Noticing Dynamics in Music, and Making Them Heard

October 5, 2020, 11:25 PM · There is a truism among musicians, that it’s more difficult to play soft and slow than loud and fast. If you favor fast, loud playing, the reasons may be that, not only does it feel better, but it’s also difficult to change a long-established habit. However, you would be missing out on some of music’s most cherished qualities – color, mood, relaxation, and delicacy.

violin music

Even though dynamics may be written clearly on the page, why are they often ignored? If you’re playing a festive march, a loud dynamic would be pretty obvious. However, a very sad, slow melody may be marked forte, but playing it that way may feel wrong. First, you have to get your mind around it. In this case, the performer has to not only be flexible dynamically but figure out the composer’s intentions.

Conductors have always had the job of conveying to musicians and audiences the essence of the music. They are like dancers, with the added responsibility of understanding the complex equation between music and signals. When I realized how much I relied on them, I wanted to figure out what they did. In the realm of dynamics, they had much to teach. Conductors show clearly that dynamics are obvious and inevitable. I was so busy trying to play the notes that I wasn’t seeing the forest for the trees. No wonder there’s a division of labor among orchestras and conductors.

Awakening Your Dynamics

To think along dynamic lines, a musician should be ready to identify them well in advance of when they’re needed. Organize the use of dynamics so that they fit comfortably into your personal way of making music. (The suddenness of a forced, artificial dynamic change is jarring. Instead, enjoy the luxury of inviting the dynamics in yourself.) The musical conversations you have with yourself could start with knowing what the appropriate sound, mood, or articulation would be to describe the music. Dynamics is a very good place to start.

To open up that world, and to give yourself control over when to change dynamics, start with a comfortable exercise – play with your strongest and favorite dynamic.

  1. Play a piece that you know very well, with a strong forte dynamic and an assertive, solid bowing technique. This will give you a secure foundation from which you can make decisive dynamic changes.
  2. Listen to yourself with attention to the phrasing and musicality. You’ll hear the feeling conveyed by the music, which will help you anticipate any upcoming dynamic changes. Avoid playing “just the notes” because, without musical context, dynamics feel more like a nuisance than a beautiful, organic change.
  3. When changing from forte to piano, keep up the strength of your technical foundation. There’s a tendency to get complacent, but full sound and musical intent should always be prominent. The focus and definition of sound should be first and foremost.

  4. Bring Out the Inner Dynamics of a Phrase

    It may not be written on the page, but a violin section will play with swells, diminuendos, and prominent accents that they mutually agree on. It’s one of the miracles of music that the ear picks up such nuances.

    How can you practice such a technique that brings out dynamic subtleties? As an orchestra player, you can start by listening carefully to your section and identify the phrases in terms of depth of sound and range of dynamics. The direction and shape of the phrase will not only be obvious, but it will also be slightly different than what you’re doing. To join others and be at one with them, you have to give up something of yourself and replace it with a newly crafted phrase. When you repeat passages in your practicing, make at least one small change. This will help you adapt more quickly to whatever your conductor and colleagues are doing.

    Sometimes the music is so tender that you’ll discover an articulation you didn’t even know you could do. Think more like a sculptor or painter, with lots of shapes, sizes, and colors in your palette. You’ll find that the music makes more sense when you think about dynamics before anything else. How your mind enters a phrase says a lot about you. Do you start with the left hand, play the notes, and add something with the bow? Do you look for a shape in the music and make sure you fill it out? One thing you can be sure of - if you enter a phrase thinking about the dynamic, the music will speak to you more clearly and honestly.


    October 9, 2020 at 02:50 PM · This article has given me so many things to ponder about dynamics and all the wonderful musical attributes that accompany them. Thank you! I'd be interested in your take on why loud/fast and soft/slow always seem to get paired (particularly for an amateur like me). I have great difficulty with the soft/fast combination!

    October 9, 2020 at 03:58 PM · Diana, the soft-fast combination is indeed the Achilles heel for not just violinists , but wind players as well. The fast part tends to be unexpressive, and the soft part makes wallflowers out of the best of us. When I listen to the greats, I notice they’ll place an emphasis or accent where I would have never thought to put one. It makes complete sense. The lesson I learn is to polish a passage and add one more thing. It reminds me of the great movie about gospel singers, Say Amen, Somebody. The title reminds me that during a great song, someone needs to say amen just to put an exclamation point on what’s being heard. M

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