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Good Phrasing: A Game Changer for Achieving a Mature Ensemble Sound

By Scott Watson | November 21, 2017

Good Phrasing: A Game Changer for Achieving a Mature Ensemble Sound

There are many factors that contribute to ensembles achieving an excellent, more mature sound. One game-changing factor that sets apart fine bands at any level is the use of longer, more musical phrasing as students execute their part. Phrasing is a fairly straightforward concept that can be presented easily at any level. Spending even a little time regularly working on this concept will transform your band’s sound and yield results you and your students will notice almost immediately!

Inexperienced players often breathe far more often than needed, sometimes after every note played(!), breaking up musical thoughts and giving their music the choppy sound we associate with novices. Helping students play with longer, more musical phrasing can be broken down into three areas: 1) Understanding the importance of good phrasing, 2) Developing breath control to execute longer phrases, 3) Breaking bad habits that interfere with executing better phrasing, and 4) Programming repertoire that offers the opportunity to implement good phrasing. Here are some practical, effective suggestions for bands young and old to work on each area.

Understand the Importance of Good Phrasing

Younger players have a choppy sound because they do not connect together ideas that are part of the same musical thought. A good way to demonstrate this is for you (or a strong student) to play a familiar melody, first with many random, unmusical breaks and then again with good, musical phrasing. Another great way to make the point to your band is by greeting them at the start of rehearsal by talking in short/choppy, interrupted speech, saying for instance: “Good – mor – ning – boys – and – girls! — Be – fore – we – be – gin – re – hear – sal – to – day — I – want – to – dis – cuss – the – i – de – a – of – phras – ing.” You’ll get some smiles and giggles, but you’ll also leave a strong impression about the value of good phrasing!

For another, similar demonstration, select a volunteer to help—one who is a decent reader. Point to the words on a large sign—ideally a sentence or at least a complete phrase. Those inspirational signs we all have in our band rooms work well (i.e. “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Team’” or “To Improve Quickly, Practice Slowly!”). Ask the volunteer to read it aloud; hopefully they read it in a fluid, smooth manner. Thank your volunteer, then you read it for the band a second time with bad phrasing, breaking up the flow of the words. Ask which version sounded like the more mature reader. Discuss how young children read words individually, as disconnected chunks rather than in phrases. As children mature, however, they learned to read words in continuous phrases. Likewise, if we want the music we present to have a more mature and sophisticated sound, we must connect the notes in our phrases.

Play melodic phrases for your students several different ways in order to discuss with them what phrasing makes the most sense. Early-on, introduce students to the use of the breath mark to label appropriate phrase endings (the Sound Innovations for Concert Band method does so by the 9th exercise!).

Develop Breath Control to Execute Longer Phrases

Long tones can be used as a foundation for helping students achieve a good, characteristic tone, but they are also very valuable for leading students to play with better phrasing. Long tones should begin early on. Alfred Music’s Sound Innovations for Concert Band, Book 1 and Ensemble Development books begin by having students play long, sustained whole notes before turning to shorter durations. As soon as students can play a steady tone on a note for four beats, challenge them to hold it as a long tone. Although I’m emphasizing the connection between long tones and phrasing, long tone exercises are great for addressing many other important items such as breathing, attacks, releases, subdividing, dynamic changes and more! (By the way, any long tone exercise that gets too easy for students can become challenging simply by reducing the tempo sufficiently.)

When performing a long tone exercise with students, remind them that the goal is both the long and the tone! In terms of the long, we want them to become aware of just how much durational mileage they can get out of a single breath. To get my 1st and 2nd year band students to buy into working on long tones, I frequently hold “long tone contests” during our warm up, as follows:

  • Have all the wind players stand.
  • On cue, have students breathe in (either in a single count, or over several counts) and start the chosen note together.
  • As each runs out of air, they take their seat. This builds drama and excitement to see who drops out and who will be the last one standing. That person is dubbed “long tone champion” . . . until next time!

In no time, the average student will hold a long tone about 16 counts at MM=120 (some much longer) and before long most will be sustaining long tones for 36 to 40 counts.

Armed with their frequent experiences sustaining notes for the equivalent of about 8 measures in 4/4 time, students—with your help—can transfer their breathing prowess to method book melodies or concert music passages. When you encounter a phrase you want students to play in one breath, first have them sustain a long tone for that amount or (if possible) longer: “Trumpets, you just held a long tone for 8 measures, so I know you can play this 4-measure phrase in one breath!”

By the way, I mentioned above that with “long tone” exercises, the goal is both the long and the tone! As for the tone, challenge students to play long tones with the best possible sound they can produce by taking a deep, full breath, tonguing carefully and not overblowing. From time to time, try going down the row of a section, asking each player to rate their tone on a scale of 1 to 10. A rating of 10 is for a pure sound with a clear attack, whereas a 1 goes to a noisy, scratchy sound with an attack that has little/no definition. My students are surprisingly honest about assigning ratings! Even though the rating itself is subjective, it gives us lots to talk about in terms of what is possible and how to improve (i.e. set embouchure earlier, tongue higher behind teeth, move air faster, etc.). Passing the tonic exercises are excellent for emphasizing listening to and evaluating the quality of one’s attack and tone.

Break Bad Habits That Interfere with Executing Better Phrasing

Young players routinely take breaths they don’t need in the middle of even short 2- or 4-measure phrases. These unmusical breaths are more often the result of bad habits than lack of air, as routine work with long tones will reveal. To try to break these habits, try the following:

Slur the phrase first. Identify a musical passage you’d like students to play as a phrase. Be sure it is of a length your students can master. Place a slur mark over that entire phrase. Have students slur the marked phrase in one breath; do this several times until they get used to making the phrase in a breath. Now remove the slur and have students perform it with normal articulation. It turns out students often can slur a phrase that otherwise, if tongued, they would chop up into smaller units.

In the example below, slur marks indicate how one might first challenge students to play before using the normal articulation.

(Excerpt from Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development for Young Concert Band.)

Long phrase contest. Challenge students to play the most consecutive notes in a musical passage before needing to breath. As students individually play the passage, you can enlist the student to their right (or left) to help you spot when they need to inhale. Keep track of which student has played the longest phrase before inhaling. If you have the ability to project the music you are rehearsing to a whiteboard in your band room (i.e. SmartMusic), you can mark each student’s name at the place in the music where they breathed to keep track, as in the following example.

(Excerpt from Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development for Young Concert Band.)

Performing a warm up scale in half notes, challenging students to play as many consecutive notes as possible on a single breath, works well for this sort of contest. Dividing your ensemble in two or three groups and playing the scale as a round makes it even more harmonically interesting (have each group hold their final note as a fermata to end together). The Sound Innovations Ensemble Development for Young Band books employ and expand on this idea in a number of well-crafted, recurring scale canons for each key section.

Don’t cheat long durations. One of the most recurring bad habits of poor phrasing results when a student “cheats” a longer duration early in a phrase, and uses the opening created to take an unnecessary breath. Just making students aware of this tendency can help. Then, when it inevitably happens, they’ll: 1) at least understand the problem you are talking about, and 2) be impressed with how you, like some sort of phrasing prophet, were able to predict the future! In the chorale part above, for example, an inexperienced player would be tempted to “cheat” the opening dotted half note, only holding it two beats in order to sneak a breath on the third beat.

Program Repertoire That Offers the Opportunity to Implement Good Phrasing

The concept of phrasing broadens when students encounter it in actual concert music. Perhaps, in addition to well-placed breaths, students will include some dynamic shading (crescendo/decrescendo) to follow the melodic contour of a melody that ascends and descends. If students are executing accompaniment, students will need to listen elsewhere in the band to follow the phrasing of the melody.

Good music of any level, style, or character offers opportunities to address phrasing. Slower “tone” pieces and less active sections of faster works, however, offer the most-clear examples of how phrasing can transform a band’s sound. It was just this type of musical opportunity I was trying to provide when I wrote “Dorian Haiku” and “See Amid the Winter’s Snow (both Grade 2, Alfred’s Challenger Series). In much of the faster paced music I write for young band, I still try to include contrasting, less rhythmically active and often more transparently scored, sections to provide dramatic repose. Good examples of this can be found in my “Awake the Iron” (Grade 1, Alfred Debut Series) and “Hercules vs. The Hydra” (Grade 1.5, Alfred’s Challenger Series).

Even Longer Musical Thoughts

As musicians mature, they should grow capable of mentally sustaining and performing longer and longer musical thoughts. In their first performance, a beginning band may only perform three or four brief grade .5 or 1 selections. Years later in high school band those same students might perform seven or eight longer grade 4 or 5 works. A very sophisticated high school or university ensemble might even program a much longer work (i.e. David Maslanka’s Symphony No. 4) that challenges students to sustain musical concentration for upwards of 30 minutes! Students should follow a similar path with phrasing, moving from individual notes, then forming short phrases, then sustaining longer phrases that convey whole musical gestures.


The most comprehensive method available, Sound Innovations for Concert Band now has five volumes, allowing you to teach young band through advanced ensembles with the same approach. Now with SI Online, adjust the pacing and focus of your teaching any time during the semester to address differentiation and the unique needs within your classroom. Also, explore the wealth of additional repertoire available online. Learn more on Sound Innovations at  alfred.com/si.


Scott Watson

Dr. Scott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music in the Parkland School District for 35 years and serves as adjunct professor for Cairn University, among others. He is a frequently commissioned composer with approximately 100 published pieces for band and strings, and is an active clinician and guest conductor.

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