The Long Line: Phrasing, Musical Interpretation, and Playing Beautifully

When I first started studying with the great concert pianist, Mark Wescott, he spoke about all kind of things that I had never heard before.

In my coaching, and in his master classes he was talking about things that no guitar teacher had ever told me. He had a completely different way of approaching music, and it was incredibly effective at creating emotional connection with listeners.

When he played, you couldn’t help but listen. It really was that good. This is why I took him on as a coach. I wanted to understand what it was he was talking about.  (Just to be clear, I play guitar, he plays piano.  Mainly we work on phrasing and interpretation issues.)

An old idea

One of the main tenants of his approach to music, and now mine as well, is the concept of the long line. This is not a new concept.

Musicians for centuries have been talking about this, and striving for it. So please don’t think this is my (or his) idea in any shape, form, or fashion. I wish it was, but it’s not.

The gist of what it is

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 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, 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 Pinterest and Facebook 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.)

Sign me up!

Clearly, we would all like to play in such a way as to have listeners rapt attention for every millisecond that we’re playing. It’s one of the reasons that we play, to share music and the experience of a particular piece of music.

How to Create The Long Line

The forward momentum and propulsion of any piece can only be accomplished through an absolute understanding and demonstration of the details.  And these details all have to support the main “idea” or core emotion of the piece.

Masterful musicianship is defined by the handling of the details.

So we have the large structure (our overarching concept of the whole piece), and we have the details.  The details are the way we connect each note to the next.  It’s our dynamics from note to note, and our articulations.

We also need to recognize patterns and similar elements throughout the piece and have a plan for how to handle these elements.  This way, we create the larger structure that holds the piece together and presents it as one cohesive idea.

This way, even contrasting musical material still has the impression of being “cut from the same cloth”.

More specifically….

Here are a few sample musical devices (there are many) that can contribute to the long line:

  1. Note pairs
  2. Dynamics (see step 3B for a primer)
  3. The Long-Short
  4. In the Full Lesson Pieces, I suggest many ways to preserve the long line and create ongoing interest in the pieces.

Avoid Stopping the Action

Just as there are certain ways of handling details that propel the music forward, there are also ways that you can inadvertently stop the action.

When you stop the action, you must then start again, and that provides an opportunity for your listeners to tune out or become distracted.

Sadly, many of the common tendencies of shaping dynamics (swells and fades) written on guitar sheet music actually drain the energy out of the music instead of bringing it forward (I’ve lamented this in many of the full lesson pieces).


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, you 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 about the same amount of time as it would have with no rubato, and steady rhythm.

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”.

Meryl Streep = Good Rubato

Meryl Streep = Good Rubato

Drag Queen = Bad Rubato

Drag Queen = Bad Rubato

The impression that poorly organized rubato (time bending) gives is that of a parody of beauty, instead of actual beauty.  Where the desired effect is “a beautiful, elegant woman”, instead, it comes off as a ridiculous drag queen.  (Of course the opposite holds true as well: if your goal is to play parody, melodrama or schmaltz, then masterful rubato would be the wrong choice.)



Points of Arrival

Throughout any piece, there will likely be many points of arrival.  This could be the long note at the end of a phrase.  It could be the highest note in a melodic line.

Any section ending or major cadence can also create an arrival point.

These points of arrival can be deadly.  The stopping points are built directly into the music.

You have to decide which of these are really worth stopping everything for.

Chances are, the end of the first phrase in the 4th measure of a piece (for example) is not all that important, and that the music would be better served by connecting it forward and keeping the action moving.  (Likewise, it’s anti-climatic, and perhaps exhausting, to set out on a long road-trip and stop every 20 minutes.)

So our dilemma is that the notes and rhythms on the page create challenges to our goal of constant forward movement.  But this is simply the challenge we face.  You have to learn methods and devices that move you through the quicksand of the stopping points.

Forward and Up: digging deeper

So one definitive step to creating more meaningful musical experiences for listeners, is embracing and striving for the long line.

It is not necessarily the easiest path to take, but it is certainly one of the most rewarding, personally and for your listeners. Many of the basic assumptions and performance habits we have learned from our teachers, and they from theirs, actually serve to stop the long line.  They actually undermine the musical continuity that we’re striving for.

Developing the Long Line:

  • Takes focus
  • Takes patience and attention
  • Is possible for players at all levels (to some extent)
  • Builds technique and deepens musical knowledge
  • Creates beautiful music
  • Is deeply rewarding
  • Is well worth the effort

Recommended Listening:

Mark Westcott, playing Maszkowski’s Guitarre Piano Solo:

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!).

Mark Westcott playing a Bach Allamande

Masterful use of dynamics and rubato.

Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin

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.

Sergie Rachmaninoff playing Chopin

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

First, for practical application, start by going through the full lesson pieces here on CGS.  Reading is good, but actually learning musical devices and ingraining them is more useful, more embodied, and less “heady”.

It’s very easy to get “deep into the weeds” when reading about phrasing and musical interpretation.  We can slip into dry academia and start arguing the fine points of so-and-so’s early musical training and the effect it had on late Beethoven, or some other such nonsense.

Likewise, some of the best texts 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 worm-hole, here are a couple of places to get started.

The Musician’s Way, by Gerald Klickstein: If you only get one book this year, get this one.  It’s 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 musicians you know (like me, since I seem to keep giving mine away!).  There is also the, which has some fine free resources on it as well.

Musical Interpretation, by Tobias Matthay (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; interesting (if you’re into this sort of thing), 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.  But still, it’s a great book for insight into interpretation and thinking orchestrally.  And it has the sunny quote: “Remember that all music, in general, is a succession of rainbows.”



Over to You

Have experience or thoughts on this?  I would love to hear them.  Please comment below!

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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