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

Mike Lawson • • December 6, 2017

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. 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. Here are some practical, effective suggestions for bands young and old to work on in order to achieve better phrasing.

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 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! — 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!

You could also 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 (Sound Innovations for Concert Band 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. As soon as students can play a steady tone on a note for four beats, challenge them to hold it as a long tone.

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. Here are ideas to help them realize their abilities:

1: Long Tone Contests

To get my first and second 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 and start the chosen note together.

• As each runs out of air, they take their seat. This builds drama and excitement to see 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 and before long most will be sustaining long tones for 36–40 counts.

2: Apply Those Long Tones to Repertoire

In 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!”

3: Then Focus on the “Tone” of Those Long Tones

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.

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. Remember the end 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. 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!

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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