It is probably safe to say that every musician knows that phrases and phrasing in music are important and critical to musicianship. It is perhaps less known that phrases are key in our making sense of the music we hear, and in making musical performance even possible. Our brains love patterns and groups. Think about it. Look anywhere and you are probably not perceiving a single object, but a group of objects. As I look around my classroom, I see pairs of doors on my cabinets. I can easily focus on one pair and ignore the others, but it is impossible for me to notice one cabinet door without also including the other in the pair in what I am looking at. When we look at staves on a page, it is impossible for us to just look at one line, but very natural for us to see several staves of five lines each. It is also impossible for us to see all staves as one object. Each stave is separated by space, and we automatically form groups of five lines. If there were six-lines on a staff separated by space, we would make groups of six lines.
The same is true of musical notes we hear. We don’t recognize melodies by individual pitches and durations, we recognize them by groups of pitches and durations. We group the sounds into musical units of motifs, phrases, themes, and so forth. This grouping of notes isn’t something we need to be taught; it is something we do intuitively because of the way our brains work. To prove it, try this experiment. Play for your students in steady eighth notes g-g-g-e flat-f-f-f-d and then stop. Does anyone recognize that as the opening of Beethoven’s 5th symphony? Probably not. Now play it again, but with this time add an eighth rest between the e flat and the first f. Now everyone recognizes it, right? What’s the difference? The rest caused everyone to make two groups out of the sound that matched the way that famous opening has been memorized. The pitches aren’t memorized individually, they are memorized in groups.
Now, with this in mind, think about how you teach music to your students. It is common to play a piece through for students so they get an overview of how it will sound when they have learned it. While listening, they will intuitively group the notes into phrases. Next, the student will often be asked to sight read the piece. The student pushes through mistakes and tries to keep going to the end. He or she may falter and stop, but we usually ask him or her to pick up where they left off and keep going. But by the time the student has faltered, he or she has lost track of the grouping/phrase structure of the piece. Pauses have been inserted where none belong, and rhythms have been played inaccurately so that the phrases structure the student perceives from his or her own playing is different from what they perceived when they listened to you play it through. Quite simply, the music doesn’t make sense anymore. Trying to carry on is only possible by performing single notes, one after the other, without understanding what they are playing. It’s as if they stopped reading a paragraph and instead started spelling every word. Who could know what they were reading that way? Would that even be considered reading?
Now, rewind this scenario to just after you having played the piece through for the student. This time, don’t have the student sight read the whole piece, or even a big portion of it. Begin playing it for the student again, but this time, have the student hold up a hand with a stop sign when they hear you finish the first phrase. Be sure to play musically, and clearly phrase the music. Now have the student play the phrase. Next, you start playing on the second phrase. Again have the student stop you at the end of that phrase, and again have the student play the phrase. Now have the student play both phrases. Continue to build the piece, phrase by phrase. Each time through, the student will have built a bigger “whole” until an entire theme, section, or piece has been played. It is still sight reading, but now it is sight reading with comprehension.
As the phrasing structure becomes clear to the student, identifying where the phrase ends from your playing may become unnecessary. Indeed, it can be helpful to discuss with students what things happen at the end of a phrase. Students are familiar with commas and periods in language, so making a connection between linguistic and musical punctuation is a good idea. Teach them that phrase typically end on a relatively long note, on a change in articulation, a sudden change in dynamics, or a relatively long rest. These are all things the student can look for in the music, and then predict where the phrase will end, even before playing. Having them do this is also a great way to incorporate a touch of language arts common core teaching into your music lessons. Predicting where the phrase will end and supporting the prediction with evidence from the text, which is the notated music, is good music teaching and good common core incorporation.
When music is taught by phrase, then musical expression is no longer an add-on once the notes are learned, it is part of the design of the performance right from the beginning. Students will play or sing musically almost immediately, because the music they are performing makes sense to them; it is not just a prescribed series of mysterious and troublesome pitches and durations, it is truly music. As teaching of the piece continues, try to avoid trying to focus on individual pitches, even when a single note has been misplayed. Always keep the error in the context of the phrase in which it occurred. “The phrase doesn’t go like this, it goes like this. Which note was different? Can you correct the error?” This makes learning music more fun because it makes it musical.