Published on Friday, 15 January 2010 16:13
Written by Bruce Gale
This section discusses some of the basic principles involved in getting beyond the notes and interpreting the music. There is some overlap in terms of subject matter, partly because of the desire to cater to ensembles of different ability levels. Most of this section is devoted to intermediate level groups. But the Seven Deadly Sins was written with more advanced groups in mind. A detailed analysis of Adam Gorb's Awayday is also provided for such ensembles interested in playing that piece. Conductors working with elementary groups would probably benefit more from reading the articles under "band training", although the section on marches here should also be helpful.
Not all of the principles outlined here need to be understood by band members in order to produce a musically pleasing performance. However, the conductor certainly needs to be aware of them if he is to bring out the best in his band!
Interpretation and expression are different.
It is important at the outset to distinguish between interpretation and expression. Interpretation is the process of analysing the elements of a musical composition in order to make an intelligent judgement about how to perform them artistically. Ideally, what we call "expression" is the result of this analysis.
When a composer writes a piece of music, he gives us not only the notes, but also a variety of clues about how to play them. Some clues, such as dynamic and articulation markings, are obvious. Others - usually those that relate to the inner meaning of the work - need to be drawn out of the music itself. These may be programmatic (the music may be associated with a story or a particular emotion) or they may be more abstract and relate simply to the melodic and harmonic structure of the work. In any case, the most musically sensitive performances are executed by those conductors that are able to identify those elements and bring them out during performance.
It is a good thing to climb the mountain, even if we can never reach the summit.
But is it really possible for secondary school players to reach beyond mere accuracy? Cynics argue that the very best music should never be given to young students because they would never understand such compositions even if they had sufficient technical skill to play the notes. This is the logic of the defeatist! If we are ever to play great music properly - and there is an increasingly amount of it being written for wind bands these days - then the foundations need to be laid early in life. As Hetty Bolton [On Teaching the Piano, Novello, pp. 36-37] has remarked with regard to the piano literature, "it is a good thing to climb the mountain even if we can never reach the summit. We get a magnificent view by going part of the way up, and the experience we gain helps us get a little farther up the next one we attempt".
Lifeless music is often the result of treating each note exactly alike.
It is often said that a melody is like a musical sentence. This is a good analogy. Every note is NOT of equal importance. Just as a speaker can alter the meaning of what he says by emphasising different words, so a musician can do the same with a musical phrase. Treating every note exactly alike risks producing mechanical, lifeless music.
Encourage your students to understand music as consisting of a series of tensions and releases. As a general rule, the highest note or group of notes in a phrase are those of greatest tension. Tension can also be produced by accents, discords (especially chromatically altered ones) and modulations. The band needs to consciously move towards these points before proceeding to a position of rest, most commonly indicated by a cadence at the end of the phrase or a return to the tonic key. Both the intensity and volume of tone produced by the ensemble should rise and fall in sympathy with this movement.
Short phrases - particularly those that have no clearly identifiable point of tension - are often used by composers to suggest agitation. Where a phrase is repeated, graduations in tone and expression can often be usefully introduced for the sake of variety. The band needs to be made aware of the position and importance of each phrase in the larger work of which it is part. Playing with such awareness means understanding that the music is going somewhere.
Be aware of dominant and tonic pedals.
The underlying harmonic structure of the music also has a bearing on feelings of tension and relaxation. Some cadences, particularly perfect cadences, suggest finality. Imperfect and interrupted cadences, on the other hand, convey indecision or suggest a pause. As a general rule of thumb, the tonic in any key represents relaxation or - at the very least - the absence of tension, whereas the dominant chord represents the opposite. Dominant and tonic pedals are often used by composers to produce similar feelings of tension and relaxation.
The further away the music moves from the tonal centre, the greater the tension becomes. Even so, the emotional impact of the sort of modulations used by Baroque and Classical composers can be lost on modern ears attuned to the highly dissonant music of some twentieth century composers. These modulations may therefore need to be "rediscovered" by the band director through a careful reading of the score so that he can bring them to the attention of the ensemble.
Composers rarely write in every possible change in dynamic level.
Dynamic changes also need careful consideration. Composers and arrangers rarely write in every possible change in dynamic level. Does anyone really believe, for example, that the last forty-five bars of the Finale from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony should be played at an unvarying triple forte (fff)? Band directors should feel free to add additional dynamic markings if these seem necessary to enhance a melodic line, add interest or balance one section against another.
Interpretation - one's general understanding of a work - provides the context within which the following tools of expression are used to provide contrast:
- Timbre (tone colour)
However, it is not necessary for all of the above to be used in every piece of music. For example, it is better to avoid varying the rhythm in marches. And not every piece of music will benefit from the use of vibrato.