by Martin Schuring ©2001

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 you want.

Phrase shape

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 necessary.

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.)

Note groupings

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. 12.

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 still possible:

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 = down-bow
u = up-bow

Take a look at the first two notes of the following examples and see which seems the most natural and

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:
1. Meter
2. Rhythm
3. Melody
4. Harmony

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

and never

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 emphasis.

Because of the accents, it would be correct to play this example

like this

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 this:

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.

Reading Music

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 your performance.

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.

Marking music

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 more.


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 situation.