Phrase Separation Polish Up Your Performance Skills

author: chris flatley date: 11/26/2009 category: correct practice
rating: 9 / votes: 12 
Before we begin using phrase separation to tidy up our playing, we first need to fully understand what is a musical phrase. At this point it can be useful to draw a comparison between music and language, as the latter is something we have all used every day for most of our lives. So instead of asking ourselves, what is a phrase, why not ask, what is a sentence. Basically a sentence is a stand-alone idea. For example, My name is Tom, stands alone. However, My name is, does not. Sentences can also give you an indication of what the following ones might contain. For example, My name is Tom. I was born in America, would be a fair indication that the rest of the paragraph will consist of Tom telling us a bit about himself. It's unlikely that it would read, My name is Tom. I was born in America. Frogs prefer to live near water. That last sentence may be written later, but only after Tom has gone on to say how he is a naturalist with a particular passion for amphibians. Music works in much the same way; small self-contained ideas with clear boundaries, which are strung together to guide us through a series of linked ideas that make up an entire piece. You can demonstrate this to yourself by stopping in odd places, which leave phrases incomplete. Or taking a phrase from a later section of a piece and placing it after one from an earlier and musically different part. Exercise Now let's put into practice what we just learned about the relationship between language and musical expression. Look at this pair of sentences. My name is Tom. I live in Brazil. First we need to establish that they are stand alone ideas. Although the two sentences are linked in terms of Tom telling us a bit about himself, the sentences aren't mutually exclusive. That is to say, they couldn't be written as a single sentence; My name is Tom, I live in Brazil. This would imply that living in Brazil and being called Tom are inseparable ideas. You could, for example, be called Tom and live in France. So the two ideas are contextually linked, but not inseparable. Okay, let's put this into a musical setting. Repeat the pair of sentences over and over to find the natural rhythm. Now you've established a rhythm, note the fact that there is a definite dividing point between the Tom of My name is Tom, and the I of I live in Brazil. Now we have a pair of rhythmic phrases that compliment each other, but can stand alone if necessary. Before we start thinking about possible music to go with our rhythm, let's examine the rhythm itself - bearing in mind that yours may differ slightly from mine. One thing that seems certain is that for the first sentence, the strong beats fall naturally on the words name and Tom, and the weaker fall on My and and. So too it seems in sentence 2, the word live is naturally stronger than I. This tells us that both sentences are going to begin off the beat. Here's the rhythm I have chosen. Only the initials have been placed where the words would fall rhythmically. - represent 16th notes.
 - |1 - - - 2 - - - 3 - - - 4 - - - |
 M  N I     T     I L I B Z
So now let's replace the words with notes.
----|----------------------------------|
----|----------------------------------|
----|----------------------------------|
----|----------------------------------|
----|-----0--2------1----0-------------|
0---|4------------0---------3---0------|
My   name is Tom. I live in Bra-zil.
In the same way we dismantled the rhythm, we can now do the same to the music to see what makes it tick. Although I stated earlier that the two ideas can stand alone, I now find that with the addition of the music, this isn't quite true. If you play the first My name is Tom phrase on it's own, it seems to cry out for the resolution that is provided by the I live in Brazil phrase. Before we examine why this is the case, let's make a My name is Tom phrase that DOES stand alone. Using the same rhythm as before, replace the notes with the following:
--|-------------|
--|-------------|
--|-------------|
--|-------------|
--|0------------|
0-|-----3--0----|
My name is Tom.
Now we can explore the difference between the first, unresolved MNIT phrase, and the second, which has a definite finality. The rhythmical emphasis is unchanged, so it must be something inherent in the notes themselves that is at the heart of the difference. First thing to establish is that we are in the key of E. In the key of E the root is of course E. But it is better to think of E as home; the place where journeys often begin and end. We can see that both phrases begin at home, but only the second ends there. The first phrase ends at B, which in the key of E can be thought of as a home from home; a nice place to stop for a while but not forever. The reason for this is that B is the second strongest note in the key of E. This is because of it's position in the harmonic series, but this lesson is supposed to be about phrase separation and not composition so I'll leave that avenue of investigation where it is for now. What is clear however is that the second phrase begins and more importantly ENDS on E. And it's for this reason that it has the finality that the first phrase lacks. Phrase Separation Hopefully you now have an understanding of how phrases work and more importantly where they begin and end. So how do we use this to tidy up our performance? Let's describe a scenario with which all musicians-to-be are very familiar: You know your favourite piece very well. That is, you have it well memorised. The first verse begins at the 3rd fret. It then moves to the 5th, and back to the 3rd again. It then leaps up to the 12th before resolving at the 7th position. The band/metronome/drum track is playing and you begin. Halfway through the first bit, you already have part of your mind on the next bit at the 5th. As a result, you don't notice that you're not playing the first bit well, but it's too late to do anything about it because you have to move to the 5th, and you have to do it now. You arrive at the 5th a little erratically, and in order to keep time you play the phrase before your fingers are ideally placed. So you play the 5th fret part as sloppily as the beginning part. Add to this the fact that you have one eye on the next bit. And even if you manage to get through it, in the back of your mind you know that theres that horrible leap up to the 12th which you always mess up. The end result is that you never give anything your full attention and the whole thing collapses around your ears like a poorly constructed shack. If this sounds familiar then you're ready for phrase separation. Examples I've chosen two examples to demonstrate phrase separation. The first is Oh Well by Fleetwood Mac, which is primarily riff-based. And the second is Eric Clapton's intro solo from Roger Waters' The Pros and Cons of Hitch-hiking. So if you're not familiar with either song, go and bone up before continuing. You don't have to like, admire or even have the slightest desire to play the tunes. They're simply there to demonstrate a principle that once learned, can be applied to whatever music floats your boat. Example.1 Oh Well
-------|---------------------|------------------------------------|
-------|---------------------|------------------------------------|
-------|---------------------|------------------------------------|
-------|----0----------------|------------------------------------|
-------|0h2---2p0------------|------------------------------------|
-0h3-0-|----------3p0-0--0-0-|----------------------------------|

-------|------------------|---------------------------------------|
-------|------------------|---------------------------------------|
-------|------------------|---------------------------------------|
-------|----0-----2-------|---------------------------------------|
-------|0h2---0h2---------|---------------------------------------|
-0h3-0-|------------3-0-0-|---------------------------------------|

-------|---------------------|------------------------------------|
-------|---------------------|------------------------------------|
-------|---------------------|------------------------------------|
-------|----0----------------|------------------------------------|
-------|0h2---2p0------------|------------------------------------|
-0h3-0-|----------3p0-0--0-0-|----------------------------------|


-------|----------------------|-----------------------------------|
-------|----------------------|-----------------------------------|
-------|----------------------|-----------------------------------|
-------|----0-2-0-------------|-----------------------------------|
-------|0h2-------2-0---------|-----------------------------------|
-0h3-0-|--------------3-2-0-0-|-----------------------------------|
As you can see, the above piece of music is separated into four chunks. The empty bar at the end of each chunk is there to emphasise the idea that these parts should be played in isolation. Use a metronome or drum track to set a comfortable tempo. This should match the speed at which you feel comfortable, and not that set by the original recording (unless of course you're happy at that speed). Begin the drum track. Clearly visualise chunk 1. When you're ready, come in at the correct point and play the first chunk in isolation. Let the drum track continue on alone. Don't think about the second chunk because you're not playing that one yet. Leave your hand roughly in position while the drum track plays on but relax and absorb what you just played. Was it neat? If yes you can think about chunk 2. Clearly visualise chunk 2, and when you're ready, wait for the correct time to rejoin the drum track and play it in isolation. Approach all the chunks of whichever piece of music you wish to perform in this isolated way. It is, however, important to play to the beat and to play the chunks in consecutive order as they would appear during a fluent performance of the piece. What if the answer to the question, was it neat, were no? In the event of the individual chunks being performed sloppily despite being separated, we have several possible causes. Do you really know the piece; is it properly memorized? If no, work on it some more until you can visualise each part in your mind's eye. Have you set the tempo a little too high? Do you feel as if you're always rushing to keep up, and having to play things before you're quite ready? If so, slow it down to the point were you feel totally at ease. Are you playing it at a comfortable speed but it's still a little untidy? Are you unintentionally playing neighbouring strings, or playing the odd dead note, or not getting enough definition in terms of tone? Are the accents falling on the wrong notes? If so, you can break the chunk up into micro chunks, and play those in the isolated way described above. For example, chunk 1 of Oh Well could be broken up as follows:
-------|---|------|---|--------|---|-------|
-------|---|------|---|--------|---|-------|
-------|---|------|---|--------|---|-------|
-------|---|----0-|---|--------|---|-------|
-------|---|0h2---|---|2p0-----|---|-------|
-0h3-0-|---|------|---|----3p0-|---|0--0-0-|
Again, it's important to play the micro chunks exactly as they would appear if the tune were being performed in an unbroken way. This can be tricky. If you do find it difficult to play these micro chunks in isolation, instantly and cleanly, then the piece is beyond your current technical ability and you simply need to spend more time on general technical development. We'll use example 2 to see how phrase separation could help expose our technical shortfalls, and give us templates from which we can create entire technical exercises. These will give us a comprehensive workout in exactly the areas where theyre most needed. Example.2 The Pros And Cons Of Hitch-hiking
|------|---|------|---|------------------|---|--------|---|----8-|-|
|----8-|---|------|---|------------------|---|--------|---|------|-|
|7s9---|---|9s7p5-|---|7b8-5b6-----------|---|--------|---|7s9---|-|
|------|---|------|---|--------7p5---5-5-|---|----5-5-|---|------|-|
|------|---|------|---|------------7-----|---|5h7-----|---|------|-|
|------|---|------|---|------------------|---|--------|---|------|-|
 
|----------|---|--------------|---|--------|---|
|8h10-8----|---|--------------|---|--------|---|
|-------7h8|---|7b9-5---5h7-5-|---|----7-9-|---|
|----------|---|------7-------|---|7so-----|---|
|----------|---|--------------|---|--------|---|
|----------|---|--------------|---|--------|---|--

|------------------------------------------------|---|----------|--|
|-----7-----7----7----7----7----7----7----7------|---|7s8-8---8-|--|
|9b11-9b11--9b11-9b11-9b11-9b11-9b11-9b11-11r9---|---|------9---|--|
|----------------------------------------------9-|---|----------|--|
|------------------------------------------------|---|----------|--|
|------------------------------------------------|---|----------|--|

|------10-10---------|---|-----------|
|10b12----10b12r10-8-|---|--8h10p8-8-|
|--------------------|---|9----------|
|--------------------|---|-----------|
|--------------------|---|-----------|
|--------------------|---|-----------|
Before we start, remember that this is just a template. The solo you might be working on may be more complex. It doesn't matter. The principle remains the same. Okay so let's look at the first chunk, in which we slide up to the 9th of the G string and then play the G note at the 8th of the B string. Let's say we're having trouble playing this isolated phrase smoothly. We've tried playing it slower. We've played it lots of times and it still feels awkward. The likelihood is that we simply lack the technique to execute this phrase properly. First thing to do is congratulate yourself for exposing a chink in your musical armour. This same musical flaw is probably letting you down on a regular basis. So it's good that we've found it. So let's examine the mechanics of the phrase. It involves picking the string, sliding up one whole step, and then playing a note on a neighbouring string. So instead of playing the same phrase over and over until we're sick of the sight of it, we can create a comprehensive exercise using a variety of fingerings, string pairs and positions. This should create a thorough workout perfectly tailored to this particular technicality. Sliding Exercise 1. Use finger 2 to slide and finger 1 to play the note on the higher string. Then repeat the exercise using fingers 3 and 2, and finally 4 and 3 to complete the set.
|----6-|------|------|------|------|
|5s7---|----6-|------|------|------|
|------|5s7---|----6-|------|------|
|------|------|5s7---|----6-|------|
|------|------|------|5s7---|----6-|
|------|------|------|------|5s7---|
2. Use finger 3 to slide and 1 to play note on higher string. Repeat with fingers 4 and 2.
|----5-|------|------|------|------|
|5s7---|----5-|------|------|------|
|------|5s7---|----5-|------|------|
|------|------|5s7---|----5-|------|
|------|------|------|5s7---|----5-|
|------|------|------|------|5s7---|
3. Use finger 4 to slide and 1 to play high note.
|----4-|------|------|------|------|
|5s7---|----4-|------|------|------|
|------|5s7---|----4-|------|------|
|------|------|5s7---|----4-|------|
|------|------|------|5s7---|----4-|
|------|------|------|------|5s7---|
4. Use finger 1 both to slide and play high note by playing a mini bar. Remember to cease the slid note after high note is played. We don't want a 2 note harmony. Just a slight overlap to maintain flow. Repeat the exercise using fingers 2, 3 and 4.
|----7-|------|------|------|------|
|5s7---|----7-|------|------|------|
|------|5s7---|----7-|------|------|
|------|------|5s7---|----7-|------|
|------|------|------|5s7---|----7-|
|------|------|------|------|5s7---|
As you can see, we're moving systematically through a variety of different approaches to the same scenario. If we were to introduce a further dimension in terms of fret position, we could create a dizzying number of exercises. But we have to be sensible with our limited practice time. If we've put aside 2 hours of every day specifically for technical development, we don't want to spend half of that on this one small area of guitar playing. 5 or 10 minutes would be a more appropriate amount of time. We could examine the rest of the solo and create a bunch of exercises to polish up every technical element we can find. But this solo might not be one you wish to learn, and only you can find which elements need work. So go off and find a solo that's within your technical ability and see if you can find a weakness or two. And after that, try something a little more challenging. Seek out those weaknesses!
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+ A Simple Blues Lesson Soloing 05/04/2012
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