Reviewed by Raymond Monelle
Is musical expression physical or mental? These two books take opposite sides in this discussion. ‘Musical thinking solves technical problems’, writes David McGill (p. 264); ‘logical thinking about musical phrasing mentally unites the elements of technique and musicality’ (p. 267). Alexandra Pierce takes a different view, proclaiming that ‘movement to music provides a spiral for ongoing transformation, for becoming more fluent, coherent, and shapely in expression’ (p. 1). ‘This active, inner engagement’, she continues, ‘has quite a different appearance from that of someone who is giving thought to a topic or who knows the answers already’ (p. 7).
McGill and Pierce come from different worlds. He is principal bassoonist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; she is an emeritus professor at Redlands, California. While McGill breathes the air of pragmatic and simple-minded professionalism, Pierce inhabits a land of pleasant fantasy, genial narrative, and spacious self-assurance. Pierce’s book is full of accounts of movement sessions with music students, stepping, arm-circling, hand-stretching. It is hard to imagine this going down well with the hard-boiled students at British conservatoires. McGill, on the other hand, as well as his programme for expressive phrasing, offers advice on practising, auditioning, and appropriate behaviour when playing in a symphony orchestra, all clearly the fruit of extensive first-hand experience.
McGill’s book is primarily a tribute to Marcel Tabuteau (1887–1966), principal oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra and teacher of many of America’s wind players of the twentieth century. McGill is too young to have studied with Tabuteau, but some of his teachers, notably John de Lancie, successor to Tabuteau at Philadelphia, were taught by the great man. Tabuteau was responsible for a whole school of wind playing and influenced musicians of every kind, including composers like Samuel Barber.
His special message lay in the area of phrasing, which he taught by means of a ‘number method’. He used numbers for various purposes: to represent volume, with 1 for soft and 5 for loud, to represent rhythmic grouping, the count always beginning after the beat so that the between-beat notes lean on the following beat, not the previous, and for colour—phrasing being often accomplished by variations of timbre rather than volume. A student who practises in this sort of detail is being subjected to a vital discipline; there will be no room for expressive whims.
According to de Lancie, phrasing is ‘the art of defining . . . the grammatical structure of the music’ (p. 131). But when it comes to planning this grammatical structure, McGill is less helpful. He notices that most music is in 4-bar and 8-bar groups and that phrases are sometimes irregular in length (pp. 134–5). He finds elements like metre and rhythm important in controlling phrasing, but his examples are elementary in the extreme. He even admits that phrasing is like breathing or walking, but Pierce would find his discussion crude.
True to his practical professionalism, McGill presents many pieces of everyday good advice. Vibrato is important, but one should avoid the habit of starting notes straight and broadening into vibrato. A ‘beautiful tone’ is not enough for expressive playing. Trills should begin sometimes on the written note, sometimes on the note above, and there is no simple rule to tell one from the other. And so on.
McGill is not an academic musician and he makes endearing errors. He comments on the ‘five-bar phrase used by Brahms’ in the ‘St Antoni’ Variations (p. 135; the whole score of…