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Where did the dynamics go?

September 3, 2007, 9:13 PM · Greetings,

What is it about violinists and dynamics?

Around the beginning of time when I was attending the Royal College and we had orchestral training, I remember our conductor telling us a story about his wife, who was the principle bassoon of the LSO. They had a concert with Boulez who was asking the bassoon section to play pppp, a level she was unable to attain to the maestro’s satisfaction. She came home that night and immediately began designing a new kind of reed. About midnight she began changing her embouchure or whatever bassoonist do and by four the next morning she had got it. At the next day’s rehearsal Boulez didn’t even comment. She had done her job. That was all.

Recently I played a very light gig with an orchestra and twenty koto players. Most of the works were Japanese traditional songs for this combination (mmmmm….) then the orchestra finished up with the Radetzky March, which is as inimitable in Japan as Humoresque and Zigeunerweisen.

One of my brighter beginning students happened to be at the concert and she asked why the conductor used a variety of different sized beats and gestures. I explained to her that he was indicating the volume. I showed her the score and the wide range of dynamics, crescendos, dims that the composer wanted. "Oh," said my student. "I didn’t hear any of that. It all sounded the same. Loud and exciting, but the same. "

She was correct. It was frustrating for me as guest concertmaster, because I take it as a duty to play and influence dynamics yet little had happened. It was a disservice to the music.

As a parallel experience, my town hosted a trio of virtuoso players who happen to teach at the Czech conservatoire. It is an interesting measure of the standard of today’s players that the violinist could be recognized, as a remarkable soloist but isn’t. (I think he played the Bartok concerto with the LSO at the proms a while back).

Anyway, I attended four days of open lessons for 8 hours a day, usually being the only person in the audience. All the teenage to early-20 players, each of whom got four lessons, brought along the Tchaikovsky, Ysaye, Ravel etc and every time, the coach demanded the unaccompanied Bach, which really showed up where the player was both technically and musically. And he highlighted the same problem over and over. It seems that even really strong young talents are so concerned to just hit the right notes in for example, the g minor fugue, they pay no attention to putting any dynamics in. The result is really boring.

It seems people get really paranoid about playing Bach’s music expressively (not just dynamics) . It’s really sad. I wish, for example, we could get back to Enescu`s maxim that the first theme of a fugue is played piano, add a voice and the dynamic is double, add a voice and jump the dynamic, add a voice and play ff. Even that simple thing would help.

Long live the gamut of volume,


September 4, 2007 at 04:55 AM · I've totally been noticing that lately...everybody just knows how to play's quite disturbing.

Typical reply: could this be due to the advent of synthetic strings? :)

September 4, 2007 at 06:28 AM · "embouchure"

Dang! And spelled correctly.

September 4, 2007 at 06:29 AM · or is it? ;)

September 4, 2007 at 06:53 PM · I think that lack of dynamics indicates lack of emotion. When people are angry or very happy they shout. When sad they whisper. It is a natural thing. If music making becomes too intellectual dynamics may vanish.

It is also true that dynamics can be intellectually played but not really felt.

September 4, 2007 at 11:27 PM · My superb teacher demands feeling and dynamics on all etudes and sometimes even scales.

September 6, 2007 at 01:48 AM · Part of the problem is that listeners (who are also, in many cases, players) are being trained to ignore dynamics as a facet of music:

September 6, 2007 at 03:50 AM · Veracini largo helps.

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