Articulation for Character in Music Making

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Often when young players interpret music, there is a lot of playing “by eye”.  In other words, they play what they see on the page according to a kind of “rule”, but without translating it into what they think the composer might have wanted it to sound like. They often struggle to hear what is really coming out of their own instrument, and many don’t spend enough time in curiosity thinking about what they, themselves, might want the line to sound like. Furthermore, if there is an absence of expressive articulation marks on the page, such as staccatos, tenudos, or accents, the problem gets exacerbated. There will be a tendency towards “facelessness” in the articulation, playing with a kind of non-descript stylelessness. Perhaps it is born out of a fear of being “wrong”. (“You mean, play it short? But there are no dots!”) We as players and teachers need to make sure one of our top priorities is this search for character, and one way to communicate that is by having lots of clear detail in how we articulate.

Entrances lacking in clear consonants are something of a clarinet disease (or at least I’ll speak for myself as a young player.) The instrument is famously good at fading out, but also does a fair bit of “fluffing” in. What if we asked ourselves what the quality of every entrance should be? What consonant will we aim for?  What word might we liken it to? What then is the first letter, beyond just “thwack”?  For melodic music to have meaning it must communicate character. How do we bring character to music? Surely there are many answers, but one of the most compelling ways to directly express character in music is through our choice of articulation.

Again, I am mainly exploring music with clear melody, through surely my concept has broader applications, too. Musical sentences and phrases can so often be likened to speech. (Many melodies of Brahms, Schumann, Weber, Mozart and much of jazz music comes to mind.) We must always be asking the question, what is the character of the music and what we are trying to say?

To help us get there, let’s explore.  How might we soothe a baby to sleep with our voice? How do the consonants soften? How do we speak when we are frustrated? How do the consonants become exaggerated? How do we enunciate on the operative word in a sentence? Finally, how can we apply that to our performance of the melodic line?

If we can identify the character and emotional intention of the music we are playing, then we can begin to apply articulations that are meaningful and grounded in something human and organic. This will add another level altogether of clarity, expressiveness, and personality to our playing.

-Jean Johnson, 2014

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