Finding the High Points of Phrases
and What to Do with That Knowledge

In another article, I described four things you can do in a fairly mechanical way that will make a vast improvement in the musicality of your playing. One of those was finding phrase endings. Once you've found where the phrases begin and end, take some more time to look at each one and find what I call the "high point."

The high point is the climax, so to speak, of that phrase. It is the most important place in the phrase. Accordingly, all previous notes in the phrase lead up to it, and all following notes subside from it.

Some generalities to use as starting points when searching for the high point:

Mark the high point (I use an arrow). As you play the phrase, crescendo to the high point and decresendo from it. By doing this, you build excitement and then offer a respite. This is a common dramatic technique; look for it next time you're at the theater or a movie. People don't yell at each other for the entire piece. They build up to arguments and then rest after them, the argument having solved the problem or at least having given temporary relief.

Music is the same way. The whole piece cannot be a high point! Neither can an entire phrase. Similarly, the high point isn't likely to be in the same place in all phrases. That, too, would be boring!

Here are the typical phrase shapes:

What if it's not obvious where the high point is? Do what Arthur Rubenstein did: play the phrase multiple times, shifting the high point to the next note at each iteration. Some of these options will strike you immediately as ridiculous. Others will be "maybes." Very rarely will one of them jump out and say, "Choose me!" If it had been that obvious, you would have recognized it already.

So, then, now you are left with a bunch of maybes. What to do?

It is often very useful to get a piece of paper and draw the shapes of the phrases. What sort of over-all visual pattern appears? Even though the composer probably didn't "draw" the composition in this fashion, artistic ideas cross boundaries in art forms. Contrast is one of them. Climax (or focus, if a visual art) is another.

The next step, of course, is to find the climax of the piece. Nearly always (99%) it is in the recapitulation. Look for a big chord, a chord with accidentals, a high note, a sfz, a fermata, an unusual voicing, and so on. Something that sets this place apart from the rest of the composition. Then apply the same "phrase high point" ideas but on a larger scale.

Now you're on the way to making a musically-cohesive whole which engages the listener's attention the same way a well-crafted mystery novel would.

Learning to shape phrases and build a piece to the climax takes time, of course, but the whole process of becoming a musician takes time. It can't be done quickly or the decisions which impinge on an artistic interpretation be boiled down to platitudes or check-lists. Only by playing a lot and by listening to music (in all genres), can a person develop musical artistry.

But what better way to spend your time??!

A related file on feminine endings gives another fine point that will help improve your artistry.

copyright 1998, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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