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The Sin Of Generic Articulation

Richard Floyd • CommentaryOctober 2022 • October 13, 2022

SBO: This is the second in a multi-part series by the esteemed music educator Richard Floyd, based on his book, The Seven Deadly Sins of Music Making, (part 1 was in the June issue, if you missed it). While Floyd refers to bands, every “sin” is equally applicable to orchestras, so I urge our string colleagues not to overlook his articles. When you read “tonguing” think “bowing.”

Let’s face it. Commonly, in the wind instrument world the first word that comes to mind in a discussion of articulation is tonguing. I think one cause of this sinful behavior is that as teachers of instruments, we tend to focus on the mechanics and physical act of articulating notes (tonguing and breathing) and stop sort of cultivating the expressive properties that are the essence of artistic articulation. 

I also believe we are always in a hurry. We want to fix stuff and move on. We create buzz words for styles of articulation. Examples might include staccato equals short, or an accented note is interpreted as being “hard tongued” with an increase in volume. A note marked tenuto is described as long or perhaps stressed. Marcato notes are defined as being heavy or aggressive. The list goes on and on. We all have our seemingly efficient descriptors. Yet these “buzz words” generally reference only the physical attributes of a generic style of articulation. There is virtually no reference to the specific context or artistic intent of the music being performed. 

But all those little articulation markings on our music simply imply a style. In truth it is the nuance (our interpretation) of the articulation that connects those markings with the musical intent of the composition at hand. But what does that mean?  The definition of nuance is a subtle difference in or shade of expression or sound. If we subscribe to that concise definition, articulation is no longer only about the physical act of tonguing but rather about creating note shapes that align with the musical style and intent of the composer. So how do we get there? From my perspective there are countless clues and musical directives to guide us. 

First, consider the composer. Should you approach articulation in the music of Gustav Holst with the same artistic mindset as a work by Frank Ticheli? I would hope not. What about the music of John Mackey as opposed to Eric Whitacre? Or consider note shape in the transcription of a choral work with an emotive text? There is simply no “one size fits all” approach to articulation that captures the essence of our music making.

Now ponder the title of the work. Let’s look at four titles by the same composer. Cajun Folk Songs, Vesuvius, Blue Shades, and Rest by Frank Ticheli. All stem from the creative brilliance of a single composer yet each is unique in its origin and musical focus. Approaching the style of articulation in each of these pieces with the same mindset would be a sin indeed. The same differentiation might be found in a single piece by a composer. For example, staccato marking in the third movement of the Persichetti Symphony No. 6 requires a totally different expressive note shape than the identical marking appearing multiple times in the fourth movement. Contemplate the original source of the music. Articulation markings in a contemporary band work necessitate a marked contrast in interpretation from the very same markings in classical orchestral transcriptions or an adaptation of music from the Renaissance. A transcription of a choral work with Latin text is clearly dissimilar from the robust setting of a rousing folk song. These vivid, yet sometimes subtle, contrasts are present in every score we approach. 

The challenge here is two-fold. First, we as conductors and music educators must make a thoughtful, artistic decision as to the context and spirit of the music. We must go beyond the “ink on the page.” Our “mind’s ear” must grapple with the essence of the music and what will be required to bring it to life. Do we have to all come to the same conclusion?  Absolutely not! But we must refine our personal expectations for the subtle nuances that give the music life and artistry.

Then we must develop language and gesture that defines and communicates these subtle differences to our ensembles by using words that communicate more than objective meaning. Examples might be light, bubbly, crisp, buoyant, dry, firm, forceful, hard, aggressive, lovingly, and so on. As we refine this skill and refine our vision for musical intent, we take the music beyond the craft of articulation to the realm of artistic music making. Regard the challenging words of Warren Benson. No one has said it better. “…I wish I could hear more wind conductors and instrumental teachers using a better and larger vocabulary that relates to beauty, aesthetics, charm, gentleness, strength and power…bringing something to life from cold print, living music, moving music.”

The transgression of generic articulation, including composer comments and defining excerpts, is explored in detail in The Seven Deadly Sins of Music Making by Richard Floyd and published by GIA. In our next installment, we will explore the sin of tolerating unconvincing dynamics. 

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