Phrasing: Making sense of the music

Carl Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto Op. 57 can be a daunting endeavor to learn, and even listen to! Despite several listenings and attempts to learn the piece myself, the music just never seemed to make any sense and I lost interest in the midst of my frustrations. My disdain for this piece of music was changed to utter delight and satisfaction the night I had the pleasure of hearing it performed at a concert by Anthony McGill, the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic (2016). For the first time, the Nielsen Concerto made sense.  It was clear that Mr. McGill understood this music to its fullest and was able to communicate clearly with his audience. It was so refreshing to finally understand the complexity of this music, all because the complex phrases were formed into a cohesive message by this fine performer.

Phrasing music is so important to master! Without clearly defined phrases and ideas, the music loses its essence and reason for being and is little more than noise. Without clearly defined phrases, music is like a poorly delivered speech in which you hear the words and sentences, but the message is unclear and confusing. The audience is lost and your efforts have become fruitless.

Understand the Music

A basic analysis of the music is very helpful in deciding delivery. Sight-reading the piece and locating similar or duplicate phrases is an excellent start. Finding the parts of the music that relate is important so the music has cohesiveness in your performance.  The thematic material should always remain recognizable and connected–it should not be so different that it is foreign or perceived as a new idea, except maybe in the case of a theme and variations (even then, phrasing can be very important to helping the audience understand).

When reading, always play every marking on the page–thisRelated image will, at the very least, give you a good sense of the composer’s intentions. However, this particular article will be focused on how to play phrases that do not “play themselves” so naturally.


When it comes down to it, phrasing has everything to do with breathing. Proper breathing technique must always be used, as it is essential to proper execution of the phrases. Some tricky phrases are phrases that have rests within them which create a separation of the flow of music–if you let them, that is. Many times, the trick is to breathe without obviously breathing.

Rests should not be considered automatic places to breathe!

Frequently in standard literature, rests are written within the phrases but are not there for breathing. You must identify the phrase before you identify a breathing point–if a kind editor or the composer him/herself marked it in the music already. There are plenty of etudes that address this very thing, which is a great place to start in mastery of not breathing in rests just because they are there. (Melodious and Progressive Studies Book 1 ed. by David Hite has a number of simple etudes that may help).

C.M. von Weber’s well-known Concertino has many rests within the phrases that must not be interpreted as places to breathe. In this piece, Weber’s phrases are four-bar phrases in antecedent-consequent form, which really means they should be interpreted as eight-bar phrases, making breathing in appropriate places even more challenging. The theme (Andante) has four eighth rests in the first two phrase pairings, and ideally, no breath should ever be taken in any of these rests, though it is terribly tempting to do so in measure 42 right after the second phrase begins. In the 6/8 section, there are a number of rests that should be “played” as part of the phrase.  In both of these places in the music, the breath should be made to be continuous as if the rests do not exist, yet the silence of them must still be observed. Be sure to finish the phrase before taking a breath.

Sonata Op. 167 by Camille Saint-Saëns is a strong example of rests that want to interrupt the phrases. The first movement has one-measure snippets of phrases that are separated by nearly a full measure of rests! The “fragmented” phrasing used is definitely challenging and the bigger picture must be taken into consideration. One should not breathe after every fragment, as is tempting, and the way to train yourself not to do this is (and also to understand the phrases) is to hold out the last note of each fragment through the rests, connecting it to the next fragment. While holding the note through the rest, a slight crescendo may help in making the connection. The broken line will have much more cohesiveness and the fragments will not seem so isolated when the music is played as written. The places to breathe should now be understood and performed. Remember to mark the breaths in the music and stick to them!

There’s no place to breathe!!!

Sometimes it seems that the phrases go on forever and there is no sensible place to breathe! What to do when there are no “long” rests, and we feel that there is no place to breathe, even at the end of a phrase? If circular breathing is not in your arsenal of skills (it is not in mine), music with long phrases can be very difficult to tackle.  Sacrificing a note for a breath is acceptable in some cases, and works well in many technical passages where it seems the composer forgot they were writing for a wind instrument. C.M. von Weber and Francois Devienne are two of the many composers that left “no place to breathe” in some of their technical passages, so omitting a note becomes necessary. Luckily, the omission is often hidden by the accompaniment. Many editors have chosen to place optional breaths in the place of notes at certain points so that this trick works and the audience is oblivious to this minor technicality.

What happens where there is not a good place to eliminate a note? Schumann and Schubert frequently neglect the need to breathe, yet write these long, elaborate phrases that require a full breath to execute! You must decide where the phrases are and figure out how to breathe quickly and efficiently between them.  These are the most exhausting practice sessions, as you are required to play larger chunks of music to be sure you have the air you need! Sometimes it takes many repetitions of phrases to figure out how to regulate your air supply. Remember that it is generally better to have too much than too little.

Breathing before you need a breath is an important and effective approach.

Recently in a flute master class, I listened to the great Sir James Galway tell a student that she must breathe in a way that the audience was unaware of the breath. Breathing before you truly need the breath is the only way to pull off seamless playing without unmusically gasping for air between phrases. Taking a partial breath through the nose may be the only way to get through the phrases without interrupting the musical flow.  If you wait until you MUST breathe, you may be in trouble. It is okay to breathe on top of an already existing breath before you actually NEED to breathe, and this approach is necessary much more often than you might think.

The phrases in Finzi’s Clarinet Concerto are very lengthy (especially in the second movement) and require immense air control to execute properly. Sneak breaths are often not even an option, but soft “sniff” breaths become essential because there is NO time to reset the embouchure between phrases, as many phrases push on into the following phrase without break.

Practicing to the point of having excess air is a necessary approach to tackling long phrases with ease.

Connecting the Phrases

Phrases often work in pairs–an antecedent and consequent phrase, as was mentioned above regarding Weber’s Concertino.  Be aware of these pairings and make them effective by treating them as a unit.  The crescendo–diminuendo is good to keep in mind when shaping phrases, but not all phrases follow this formula, as our spoken language has many variances, including the way we finish our sentences: Is the music making a statement of declaration? Asking a question? Shouting out with exclamation? Is the phrase connecting to another with a comma? A conjunction?
Do your best to relate the musical phrases to spoken language and it will make more sense. You can even add “lyrics” to the music if it helps!

Challenging phrases are sometimes misunderstood, so experimenting with various ways of playing it may help; if nothing else, your practice session will be more interesting! Play the phrase exactly as printed. What do you think it says? Then try playing it in various ways and make note of the results (which may surprise you):

  • Sing it!
  • Crescendo the end
  • Diminuendo the end
  • Play the entire phrase with a long crescendo or diminuendo
  • Play one phrase into the next by not breathing
  • Shorten or lengthen the last note
  • Play with different articulations
  • Exaggerate the written dynamics. REALLY exaggerate!
  • Play it backwards (yes, read it right to left)
  • Change the tempo
  • Add a ritardando or accelerando
  • Swing the eighth notes (jazzy!)
  • Do something else creative that is not listed here

Go back to how the phrase is written. Maybe it makes more sense now. Maybe the breathing is easier. Maybe you now understand what will not work and what will. Recording yourself and playing it back may help you decide.

Even if your technique is suffering, play the phrase and not just the notes and rhythms. Get a good sense of the overall picture and the technique will (hopefully) make more sense. Whatever you do, go boldly into the phrases!

IN SUMMARY, start with what the composer wrote. Exaggerate the markings. Play with expression and know what you are saying to your audience. Experiment with various approaches to discover what make the phrase(s) work. Use proper breathing techniques and breathe appropriately.

As with anything, phrasing comes more naturally for some, but it is something we all must practice so we can perfect our delivery and share music the way it is meant to be heard and understood. In that, we find satisfaction.

As always, practice with patience and perseverance.


Music mentioned in this article.

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Clarinet Concerto Op. 57
Composed by Carl August Nielsen (1865-1931). Modern. Sheet Music. Duration 27 minutes. Edition Samfundet #ED6. Published by Edition Samfundet (PE.ED0006).
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Clarinet Concertos
By Martin Frost; Lahti Symphony Orchestra; Osmo Vanska. By Aho Kalevi; Nielsen Carl. Super audio listening CD. Published by BIS Records (NX.BIS-SACD-1463).
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Concertino for Clarinet, Op. 26
Clarinet and Piano. Composed by Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826). Edited by Arthur H. Christmann. Woodwind Solo. Classical Period. Clarinet solo single. With solo part, piano reduction, introductory text and performance notes. 16 pages. G. Schirmer #LB1819. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.50261990).
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For Clarinet and Piano. Composed by Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921). Romantic. Solo part with piano reduction. With Standard notation. Opus 167. Theodore Presser Company #164-00257. Published by Theodore Presser Company (PR.164002570).
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Clarinet Concerto, Op. 31
Clarinet and Piano. Composed by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). Edited by Harold Perry. Boosey & Hawkes Chamber Music. Boosey & Hawkes #M060030161. Published by Boosey & Hawkes (HL.48009719).
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Finzi: Clarinet Concerto, Baga
By Robert Salter; Guildhall String Ensemble; Richard Stoltzman. By Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). CD. Published by RCA Legacy (NX.RCA60437).
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Deuxieme Sonate – Clarinette Et Pianoforte
Clarinet and Piano. Composed by Francois Devienne (1759-1803). Music Sales America. 28 pages. Editions Musicales Transatlantiques #ETR001207. Published by Editions Musicales Transatlantiques (HL.14040520).

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