As a musical community, we are particularly poor at teaching our musicians correct basic terminology, let alone correct playing technique. I often discuss phrasing and expression with pipers and drummers, sometimes on contest critique sheets. And, yet, I am now clear that many of our musicians, and perhaps even some of our adjudicators, may not understand the distinction between these two terms.
Let’s start with a quick definition of expression. Here’s one from Wikipedia:
“Musical expression is the art of playing or singing music with emotional communication. The elements of music that comprise expression include dynamic indications, such as forte or piano, *phrasing*, differing qualities of timbre and articulation, colour, intensity, energy and excitement.”*1
Expression is where you get to put YOUR feelings out to the public to enjoy the MUSIC, not just the notes as written. Expression is not in the tune itself – it’s in how you present it. That’s why musicians can sound musical and computerised music player tools usually don’t.
Note the idea that PHRASING is an ELEMENT of EXPRESSION. More on this shortly.
In a pipe band, dynamics form an important part of expression:
- Drummers use volume dynamics (loudness and softness), as well as subtle timing adjustments to add accent into their playing, which contributes to expression
- Pipers cannot generally offer volume dynamics (at least not deliberately) to accent our playing, but we can make timing adjustments. When we want to stress a beat (a down beat OR an upbeat), we make the relevant melody note slightly longer (even if it is a cut note) to create a form of stress, known as agogic stress.
Timing in general in a band, or for a soloist, is a key part of expression. For example, the degree of pointing (i.e. the relative length and shortness of notes) used in a tune contributes to its expression. When long notes are lengthened and short notes are shortened, a tune may sound “stronger”, more “dramatic” or “bouncy”. This is all about expression.
Phrasing was said above to be an element of expression. So, let’s start with a definition of phrasing:
“…phrase and phrasing are concepts and practices related to grouping consecutive melodic notes, both in their composition and performance.” *2
Phrasing is specifically about how to treat particular GROUPS of notes.
In pipe music, we often group bars of music together into phrases, often of two bars. This is sometimes described as a “question and answer” approach, the first two bars posing a question and the second two bars answering. I think of it in a similar way as a conversation between two people, with two bars for each person at a time. But how does that effect EXPRESSION? When people converse, at the end of their respective “phrases”, there is often a momentary pause, before the next person speaks – we do the same in our music, a subtle pause (I use the term “linger”) at the end of the phrase, before starting the next phrase. This is a simplification, but holds true pretty much. Note that it may not be the very last note in the second bar that you linger on. For instance, if the last note or two are really bridging notes into the next bars, you would possibly linger on the note before them.
So, when you are asked for more expression, there are various ways to achieve that, applied to any note in the music. When you are asked to add phrasing into your music, this is one SPECIFIC method of adding expression.
A related story
I was recently asked to play for a function where the guest of honour was a train driver, so he wanted a “train tune”. I decided to play Steam Train to Mallaig. Another piper told me before the performance that Steam Train to Mallaig doesn’t work well as a solo tune, but I added my own EXPRESSION to a few very specific places, and the guest of honour is still telling me he was blown away by the performance. For one thing, in the repetitive parts of the tune, phrasing was extra important so it didn’t become monotonous. Also, in the final section, I gradually slowed down, reminiscent of a train coming in to a station. But I didn’t just slow everything down – I slowed down on the long notes, but NOT the short notes. This gave the impression of the final spurts of steam from the pistons at the train wheels.