Making your playing come alive

June 30th, 2014

Continuing on my previous post…

First, what is this quality of aliveness?

Think of anything that’s alive.

It breathes, it moves, it’s filled with energy, there’s a sense of constant growth and change.

And this is what you have to do in your phrasing to make it come alive.

The first quality to infuse into your singing is that of change.

Your phrases should never stay the same, they should be constantly evolving and changing (unless the effect you want is that of an unvarying mechanical feel).

Listen to El Cigala again.

Notice how he starts each phrase with a burst of energy, he builds it up to a climax and then he lets it die naturally.

And if you listen closely, you’ll see that the shape of his phrasing closely resembles a breath.

And this is key.

To make your phrases come alive, shape them like a breath.

Think of the initial burst of energy as the drawing in of your breath — there’s effort involved in that drawing in — and then think of the resolution of the phrase as a release of that breath, an exhalation.

The ending, the release is especially important.

Listen to how El Cigala ends the phrase, how he just lets the phrase drop into nothingness, almost into a whisper sometimes.

Imagine letting something fall, of its own accord, no effort involved. That’s how the ending of phrases should sound like, a complete letting go, no effort involved.

Next, notice how extreme the dynamics are. The peaks are much louder than you might expect and the valleys much softer.

This is another important point; to make a phrase come alive, you must throw the contrasts into sharper relief, and accentuate the differences of dynamics to the point where it may sound like you’re exaggerating them.

(These dynamics are micro dynamics, inner dynamics in a phrase, not to be confused with the dynamics of the piece. )

But it’s not exaggeration, it only feels that way because you’re not used to giving them those extremes in dynamics.

Creating greater dynamic contrasts within the phrase will give them a 3-dimensional effect.

3-D phrases have depth. You feel as if they’re coming at you sometimes, and away from you at other times. This 3-D effect is what gives phrases the quality of aliveness, of movement.

Strong contrasts are what separate the great from the not so great.

The greats are not afraid to state their contrasts, they lay them out strongly. Whereas less experienced players are timid, they’re afraid to state those contrasts, so everything they do are just varying shades of one dynamic level.

You can see the same kind of timidity in painting.

Less experienced painters tend to paint everything in varying shades of one tonal value, and the result is a flat 2-dimensional painting, whereas if you were to look at the paintings of great painters, you can see an incredible range of tonal values.

And it’s these strong tonal values that make a painting pop out at you and make it come alive.

Finally, avoid sameness; especially avoid trying to make all the notes sound the same.

There’s nothing more boring than a phrase that is perfectly played, with perfectly shaped tones, and in perfect evenness.

Real life is vibrant, it’s constantly evolving, and growing, and dying. It never stays the same. And that’s what you have to try to do in your phrasing to make it come alive.

If you’re still not convinced, try this for an exercise.

Listen to a conversation, any conversation in any language will do.

Listen to the highs and lows of the voices, the sharp peaks and the valleys. Listen to how loud the loud words are and how soft the soft words are. Listen to how some words are so soft to the point where they’re almost inaudible.

Listen to how the speakers shape each sentence and how each sentence is in turn shaped by their breaths.

Listen to the constant interplay of dynamics, of loud and soft, of heavy and light.

And then listen to a machine voice, perhaps one of those prerecorded robotic computerized voices and you’ll begin to appreciate what’s dead and what’s alive, what’s interesting and what’s boring.

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