‘Pronouncing’ music

This Blog discusses the notation of wind instrument articulations.

Anyone who has taken part in a band competition will have experienced the confusion of wanting to play in a certain way and yet, at the same time, feeling obliged to play precisely what the adjudicator will be expecting. It’s rather like taking a driving test and knowing that looking in the mirror isn’t enough, you have to really swivel that head to get the point across to the guy sitting next to you, even though your main concern will be to watch the road ahead. The ‘correct’ interpretation of articulation marks is a particularly good example of the problem.

In jazz, especially, there’s a strong ‘vocal’ element in instrumental performance. When we sing, or recite a passage of prose or poetry, we use a range of attacks that is incredibly varied and subtle as we enunciate the words. Scat singing owes its success to this feature. It works despite the difficulties of singing in an instrumental style. The world’s languages offer a wide variety of attack and articulation forms and each country has its own set of problems. For example, the Chinese have difficulty with the letter ‘r’. They eat flied lice.

Squeeze valve, flutter tongue and growling are other examples of vocalization at work.

Because of this element of vocalization, the interpretation of written parts involves a range of attacks and articulations that are impossible to notate fully on paper.

Most accents are subject to universal agreement of course, but even here the problem isn’t simple. An accent (letter ‘v’ on its side) is like a mini diminuendo preceded by a strong attack. I was asked by the MD at a rehearsal the other day to make my accented notes shorter. The problem is that if you make the notes too short it ceases to be an accent since the duration of the note becomes too short for the diminuendo effect. You never, ever argue with the MD so I just said “OK”. The notes became staccato at this point, which I feel sure was not what the writer had in mind.

The grave accent, inverted ‘v’, is fairly obvious to understand and sometimes carries the added refinement of a dot or sostenuto dash. I’ve always believed that these particular markings should be placed above the note (similar to string section down bow marking), whereas all other markings are placed opposite the tails.

As mentioned in the book, it’s often better to write staccato crotchets (quarter notes) than a series of quavers (eighth notes) with rests in between, especially when writing with a pen instead of outputting from a computer. Some manuscript styles are difficult to read and the best writers sometimes have terrible ‘handwriting’.

Although a ‘slur’ or phrase mark generally means play the encompassed notes legato, in reality this will not always mean use valves or keys only, without using the tongue. A lot of jazz phrasing requires a flat tongue legato rather than valved, or a complex mixture of both. Trombone players are particularly good in this respect since the slide instrument always requires clever tongue work.

Effective interpretation requires an infinitely variable blend of tongued and valved (or keyed) legato styles that defy notation. The answer to the problem is to employ good lead players with a mature sense of style and get the section to follow on (to listen!). In an ideal world, it would not be necessary to say any of this. Early bands used many ‘head’ arrangements and they gave birth to a rich new form of big band jazz that eventually found itself extended by more schooled writers. Some early big band sections had unbelievable coherence. Fletcher Henderson’s sax section had such an uncanny togetherness that it’s tempting to believe they were telepathic! I doubt if they achieved this by discussion. They used their ears!!

Instruments that are lower in pitch are physically larger and require more effort (or impetus) to overcome inertia. If a bass trombone player has to descend suddenly to a low note, especially when using the less responsive ‘plug’ section of tubing, he or she will have to give the first note a bit of a nudge to get the instrument to speak when lips become tired. The players of larger wind instruments will need to breathe more often, too, often snatching a breath in the middle of a slurred passage. They have to cheat to make it imperceptible to the listener. Many players can’t offer circular breathing.

This newsletter is not intended to be a course on brass playing (I’m not the best trombone player around by a long way) but it’s relevant to point out the need for the tongue to rise and fall according to the pitch of the notes. To descend properly the tongue has to fall backwards and down very swiftly otherwise there will be an insufficient volume of air delivered to energise the column of air and overcome inertia. The air stream is also projected towards the throat of the mouthpiece so that the ‘turbo’ effect is translated into a longer and looser spiral of air whereas, in a high note, the spiral is tighter as a result of being projected down (or up, with some players, me, for example) towards the rim of the mouthpiece. Here, the tongue must arch upwards, helping to deliver a tighter stream of air.

I’m not the best source of information on saxophone technique but the situation is similar, but slightly less critical because of the more intimate interaction between the brass player and his instrument. A brass player can’t change reeds.

The worst thing an MD can do is to get in the way of good musicians and in the context of this Blog that means he should not blindly insist on a literal interpretation when his sensibilities tell him otherwise. A good tip is to mentally sing the parts to allow the natural vocal element to creep in.


By the way, I was taken to task by a journal in the USA for writing dotted quavers (eighth notes). They were very fair in their appraisal of the pieces reviewed but pointed out that American musicians don’t need to be told how to swing. I’m not totally convinced by this point of view but, despite the advice given in the book (carefully to write even or dotted as required), my latest composition uses even quavers but states ‘with a dotted feel’ at some points in the score. It makes the process of putting it on computer much faster, I must say. Sometimes the word ‘swing’ is written as an instruction to the player.

A dotted quarter note (crotchet) in cut time is the same as a dotted eighth note (quaver) in common time. The only difference is one of velocity and if we use the former, we’re justified in using the latter, and musicians will, in any case, use their interpretational skills either way.


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