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How Jose Ferrer (In A Movie) Taught Me to Phrase

No, I never met Jose Ferrer, so this story is not about some grand meeting between a local musician and a great actor.

No, this is about my Sunday afternoon pastime of watching old movies way back in my 20's and 30's, and how you can learn to be a better musician and gain understanding from places beyond your music lessons and classes.

My college professor at the University of Missouri, Mr. Herbert, taught me all the technical skills I had been missing for the 11 years I had been learning piano from well-intentioned but unskilled music teachers. He also set me on the path to understanding phrasing, accent and articulation which helped me to play more expressively.

But understanding the subtleties of playing Classical music and other genres does not happen overnight, and in a consistently upward line of achievement.

After completing my Bachelor and then Master Degrees, I was applying what I had learned from Mr. Herbert in my own playing and later, in directing choirs, but my "EUREKA!" moment occurred on a Sunday afternoon while watching the 1950's film "Cyrano de Bergerac" with Jose Ferrer as Cyrano.

In a wonderful scene from the movie, Cyrano is trying to coach Christian in how to speak to Roxanne in a way to make her fall in love with him. Christian tries to recite a line Cyrano has written, and he does so without inflection or the wrong inflection and thus without emotion. In frustration, Cyrano grabs Christian and says the line at least 4 different ways, accenting different words and stretching out some words longer than others. Something like this (Disclaimer: this is close to the original, but not exact.)

HOOOW do I love thee!

How DOO I love thee!

How do IIII love thee!

How do I LOOOVE thee!

THAT'S IT! That is what Mr. Herbert was trying to teach me. It is the essence of phrasing. What do you bring out in a phrase (which note or notes?) Can you stretch or hold the important notes, or play with a little more emphasis?. Crescendo here or decrescendo? Move forward or slow down a little here? A phrase can be expressed many different ways, and it is the meaning/emotion you want to convey that determines your musical choices.

It is the difference between playing/singing correct notes only, or expressing an emotion, a thought, a phrase. I started applying the idea to the piano music I was playing, as well as in my choir directing. Over the years, many listeners have complimented me (sometimes with tears in their eyes because they were touched) on the expressiveness of my musical presentations.

THANK You, Jose Ferrer!

Thank YOU, Jose Ferrer!

Thank you, JOSE FERRER!


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