The “Holy Grail” of musicianship is to play music that stirs the soul and transports the spirit. It’s to transcend the notes and create a moment that cannot be denied.
Though it may seem like magic, and though there may be some sort of alchemy involved, there’s still work to do.
To transcend notes we must first master them. And this takes more than just accuracy and precision. It also takes intention and direction.
Music Needs Motion: Move Forward
For music to tell a story, it needs forward momentum. One note must point to the next, and that one to the one after. Each note needs to do its part to pull the music forward all the way to the climax and ending.
And below, you’ll discover one trick to create this musical pull.
We can’t expect listeners to stay interested if they don’t understand what’s going on. So to keep listeners engaged…
Don’t “Play” the Music – Demonstrate the Music
Music cannot speak for itself. Music is a partnership between composer and performer.
Likewise, paint requires an artist, and a screenplay takes actors and cameramen and editors.
And just as actors must show as well as tell us their lines, we must also “show” the music to our listeners. To play the right notes at the right time is only the beginning – it’s not enough by itself.
Unless listeners understand what’s going on, it’s all just pretty noise. It’s our job as musicians to make sure they know what’s going on.
And one way to do that is….
Musical Phrasing Trick: “And Then To Here”
And how do we imbue the notes on the page with gravity and momentum? One way is to give them words and give them purpose.
The last three notes before an arrival (in the melody, or a new harmony) can lead to that arrival, pointing the way.
One trick to help the notes pull the music forward is to use the words:
“And Then To Here”
In this case, “Here” is the arrival. A strong beat, the first note of a new bar, the new chord, the end of the phrase. “Here” marks the end of the current musical idea (more on this below).
The three notes before “Here”, we can name “And Then To”. With a small or large swell in volume we can tell listeners that something is happening and to get ready.
Sometimes “Here” will be louder than the previous notes. And sometimes it will be quieter, depending on the situation.
Be a Musical Tour Guide: Point the Way
We can use the trick above to help listeners to know what’s going on in the music.
We point the way. Instead of just playing notes, we use notes to create a magnetic force that pulls listeners….
…to main arrival points
Every note is not equal. Some notes exist to lead us toward important arrival points. These arrivals could be the ends of small or long phrases. The main climax of a piece of music is a monumental arrival point.
The last note of the piece is sometimes the main arrival point. And sometimes the big moment is just before the end. Each piece of music has its own structure and contours.
The notes before an arrival usually serve to bring us forward to the arrival. For instance, the melody notes in the second bar of a piece move us toward a small arrival in bar 4 or 8, which pulls us forward into other phrases that lead us deeper into the piece and culminate at the big arrival (climax), or the ending.
Like a shark, the music needs to keep moving or it dies.
…to changes of harmony
And with each change of harmony (change of chord) we are likewise pulled forward. Composers choose chords and harmony carefully to pull the music forward.
In fact, many pieces have no melody at all, and survive on harmony alone. In classical guitar, these are often arpeggio pieces with repeated right-hand patterns moving through a series of chords.
We can use the last few notes before each new harmony (chord) to pull the listener forward to the next.
It Starts at Home
The first step to playing music that listeners understand and enjoy is to understand it ourselves.
Important Fact: If we don’t “get it”, listeners won’t either.
One job of classical guitar practice is to understand our music. We can then share it with others so they understand it, too.
And one way we can come to understand our music is to find the arrivals and harmony changes. Then we can use our louds and softs and swells and fades to demonstrate where these arrivals are.
Speak Out Loud in Practice
It would be lovely to wake one day and suddenly find oneself a master, playing expressively with clarity and direction. But for most of us, it takes work to get there.
When we use our voice, out loud, in our practice, we force ourselves to understand more. It’s one thing to “think about” our music. It’s quite another to know the role of each note and be able to speak that role in our practice.
Counting aloud is a great start. Using words such as “And Then To Here” goes even deeper.
But this isn’t always easy. So it’s important for moral and confidence to…
Go Slow Enough to Succeed
Speed creates the illusion of perfection. When we slow down, we’re more able to hear what’s working and what isn’t.
When we slow down, we can exaggerate our swells and fades. We can take extra time to stay in control and be intentional with every note.
And once we master all the small details, we can then speed them back up.
Just as “And Then To” leads to “Here”, slow practice leads to beautiful, expressive playing at full speed.