The Long Line: Phrasing, Musical Interpretation, and Playing Beautifully
For nearly a decade, I studied with the great concert pianist, Mark Wescott. He shared many concepts from the piano tradition that were new to me.
In my coaching and in his masterclasses, he demonstrated many ideas about music. I had not heard these from guitar teachers. He had a completely different way of approaching music, and it was very effective at creating an emotional connection with listeners.
One of the ideas he shared was The Long Line.
What is the Long Line in Music?
The long line is a musical strategy whereby we seek to delay the climax of the music for as long as possible.
The long line is an aspiration for our playing. The long line is a particular level of engagement and continuity throughout an entire piece of music. (Think of the music grabbing you by the shirt and pulling you along, all the way to the end.)
The long line is an aspiration and guide for our playing.
It can exist in a small piece of music, as well as a large piece of music. Even as large as Wagner’s Ring Cycle, (which comes in at about 15 hours!).
The effect of creating a long line is that listeners are engaged from the very first note until the very last note. There is an energetic force that propels the music forward and keeps the music energized and alive.
There is exactly the same concept in writing, in movies, and in storytelling of all kinds. When you simply can’t leave the movie theater to go to the bathroom because it’s so good and there’s never a good place to leave, that’s the long line. When you stay up late because you just can’t put down the book, that’s also the long line.
People get sucked into social media for the same reasons. There is always something new and exciting demanding our attention and forcing us to keep engaging. These sites (and others) have created a “long line” of sorts. It’s a bit different than music, but the basic concept is the same: perpetual interest and constantly unfolding action.
As they say, satisfaction is the death of desire.
How to Create The Long Line
The forward momentum of any piece can only be accomplished through an absolute understanding and demonstration of the details.
All the small details must support the main “idea” or core emotion of the piece.
Masterful musicianship is defined by the handling of the details.
We have (1) the large structure (our overarching concept of the whole piece), and we have (2) the details. The details are the way we connect each note, phrase, and section to the next.
We can also recognize common patterns and elements throughout the piece. Then we can form a plan for how to handle these elements. This way, we create the larger structure that holds the piece together. The piece becomes one cohesive idea.
Even contrasting musical material can still have the impression of being “cut from the same cloth.”
Avoid Stopping the Action
Just as there are ways of playing that propel the music forward, there are also ways that we can inadvertently stop the action. These we can learn to recognize and avoid.
When we bring the momentum of a piece of music to a stop, we must then start again. This provides an opportunity for listeners to tune out or become distracted. These closures break the long line and can lead the piece to sound like disconnected sections (or more than one piece).
Some tendencies to avoid:
- Accenting every high note
- Slowing down too frequently, or at the end of every phrase. We can also back up the slowing so we regain time before the end.
- Starting each new phrase or section with a loud note. Phrases that start with syncopations can be an exception.
Rubato is the stretching or compressing of time. This means slowing down or speeding up.
Ritardandos (rit.), rallentandos (rall.), and fermatas are examples of rubato.
To use rubato correctly, we have to bend time, but not break it. The rate of deceleration or acceleration has to make sense in the given context (which is where many players go off course).
If we give extra time to some notes, we must give less time to others to make up the balance. The end result is that the piece takes the same amount of time as it would had the rhythm remained steady.
If you can do this well, everything just “feels right”. If there is a deficit or surplus of time created, we register this subconsciously and the “spell” of the piece (the long line) is broken. Things just don’t add up.
The impression that poorly organized rubato (time-bending) gives is that of a parody of beauty, rather than actual beauty. The listener may understand what is meant, but intellectually, not emotionally.
We can use a “bad” rubato for intentional parody as well. Schmaltz, slapstick, or melodrama are examples of this. If this is our goal, great. If it’s not, we should use a more structured and organized rubato.
Recommended Listening for Examples of the Long Line:
Note the use of rhythm as an expressive tool, the shaping of his rubato (stretching of time), and the way he handles the scale work. This type of expression is possible on guitar as well (with practice!).
Masterful use of dynamics and rubato.
Again, listen to ways that sections of music are connected and the bending of time just seems to make sense. Even when the music comes to a stop, you are pulled forward through the break (the “conversation” continues).
I also like the funny living room setting and general gentility in this one.
Magical use of time. The listener is constantly drawn forward. One of my favorite recordings.
Notice also the way he backs off on the highest notes in all but the most important places (like the climax of the piece).
Further Reading on the long line, and phrasing in music
For practical application, consider a CGS repertoire course or become a member. Members learn and train in many methods of playing beautifully. For free lessons, see the Phrasing section of the site index, as well as “full lessons on pieces.”
Reading is good, but actually learning musical devices and ingraining them is more useful and embodied, and less “heady”.
Some of the best resources I’ve found have been included in older piano texts. This creates the chore of “separating the wheat from the chaff”. Still, if you are interested in going down this wormhole, here are a couple of places to get started.
The Musician’s Way, by Gerald Klickstein: This is a wonderful read on practicing, learning, some phrasing, and general musicianship. It’s not guitar-specific, so it would be a great gift for any musician.
Musical Interpretation, by Tobias Matthay (Excellent. Any of Matthay’s works, really. He was an extremely influential piano pedagog.)
Phrasing – the Very Life of Music, by Mine Dogantan-Dack – An academic paper. Also a great collection of citations for further reading
Casals and the Art of Interpretation, by David Blum: Casals was a top-notch cellist and conductor. On guitar, we deal with slightly different issues because the notes immediately start to fade as soon as they are played. Still, this book is good for insight into interpretation and thinking orchestrally. Plus, it has the sunny quote on phrasing: “Remember that all music, in general, is a succession of rainbows.”
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.
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