We can’t teach you perfect “musicality,” because it can be very personal: people often disagree about whether a given performance was “too mechanical,” “overdone,” or “just right.” We’ll leave the details to your mentors and your own taste.
But there are two principles that we feel pretty comfortable will be useful regardless of the details of your approach:
- Musicality goes beyond accuracy of pitch and rhythm; and
- Musicality benefits from focusing on larger groups and shaping more than on details.
The first principle, of course, means that we should ideally observe any written-in indications of dynamics, tempo, and articulation. To follow such instructions while also accurately performing pitch and rhythm requires a lot of “brain space,” so don’t expect it to happen with extremely difficult melodies right away. Rather, to practice following these markings, work with music whose pitches and rhythms are simple enough that they occupy only some of your brain, leaving space for everything else.
We may also wish to “fill in some gaps,” either where there seem to be insufficient markings, we disagree with the written markings, or we wish to do something with a parameter that isn’t often notated (rubato, timbre). There are few hard-and-fast rules here, but common principles include playing the second time through a repeated passage a little softer, and slowing down as we approach the end of a section—the bigger the section (phrase, group of phrases, formal section, entire piece), often, the bigger the slow-down.
The second principle, fortunately, is aided by chunking. But the more we can see those chunks as participating in larger processes, the more we will craft them into something with even larger-level coherence and beauty. Once you have identified the mostly-3-to-5-note chunks of a passage, see if you can describe the passage as a whole in a sentence. Different musicians will be comfortable with different levels of abstraction and interpretation, but as long as it works, it’s good! Consider the following approaches, which can all be valuable to different people:
- “There is a gradual increase in tension until the climax, and then suddenly it’s all released” (abstract)
- “It’s like the music is running from something, with more and more desperation, until suddenly it finds a hiding place and feels safe” (highly personal interpretation)
- “The dynamics and pitches both rise until measure 7, then abruptly fall” (more concretely musical)
Goal: Develop the habits of observing notated markings beyond pitch and rhythm and of adding your interpretations.
Before you start: You’ll need a manageable excerpt of melody (ideally 1–2 phrases) of an appropriate length and difficulty to leave “brain space” for thinking about musicality. You may wish to choose something written for your primary instrument or an excerpt from a sight-reading anthology. This activity may be done either with the voice or with your primary instrument.
- Prepare to read through the melody. As you go through the procedures we’ve been practicing, however, be sure to observe any notated dynamic, tempo, phrasing, and articulation markings.
- Consider whether there are locations where it might be appropriate to add your own ideas for dynamics, tempo, phrasing, and articulation. This is particularly appropriate when there is a section or excerpt without many markings from the composer, but you can also experiment with adding new ideas to music that gives more detailed instructions.
- Sight-read through the melody, balancing pitch, rhythm, and other factors.
- Evaluate how it went! If you were unable to think about all of this at once, you may wish to repeat the exercise with a less-difficult excerpt. If you didn’t like how it sounded, repeat steps 3–4, revising your interpretation.