Strategies for Appropriate and Effective Phrasing for Clarinetists

with Dr. Julie Detweiler

Julie Detweiler is a Vandoren Artist-Clinician. The goal of the Vandoren Artist-Clinician program is to enhance the quality of the music experience in your school. This is made possible by Vandoren and a network of woodwind professionals around the country with a passion for music education and performance.

VandorenUSA: You have described on your website under ‘Teaching Philosophy’ the term, “thoughtful phrasing.” How would you describe this concept?

Julie Detweiler: Thoughtful phrasing, for me, means making musical decisions and having a strategy for performance. The most successful performances have a strategy. Each phrase has been considered from a standpoint of direction of the line, harmonic structure, overall structure of the entire work, tension and release in the melody, articulation, dynamics and tone color so that the performer can have not only the understanding of what the composer may have intended, but also what he or she, as the artist, is trying to express within the music, and how to use the tools at his or her disposal to convey that to the audience. Then, this thoughtfulness is repeated enough times to create consistency for the performer. 

It is, ironically, in this consistency that the performer then has the freedom in performance to be more expressive! Once you define the outcome, the parameters and structure, you can deviate or improvise as you like, if necessary or appropriate, of course, because you have developed a deeper understanding of what your goals are for the music and the audience.


How can you practice thoughtful phrasing?

JD: Generally speaking, there is often more than one way to phrase anything. Having said that, with younger students, it is important to teach what some of the acceptable phrasings would be. 

Any type of phrasing that goes against the natural tendencies of the music, either harmonically or melodically, or which simply doesn’t account for the antecedent/consequence, tension/release nature of a work will not have the same or as powerful an effect on the audience. 

It is also important to understand historically if something has been phrased a certain way throughout the performance history of a work and why. Then, the performer can decide if it’s valid or not, if they will keep with tradition or try something new. 

It’s important for the performer to listen to several recordings of the piece which he or she is working on and to record himself or herself. Equally important is for the performer to listen back to himself with an objective mind, listening for what is effective and what could be better.

"The most successful performances have a strategy." - Julie Detweiler

Does your mindset and phrasing change when you are playing in orchestral, chamber and solo performances?

JD: The basic structures and tools used to create phrasing, direction of the phrase, harmonic structure, dynamics, articulation, tone color, always apply to good phrasing, but how you approach these elements changes based on the setting. It is always, regardless of genre, important to know the score and the instrumentation.

In solo performances (with or without piano), there is a greater ability to showcase dynamics and the performer makes personal, individual musical decisions.

In a chamber setting, musical decisions are generally made by the entire group or the individuals whom are participating in any given phrase or moment.

In an orchestra, generally the conductor makes the musical decisions, although depending on the conductor, individuality may be considered for major solos. In an orchestra, you also have “subsets,” if you will, of the different sections, each of which also has a leader. In the woodwind section, the principal flutist is considered the default leader for phrasing concepts within tutti passages. Within each instrument family section, the players defer to the principal player for phrasing ideas.

It’s also important to note that phrasing differs from not only genre to genre, but from composer to composer. A fp for Beethoven is not the same as a fp for John Phillip Souza! And then there is the “solo piano.” Particularly when playing in orchestral settings, but also sometimes in chamber and solo settings, a marking of piano during a solo phrase should not be taken literally as the performer needs to project over the ensemble.

Blend and balance play a vital part in phrasing in all settings. As a clarinetist, other considerations for all settings when it comes to phrasing include projection and blend, especially in terms of tone and articulation. And this is where the mouthpiece, reed, ligature set-up is so vitally important. Every player needs to have equipment that responds best for them, create the sound that they desire and to create an even, accurate and consistent response.


What are some strategies to phrasing contemporary music?

JD: Again, the basic structures and tools always apply. We, as performers, are always looking for the direction of the phrase and for ways to use the tools at our disposal to convey that direction to the audience. Often, in contemporary music, the harmonic structure may not be tonal, so it’s important to be able to analyze the work and find the over-arching structure. That can sometimes mean that we have to work harder to convey the music to an audience who may or may not be as familiar with Mandat as with Mozart.

It is important to also keep in mind that some contemporary music is based more on tone color, sound, effect, rhythm, and space, rather than harmonic direction. It is important to understand the composer’s intent as much as possible, and with contemporary music, that’s often as simple as a professional email to the composer!


Have any of your students entered competitions or had recitals where you’ve discussed dealing with potential issues during performances (in reference to phrasing)?

JD: Another issue with creating thoughtful phrasing is accommodating the clarinet! Some of the more common issues that we deal with as clarinetists include: getting quieter as we play lower on the instrument, delayed response of the reed, less-than-short articulation (especially if you’re blending with oboes or other instruments that are more naturally disposed to playing shorter articulations), going smoothly over the breaks, accommodating alternate fingerings (rights and lefts, flips and altissimo notes), getting sharp as we play softly, as well as the general intonation tendencies of each individual instrument. These things should be taken into account as the student is working on the phrasing. One of my teachers taught me to create the phrase slowly with all of the elements exactly as I wanted them before going any faster. It was sometimes painstaking work, but in addition, can be creative, intense and enjoyable.

In terms of performance, preparation is the best defense! It allows for the freedom of being truly expressive in the moment. Having said that, it’s not always easy to be in the moment in performance. One of my teachers said to me once that he estimated he lost about 20% of what he had painstakingly prepared in an audition or on the stage due to just the act of every moment, every performance being different and having different sets of mistakes and anxiety levels.

For me, preparation is key, but I also have to do the mental work. I try to have some type of contemplative moment every day and I visualize my upcoming performances. It’s important to have multiple opportunities to perform the same program to see how the phrasing (and the performer) stand up under pressure. It’s always great to play for peers and colleagues and to have an informal performance before the actual recital or concert. When it comes to dealing with students, part of teaching is recognizing these human factors and trying to provide tools, like literature and visualization techniques, to help.

Key Takeaways

1. For effective phrases: have a pre-performance strategy.

2. Ask yourself questions when dissecting a phrase.

3. When consistency is reached, you have the opportunity to be more expressive!

4. When teaching younger students how to phrase, demonstrate acceptable phrasings.

5. Listen back to recordings of yourself with an objective mind.

6. Your approach to phrasing changes with each solo, chamber and orchestral setting.

7. Contemporary music is based more on tone color, sound, effect, rhythm and space.

8. Know the pitch tendencies of your own instrument.

9. If you can’t phrase the line at a slow tempo, you can’t phrase it faster.

10. Preparation is the best defense. Visualize your performance, play for the ones you love, and you will succeed!

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