A Musical Phrasing Exercise for More Expressive Playing: Conduct and Sing Your Pieces

When we play the guitar, we often sit very still. Our muscles may grow stiff and constricted.

And while we sit there, locked down, we also expect to play beautiful, flowing music. We want to play expressively and with interest.

So how do we bring out the grand gestures in the music when we can’t use grand physical gestures?

The Ingredients of Expressive Phrasing

To play with musical expression, we need a few key ingredients. All are not needed all the time, but most often we need them all.

Just as when we speak, we use these ingredients to communicate. We demonstrate the ideas we’re talking about. In music, we do the same (but with pitches instead of words)

Here are the main elements of musical expression and phrasing.

Volume and Dynamics

One of the most useful and direct ways of adding expression to music is to use volume dynamics. We get louder and softer. We swell and fade depending on the mood and character of the music.

Likewise, we may use accents to bring some notes out from the music.

Balance Between Voices

In classical guitar music, we often have more than one musical “voice” playing at the same time. These are usually the melody, the bass, and the accompaniment (or interior voices). These are the standard parts of the music.

We need to play the melody louder than the other voices. And we need to keep the non-melody notes quieter than the melody.

This tells listeners what the main idea is, and what they should be listening to.

Rhythm and Articulation

We also have rhythm and articulation. This refers to how notes connect to each other. And it also refers to how the notes are placed in relationship to the beat.

We can play melodies smooth and connected (legato). This way, each note connects seamlessly to the next. Or we can separate them (staccato).

We can slow down and speed up (rubato). Or we can place a note just before or after a beat to create a chosen effect.

Tone and Touch

We can also alter the tone quality. We do this using our nails, our finger stroke, and the position at which we strike the strings on the guitar.

We can also experiment with different rates of attack to create different tone qualities.

Limited Bandwidth: Knowing Each Note

So there are myriad ways we can adjust the sound of our music. This is why expressive phrasing is such a wonderful and fun part of playing guitar.

But we have limited brainpower with which to control all these different elements. If we decide everything in a cerebral, abstract way, we will likely forget much of what we decide.

But if we know what we want to “say,” we have a better chance of choosing the inflection and expression to make that happen. Just like in speech.

A Phrasing Tool: Conducting and Singing

Here’s an exercise we can use to decide on phrasing and to ingrain the music in our ears and bodies. When we do this, we’ll have a far greater chance of playing beautifully.

For this exercise, we can put down the guitar and stand up. Next, we sing our piece while conducting. We can do this from memory, or with the music (raise the music stand so you can see the music).

This doesn’t have to be “real” conducting, as a trained conductor may do.

Instead, we wave our arms and gesture along to the music. Kids often do this naturally when they hear symphonic music.

The important part is that we engage with the music. We explore and decide the musical intent of each note and phrase. And we demonstrate this with our bodies. We gesture. We conjure the music into being.

Don’t be embarrassed – lock the door and get down to business

It’s natural to feel awkward doing new things. And this may feel weird at first.

The trick is to stop thinking about how we look and instead do the work. When we do, it becomes a fantastic practice experience.

Like actors preparing their parts on a stage, we can work out each line. We can try different ways of crafting each melody or bass line.

And when we have found the expression we feel works best for the piece, we can take this knowledge back to the guitar.

Experiment, Decide, and Stick With It

The most important part of this exercise is that we make decisions.

We don’t want to play monotone with no life or vitality. We want to play with great feeling and expression. Even the staidest and reserved of us still want our music to be lovely.

So the goal here is to hear the music at its best in our heads. And demonstrate the various elements with our bodies.

We sing each line the way we want to play it.

When we get back to the guitar, we will probably not be able to play everything as we heard it in our heads. But we will be closer.

And when we know the basic musical gesture we want to make, our physiology will be more able to combine the elements above and make them happen.

Once we find something that works, we can make this a permanent part of the music. We can play it this way each time.

We may need to do this conducting exercise just once for a piece of music. Or we may need to do this occasionally for individual phrases.

(Tip: This is also a great way to work out technical problems in the tricky bits of a piece.)

And as we do, we grow better at the craft of playing guitar, and the art of making music.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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