Minute Clinic – Why Do All Articulations Sound The Same?

One of the things I have noticed over the past 5 to 10 years when I hear my pieces performed is that most articulations in the music are pretty much played the same – hard and short! Obviously this is not what composers intend when they write a staccato, marcato or an accent, but this is what I hear. I believe it is important to teach students the difference between these three articulations and also explain to them that it is different depending on the composer of the piece you are playing and when the piece was written. You would never play a Mozart staccato the same as a Sousa staccato.

What this comes down to is note length and emphasis. It is my opinion that in general groups play too short and with a lack of sonority. Arnold Jacobs the famous tubist of the Chicago Symphony used to say “length equals volume,” meaning if you play a note with more length it will be perceived as louder to the listener. So, if you want to emphasize a note (the definition of an accent as far as I am concerned) you give it more length. You also do this with more air for more emphasis. An accent does not mean tongue the note harder and make it shorter! I also find it helps to eliminate the word short from my rehearsal vocabulary. Use words like light or separated instead. Again the way you play any articulations is style dependent and should be different for every piece.

Another systemic problem that I see from my experience as a music editor is that many composers and arrangers today put in too many articulations. Some put an indication on every single note. I believe this leads to all of the marking becoming meaningless, and it is just about impossible to perform. Think of some of the great march composers like Sousa and Fillmore. There are very few articulations, but when they want an note emphasized it is accented. That note then stands out, is important and can then be treated that way. If every note is marked then which one is more important?

So, remember to teach your students the difference between the different musical markings as they relate to sound. Relate playing the appropriate style of articulations with speech and the natural inflection and emphasis we place on certain words and syllables. Let’s get rid of the every note is hard and short syndrome that has invaded our performances. It’s worth the effort!