Developing Musical Instincts: Phrasing

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This particular blog will be part of an ongoing series for me regarding the development of musical instincts.  This is not to suggest that I have some sort of a 3 step program to becoming a better musician.  Rather, I want to discuss some concepts that I think a lot of musicians, whether amateur or professional, don’t tend to think about (or it at least seems that way).

When I was in college, one of my professors, Dr. Jon Dugle, said something to me and the whole percussion section that was quite profound.  At the time it didn’t sink in a whole lot, but it obviously has had a lasting effect on me.  He told us, quite simply, to “listen to the phrasing…listen for the cadence points.”  We were performing in Wind Ensemble and I think at this particular time I was playing timpani.  Now timpani, generally, is used in a orchestra or concert band to accent cadence points (points in the music where there is a resolve of some sort.  Take for example “Happy Birthday.”  The last word of the song, “You,” resolves back to the original or tonic chord thus providing our ears and mind a feeling of resolution).  It’s not always used for this purpose, but more often than not, it is.  As percussionists, we know that sometimes you can spend more time counting rests in an orchestra than actually playing.  Although it is very important to count those rests and come in correctly, Dr. Dugle’s point of this whole object lesson was that we can avoid the temptation of coming in a bar too early if we just listen to the musical phrase.  It usually makes complete sense – the phrase comes to an end and a new one begins.

In Western music, or let’s say American popular music, 75% of the time the phrases will be in either a four or eight bar duration – almost always and without fail.  This should tell you something immediately.  Yes, I know a lot of songwriters like to throw in a 2/4 bar and sometimes extend a phrase or even shorten it, but this just begins to solidify my point as to why it’s important to recognize these phrase structures, especially as drummers.  From very early on, when we’re sitting behind the drumkit, we learn to fill at the end of every 8th bar.  It’s ingrained into our brains like a branding iron.  Sometimes this is a good thing, and sometimes it’s bad.  However the problem with this is that we’re just becoming ‘trained monkeys’ learning a mechanical process and not a musical one.  Let me explain further.

I’ve seen a lot of drummers, both students and ‘professionals’ that have chops until the cows come home (you can quote me on that one – haha).  However, they are never quite able to surpass that fine line between being a great drummer and being a great musician.  You see, anyone, in my opinion, can develop chops.  Granted I truly believe we all have certain advantages and disadvantages based on the ergonomics of our bodies (the threshold of which our muscles allow us to go) but I feel that sometimes learning the mechanics of certain licks or patterns are attainable by any drummer.  For example, the Dave Matthews Band drummer, Carter Beauford,  utilizes a lot of linear playing.  Now we all know that we can go out and buy Gary Chaffee’s “Patterns” books and learn similar techniques.  We could even transcribe note for note what Carter is playing on any particular song.  Yet, we can not play like Carter Beauford.  It’s not that he’s the best and only drummer in the world, it’s just that he has his own unique, organic feel that only he can bring to the table.  The good news is that you too have your own organic feel to bring to the table as well.  The goal then is to figure out what your voice is!

So what does ergonomics and organic and all this other stuff have to do with musical phrasing?  Let’s bring it all together.  Basically what I’m trying to point out by using the term ‘trained monkey’ is that there has to be more to your existence than just learning patterns.  As a side note, this also is not an excuse to feel as if developing chops is a bad thing.   You should definitely learn new patterns and/or exercise your brains and muscles a bit by getting a better command of your instrument!  Once again, I’ll use my favorite quote: “Knowledge is Power!”  Learn the mechanics, then start listening!  Listen to how the music moves.  How it feels.  Begin to learn to anticipate what’s coming up in the music.  You can hear it – there’s usually a lot of musical cues going on that sends up big flags that something is about to change or move in a different direction.

I remember sitting in with a friend of mine a few years back.  She had just written a tune, so I had never heard it before.  After a couple of bars I jumped in and anticipated a ‘break’ coming up and hit it every time that she came to it in the music.  After the performance she was amazed that I was able to stop at the correct time during the musical breaks without ever hearing the tune prior to our playing it together. Granted this wasn’t a Zappa tune or something in 13/16 time, but the point is that I could sense the tension and release that was coming up in the song.  I’m definitely not saying that I can do this every time either, nor am I suggesting anyone will really get to that point.  It’s impossible to forsee the future, but it is possible to rest on the laurels of your hard work not only in the practice room but inside your ears.

Some music, generally, has easier ‘formulas’ such as the 12 bar blues.  We all know that a 12 bar blues is generally I/I/I/I/IV/IV/I/I/V/IV/I/I.  You can hear the resolutions and usually know when a stop or break is coming up.  Also, in most popular songs, you basically have an Intro, Verse, Chorus, maybe a 1/2 Intro, Verse and Double Chorus.  Somewhere in there will most likely be a bridge section and perhaps a solo of some sort.  Again, this is generally speaking but it starts to give you a good idea of how to start approaching the songs that you will be playing.

What you want to do is get past the basics of knowing these kinds of forms and get to where it is a language to you.  Where just a quick look from the band leader, singer, or bass player clues you in to the fact that something is getting ready to happen.  It’s about knowing that you’re in the last half of the 6th bar of this phrase, not because you’ve been counting, but because you can feel the anticipation of that remaining bar and 1/2 before you do a fill leading into the chorus.  Most importantly it’s forgetting about that ‘chop’ that you worked on all day to try to use on the gig that night!  Think of the music first, then the chops will fall into place.

I realize that once again this may at the onset seem like an elementary dialogue, but I’m mostly writing this because quite frankly not everybody gets it!  I know that you, the reader, have probably either learned this lesson yourself and/or wished that someone you know would learn it.  For students, nothing can ever be elementary – always strive to make yourself a better musician.  I’d love to hear some comments on some other ways that some of you integrate these or similar concepts into your playing.  How do you listen?

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2 Responses to "Developing Musical Instincts: Phrasing"
  1. 27/01/2011 08:43

    Paul G. Ross

    A couple thoughts….

    Not only do you have to listen for the cadence points but know the tendencies of the other musicians. There are “fill happy” drummers who want to fill every four bars. Sometimes bass players and keyboard players like to fill in those same spots that are perfect for a drum fill. When those situations arise when the other players want to fill a lot (maybe because they haven’t gotten out in a while) I just tell myself to lay low and stay away from filling so the other players can get their licks in.

    I love Steve Gadd’s approach which is to play for the song and not for himself. A friend of mine played a gig with him in a big band one time and told me that during rehearsal Gadd did nothing exciting – no fills or cool licks. He just played the groove. The musicians in the band were wondering what was wrong because he sounded kind of pedestrian and he was one of the main attractions on the concert. When the gig came that night he did his thing and was awesome, played great exciting fills and complemented the music perfectly. It turns out that during the rehearsal he was just taking in all the musical information he could get instead of displaying his ego.

    If one is really open to the music and the essence of the song then IT (the song) will tell you what to do.

    One more thing… About 15 or 20 years ago I heard Max Roach play at the Chicago Jazz Festival and they had an entire night devoted to his different bands. At one point his quintet was playing “Body and Soul” and all Max did was play quarter notes on the ride cymbal for the whole song. No deviation. Not a single note on a drum. Maybe some hi-hat on 2 & 4. It grooved and was perfect. No ego, just playing for the music. It’s hard to get to that point.

    • 31/01/2011 22:08


      Very well put, Paul! “No ego, just playing for the music…” great quote! Yeah it really is good for us to learn from the masters, and your story about Gadd is a perfect example. That’s musical maturity right there! Thanks for the post!

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