Playing by Numbers Is Not Music!

Some musicians teach phrasing with numbers. I know that Marcel Tabateau used this system, but I always found it to be very simplistic. I am a product of that school as my teacher was a Curtis graduate, and all of my early teachers were influenced by him as well. Who wouldn’t be? I asked my bassoon teacher, Sherman Walt, about this method of phrasing once, and he explained it to me, but then said, “You don’t need this”. At the time, I wasn’t sure what this meant, but later it came to me that instinctively, I knew what I needed to do musically without that crutch, although it is useful in some cases.

Imitation and Listening Are Important

Much of my music education has been by imitation, and listening to others. Some of the greatest teachers have used imagery or demonstration to illustrate their point. As I’m largely instinctive musically, this type of learning has worked very well for me and I use these techniques in my teaching, too. Learning about music and what makes it work is not just an intellectual exercise, nor can it be filed into neat categories.

When I worked with Marcel Moyse, he would always be singing – quite terribly – but you would get the point, even in his fractured English. Casals, as well, would demonstrate what he was looking for, and was always extremely compelling as a musician. Once you got it, he would say, “Yes, something like that”. And you were always expected to make the idea something of your own, as well – e.g., internalize it for yourself.

In other areas of music like Jazz, it’s the same. You can learn all the theory in books, but until it becomes part of you, it means little either to you and to your listener. Basically any attempt to try to codify, or nail down any “musical” practice will end in finding some exception to the rule, or a situation where that approach just doesn’t work.

Not a Numbers Game

The emotional and textual content of music is not a numbers game. It comes from your knowledge of the work, from the context that it was written in, and from your own feelings about it. Also, stylistic factors affect both rhythm, sound, and vibrato etc. You don’t play Mozart with the vibrato you would use in Brahms or Rachmaninoff!!! I’ve heard too many flute players that don’t understand this. I’ve wrestled with teaching musicianship, and I’ve come to the

conclusion that you can only lead and show, but not teach. Tomes have been written on phrasing, and I suspect that is why – it just can’t be totally explained. I’m beginning to think the best way to teach is an oral record handed down generation to generation.

What made me think about this problem was there are some players active today, that although impressive on some levels, left me cold and somewhat irritated. I kept on thinking, it this it?? Is this all you have to offer musically? Unfortunately, yes, if you are just using a formula. No great artists paint by numbers.

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