Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Steps and Leaps to Expressive Playing through Articulation

Steps and Leaps to Expressive Playing through Articulation

Music is a language of action and emotion. It can dance, laugh, love, sing, weep and communicate feelings from deepest mourning to unmitigated joy. To be able to express all of this and more with our oboe, we practice technical skills that we can put to use for our expressive ideas. With regards to creating expression with articulations, we first must practice to be able to produce consistency. If you can't consistently create and recreate a desired articulation quality,  then you do not yet have mastery over your technique to produce various articulation qualities at will. How to get there?  With steps and leaps, my friends.

For the first step, use the exercise below (a blast from the last post) to develop control in creating consistent, very short staccato notes. For the next step,  practice the same exercise with accented staccato notes, then light staccato, etc. Then step it up! Move the tempo much faster,  play in various keys and octaves, etc. Don't stop until there is ease throughout your entire range and at any dynamic level.  The same goes for legato notes, then marcato or heavily accented notes. Spend a few minutes every day with these ideas.  Use your imagination and have a sense of play.

Now comes a leap...

We practice for the ability to produce consistent notes, but then must utilize variation for expression. As the pianist Gyorgy Sebok explained in one of his profoundly moving master classes at Indiana University, we are not carpenters who are building something with a hammer. With a hammer you need mechanical precision and should use exact repetition to complete your action,  but in music there should instead be variety of length and inflection to bring out your creative ideas of the musical line. If you are unsure how to do this,  listen to great singers. Notice how a gentle nuance or enunciation of an word can have added poignancy and   enhance the meaning of  aria. Then play those arias on the oboe.  Do your best to create articulations that have the same variety as if sung. Imitate speech with your oboe. We don't have words under out notes, but we must enliven them as if there are!

Listen to these arias, study them carefully, then play on the oboe.

The following is an excerpt with Renee Fleming singing "Dove sono i bei momenti" from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.  Pay special attention to the aria which begins at 2:00.  Listen carefully, then try your best to imitate the sung words with your oboe.  Each note with need a different stress or articulation quality to fully bring out the meaning of text:

Or another:

In this aria from Mozart's Magic Flute, Papageno and Papagena engage in virtuosic rapid passages.  Notice how the passages always have direction and clarity. Try the same on your oboe.

Here's another leap:

To turn this idea on its head, here is a vocalist singing a Bach Partita for Violin. Listen to Bobby McFerrin's choices for pronunciation syllables and how he emphasizes certain notes/sections. He doesn't have words to sing, but he certainly doesn't let that limit his ability to express the music!

Now a smaller leap with some steps:  continuing with Bach.

Now let's look at a purely instrumental work by J.S. Bach, the Partita in A minor  BWV 1013 (originally for flute, but also grrreat on the oboe). Below is an excerpt from the first movement Allemande. There are no words underneath the notes and no articulations written in the score,  so you seem to have many options for articulation choices. For the first step I encourage my students to do a bit of sleuthing on the meaning of the word Allemande.  Bach's  Partita is a collection of movements with titles that all refer to dances. While this piece may not have been used for someone to actually dance to, Bach wrote each movement to embody the rhythms  and character of the given dance name in the  movement's title. Once you know what an Allemande is,  you can begin to make personal decisions on the overall spirit that you want to convey from this work. I'm not going to give you the answers here,  because if you don't know what an Allemande is, I really want you to search this out for yourself and begin your new journey of discovery.  Choices of both tempo and articulation will be strongly affected by your research into the meanings and history of the dance terms!

For the next step, listen to the examples below to hear how other musicians shape the phrases and use articulation for expressive ends.  What you won't hear in any of the examples are notes that are all exactly the same in duration and emphasis!  Listen carefully and find things that you like from each of the players, and use it to inform your interpretation. Also notice things that you don't like in some of the examples.  Use that to inform your playing as well,  just don't put those ideas to use in your own interpretation. I didn't provide any examples by modern oboists on purpose; I encourage you to listen to other interpretations and not limit your ears to what you hear from fellow oboists. Expand the capabilities of your playing beyond what you previously thought was possible!

Next,  if you've studied music theory already, do a harmonic analysis of the piece. I'm not writing this just because I teach music theory in addition to oboe studies at my university. Chords and the progressions are clearly outlined in this solo piece and by understanding the harmony,  we can make better choices for deciding which notes need more emphasis and which are less important, harmonically speaking. The harmonic structure will have a huge impact on how we decide to articulate notes. Bach is essentially handing us a road map and it is up to us to read the map and take our listeners on a journey.  We lead our audience on a twisting path through A minor, through sequences, to the dominant, and eventually back to A minor at the very end,  but there are numerous surprises along the way. :) (Thank you, Prof. Steve Bruns for instilling the importance of using harmony to understand how to bring out the expression and meaning inherent a work!!!)  Listen to the examples again and see if you can hear how the performers are bringing out certain notes with stronger emphasis or longer articulations to outline the harmonic structure (this is especially apparent in the guitar arrangement).  Careful analysis will both underpin and empower your creative choices and will certainly enhance your listening experience. You may find that your favorite recordings/performers change as you learn more!

We've covered a lot of ground in this post.  There's a lot to listen to and numerous ways to incorporate new ideas of articulation (and more!) into your playing. First practice and master the basics, then listen to a variety of styles and performers. Try to imitate what they present to broaden your abilities. Then add what you like to your own playing to challenge your existing capabilities/boundaries and develop your own individual style and voice as a performer. Remove what doesn't work for you. Rinse, and repeat.

I hope a new door to musical expression has been opened. I hope you step in and enjoy some new experiences.

Oboe and out,

The Oboist

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