:
It should be played like
Examples can be found in almost any baroque piece, and in many
classical and romantic works as well. Hemiolas are never indicated
by the composer and must always be discovered by the performer.
Music, as we have already seen, is a language. As such, it demands
literacy. You must learn to read it and to give it life. You
must develop a large vocabulary of musical sounds motivated by
an informed reaction to the marks on the paper.
Learn to read music. When preparing a new piece of music, instead
of finding a recording or attending a performance, look at the
music. Treat it like the world premiere. Even the most admirable
recording or performance was prepared from exactly the same piece
of paper on your music stand (assuming you have a good edition
see below). After you have prepared the piece fairly well
and feel like you have a good grasp of it, then go and listen
to as many performances as you can find; you need to know the
tradition, and it can be helpful to hear how other performers
have solved problems. But, if you begin with the recordings,
you may never develop any thoughts of your own.
Learn to see all of the marks on the paper and react to them
automatically. Many young players apply a system of priority
to what they notice: first the notes, then the slurs, then perhaps
the dynamics, finally the little subtle marks. Some marks are
not observed because they are not seen. Learn to see everything
from the very beginning: do not learn one thing at a time (first
the notes, then the slurs...); learn everything all together.
This requires slow playing and fast thinking, but will give you
a result with the performance instructions embedded into your
playing, as they should be.
Certainly, if there's a moderately complex instruction in French
or German, it will go un-investigated. Learn to read music. Know
what all of the instructions mean, and have an idea of how they
will influence the sound you make. This is especially important
with directions in foreign languages. Do not take these for granted
or assume that you know approximately what they mean many
foreign words sound like familiar English words while meaning
something entirely different. If you are not absolutely sure,
go look up the word. If your music dictionary doesn't have the
word, find a French dictionary. If the French dictionary is no
help, find a French person. Do not give up until you know exactly
what the composer wrote.
Look at every mark with care. Composers think long and hard about
the instructions they give to performers. Imagine if you were
to write a piece of music: you want it to sound a certain way,
you want a certain atmosphere and color and tempo. But, you do
not have the luxury of meeting with the performers and explaining
it to them. You have to write it on the page using signs. So,
the question of whether to write a dot or a dash, or a dot with
a dash, becomes very important.
Investigate parallel places. Are they identical? Sometimes they
are, sometimes the marking is different; sometimes the surrounding
material is slightly different. Consider how that might change
You need to know the style of the music you are performing
what sort of costume should you wear? Early music (on oboe, mostly
baroque music) tends to require a more creative approach: the
notes on the page do not exactly describe what the music will
sound like. Matters of tempo, articulation, orchestration, even
pitches, are often left to the performer to determine. Recent
music, on the other hand, usually has very careful markings that
should be observed exactly. Mozart typically marks only two dynamics
piano and forte. Does this mean you should play only loud
and soft with abrupt transitions between the two, or does it
mean something different? You need to learn the style and decide.
As a musician as an interpreter of music you have
two responsibilities. You have to observe every mark on the page,
and you have to make it sound good. It is possible to observe
an accent, for instance, and make it sound quite rough and unpleasant.
Instead of ignoring the accent, find a different way to emphasize
the note. Perhaps the "accent" needs to start after
the note has already sounded. Perhaps accent can be accomplished
with air, and not with the tongue. Perhaps the accent is placed
over a certain note to discourage accenting an adjacent note.
There are many possibilities.
If the skill of reading music is properly developed, making pencil
markings in the music should be largely unnecessary. If there
is a dynamic printed in the music, circling it does not make
it any more visible. Learn to see it. Nor should you write little
poems to yourself in the music. You won't have time to read them
as you play. If you want to make notes (say, during a lesson
or master class), make them on a separate sheet of paper or on
the title page. The goal is that every mark on the page should
change your sound. If you need to circle markings just to see
them, then you don't read music well enough yet.
Some personal markings are necessary. Breath marks are essential.
So are alternate fingerings, especially in some tricky technical
passages. Often, it is helpful to mark accidentals in some very
long measures. If a conductor asks for a change in dynamic or
articulation, mark that in as well, sometimes with the conductor's
initials alongside if the request is particularly unusual. But,
keep markings to a minimum. Keeping the page clean is easier
on the eye and on the brain. After learning to read music properly,
you actually have to think less with a clean page rather than
The more you develop a keen sense of musical literacy, the more
you depend on the integrity of the material you read. Owning
excellent editions is essential. You need to know what the composer
actually wrote, not someone else's interpretation, however intelligent
it might be. This is particularly important with baroque and
classical music, where the material certainly requires editing.
But, you want to make the editorial decisions for yourself, and
not rely on someone else's idea. You cannot do this if you aren't
sure which dynamics, or which slurs, are authentic.
Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of editions available.
Best are the scholarly editions. These are sometimes facsimiles
of original manuscripts and sometimes large multi-volume collections
devoted to the works of one composer or one region or time period.
They are essential references and are usually supplied with careful
discussion of every editorial decision, no matter how small.
Frequently,the editors consult several sources (the composer's
manuscript, the first publication, the parts used at the first
performance, etc.). The different sources often have minor discrepancies,
and determining which should have priority is a tricky business.
Hence, the detailed discussion. These editions are usually bulky
and not supplied with parts, so using them for performance is
impractical. And, they can be impossibly expensive to own, so
you may need access to a good university library. But, if you
have a question, referring to one of these will get you the closest
answer you can find without access to the primary source material.
The so-called "Urtext" editions are the ones recommended
for performing use. These are frequently drawn from the scholarly
editions, or given minimal editing. If editorial marks are inserted,
then some typographical system (dotted slurs, for example) is
used to make it clear which marks originated with the composer.
Buy these whenever possible. They are not usually much more expensive
than the performing editions.
There are also many performing editions available. A performing
edition is one person's interpretation of how the piece should
be played. Baroque music, especially, is not usually supplied
with dynamics and slurs by the composer, so these performing
editions provide these instructions just like any more modern
piece of music. Many of them are quite intelligently done by
good musicians. I object to them because they give you more of
an insight into the mind of the editor than the composer, and
because they give you no way of knowing which marks are from
the composer and which are from the editor. Get the clean edition
and make your own decisions.
Style, as actors say, is knowing what play you are in. You don't
use a Brooklyn accent in Shakespeare; you don't wear Elizabethan
ruffles in a prime-time TV police show. Your knowledge of style
must be constantly refined and developed. A õ
in Mozart sounds different from the same marking in Schumann
or Mahler or Debussy. A routine harmonic progression in one composition
might be shocking and radical in another. It is your task to
know the difference. Developing this knowledge and applying it
intelligently requires a lifetime of study, reading, and listening.
Go to as many concerts as possible. Listen to recordings. Don't
listen only to oboe music, listen to everything: opera, chamber
music, symphonies, violin concertos, song cycles. Learn the repertoire
for as many instruments and voices as possible. Everything you
ever learn about anything can eventually be applied to a performance