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Developing Phrases

Developing Phrases

Ed Dumas

Recently I was asked to join a Professional Development day for music teachers in the Coquitlam school district and was asked several questions on various topics regarding teaching band students. I was happy to help, of course, but when I was asked a question about strategies for developing phrases in young wind musicians, I realized that this would make an excellent topic for an article that should have been done sooner. As a result, this article deals with developing phrasing skills in first-year players.


When I give students a new term, such as “Phrase,” the first thing I want them to understand is a basic definition of the term. When introducing the word “Phrase” to students, I will then refer to their language studies for a comparison of the term. In an English class, the students will often suggest that “Phrase” is equivalent to “Sentence.” I think maybe a part of a sentence might be more accurate, but “sentence” will do. In music, then, a phrase would be a “Musical Sentence.”


From there, I want to read a passage to students, but I want to do it in a way that helps students to understand the problem at hand. Experience has taught me that if students do not fully understand the problem, they will not fully come to realize the solution either. In this case, the problem is to know what a phrase is, and how to make your music sound like it is phrased correctly.

Below is a passage for you to read. Please note that I have removed all punctuation and used the backslash “/” as an indication of where to place a break for a phrase ending. As you read this passage to yourself, or out loud to your students, allow your voice to drop in pitch at the end of each ‘phrase’ just before the backslash, and then after the backslash make a short pause and use this place to take another breath before beginning the next phrase. Begin the next phrase as if it was the beginning of a new sentence.

The following passage on beavers has been borrowed from Wikipedia for this exercise:

beavers build dams and /

 lodges using tree branches vegetation /

rocks and mud they chew /

down trees for building material dams /

impound water and lodges serve /

as shelters their infrastructure creates /

wetlands used by many other species and /

because of their effect on /

other organisms in the ecosystem they /

are considered a keystone species adult males /

and females live in monogamous /

pairs with their offspring /


Whenever I read a passage like this to students in a beginning band class, they almost always look at me with questioning faces wondering why this passage does not make any sense to them. They are much more relieved when I tell them that it is because I have completely messed up the phrases on purpose. Then they once again believe that I have not actually lost my mind!

Here is the original passage with the original punctuation. Please read this passage now as it should be read.

Beavers build dams and lodges using tree branches, vegetation, rocks and mud; they chew down trees for building material. Dams impound water and lodges serve as shelters. Their infrastructure creates wetlands used by many other species, and because of their effect on other organisms in the ecosystem, they are considered a keystone species. Adult males and females live in monogamous pairs with their offspring.

From here I will remind music students that this is exactly how their audience feels when they mess up the phrases while playing their instrument. Sometimes I have also used this next following illustration to help students understand the challenges involved in communicating meaning in writing.

There was a time in the development of our writing system when there were no spaces placed between the words, and there were no capital letters or punctuation either. Imagine the same passage read this way:

beaversbuilddamsandlodgesusingtreebranchesvegetationrocksandmudtheychewdowntreesforbuilding materialdamsimpoundwaterandlodgesserveasshelterstheirinfrastructurecreateswetlandsusedbymany otherspeciesandbecauseoftheireffectonotherorganismsintheecosystemtheyareconsideredakeystone speciesadultmalesandfemalesliveinmonogamouspairswiththeiroffspring

When our language was in this rudimentary state of development it was mostly the monks in the churches who were able to read. But even for them, the above passage would be very difficult to understand. So, you would often find the monks wandering the gardens surrounding the monasteries practicing reading, which meant saying the words out loud until they could figure out where one word ended and the next began. Until the spaces were added between the words, there was no silent reading. As soon as the spaces were added, silent reading became the norm, the publishing business exploded and reading became available to far more people in our culture!

The space between the words is kind of equivalent to bar lines in music. We do not play the bar lines, but without them, our music would not be as comprehensible. Taking a breath in music is kind of like punctuation in writing, as it causes us to pause in between phrases, and informs the audience of where one phrase ends and the next begins.

To drive this point home to students, I will then use my trumpet to play for them Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The difference, though, is that I will intentionally breathe ONLY in the wrong places. I will purposely break up the phrases with the breaths, and breathe too often as well. The result from students is that they once again think that I have lost my mind because the music sounds “weird.”

My response to them is that this is the exact feeling that their audience will have if they play their music this way. The audience will recognize the tune that the students are trying to play, but will know that “something is wrong.” The audience may not be able to understand exactly what is wrong, but they will know that something is off. At this point, I will then play the musical passage once again, but this time with correct breathing and phrases.

Now, all of this discussion is to just convince the beginning band students of the necessity of playing the phrases correctly. Notice that I have spent a fair amount of time devoted to convincing students of the necessity of breathing only in the correct places to make the music sound correct. Students have taught me that if they do not understand the WHY we do something the way we do, then they will be far less careful with the HOW we do it.

Necessary Precursors

There are two skills that all wind students must have mastered before being able to tackle phrases. The first skill is that of tonguing the notes on their wind instrument. Until they can start their pitches with the tongue, they will not be able to separate one pitch from the next UNLESS they stop the air between the notes. This means that a phrase is impossible, and tonguing will need to be accomplished first.

The second skill that all wind players must have mastered before tackling phrases is that of keeping the air moving forward from one pitch to the next. Sometimes students will have tonguing mastered but still stop the air for each next pitch. These students will need to understand that the pitches should be tongued, but connected with a continuous forward airstream.

The way I like to describe this to students is by using only “positive” statements, or things that students must do for success. Avoid using “negative” statements, meaning things that students should not do. In this case, do not ask your students to “Don’t breathe here!” This gets their mind thinking about breathing, and they are more likely to breathe there just because you made them think of breathing.

Instead, have them think about “Extend the air.” This will have better success at getting students to connect the notes with the airstream, even though they are separated by tonguing. “Extend the air” is a positive action, while “Don’t breathe” is negative action. The positive action statement will always be far more successful.

Sometimes students are unable to extend the airstream very far because the breath in at the beginning of the phrase is very inadequate. When I see this, I like to take a step back and practice the creation of a sound on their instrument using SET – EXHALE – INHALE – PLAY. If you are not sure what this is about, I strongly encourage you to read the first article in this blog which can be found here. This is an excellent description of the correct mechanics of beginning a sound on a wind instrument and is very helpful to students developing enough breath in to last one complete phrase.

Practicing Phrases

Now, if your students have the precursors of tonguing and breathing figured out, and you think they are ready to begin practicing some phrases for better meaning, choose a simple unison song that they can work on. Something like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is effective for this but many others work just as well. Instead of having them play the whole tune at once, show them where the first breath should be. I like to think of this tune as three four-measure phrases, rather than six two-measure phrases. This might be a challenge for the flute players, but most others should be able to master this quickly.

Now play for them the first phrase only, and have them repeat that phrase back to you while keeping the air moving forward during the entire phrase – Extending the airstream! Don’t be surprised if they cannot master it in the first go, just give them more practice at doing just that much before going on. You can then give them practice at the next two individual phrases in the melody in the same way before putting them all together as one melody containing three phrases.

Question and Answer Phrases

When students have shown that they can play a four-measure phrase in one forward airstream, I then often like to do a brief demonstration of Question and Answer Phrases (Antecedent and Consequent). At this point, I have usually found that little discussion is required for this, but rather just some playing demonstrations. I will ask students to decide if the phrase that I am about to play for them is a Question Phrase or an Answer Phrase. If they look at me with the furrowed brow again, I will say “Well just listen. Here is a Question (played), and Here is an Answer (played).”

Now when I play some Question and Answer phrases for them, I will just make them up on a simple scale, such as the first 5 notes they have learned so far, which are Bb, C, D, Eb & F. Do it in a simple meter, and keep the phrases to four measures long. The students will very quickly learn some basic rules such as the Question phrase will end on anything except Bb, and the Answer phrase will end on Bb. The phrase rules can get more sophisticated later on, but in the beginning, this will suffice.

First Concert Band Charts

Once students have mastered the concept of phrases and antecedent & consequent, they are then ready to begin their first true concert band arrangement. For this, you should find an arrangement that has the entire band playing phrases together, even though they may not be playing the same pitches. The students are not yet ready to play overlapping phrases and still need some practice regulating their breathing in time with the rest of the band.

There is one particular arrangement that I have used as a first concert band chart almost every year throughout my entire career as it was that successful for this important task. Each group, though, only ever played it once, because, in the following (second) year, each group then went on to more complex challenges on differing tunes.

In the old primer series called “Band Today,” there was a follow-up performance book called “Concert Today.” The first tune in that book was called “Arch of Triumph” and was written by James Ployhar. This tune had every wind instrumentalist and most of the percussion doing EXACTLY the same rhythm, even though many players were on different pitches to get the big harmonious sounds. The phrases were precisely four measures long, and everyone took breaths together in the same places. As a result, I have never found a better arrangement for reinforcing breathing together after only a few months of playing their instrument.

Most music stores, though, call this series “POP” which is retail-speak for “Permanently Out Of Print.” Personally, I think it is “POOP” for obvious reasons, but you get the idea. I suggest you find a composition which has similar characteristics including the same rhythm throughout the band and breathing together throughout the band and arrangement. While this might seem very simple in the beginning, it is important to emphasize phrases in the beginning over artistic development, which will come later.

The second tune that I always used after Arch of Triumph was “Slightly Misty” by Eric Osterling. This was the second tune in the Concert Today book. Slightly Misty maintained the breathing together throughout the band but added some very useful concepts. In this work, the bass-line players were now playing longer pitches more like a true bass line instead of always copying the rhythm of the melody line. This means that they now needed to play a bass line while still maintaining breathing in the same 4 measure phrase as everyone else in the band.

The next concept that Slightly Misty added was that of playing in 3/4 time instead of 4/4 time. This helped students to strengthen their three-feel in music while also shortening the phrases by 4 counts per phrase. Finally, Slightly Misty demonstrated an overall structure that could be easily analyzed for young players. This structure was 6 phrases in the melody, with the phrases being 4mm, 4mm, 4mm, 4mm, 5mm, and 3mm, for a total of 24 measures in one repetition of the melody. The melody was repeated three times (written out) and there was one additional phrase at the beginning used as an introduction for a total of 19 phrases throughout the entire band work.

Not only did Slightly Misty allow for more practice on breathing together regardless of which instrument the student was playing, but it also allowed for some higher level understanding such as overall structure, 3/4 time, and 5 & 3-measure phrases.

By the time students were finished with Arch of Triumph and Slightly Misty, they had a very strong grasp of phrasing and how they were to create this in the band. Unfortunately Concert Today books are now POOP, but you might be able to find some older stock available for purchase. If you do, a class set of books just for those first two tunes are well worth the investment for your beginners. In addition, the book contains numerous other excellent simple writings for first-year musicians.

I strongly encourage all teachers of beginning band students to find some similar works that allow students to practice breathing together in the beginning days, regardless of the instrument that they play. It is important that beginning band students learn early to regulate their breaths to master the concept of phrasing. Students must master this regulating of breaths together before they can be expected to master overlapping phrases across the band as are fairly common in more advanced works.

Following the strategies for teaching phrasing as I have laid out will take your students through defining the term, motivating them to consider phrasing in their playing, mastering the necessary precursors, mastering making phrases & types of phrases, and incorporating phrasing into their performing of concert band works. In time you will develop your strategies and find concert band arrangements that reinforce playing in phrases as a group. In the meantime, feel free to borrow any ideas contained in this article.


Ed Dumas is a retired band director who taught his entire career in the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows School District. Ed is now living with his lifelong partner Laurie, and their little dog Sprocket in Parksville, BC.  Ed & Laurie also work as Mid-Island reps for Tapestry Music while enjoying making music in retirement.


You can find Ed’s other writings for the MusicED Blog at:


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