Finding phrasing in pieces that make no sense.

There are jazz etudes that seem to be a mess of notes; the key never seems settled, there are accidentals everywhere and despite the rhythm being seemingly simple, (it’s generally just swung quavers) the pieces just don’t seem to make sense.

A good example of a composer who writes such music is Lennie Niehaus, of which I have a saxophone book of solo etudes, some solo exercises, and a few duets. They’re great for students who are gaining good confidence is swing rhythms and jazz and need pieces that start stepping up the difficulty. The most challenging aspect of the music, is that they are not structured like a jazz standard, or sound tuneful like James Rae’s beginner-intermediate  music for wind players. When students first play these etudes, the slowed, cautionary speed, combined with the odd slip up with accidentals, and the fact that it’s not sitting steadily in a single blues scale, starts to blow their mind.

The result is music that sounds like it makes no sense. Where’s the tune!

The reality is, these pieces are just not like the others. One doesn’t really go around whistling these pieces, as if doing so would be a kin to trying to whistle to dubstep.

The good thing though, is that there is a way to find some semblance of a tune, and that’s by trying to find the phrases.

Finding phrases

If the student can find where a phrase begins and ends, then they’re well on the way to unravelling a seemingly nonsensical piece of music. Phrases are a musical sentence; they begin and the end. Phrases can stand by themselves so that when played in isolation, they are a great little practice riff. The end note of those phrases generally resolve to some important note so that it sounds ‘finished’, rather than feeling ‘hanging’ as if there is more to come.

That’s an important practise technique. A student can look at a piece of music and freak out at all the notes especially if the manuscript looks like there is more black than white. It’s a seriously bad idea to just go from beginning to end all the time, so taking individual phrases to work on is a really good strategy for gradually massaging out all the mistakes.

Phrases tend to be four or eight bars in length. Usually a student wind player may only last four bars before they struggle for breath, but generally an eight bar phrase is really just two lots of four anyway. Sure, two bar phrases are common, but I try to encourage students to keep blowing air for longer periods of time and tiny two bar phrases chop the music up too much.

As an exercise, get the student to mark on the music where the end of a phrase (and hence the beginning of the next phrase), by using a giant tick like symbol. If they get stuck:

  • Remind them of 2, 4, 8 bar phrases. They might have to count out some bars.
  • Get them to play a phrase and see if it works by itself.
  • Get them to play some random phrase toward the end of the music (then end of the piece always gets neglected) and see if the student can make it sound tuneful and complete.

Lead ins and prematurely ending phrases

Finding phrases suddenly gets more complicated as soon as lead ins are involved. Quite often in a jazz piece, there are some swung quavers that lead into a phrase; say, a three quaver lead into a standard jazz phrase would count as & 4 & 1. Sometimes they even extend to up to almost two bars in length! Note that when this happens, the previous phrase has resolved itself early. This raises an important observation that is almost always true:

phrase + lead in to next phrase = 2, 4, 8 bars.

If the music has an anacrusis, then this is a big hint as to what those lead ins may look like.

It’s really important for the student to be able to recognise these types of phrases, of which as stated above, is probably going to require a large tick to remind the student where to breathe. The breath must happen between the phrase ended and the lead in, anything else and it will break the natural flow of the music.

Now there’s a tune

With the phrasing a breath marks identified, hopefully the music will feel less insane. Still, even after doing so, the student has a long way to go because jazz music will present patterns that a student’s fingers just haven’t gotten used to traversing. That’s why it’s so important to identify the phrasing, because it allows the student to break the music up into smaller practicable chunks.


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