Grouping notes to help play semi-quavers easily and musically

It is a common experience of the improving player to feel anxious about trickier music – the more notes on the page, the more worried we feel! But there are strategies for improving the way we can approach ‘note-heavy’ sections of music so that we can play them without feeling concerned. We can apply practice techniques to get the semi-quavers under our fingers, and we can work on grouping notes so that they sound beautiful while still being relatively easy to play.

Last time we talked about strategies for learning the notes. This week we’re going to look at how to use note groupings as a way of making notes easier to play, even as you work on getting them to sound musically interesting. Let’s get started.

Grouping notes…

For my last Biber Duo concert, I played the second line of a Quantz sonata. Here are some bars from the opening movement:

A passage from a Quantz duet that I’ll use to show how grouping notes works.

When faced with a passage like this, I start off by noticing where the tricky parts are, and working on those using the techniques that I wrote about in the previous post. Once the notes seem a little more under control, I begin to look at note groupings. I try to find which notes seem to belong as a mini-phrase: which ones feel like they fit as a little group?

In the Quantz passage, I could group the notes in groups in simple groups of 8:

The Quantz passage with a basic way of grouping notes.

Or I could make a different choice. I could, for example, choose to group in 7, and have the eighth note become part of the next mini-phrase:

The Quantz passage with a different way of grouping notes - for interest and ease of learning.

Why group them like that?

  • If I play this grouping, I do a number of useful things:
  • I break the notes up into memorable phrases, so I am more likely to learn them
  • I break up the tendency for lots of semi-quavers to rattle through completely equally. This can sound scarily machine-gun-like in intensity!
  • I give the audience a point of interest. An interesting phrasing is a bit like using an unexpected word in a sentence – it gives the listener a hook so they can engage more easily.
  • I provide the other musician(s) something to bounce off. If I play that phrasing in this piece, my duet partner can choose to copy my phrasing, or even embellish it.

The notation is not the music

As amateur musicians, sometimes we become too wedded to what we see on the page. We see semi-quavers divided into groups of four, and then play them as they are written. But the written music is just a convenient symbol system – it isn’t the whole story. We need to look beyond the notational groupings and find ways of grouping notes that are based on meaning and feeling. When we do that, we make the music, and we make it memorable for everyone.

How to cure unintentional vibrato 2: running out of breath

In March I posted an article about how to cure unintentional vibrato when playing recorder. I talked about the misconceptions people have about how to breathe. In this post, I want to take that a step further, and discuss length of breath. Fear of running out of breath is a major concern for a lot of players, but you may be surprised to learn that the solution to it is a little counterintuitive. Almost as counterintuitive as putting water all over the wind way on your recorder!

We shouldn't think of ourselves like this fuel gauge - running out of breath is normal.

Fear of running out of breath

If you have a long phrase ahead of you, do you worry that you’ll run out of breath? What does that do to you physically? I’m willing to bet that it causes you to feel anxious. You may feel your heart rate spike. Your chest and shoulder muscles may well tense up, and your shoulders might raise. And I’m fairly certain that you’ll try to take a truly MASSIVE breath.

As you play the phrase, it’s likely that you’ll not really be thinking about the notes you’re playing; you’re thinking about your breath. It’s almost as if you have a little ‘breath gauge’ – like the fuel gauge in a car – and you can see it slipping down towards zero. And the one thing I bet you really don’t want to do is run down to zero on the end of the phrase.

This form of thinking is going to have some negative effects on your sound. It is going to be less resonant, because of the physical tension. An audience will hear that you’re not really thinking about the phrasing. And by the final notes of the phrase (especially if they are long), you’re likely to be suffering from an unintentional vibrato.

Obviously we don’t want to negatively impact our sound and musicality as we play. So what’s the solution?

Run out of breath!

It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s the desperate desire to store breath away that is causing much of the trouble. Our lungs are not designed to store breath – we are not squirrels storing nuts for the winter! The respiratory system is both complexly designed and stunningly simple, in that when we reach empty, the pressure difference between inside our body and the outside environment will cause our system to switch from exhalation to inhalation. The musculature is designed to go from empty to full, and back to empty. 

Running out of breath isn’t scary. It’s normal.

Think in phrase lengths

The other issue that contributes to a player running out of breath is a mismatch in air taken in, compared to the phrase length. What do I mean? Well, if you come across a longish phrase and you’re worried about running out of breath, it’s very likely that you start thinking about taking a BIG breath. You’re not thinking about the phrase you’re about to play.

One thing I’ve learned from my time as an Alexander Technique teacher is that the human body is a truly remarkable thing. FM Alexander talked about having an idea or a goal, and then leaving the details up to the “subordinate controls of the body.” In other words, if you want to walk, you don’t need to think about every specific muscle that’s going to be involved. You have a concept of what you want to do (and where you want to go), and you let the motor centres in your brain get on with the job of organising the specific muscles.

What if recorder playing was similar? What if you could look at the phrase you’re about to play, think about the end of the phrase, and then trust that your body will breathe in just enough to cover what you intend?

Doing it in practice

It can take a little while to break out of the grip of the fear of running out of breath. It can also take a little while to get to know your lung capacity and know just what your maximum phrase length is likely to be. So I suggest the following:

  • Pick a piece of music that has challenging phrase lengths.
  • Look at a phrase. Notice the end of the phrase.
  • As you’re thinking about the end, breathe in.
  • Play the phrase. As you get to the end, notice if you start to feel anxious.
  • Once you’ve played it, breathe in again, but don’t keep playing. Stop and analyse how things went.

You’ll either make it to the end of the phrase, or you won’t. It may take a little while to get an accurate assessment of your true lung capacity, and to marry that up with playing. It may also take a little while to get used to the feeling of empty lungs. But if you work on this a little every day, your ability to judge breathing and phrase length will improve, and you’ll be able to trust your system to do the job for you.

Final point: play to the end of the phrase

Sometimes it is also tempting to stop thinking and breathing once you reach the final note. But as with football, it’s not over till it’s over! You haven’t finished the phrase until you’ve played right to the end of the final note. So work on maintaining your focus.

Good luck!

Image: Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]