Uwe Warschkow, harmonica

Lesson: “Five Pieces – Threnody”


“Five Pieces – Threnody”

Today we have worked on ‘Threnody’, the fourth movement of Gordon Jacob’s ‘Five Pieces’. It is a wonderful melancholy tune. The harmonica begins solo, before the strings (or the piano) repeat the main theme. Although the notes appear easy to play, to play the melody lines legato and in a musical expressive way, that is quite a challenge.

“Now begin. In bar 1 you have to draw all notes.  Play the ‘c’ with the slide pushed in. Take care that you don’t separate the notes. Breath all notes with one continuous flow. At first play without vibrato. We will come back to vibrato-playing later.”

. . .

He already stopped me after bar 2.

“The harmonica must sing! Imagine how a singer would do it. Singing can help you to understand the phrasing. The ‘c’ at the 3rd beat in the first bar is the climax of the first phrase, which leads to the answer in the second bar. Therefore, keep the volume of the sound, don’t let the sound get away. Make a little breathing pause before you begin to play the answer in bar 2.”

“Try it again.”

. . .

He let me play every part of the piece, again and again, until he was satisfied. When I was playing, Tommy Reilly watched very carefully, how I was moving the instrument, and he corrected me immediately, when he thought, I could do it better. And he did not let me get away with the slightest legato inaccuracy. Quite often the transition to the next tone was not smooth enough. Every nuance was important to him. Sometimes I was already satisfied, but he wasn’t. And he was right.

He attached great importance on phrasing the music.

“At first you have to identify the musical phrases. Where is the beginning, where is the climax and where is the end. Usually you have to play a crescendo until you get to the climax, and you have to play a diminuendo from the climax to the end of the phrase. Between two musical ideas normally there is the natural moment for a breathing pause.”

In this way we continued the lesson with great intensity.

“As I already told you, you have to internalize each musical phrase as a unit. To do so, you first have to concentrate yourself on playing every note with the exact length. Only then you will get the musical line and rhythm, which the composer had in mind when he wrote the piece. If you have problems to connect certain notes within a phrase, your concentration should be at first only on these notes. Try first to connect them properly in a slow tempo. Don’t increase the tempo until you are able to connect them in one flowing movement. If you don’t do it, later you will always feel not safe when you come to play this passage. You will inevitably tense up, and if you are not relaxed, you can’t play it in a musically convincing way.”

“After you are able to connect all notes of a phrase in one flowing movement, you should add the dynamics, that means, based on the given intensity of sound, add a crescendo and a diminuendo. As I already told you, singing the phrase is the best way to find out, how is the course of tension in the phrase, and how you should play it on the harmonica. Sing with the harmonica!  Then you’ll also feel when you have to play a accelerando or a ritardando, even if it is not written in the notes. As you know, we call it agogics.”

“If you study a piece in this way, then you will not play any longer only from one note to the next one. Then you will play all phrases of a piece as a musical unit.”

So he went on working with me. I admired his patience. It also made clear for me, why his playing is distinctive different to all other classical harmonica soloists, I had listened to before. It is the perfection in every detail. In his playing everything sounds natural. Even the most difficult passages seem to be easy.

Special attention he paid to the phrase, beginning at bar 30.

“Begin at bar 30. I would like to draw your attention particularly to the trill in bar 31 and the transition to bar 32.”

. . .

“Play it once again. You have built up the trill slowly. But the trill should be heard immediately. And don’t play the trill too fast, as most harmonica players do it. The trill must be embedded in the flow of the melody. Remember, the sign ‘tr’ is just an abbreviation for a certain number of notes. And don’t play the following two sixteenth notes as an ending of the trill. Play them as grace notes to the following ‘g’, as a separate phrase. Then the following thirty-second notes should be played as an upbeat to ‘a’ in bar 32. Not quite as fast as it is written.”

I tried to play it several times in that way. More and more I got an better feeling.

“Yes, that was not so bad. You know what I mean. Go on practicing this part.”

Then we listened twice to his interpretation with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which he combined with references to what we just had practiced so intensively.

“Before we finish our lesson for today, let us have some words about hearing. You may be surprised, when I say, that listening to your own playing is the most important part to develop a good playing technique. That applies to the harmonica as well as to every other instrument. Probably you may think, my hearing is quite good. Yes, no doubt, but with full concentration on it, you will experience, that you can refine your hearing abilities tremendously.”

Tommy continued:

“Whether you are practicing or playing in a concert, your entire focus should be on listening to yourself. With the ears you are able to control the quality of your playing. If you’re always aware of every little nuance, whether the tone length, the tonal quality, the articulation, the dynamic, or the tempo and phrasing, then you will be amazed how much a critical hearing can improve your playing technique. We have already spoken about the best way of practicing, and that every single note is important in the musical context. If your focus is always on critical listening to yourself, then you will not botch any longer across certain passages. Instinctively you will improve your movements as well as your breathing technique. Therefore, in my opinion, it is wrong, that obviously some teachers work with their students only on the difficult passages of a piece. Every note is important!”

It gave me something to think about.

“After you have practiced every phrase in this way, you will be able to put them all together for a good performance of the piece.”

“I think, for myself and my career, it was most helpful that I always was able to be a good listener to my own playing.”

“I feel, it’s enough for today. Let’s have a cup of tea.”