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Karen Allendoerfer

Exaggerated dynamics?

June 14, 2007 at 10:33 AM

I recorded myself last night playing the Bach Allemande from Suite #1. The sound quality from my camera is terrible, there's a kind of weird buzzing noise on the A string that I don't hear in person. But all that aside, I was surprised and disappointed at how limited my dynamic range was. I think I'd been so staruck by my new instrument that I was letting it do all the work. I guess I just thought it magically knew what to do :(

So I played the piece again, really concentrating on the dynamics. Not much better. So then I really exaggerated them, or it felt like that, and finally that seemed to make a difference on the recording. It sounded more interesting, less mechanical, and not nearly as exaggerated as I felt when I was playing. Again, I'm brought up short by the difference between what I think I look and sound like while I'm playing and the evidence of the camera and recorder.

It felt somewhat of out of control to play the dynamics like that. And it was quite tiring, but mostly in a good way. I only played half the movement, less than a minute, but I felt it in my muscles. I think this is a good step towards more expressive playing, but I'm kind of all over the place. And the feeling of loss of control is scary to contemplate in a performance context. I wouldn't think that's something to shoot for. I'm having a little trouble fitting this into practice goals for the week: just keep playing it like that until it doesn't feel exaggerated and unnatural anymore?

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on June 14, 2007 at 3:41 PM
If it helps any, little cameras, cell phones, etc., purposely remove the dynamics from what they're listening to. There are several reasons for it, one is that they don't know what kind of volumes it's going to be required to accept and it isn't practical to put a manual input level control on it. So there's a stage near the front that instantly turns anything up if it's below a threshold and anything down if it's above a threshold. That's why it doesn't matter much where you hold a cell phone or how loud you talk into it. That's a design goal. With most musical instruments, I think there's not a huge difference between the minimun that can be heard and the loudest that can be played. I think perceived dynamics has a lot to do with attack and tone quality.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 14, 2007 at 4:32 PM
Thanks, I'm pretty clueless about recording equipment.

I probably wouldn't have been as quick to believe the recording if it didn't reinforce things I've heard in the past from my teachers, such as my having a tendency to play everything between mp and mf. Or a difficulty with applying bow pressure *and* moving the bow fast at the same time.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on June 14, 2007 at 5:04 PM
The teachers may have been right, but I'm right about the gear too, so put those things together:) I've had teachers that I doubt understood dynamics though or at least weren't aware enough to teach it. One I remember at least, would tell me the same thing, but then put him in a concert hall and he'd be doing the same thing, so he'd be heard, and be heard with a decent sound.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on June 15, 2007 at 1:27 AM
its true taht alot of players are cluless about dynamics. Basic rule of thumb is use more bow for more sound. Focusing on more pressure is often illusory.
It is also worth remembering that vibrato is not to be confse dwith dynamics. Vibrato provides intensity. So I wold work ona piece without vibrato to use the bow to get your dynamics. Then add the vibrato.
You can rveerse this procedure by playing with an even bow speed and litlte dynamics but vary the speed and width of you vibrato as though this wa screating the dynamics.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 15, 2007 at 2:36 AM
Add to what others have said, I also find Fischer's advice on "using less bow when a note is important" (Practice) worth noting. That is, in order to make a note to sound more substantial or louder, you move your bow not faster, but slower, closer to the bridge and dig a bit deeper into the string. I used use too much bow and often it sounded airy. Now I view the bow is such a very long stick that it can always draw out more notes than I imagine myself capable of. It's very rewarding to learn to play a note with good sound by using a fraction of the bow I used to use. K1 and Mazas1 are all good remedial workout for this I think.
From Pauline Lerner
Posted on June 15, 2007 at 3:44 AM
I think that Jim made a very good point about recording devices. I'll assume, though, that you really don't have a wide enough dynamic range. My advice to you is, first, relax. A calculated, technique-driven approach may not be the way to go here. Let yourself go and let the violin pour out all its strength when you want it to; let it whisper when you feel that's right. You may be surprised at what comes out of your instrument (and your soul) when you allow it to.
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 15, 2007 at 4:00 AM
"just keep playing it like that until it doesn't feel exaggerated and unnatural anymore?"

Quite often, when I feel that I'm playing naturally, I'm playing with bad habits that I'm not aware of. Shift is one example. I shift by ear for years since I was a kid. Now my teacher wanted me to plan my shift (i.e., to give exact timing, to think ahead the target and other fingers in relation to the one that is hitting the note, the thumb and shape of the whole LH, and sometimes the wrist, etc.) It feels very unnatural to me to do the shift this way and I still want to go back to my old ‘natural’ habit after a few weeks of practice. But I know the only way to improve my shift is to do all I can not to go back to do what was used to do. I'm not suggesting you have bad habits, but if you believe something can be improved, I’m sure you’d agree that one’s own subjective feeling of naturalness is not always reliable without some external verification. I’m sorry if this sounds like nagging, Karen, I think getting lesson once in a while from a really experienced teacher will give you leaps and bounce (is this how people say about great progress in English?):-)

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 16, 2007 at 11:54 AM
So here's where I get kind of confused. More bow, as Buri recommends, or more digging into the string as Yixi recommends? I think that for myself, I have a tendency to do too much digging and not use enough bow. My sound, when it goes bad, tends more towards the gritty than the airy. (And besides, this is a viola).

The paradox between a relax and let go vs. a more technical approach is evident too. I think (but don't know for sure) that relaxing and letting go is something I have to earn after doing some technical woodshedding. Otherwise if I just start out with relaxing and letting go, it sounds lazy and unfocussed. It's as Yixi says, what feels "natural" is sometimes just what's easy. But it is wonderful, after a week or so of suffering through exercises, to just let it come out. That's the place I have to get to.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 16, 2007 at 12:03 PM
Yixi, I think what you mean with respect to English idioms is "progress in leaps and bounds," but I like "leaps and bounce" better for violin/viola playing!
From Yixi Zhang
Posted on June 17, 2007 at 1:41 AM
Karen, sorry for the confusion. I’m a self-imposed TA for Buri so I’ll try to explain (away) the apparently inconsistency between Buri and my points. Don’t let Buri know this though, as I might be completely off the wall and I’ll lose my TA chance before I officially getting it:)

I think dynamic is closely related to tone production. According to Galamian and others such as Fischer, three chief factors affect the tone: a) the speed of the bow stroke, b) the pressure the bow is on the strings, and c) the soundpoint (where the bow is between the fingerboard and the bridge). Buri was talking about a) bow speed and he seemed to suggest that bow focusing on bow pressure too much could be problematic. I was focusing on c) soundpoint, which requires different speed and pressure at different lane in order to make a ringing tone. For instance, if your bow is very close to the fingerboard, then no matter how fast you move the bow, you won’t likely to get a ‘ff’ sound. Whereas, if you can get “f” by playing a whole bow at the soundpoint exactly between the bridge and the fingerboard at 70bpm, you may only need a half as much bow to play the same loudness if you put the bow very close to the bridge.

I hope Buri would agree with me that the problem with focusing on pressure is not so much that pressure is not important for dynamic, but it is only one of these three chief factors and that it can be improperly over stressed by some teachers. You can see how this can easily happen by, say, working on Kreutzer1. If you play it by staying at one soundpoint all the way through and try to get the dynamic, you have to use pressure only because the piece doesn’t allow you to speed up the bow. But it is illusory to think this is the only way to change the dynamic because a lot of time you don’t need to save the bow like this so that bow speed factor can kick in instead of pressure. Also if you change lanes (soundpoints), you’ll get to choose the speed and pressure accordingly to get the sound you want. This is what I was talking about that you can get a very dense ‘f’ sound by draw the bow slowly next to the bridge, instead of moving the bow fast near the fingerboard. Try this and see the difference in tone and you’ll know what I mean.

I probably haven’t done a very good job explaining, but if you could, take a look at Fischer’s Basic if you can get it from your local music library or music store. It has great explanation and exercises.

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on June 17, 2007 at 12:22 PM
Yixi, that is a very clear explanation. It relates to me in that I "naturally" focus on pressure first and am a relative latecomer to using more bow, and am an even later comer to placing the bow in different lanes. Difficulty with the third aspect is what can most make me feel "out of control" when playing.

For example, if I am trying to play ff and am therefore applying intense pressure close to the bridge with a lot of bow, the bow can fly off the string, and/or scrape and scratch. I like my new viola bow (a Coda aspire); it is easier to handle than the one I was renting, but it is still heavier and more cumbersome than my violin bow and I'm still working with it and getting used to it. (And I can't say that I handled the violin bow with perfect aplomb either).

I'm working on this most directly with the Hook Sonatina because it has simple repeated passages at different dynamic levels. It's a lot harder with the Bach.

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