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Don’t Omit The Punctuation By William L. Berz

Rutgers: The State University of New Jersey

vital ways of fashioning one’s interpretation since it is such a basic element in showing musical structure. After giving several examples, one student offered a comment: “That isn’t how they do it in the Midwest!” That puzzled me especially since I had lived the first 29 years of my life in Michigan. After some discussion I discovered that the student had been


working with a highly successful competitive marching band in Indiana. He told me that in their marching band shows, the band never took a breath at the same time. In this way, the judges could never fault the group for poor phrasing or bad releases. I could im- mediately see the logic: releases could not be evaluated because there were no real phrases. It seems to be a great methodology to improve contest ratings. With my newly found knowledge, I discovered that some high

school bands in New Jersey have adopted this approach with both their marching and concert ensembles. In clinics and rehearsals, I found that some groups NEVER took breaths together. One par- ticular example was a rehearsal where the group was playing a slow piece by Percy Grainger. Even with its clearly defined structure, the ensemble never made a satisfying phrase. The players had been in- structed never to breath together in this highly Romantic and flex- ible piece. High school band directors face one specific major challenge,

and it has been this way since the beginning of the school band movement since the early 20th

century. Not only do they have to

teach music, but they also need to win contests or be successful at festivals. While the festi- val/contest movement has helped bands to prosper, it has also at times fos- tered an approach where winning has become the primary goal in rehearsal and performance. As I wrote in the May issue of TEMPO, “While accu- racy is certainly an important goal, precision does not really teach students about the true nature of music.”1

At the time that I wrote

the article, I had not yet learned about the “new” approach to phras- ing—or in other words, not to phrase. Like stressing ensemble pre-


The eight-measure phrase is divided into two clearly linked and related halves (mm. 1-4 & 5-8). A moving figure in the oboe not


ast spring in one of the music education classes that I teach, I was emphasizing the importance of clearly defin- ing phrases in the large ensemble. This is one of the most

cision, insisting on not phrasing is directed to the goal of fostering winning over teaching musical values.

What is a Phrase?

The structure of music occurs on many different levels. The elements of music—melody, harmony, timbre (color), rhythm, and form—are the most basic. Each of these occurs on multiple dimen- sions. Form, the topic here, can be considered on large or small levels: entire pieces, movements, sections of movements or pieces, phrases, and motives.

The phrase is one of the basic building blocks in music, perhaps

the equivalent of a sentence in writing and speech. Without some kind of structure, we are not able to perceive the shape of the music. It is the conductor’s responsibility to help the audience—and stu- dents in an educational ensemble—to be able to perceive the nature of the piece. Form is a primary element. Each piece is subject to a different interpretative view. In terms of phrasing, certain pieces might allow greater flexibility than oth- ers. Grainger is different from Stravinsky; Wagner is different from Mozart. Tension and release are determined in large measure by the musical elements that come directly from the composer. It is then the conductor’s role to shape the notation to serve the composer’s intent. Works with greater inherent flexibility require a different ap- proach than those with less. Conductors must help to provide shape to the piece on all levels, and the phrase might be one of the most important. A look at the first phrase of Wagner’s Elsa’s Procession to the Ca- thedral might help to illustrate this point (see figure 1).

Figure 1. Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral, mm. 1-8.

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