Promoting a Common Approach
Interpreting Some Basic Articulations
See also Hints on Articulation from Adam Frey Master Class in the Focus section.


One of the great dictums in the wind and brass band world goes as follows: "It doesn’t matter what we do, so long as we all do it the same way, together". Like all such sayings, the advice should not be taken too literally.  Even so, it does point to an important principle that is worth keeping in mind.  It is this: bands may be forgiven for many musical sins, but a lack of precision is not among them.

Ironically, although a lack of precision is one of the easiest problems to detect, few band directors approach the subject in any systematic way. For example, while conductors will often drill a band repeatedly to obtain precise entries, few demand the same standards when it comes to releases. Yet the latter can be very important, particularly at the end of tapered phrases.



Promoting a Common Approach

Using Syllables

One very effective way to get a band to play with greater precision is to ensure that all the members of the ensemble use the same syllables when articulating similarly marked notes. The following illustration outlines the suggestions of one popular band method book -- Total Musicianship by Frank Bencriscutto and Hal Freese:


Unfortunately, the authors do not address the issue of what syllable to use when playing an unmarked note. [Some band directors use tah or too]. The suggested syllables also ignore the fact that certain consonants are easier to articulate on some instruments rather than others.  An oboist, for example, is likely to have less success using doo for a tenuto articulation than a clarinetist.  To obtain a cleaner attack, an oboe player may be better advised to use too instead.

The most appropriate vowel sound also changes with register.  Brasses in particular will find an ee sound to be more suitable in the upper register, and an aa sound more useful in the lower register.

Even so, the idea of associating specific syllables with particular musical articulations is a good one from the point of view of attaining greater precision and is therefore well worth pursuing. Try inventing your own syllables to help elicit the sort of sound you want from your band in particular passages. In general, the consonant ‘T’ produces a strong, brilliant attack, while the letter ‘D’ gives a softer one.  In very legato passages, an even smoother attack can be obtained by using the letter ‘L’. As for vowels, aa can give a rough, brassy effect, while oo might be used to encourage the players to produce a well-rounded, full-bodied sound.

Using Sound shapes

Yet another way of achieving a uniform sound within the ensemble is to promote a collective mental picture of the shape of the notes. The following diagram shows how this might be done with several common articulations.The sound shapes given here are primarily intended to illustrate changes in amplitude or volume (width) over time (length) with respect to a single note.  The general purpose note has an unchanging volume level, thus its rectangular shape.  The bell-like sound shows a rapid but fairly smooth decrease in volume after the initial attack.  The swell, on the other hand, begins softly before building up volume fairly suddenly in a manner characteristic of many compositions of the Romantic era.  Finally, a sforzando attack demands a loud, almost percussive beginning, followed immediately by a sharp drop in volume before settling at a much softer dynamic level.



Interpreting Some Basic Articulations

Several basic articulations can sometimes be difficult to interpret. For example, while it is generally agreed that a tenuto mark over a note means that the note should be given its full value, how does this distinguish a note so marked from an ordinary unmarked note? Shouldn't the latter be played full value as well? One answer is that the tenuto mark implies a slight lengthening of the tone. In some situations, however, a composer may simply have inserted a tenuto mark to remind the players that the note should not be short-changed. Most wind players also assume that the tenuto mark implies a legato attack. If this is true, then how are notes connected with slurs and market tenuto to be interpreted? In the end, it is really up to the band director to decide just how a tenuto mark should be interpreted based on the musical style of the piece and the context in which it occurs.

The interpretation of staccato markings has become progresively shorter over the centuries.
Staccato markings can be similarly ambiguous. Staccato is generally taken to mean short and light. But how short? One popular rule of thumb - which works well with beginners - is that notes marked staccato should be held for approximately half their written value. While this works in most situations, there are important exceptions. In fact, the interpretation of staccato markings has become progressively shorter over the centuries. In Baroque music, staccato notes are generally meant to be played longer than similarly indicated notes in nineteenth century compositions. In the twentieth century, the meaning of staccato became even shorter, with wind players sometimes expected to produce very short, dry effects.

Perhaps a better definition of staccato is 'detached'. This takes account of the ambiguities mentioned above. It also allows for the fact that slow music from all musical periods generally requires a staccato note to be held for rather longer than half its value. Once again, however, it is up to the band director to make a musically sensitive decision based upon the context in which the staccato indication occurs.

Staccato and accented notes can also be confused, since both have a period of silence between them. The main difference is that staccato notes are usually played more lightly. A good rule of thumb is that accented notes should be played one dynamic level above the surrounding notes.

Slurs present another set of problems. Students are often confused when they come across what appears to be a combination of a slur and a tie as in the following illustration:

The solution is to tongue the first note in the normal way, then use a very legato attack (lah) on the second note. Notes three and four (C and D in our example) are slurred in the usual way.

Trombone players have a unique problem when dealing with slurs. This is because using the slide without the tongue when playing slurred intervals can produce an unwanted glissando. In such cases, the use of a legato tongue cannot be avoided. This glissando effect only happens, however, when both the slide and the melodic line move in similar directions. In all other cases, the trombonist can, and should, connect the notes using breath support and lip tension alone in the same way as any other wind band player.