a white feather pen

Creating “lightness”

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Composers (or a performer’s interpretation) often call for “lightness” in music. How do you play a wind instrument “lightly?”

When I discuss this with my students, they often suggest that the way to play lightly is to be lighter with their tongue. When I turn that around on them—”is there a situation where you should use a heavier tongue?—they are quick to say no, the tongue should never be heavy. Sometimes instead they suggest using “lighter” air, but upon further interrogation they aren’t able to explain that without stumbling into no-nos like “less air” or “less powerful support.”

Creating musical lightness is easy, if not completely intuitive. The key is to forget about trying to make the tone light, and focusing instead on making the texture light. That means creating some contrast.

For example, consider the second movement of the Bernstein clarinet sonata. After an Andantino introduction, the musicians are instructed by the composer to play “Vivace e leggiero” (lively and lightly). Here are clarinetist Wonkak Kim and pianist Eunhye Grace Choi:

Notice the subtle but important contrasts Dr. Kim creates in the clarinet line. Many of the notes have a small accent at their beginnings, then quickly taper to a softer volume. Some notes get more emphasis from higher volume or from sustaining the note with less taper. The lightness comes from stringing softer notes between the more emphasized ones, or even from individual notes having louder and softer moments within them.

The volume in the Bernstein clip is soft, but this approach is very effective at louder dynamics, too. I stress this when rehearsing my university’s jazz big band, since things can easily get heavy- or angry-sounding at fortissimo. To bring some lightness back into a loud, thickly-orchestrated passage, I ask the band to look for the marked or implied accents and let those set the fortissimo ceiling. The in-between notes can be brought back down perhaps to a comfortable mezzo-forte, giving the musical line some texture and headroom without losing the excitement of the louder dynamic.

Creating lightness in music means giving some notes some gravity, so the others can float weightlessly.


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