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5 Steps to a Musical Performance

by Randall D. Royer

Although they are many strategies and methods to learning a piece of music, whether as an individual studio teacher or as a director of a large ensemble, I have found “5 Steps” to be the most efficient and effective plan for learning and teaching music. Each step of the 5 Steps should be mastered and completed before tackling the next level, and yes, in many instances the first three or four levels can be accomplished during sight-reading, especially with more experienced players and/or with easier music. However, I have witnessed many times directors, and individual students, working on higher levels of the 5 Steps (i.e. dynamics) before the foundations (i.e. rhythm, notes) have been mastered. By following these 5 Steps, you, as an individual player, a studio teacher, or as a director/conductor for a large ensemble, can reach a higher musical level faster, with an overall more musical performance. The 5 Steps, if followed in order, will increase your effectiveness as a director and teacher, and make your teaching and rehearsing much more efficient.

The “5 Steps” are, in order:

  1. Rhythm
  2. Notes/Pitches
  3. Articulation
  4. Phrasing
  5. Musical Extras

To be sure, there is nothing earth shaking here, but the order of the 5 Steps is the prime consideration. It makes no sense to worry about the breathing and phrasing, if there are still wrong notes within a phrase. Likewise it doesn’t pay to concentrate on dynamics, when the articulation is the wrong style or non-existent. Note that the first three are often used in auditions, either to evaluate prepared works or to evaluate sight-reading. These are the objective elements of music that constitute the foundation of the musical piece. ‘Phrasing’ (Step 4), although somewhat objective, starts to move into the subjective territory that transports the musical performance from just the mechanical playing of notes and rhythms into actual expression and communication. The foundation must be there first, however. If you want, you can think of the “5 Steps” as a continuum from Step 1 to Step 5 paralleled by the concepts of Science/Math to Art within music, and a continuum from Objective to Subjective elements of musical expression.

Step 1 - Rhythm

Rhythm, is the most important aspect of laying the foundation of a musical performance. It is putting the right notes and spaces in the right place at the right time. Music is an art within time so we, as musicians, must be constantly aware of it. All the right notes with no time or rhythm cannot be a musical performance, ever. As you teach rhythm to your students, again whether individually or in a group, give them a counting system so they can figure the rhythms out on their own. It is very much like the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Teach your students a rhythm and you have fed them for that musical piece only. Teach them a system for counting, and they will soon read music on their own and for their lifetime. Isn’t that what we as music educators should be doing, teaching a lifetime skill? There are many counting systems out there; choose one, use it, and teach it. Whether it is the “1 & 2 &” system or a “ta-ti” or “la-li” or macro and micro beats, figure out a system that works for you (if you haven’t already), master it and then teach it well.

While you teach rhythm and counting, stress that notes and rests are the same; notes are measured sound and rests are measured silence. They are equal. It has been my experience that many students do not make errors in reading note rhythms, but most errors occur counting rest rhythms. Somewhere, somehow, they have been taught that rests “don’t count” or matter, or are just rests, a time to relax. Rests must be taught as equals to notes, only measured silence as opposed to measured sound. Rhythm is the foundation for everything that follows, so lay the foundation well. Give your students the skills to succeed at this on their own. “Say it, and Play it”, or clap rhythms constantly within your lessons and rehearsals. Sight-read on a regular basis to build rhythm-reading skills. Reading rhythms, with rests, only gets better by practicing and doing it on a regular basis (just like anything else). This is Step 1. Once you have mastered this for a piece of music, you may now move on to Step 2.

Step 2 - Notes/Pitches

Step 2 of the 5 Steps is Notes/Pitches. This implies everything about playing the correct pitch; i.e. the correct frequency of vibration. That means specifically the right valve combination or slide position, the correct fingering (standard or alternate), the correct octave and mallets on percussion and/or the correct finger/string on string instruments. This also implies the absolute correct intonation. Again, the correct pitch by definition is the correct ‘frequency of vibration’. That’s all it is. To play “in tune” means to match that frequency of vibration. It is either matched or it isn’t. It is that black and white. Teach the pitch tendencies of the individual instruments to the players, as well as what to do about them. Knowing that certain pitches are normally flat or sharp is one thing, but then teach how to compensate so the absolute correct pitch will be played. I have witnessed many students who recognize that they are playing sharp or flat, but do not know what to do about it. Again, teach them to ‘fish’ and teach them the solutions. Teach the concept of ‘longer’ and ‘shorter’ for adjustments to sharp and flat pitches. Make all musicians responsible for the sound they produce and all aspects of that sound.

As you tune your large ensemble, tune from the bottom up, meaning bass voices to the soprano voices. Tuning from the concert ‘A’ or ‘Bb’ from the higher pitched instruments, down, is very inefficient, backwards, and worse, frustrating. Unless the bass voices of your group are in tune with each other, the overtones they generate will not line up so the higher pitched instruments will not be able to find their frequency to match. Remember the overtone series? It’s not only the heart of how brass instruments play different pitches, it’s also the heart of how to tune a large group. Follow this. If bass voices tune to a concert ‘A’, 55 Hz; an octave above is 110 Hz, an octave above that is 220 Hz, an octave above that is 440 Hz, an octave above is 880 Hz, etc. But note what happens; the space between octaves (the number of frequencies) gets farther and farther apart (220 frequencies, 440 frequencies). To me, that means there is more space for error in matching a pitch (frequency) at the higher pitch levels. By tuning from the bottom up, and as the various octaves above that are added, the higher pitches become more and more apparent and are easier to match. Top down tuning is opposite of the natural overtone series, and allows more error in the lower pitches from the given tuning note. Try it. It works.

Some passages in music are more difficult that others and sometimes require a lot more fingering work to master. This is all part of Notes/Pitches. Working out the passage with a slow steady beat is one solution, but always within the context of the rhythm already mastered (Step 1). If that isn’t enough, break it down to one note to one note, but work the passage or phrase from the ‘Back to the Front’. Start with the last 2 notes of the passage. When those notes are smooth, with the correct fingerings, etc. (or alternate), add the next note in front of those two. Maintain the correct rhythm relationships always. After three notes within the phrase are mastered, add the fourth, and continue. ‘Back to Front’ works because as the passage is learned, the material becomes more familiar and more solid. If the passage is learned from the front to end, the passage, when performed, can become weaker and possibly more ragged. This works especially well with tricky fingerings, using alternate fingerings, cross sticking, or new higher positions with no open strings. Always maintain the note rhythm relationships while working on notes/pitches, and always work with a steady beat. After Step 2 is mastered, Step 3 – Articulation, may be addressed.

Step 3 - Articulation

Step 3 of the 5 Steps is labeled Articulation. This includes any type of manipulation of the sound, including starting the sound and manipulating the sound throughout a phrase or passage. This includes, basically, for winds, tonguing/slurring, for strings, bowing issues, and for percussion, sticking issues. For strings, it is basically when to up/down bow and the type of bowing to use. For winds, this is when to tongue and when to slur (essentially, not to tongue) and the type of attack produced by the tongue and air. But beyond the basics, there are different styles of articulation and bowing. Even the least experienced player, soon into their study of the instrument, should be taught differences in addressing the start of the sound on their instrument. There is a difference between “tah” and “tee” as you say them, but also when you play them. They each have a different weight and length. Spacing of notes within a passage, or lack thereof, through staccato, marcato or legato styles can be successfully integrated into the learning of a musical work. Again, this level assumes that all rhythms and notes/pitches are mastered and are solid. If there is the slightest weakness in rhythm or notes, adding another layer of difficulty or concern will not make the others stronger. Practice within the context of rhythm and notes, and again if necessary practice harder sections from the back to the front of the passage, adding notes in front as mastery is achieved. Within a musical piece you can sometimes group passages together according to articulation or bowing style. Practice those together and then incorporate them within the total work.

Again, the first three steps of the Five Steps are the ‘nuts and bolts’ objective elements of a musical performance. It is those elements that are generally evaluated during auditions and the first elements observed during adjudicated performances. After Step 3 – Articulation is addressed and mastered, it is now time to move into a more subjective element of musical performance, Step 4 – Phrasing.

Step 4 - Phrasing

Step 4 – Phrasing is essentially when to take a breath and why for winds, or in the case of strings, how to start a musical line (up or down bow) and when and how to finish it. It is the punctuation of music. Phrasing helps convey whether the passage is ended with a ., a ? or an ! It is the start of making a musical line out of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the previous three steps, and is the beginning of the subjective and interpretive aspect of being a musician and making music. Computers can play correct pitches with correct rhythms and maybe even some form of articulation, but most cannot make a phrase or start to put ‘life’ into music. That’s why musicians are still important. They breathe life into music and make it the art that it is.

So how are you going to build a phrase? Most musical phrases are obvious because they come in nice, neat, and orderly 1, 2, or 4 measure units. Some are irregular length, but most, if not all, are easily identifiable. Remember it should make ‘musical’ sense. Phrasing is adding musical punctuation, so yes, sometimes a breath is only a comma before the overall phrase continues and finally concludes. Sometimes phrases are a series of shorter notes (eighths or sixteenths) ending with a longer note (quarter or half). Think of those shorter notes as ‘leading’ to the longer note, or as a giant ‘pickup’ line to the ‘resting’ note. There are many analogies that can work here depending on the age of the student musician. “Jumping from lily pad to lily pad” sometimes even works. Regardless, keep the line moving forward. Develop phrasing as early as possible in younger players to start building musical skill and to develop the concert of a musical line. Again, this step assumes that all previous steps are solid and mastered. Phrasing will not correct rhythm, pitch or articulation errors. After you have added phrasing to your musical work, it is now time to add the finishing touches and time to go to Step 5 – Musical Extras.

For string players, the issues are sometimes compounded but can still be addressed in a logical manner. Step 1 is still about the rhythm of the music. Step 2 is still about the pitches and intonation. Steps 3 and 4 are about articulation and phrasing, and for strings, they can be considered simultaneously, however not before the first 2 are mastered. If bowing makes the fingering patterns more difficult, practice them as pizzicato first. Then add the bowing and perhaps considering the phrasing of the bowing at the same time. Keep in mind that the bowing ‘rhythm’ is many times different from the rhythm of the music. For instance, if you are playing groups of eighth notes, in 4/4 time, grouped together by 4s, the bowing rhythm is 2 half notes, while the musical rhythm is all eighth notes. This is a relatively easy example but there are many actual musical examples that are much more complex. This is one of the elements of string performance that compounds the relative ease of playing a string instrument.

Step 5 - Musical Extras

Step 5 of the 5 Steps is labeled ‘Musical Extras’. It contains all those elements that require interpretation, flexibility, and musicality. It is the icing on the cake and the final polish to the other musical elements. Dynamics are the most obvious of this group and are the first to be added to a performance after the previous 4 steps have been mastered. Dynamics might also be the easiest to add and because of this, directors and teachers sometimes jump to this before the foundation has been laid. Wait and add them after the foundation has been laid. A performance with obvious rhythm and note errors, but with good dynamic contrast is still a flawed performance but perhaps more frustrating and troublesome for the listener. Again, all other steps are assumed to be mastered and solid, before you should start to consider overall dynamics and changes within a piece. Most groups and/or individual musicians should be able to demonstrate 6 distinctly different dynamic levels (pp-ff) to be effective as musical communicators. Practice these during your warm-ups, as well as within your performance music to keep the musicians focused on their relative volume. Dynamics are always relative to the context of the piece; in other words, not all mf dynamics are created equal. Make students aware of their dynamics in relation to the function of their part. Some music can be played at this Step during sight-reading, but many works require additional work before reaching this level.

This Step also includes subtle or sudden changes in tempo, dynamics, and perhaps articulation and/or phrasing. In a way, this is the fine-tuning of all of the previous Steps, in addition to the final polishing of the total performance. It is similar to going from gross motor skills to fine motor skills. The previous steps were the initially framing of our musical house and now we are adding the finishing touches. Accents within a certain articulation now give a phrase a whole new meaning, but the rhythm, the notes, the basic articulation, and the musical punctuation (phrasing), all had to be there first. When they are, adding some accented punches is much easier and more effective.

Step 5 also includes, for large groups, the concepts of balance and blend. Balance includes equalizing levels within instrumental sections, and between instrumental sections. Balance within an instrumental section can sometimes be tricky as there are many issues to deal with, including fragile egos. Be diplomatic but firm and let the music be the final judge. Balance between sections is easier as it can be defined and prioritized by the function of the part. Is it a rhythm part, is it a harmony or melody part, or is it just a textural part? Balance also becomes more difficult if instrumental sections are unbalanced in numbers to begin with. Again, regardless of the issues, let the music be the final judge, with no excuses.

As much as Steps 1, 2, & 3 (Rhythm, Pitches, & Articulation) can sometimes be grouped together and realized simultaneously, Steps 4 & 5 (Phrasing & Musical Extras) can also be worked on together. Again, mastery of the previous three steps is assumed and the order of the steps is the most important consideration. In evaluating performances, the 5 Steps can also be used to determine the overall strengths and weaknesses present. The 5 Steps can be considered a priority list as you evaluate performances and in many cases, identify the priorities of the teachers and directors. If all rhythms are very solid, but phrasing and/or dynamics are haphazard or non-existent, that may identify the priorities of the director, or the performance has not moved beyond Step 1. Or as in a previous example, there is good dynamic contrast but with wrong rhythms and notes, Steps 1 & 2 were not mastered before concentrating on Step 5. There are many uses for this 5 Step priority list.

Following the order of the 5 Steps can make your practicing and rehearsing more effective and efficient. It can help you identify weaknesses in performances quickly so solutions can be addressed and it can help you achieve a higher level of musical expression, more quickly. The order of the Steps is the prime consideration and if followed moves the performance to the highest level with the least amount of work very efficiently.

Dr. Royer holds a doctorate from the University of Utah in Music Education, a Master’s Degree from the University of Wyoming and a Bachelor’s Degree from South Dakota State University. Dr. Royer serves as director of the Jazz Ensemble and the Chamber Orchestra. He also teaches woodwinds, percussion, theory, and American Music. Dr. Royer’s principal performance interest is oboe and he also performs on guitar and bass. Dr. Royer brings a wealth of public school teaching experience to his position at Black Hills State University.