Thursday, November 09, 2006

Phrasing and the Bellows

If You Get My Meaning
I'll start by defining my terms, as people use the words "phrase" and "phrasing"to mean several different things. For example some people refer to things like slurred groups of notes, or the use of staccato, legato, tenuto, etc. in music as phrasing. This element of music is more correctly called articulation, and is not what I mean by phrasing here. When I talk about a phrase in this article I am referring to a section in the music, typically about two or four bars long, which stands on its own as a musical idea. In the case of a song, this would be the part of the melody which forms exactly one line of the lyrics. Within a phrase, there are sometimes two or more "sub phrases" - for want of a better term, and so like almost everything in music, there is a subjective element to identifying the phrase structure in some pieces of music.
So what has this got to do with playing the accordion and using the bellows? The accordion is a wind instrument. I believe it is essential to use this fact to its fullest potential, not ignore it and hope it will go away. Used well, the air travelling through an accordion should have the same impact and immediacy as that controlled by the cleverest brass or woodwind player. It should contribute to the expression and phrasing with the same facility and subtlety as the air pumping through the lungs of a great singer. To settle for less is to settle for utter mediocrity!
When I was not too far into learning to play the accordion, I was lucky to have a few lessons from a great Scottish player called Freeland Barbour. (He led the Wallochmor Ceilidh Band for a number of years and is a player I'd say is really worth a listen.) Probably the first thing he pointed out to me was the importance of phrasing, and of changing bellows direction at the start of each phrase and doing it cleanly. Talk about a blinding flash of the obvious!! I had sung, worked with choirs and played woodwinds for most of my musical life up to starting the accordion. But like everybody else I was busy learning tunes and coming to grips with the left hand and hadn't given the phrasing enough thought. I'm grateful to Freeland that I got this lead in the right direction from him early on.
I believe that phrasing is the thing which makes our music accessible to the listener. It cuts the music into "bite sized pieces" which the listener is able to deal with. Here's a little's the answer...and the next idea...and so on. Have you ever heard someone reading out the news on the radio, and they are a bit nervous or in too much of a hurry. They rush through the items and hardly draw breath - except when they stumble in mid sentence! At the end your think "I have no idea what that guy just said." Without good phrasing, this is the exactly the effect our playing has on our listeners. Especially if they are not familiar with the music we are playing. No matter how sensible our tempo, or perfect our rhythm, or flashy the piece - without phrasing it is really just a meaningless collection of notes.
Deep Breath
So, now we know what phrasing is and why we want it. How do we get it? Let's take a Scottish song that most of you will know. (Apologies to Robert Burns experts, this is just the way the words might commonly be sung without too many Scots spellings).

Ye banks and braes of Bonny Doon

How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair

How can ye chant ye little birds

And I sae weary full o care

This song is in three time, like a waltz. The syllables I have highlighted are the ones that would be emphasised when the song is sung - because these are the words/notes at the start of each bar of music. If you play this on the accordion, and accompany yourself with a simple waltz time left hand (bass note on the first beat of the bar, followed by chords on the second and third beats) the notes for these words should fall on the bass note beats.
However, and this is a big however, the phrases start with those little words "ye" and "how" and "and". So this is where the bellows movement needs to start. That's right, the bellows movement is dictated by the phrasing, which in many, many pieces of music is slightly out of phase with the strong beats. And this is where I have to part company with anyone who says that changing bellows direction every two bars is a good way to play the accordion!! Just imagine a singer doing this:

Ye (gulp)

banks and braes of Bonny Doon How (pause)

can ye bloom sae fresh and fair How (wheeze)

can ye chant ye little birds And (gulp)

I sae weary full o care

Not a very entertaining prospect, is it? Of course, I'm exaggerating a bit. In a lot of cases, box players who don't know about phrasing with the bellows get pretty good a camouflaging their problem. Sometimes they manage to sweep it almost all the way under the carpet almost all of the time.....
If you want to take this on board, start with songs, and start each song with just your right hand. Get the bellows movement right at this level first. Some of you will find even this a challenge. That's fine. At least you can see something that, if you work on it, will improve your playing a lot! One of the best methods I know for working on this is to play a line of the song in one bellows stroke, then take a HUGE pause, do the next line, another HUGE pause, etc. This gives you plenty of time to think, and builds in a good habit and an awareness of phrasing. When you are doing this, there are two pitfalls to avoid. (1) Chopping the last notes of phrases off. Hold the last note of the phrase a little extra, instead. (2) Thinking of changing direction at the ends of lines. Associate the change of direction with the start of the line, rather than anticipating it. This will set you up for success when you put the left hand back in.
And when the time comes to put that left hand back in, take it nice and slowly, be aware that you are starting each phrase in mid bar in many songs. Don't allow your left hand to "come out in sympathy" with the bellows or vice versa. Here's a little exercise in waltz time that might help you on your way:
Get ready to do a waltz time vamp with your left hand. Your C bass and C Major chord will do for starters. So the rhythm is bass - chord - chord; bass - chord - chord; etc. Now try it like this: bass - chord - chord; bass- chord - CHANGE DIRECTION chord; bass - chord - chord; bass - chord CHANGE DIRECTION chord; etc.
Good luck with this, everybody! It's one of the great "secrets" of accordion playing that should not be a secret at all!
- Kris


Anonymous said...

Excellent! Thank you for this post.

I have been wondering about exactly this issue. As with a lot of things when you are an absolute beginner, there are many "obvious" things which you aren't confident about.

I played trumpet for 15 years and of course spent a lot of time on air control and letting it be part of the music; thinking how a great singer might use it.

Reading your post brings all that back, and your post makes total sense! I need to practice this on the accordion too!

Thanks again, I greatly appreciate the time you spend to help us novices!

Kris Hughes said...

Janine - Having played a wind instrument will make this easier to understand, and probably a bit more instinctive, too. I'm sure you'll enjoy your accordion playing that much more now that you know about this.


Anonymous said...


Your suggestions regarding phrasing are just what I have needed. Brilliant! Thanks so much.

Oakland, California

Kris Hughes said...

Mike - I'm always happy to hear that I've been able to help someone. Do come back for future articles on the bellows.