Timothy's Blog

Timothy's blog on dulcimers, music, nature and life!

Phrasing for drama and meaning

Phrasing for drama and meaning

[By the way, in the photo I'm playing my tune "Big Meadows Twilight" in the twilight at Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park in 2000 --- photo by our daughter Karen.]

There are many approaches a musician can take toward a melody and arrangement:  Perhaps your choice today is choosing a genre to play it in, for example doing a reel as Old-Time vs. Bluegrass vs. Celtic; or perhaps you need to decide whether you’re playing toward an audience, or playing as if closed into your own little world and the audience just gets to listen in; or perhaps you need to figure out if you just want to play a beautiful tune as beautifully as you can, or if you want to communicate some additional meaning through it.  These and many other decisions come into play as we face the performance of a particular piece of music.

I tend to want to express and communicate as much as I can with my music; so some years ago I put together the following list of ideas of how we can consciously pursue narrative, meaning, or dramatic effect in our performances.  (There are a few references to the hammered dulcimer here, but every idea is fully adaptable to whatever instrument you play, including voice.)  May it avail much in your art!

First, some general concepts to consider:

  • Close yourself into your own world & really experience the music --- live in it & tap into the music itself, not just your playing of it
  • Influence the audience members
  • Try to move your own soul
  • Study your style, but mainly feel it
  • Make statements with your music
  • Express what matters a lot to you
  • Think of words and ideas
  • Phrase notes like sentences
  • Keep in mind the overall arch of the piece
  • Move through time in a meaningful way
  • Use lyrical melodies
  • Drift into nostalgia and sentimentality then back again
  • Look for thresholds to cross
  • Develop tensions and clashes and (maybe) release them
  • Think of emotions --- even anger and aggression, as well as mellower ones --- as you play
  • Allow for impulsive moments
  • Use body language to develop rhythmic and tonal colorings
  • Choose hammered dulcimer hammer surfaces that match your goals

 Timing considerations:

  • Spacious timing: leave room for the music to speak
  • Play with rubato
  • Develop slow intros and codas
  • Slow down the whole tune to give room for expression
  • Use arpeggios for expression and motion
  • Develop rhythmic sway
  • Speed up or slow down as a new statement is being made

 Ways of using volume changes (dynamics):

  • Swells
  • Dropoffs
  • Crescendos
  • Decrescendos
  • Accented notes
  • Rhythmic accents
  • Volume changes as statements

How pitch can be varied for effect:

  • Key changes: of a 4th or 5th, 3rd or 6th, 2nd or 7th, minor 3rd, diminished 5th, etc.
  • Octave changes
  • Melody variation, especially upward
  • Jumps

A few ways harmony can play a compelling role:

  • Powerful 4-note chord rolls on the hammered dulcimer (similar to dramatic strums on a guitar)
  • Chord changes for effect: all 6 primary chords, secondary dominants, dominant 7ths, major/minor 7ths, etc.
  • Melodic fills as statements
  • Improvisation over repeated series of chords
  • Suspensions of chords
  • Walkdowns on hammered dulcimer’s bass bridge
  • Contrast of dense and sparse harmonic texture
  • Voicings of harmonic lines (think counterpoint)

Some of the simple statements above can actually contain a lifetime of urgent consideration and development, so don’t let their brevity trick you!  But any of them can be drawn upon to help your music really sing with magnificent authenticity and presence.  Let’s all strive to move into new realms of musicality!

We hear music differently! Some observations
Three kinds of tempo flow

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