Singing and phrasing

June 27th, 2014

Watch any masterclass and you will inevitably hear the usual admonishments to ‘sing’ your lines. (This would invariably be followed by the ‘master teacher’ demonstrating this point as he ‘sings’ and plays the phrases.)

This is all well and good, because the goal of all good phrasing is to make your phrases ‘sing.’

Singing helps us externalize our natural phrasing, which makes it easier to transfer that phrasing to our fingers.

But there’s something that’s often not mentioned.

And that is – to make your playing ‘sing,’ you not only have to sing as you play, but you must sing like a great singer.

We’re talking of singing like Pavarotti or Barbra Streisand (because if you were to sing like Will Hung, it wouldn’t help you very much).

So the first step to great phrasing is to learn to sing like the greats, to learn how they phrase, to capture the subtle nuances and expression in their voices, in other words, to become a ‘great’ singer yourself. (We’re of course talking only of expression. Few of us can really aspire to singing like Pavarotti.)

And in this, the best way is through imitation, by singing along with good singers.

I would pick a singer you admire.

My personal preference is for singers outside of the classical music world, someone like El Cigala, or Frank Sinatra, or even Bruce Springsteen. (Classical singers are, in my opinion, too stilted and stylized — perhaps overly constrained by their traditions — to make good singing models, Pavarotti notwithstanding.)

If you listen to a singer like El Cigala, you will find that natural phrasing is full of dynamic inflections, it’s never square, it pulsates with energy and life.



So perhaps you’re saying you’re playing classical music and not flamenco or jazz. Well, listen to this:



And see if you can hear the same dynamic inflections and nuances. And if you can’t hear them, keep on listening. It takes time to appreciate the extremes in dynamics and inflections of natural phrasing.

I remember practicing my Bach pieces with Alfred Brendel and I was amazed at how many liberties he took with his dynamics and rhythms and how extreme they sounded – to my untrained and unsophisticated ears anyway.

Perhaps the most important quality of natural phrasing is the quality of aliveness in your notes. They’re no longer the dead and inanimate dots on a page, they’re filled with energy and life.

And this is really the key to good phrasing.

How do you make your phrasing (and thereby your playing) come alive?

That’s the subject for my next post.


2 Responses to “Singing and phrasing”

  1. JonL Says:

    Nice article Philip – thanks! And for for the Martha Argerich link too. I had not heard her but have now ordered that cd. Hope you are well!

  2. Philip Hii Says:

    Hi Jon, thanks for dropping by. Yes, that’s a great CD, one of my all-time favorites.

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