Thoughts On Ensemble Expression
A valued asset for the teacher/conductor is an informed opinion of how music should sound. An opinion based on past experience and careful study provides a means to develop efficient and meaningful rehearsals that not only emphasize the required focus on technical necessities but facilitate the opening of unexpected instructional pathways where expressiveness can be efficiently addressed. Plus, it is more fun for the teacher and ensemble when the person in charge is prepared to be a champion for the music. Every conductor has faced that dreaded situation where they have to stand in front of a group with almost no time to prepare. This is very stressful for everyone in the room and is often a complete waste of time. A better plan is to keep your head and heart inside the music until a grand scheme has emerged – an interpretation!
Text and symbols on the music page provide incomplete information. Of these, instructions related to dynamics are the worst. Often, the entire ensemble is provided the same volume marking with no regard to melody, tessitura, or scoring. Experienced teachers know every section needs to be flexible when it comes to volume as levels can change on every beat. This type of flexibility must also be applied to all components of a musical performance including articulation, the spacing of notes, balance and blend. It has been said that the page is in black and white and it is the teacher/conductor’s job to find the red - the opportunities for expression that lie within the compositional components and the execution of techniques.
We often hear the words “musical taste.” Musical taste means versed in the history, conventions, and structures of music. Accomplished musicians realize music is neither composed nor consumed in a vacuum and therefore musical symbols mean different things in different compositions. As a simple example, consider rhythm. Rhythm can be correctly played in many ways beyond the mathematical definition. Would it be appropriate to play the rhythm found in Percy Grainger’s Horkstow Grange in the same manner as the rhythms in Pierre Leeman’s March of the Belgian Paratroopers? Based on many of the stylistic elements listed below, most musicians would arrive at different conclusions (opinions) on how the rhythms should be styled.
There are several good books that can serve as roadmaps to provide direction regarding the development of musical style. One of the first books I referenced as a young band director was Expression in Music by H. A. VanderCook. Musical conventions as VanderCook promotes are ways of performing musical passages in various contexts based on commonly recognized practices. It is important to listen to music in all styles with an ear toward style and study music with a focus on exactly how the music should be performed. Over time and with careful study, experienced teachers on the podium will be able to make confident decisions regarding musical styles.
During the score study process and as musical opinions are formed, it is important to continually assess the things that make music move. Some elements that impact expressiveness are obvious while some important features are less apparent. The building blocks of musical expressiveness and style include:
- Composer (Being aware of the circumstances that led to the composition and the composer’s general style and harmonic language)
- Melody (Remember that everything the composer includes in the score is in support of a primary musical idea – usually this is called a melody, but might be more directly related to a rhythmic or harmonic plan. How melody is managed as it moves from various voices within an ensemble.)
- Phrasing (How are phrases defined within a composition? What are considerations related to internal and external phrasing)
- Counter melody – lines (When do these ideas supersede melody if only for a single note?)
- Form (It is important to consider the overall order of musical events as related to form and why the composer chose a particular form. When sections return, are they treated differently by the composer? If so, will these differences have expressive ramifications that impact the conductor’s interpretation?)
- Dynamics (protracted / sudden / predictable and unpredictable)
- Contours (direction of melodic elements and scoring often impact unwritten dynamics)
- Articulations (vary according to style)
- The shape of notes (Do the notes touch – are the beginnings rounded – do the note endings taper or are they square?)
- Silence (Treating silence with respect and a sense of timing is just as important as how we start sound.)
- Chord Progressions (including harmonic rhythm)
- Tempo (Consider the best tempo for each individual circumstance.)
- Rubato (When to employ subtleties of this technique are often left to the conductor – a matter of timing that can easily be overdone or neglected.)
- Harmony (tension and release are crucial / how to best manage dissonance and consonance)
- Dissonance (How are stressful moments best managed? – generally through the addition of pressure and release on the note/chord and the possible resolution.)
- Patterns (ostinato – what is the purpose and how do these patterns fit in the overall compositional scheme?)
- Repeated notes (Usually there is a crescendo or diminuendo that accompanies.)
- Sequence (Management of sequential events can do much to create excitement and add to expressiveness.)
- Rhythmic Textures (Composite rhythms and “pointillistic” rhythms / How do we best treat rhythm to maximize expression?)
- Tone Colors (fluid combinations)
- Moving from point A to point C (Protracted events are often overlooked.)
A very prominent musician/educator was once overheard saying “that piece of music was written out of tune!” Saxophonists know if Percy Grainger is the composer, the saxophone part is going to be written with correct idiomatic considerations and sound great in combination with the other instruments. This is not always the case. Moreover, as we work to create expressive performances, the challenges can vary greatly from composition to composition. In some works, it is a constant struggle to balance the accompanying parts to the melody. This is often related to the tessitura, chord inversions, and textures. Key centers will also work to compromise intonation, balance, and blend. Moreover, instruments in various combinations can be problematic. This is not to say these pieces are faulty. Some of these challenges are found in masterworks. However, they must be addressed and will test the abilities of any teacher on the podium.
As the number and depth of individual musical experiences increase over time, personal interpretations of the same music will certainly change. Fredrick Fennell spoke of this in his writings and it is certainly true. Experienced teachers will need to have a pencil with a good eraser ready when they revisit a score from years past.
All accomplished teachers and conductors work best when they operate in their comfort zone. Spending time forming opinions about all of the musical aspects mentioned in this article will lead to increased confidence and result in productive rehearsals and performances that will bring joy to your students.
F. David Romines, D.M.A.
Director of Bands
Conn-Selmer Educational Clinician