“How can I improve my phrasing?”

PhrasingIf you’ve been around musicians enough or have read enough reviews of concerts and recordings, you’ve probably heard things along the lines of, “His/her phrasing is really good.” (Or perhaps, “His/her phrasing is terrible!”) What does that mean and how can you avoid having people say that your phrasing is terrible?

Phrasing refers to the feel and rhythm with which notes are played. The easiest way to picture it is to consider the differences in how people talk. Some people might talk as if they are in a hurry or nervous while others may speak in a way that seems relaxed. Similarly, musicians who are noted for great phrasing – Miles Davis, B.B. King and Herbie Hancock, to name a few – never seem as if they are rushed or in a hurry, even when they are playing fast. This video provides an entertaining demonstration of the basic parallels between speech phrasing and musical phrasing.

It’s important to note that phrasing, like other aspects of music, is partly subjective. The purpose of this “Ask O.P.!” entry is not to get you to phrase your music a certain way but to help you improve your phrasing in the way that you want. If you have heard recordings of yourself playing and are not happy with your note phrasing – maybe because you are not leaving enough space; maybe because you are playing too on top of the beat; maybe because your rhythmic patterns seem predictable – read on.

The first step to achieving your phrasing goals is to decide what they are. Listen to players whose phrasing you are trying to emulate; especially those who play different instruments from you. A common mistake for beginning jazz pianists and guitarists is to play phrases that are too long, with no space. Since wind and brass players have to breathe, the phrasing of their solos reflects this. Pianists, guitarists, bassists and the like can practice singing along with their solos. Don’t worry about being perfect, that’s not the goal; the goal is to become more conscientious of what you are playing and why you are playing it.

The next step will depend on where your areas of weakness are. If you are still struggling to master a given tune’s chord progression, you will need to spend more time with it until it becomes second nature. Use a familiar progression, such as a twelve bar blues, to try out new phrasing and rhythmic ideas. If you are comfortable with the progression to the point of not having to think about it, try playing it at a different (preferably slower) tempo from what you are used to. Doing this will force you to listen more closely to where the beat and the time are and to come up with new ideas. Quoting the melody of a tune is an effective tool as well; maybe even find a different tune that works over the same progression.

More advanced techniques include starting your phrases on beats other than the downbeat (this analysis of John Coltrane’s solo on “Blue and Green” shows this concept in action), using poly-rhythms to create rhythmic tension (more on that here)  and rhythmic motifs (repeating a rhythmic phrase with the same or different notes). Perhaps the most famous rhythmic motif of all time is heard in Beethoven’s fifth symphony; the rhythm of short-short-short-long appears throughout the entire composition. While classical music is written out note for note, it has much to teach improvisers in structuring a meaningful, memorable solo.

Like many other concepts in music, phrasing won’t be mastered overnight; it could be said that one never fully masters it. Just focus on setting goals, improving, being creative and having fun.