Good Phrasing: A Game Changer for Achieving a Mature Ensemble Sound (Part 2)

Mike Lawson • Choral • February 2, 2018

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Last month, author and director Dr. Scott Watson introduced tips for teaching your students how to use longer, more musical phrasing.

Here are some additional thoughts and solutions for bands of any experience level to work on in order to achieve better phrasing:

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 rather than a lack of air. To break these habits, try the following:

1. Slur the passage first. Identify a musical passage you’d like students to play as a phrase. Have students slur the marked phrase in one breath; do this several times until they get used to making the phrase in a single breath. Now remove the slur and have students perform it with normal articulation.

2. Hold a long phrase contest. Challenge students to play the most consecutive notes in a musical passage before needing to breathe. 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.

Performing a warm-up scale in half notes, and challenging students to play as many consecutive notes as possible on a single breath works well for this sort of contest. Dividing your ensemble into two or three groups and playing the scale as a round makes it even more harmonically interesting. 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.

3. 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. In the chorale part included here, 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. Well-written music of any level, style, or character offers opportunities to address phrasing. Slower “tone pieces” and less active sections of faster works 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).

Longer Musical Thoughts

As musicians mature, they should grow capable of mentally sustaining and performing longer and longer musical thoughts.

Remember the goal: students should follow a path with phrasing, moving from individual notes, then forming short phrases, then sustaining longer phrases that convey whole musical gestures.

Scott Watson has taught instrumental and elective music for 30 years in the Parkland School District (Allentown, PA) and is an award-winning and frequently commissioned composer. Many of Watson’s published works have been named J.W. Pepper Editor’s Choice and appear on various state lists; he is a contributor to Alfred Music’s Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development series ( Watson has presented numerous professional development sessions/workshops for music educators and frequently serves as an honor band guest conductor. To learn more, visit

Sound Innovations: Ensemble Development is a complete curriculum to help beginning through advanced band students grow as ensemble musicians. It thoroughly complements and supplements performance music while breaking down each ensemble concept and preparing students to be ready for any scenario in their repertoire. Learn more at

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