Monday, February 25, 2013

Soloing, part 7: Phrasing

What is solo "phrasing"?  It's the feeling of how a passage or rhythm(s) starts, ends and links with the next.  In a song in 4/4 time (which 95% of taiko is in), ending patterns in 4 or 8 feel natural.  When things don't end on the "1", unless deliberate, it makes for an uneasy phrasing.

When you read, punctuation provides a sense of phrasing.  A long sentence without punctuation feels awkward and bulky.  A sentence with punctuation in weird places makes it really hard to read (ex: "Fourscore and seven. years ago our...fathers, brought forth on this continent a new; nation conceived in - liberty and dedicated! to the proposition that all, men are created, equal."  Ouch.

Phrasing is one of those things that can make or break a solo.  It's natural for some, difficult for others.  There are generally four kinds of phrasing in solos, from "Mush" to "Hard"
  1. Mush -  patterns ending wherever they end instead of syncing them up to end on the "1" of whatever meter the song is in (4, 6, 8, etc.)
  2. Soft - some patterns ending on the "1", but some of them ending early or late (often leading to making the next few patterns in odd places.)
  3. Firm - most patterns ending on the "1" but playful placement of patterns that don't.
  4. Hard - all patterns ending on the "1" throughout the solo.
A lot of players stay with a Hard phrasing because it's safe and comfortable.  While this is often good for the audience, don't let it limit your creativity or growth.  You can try playing "through" a pattern of 4 or 8 (playing in 8 or 16, for example), or playing a smaller pattern with a fill for the remainder and ending on the next "1".

Firm shows the most control over phrasing, but can easily turn Soft.  Also unfortunate is when a player thinks they're being playful but it's gone to Mush.  I see this with new players who aren't solid enough yet and experienced players who "sell the show" in energy and movement but lose phrasing in the process.

Not ending on the "1" is syncopation on a macro level - instead of weaving in and around the individual downbeats in a measure, you're focusing on feeling the "1" of each measure.  Some people choose to solo Soft, thinking it shows complexity - and while it can, more often than not it just sounds awkward.  Leaving listeners unable to feel where your "periods" can disconnect them from the enjoyment.

A great way to train your brain to feel phrasing better is to cycle patterns (in your head or hitting something).  Play a pattern in 4 or 8 (or whatever meter you're trying to get better at).  Repeat it for a total of 2 or 4 times.  Then a new pattern, repeat that.  And so on and so on.  You cannot expect to count the meter in the midst of soloing; you have to train your body to FEEL the phrasing.

A lot of times, a solo that's a bit on the Softer side can be salvaged with a Hard ending.  If you can figure out how to end on the last "1" of whatever song you're in, you end on a successful note.  However, if you've been going Firm or Hard but end Soft or Mushy, it can really ruin all the work you've just done!  Like gymnastics, you can save a weaker routine with a strong landing, but if you fall after a brilliant routine...that's what people will remember.

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