Memorizing dynamics

December 14, 2007 at 05:35 AM · I've been trying to commit more of my repertoire to memory than I did in the past. I'm not very good at this, and it wasn't something that any of my teachers ever emphasized when I was a student. However, I find that having a piece memorized helps me feel more confident when performing and helps to quell anxiety. Knowing a piece by heart also enables me to practice in my head when I have a spare moment but do not have my instrument or the music available. So I press on.

I have gotten to the point where I have the bowings and fingerings--that is, the notes--for several movements of the Bach suites committed to memory. I can play the pieces from beginning to end without getting stuck or tangled up. If someone said "play something" on the spot, I could do it without completely embarrassing myself.

And I think I execute major dynamic markings--fortes, pianos, and big crescendo's. But, it's kind of weird, I'm not *sure* I do, because I can't remember afterwards. I'll look at the music afterwards and say "oh, there was a mp there" or some other subtle marking, and I'll have no idea if I did it or not. The only recorder I have is my digital camera, and it's not very good with dynamics.

But that's not exactly the problem. I can get a better recorder, the problem is really how to use it. What type of memory do you invoke in order to remember dynamic markings? For example, I say something silently to myself in my head to remember the notes: it's some combination of the note name and the fingering. A C with a flavor that tells me it's the third finger on the G-string.

I'm not really sure how I remember the bowings. Sometimes I do get messed up and slur too many (or too few) notes and then find myself on the wrong bow direction, or at least at the wrong end of the bow. I think that when I do get it right, it's a kinesthetic memory I'm tapping into, and that's true for dynamics too. But that approach seems kind of limited to me, and faulty. I don't really know how to enhance it or make it better/more consistent.

This may sound all a**-backwards to you if you have a good auditory memory. But if you're reading this and are tempted to write something like, "just listen!" or "just use your ears!" I'd appreciate it if you could break that down a bit and be more specific. What am I listening for? And what happens when I try to listen but don't remember?

Replies (31)

December 14, 2007 at 07:28 AM · What I'm finding is (I've never had to memorize anything like bowing--sheesh), but, I layer it.

First the notes, then I cheat with the fingerings after I've made myself sight read, making sure I get the bowings in slow motion.

Then, I approach the dynamics--though I'm not all that good with them 'yet' just like the notes, and leave the music in front of me(most of the time), until I have them memorized. You might find they are just like remembering the notes.. Good luck.

p.s.(Kung-Fu moment). I never really focused on dynamics, because I've always been intent on making them my own.

December 14, 2007 at 09:31 AM · Al-- Your layered approach is eminently sensible, and that's what I've been trying to do, but that last layer is tough. I feel kind of stalled there.

In some other threads, people have written that they try to learn a piece all together, from the beginning. That seems like it would be too much at once, on one hand. But on the other hand, I think that dynamics and phrasing can get short shrift. "Learn the notes first, then you can worry about the dynamics." They're often treated like the icing on the cake or the cherry topping, when really they're an essential part of the meal.

December 14, 2007 at 10:30 AM · Karen, icing done well, is just part of the job.

p.s. Layering, is not my idea. But it works well, and is common sense in many ways.

p.s.s. I also encourage you to take simple things, and create your own frosting--I mean this--uh, I believe you know I mean this. ;)

December 14, 2007 at 09:51 AM · Karen,

I'm somewhat hesitant to post being a beginner (I read and learn from YOU!)

However, I've been watching master classes by Maxim Vengerov this past week (he is SO impressive and comes across as such a nice guy) and thinking about some of his tutoring methods (visualizing/imaging) to help with my playing and to advise my children.

He quickly got people to introduce dynamics/expression by conjuring up a picture of:

i) a conversation,

ii)quiet gossiping between courtiers,

iii)speaking up loudly greeting a monarch

My suggestion is if you think up some 'tale' of what is going on and then express it through the music, you should be able to recreate the dynamics because at each stage the scene that unfolds will dictate it to you.

I'm definitely going to continue mulling this over for some time to come.

I realize the pieces you are memorizing are LOOONG! Might it be feasible for you to do this? You're a brilliant writer. This requires conjuring up a plot.

Just my two penneth worth.

December 14, 2007 at 10:43 AM · Ditto Bernadette! Music, tells a story. How many computer scientists does it take to scramble people's information... Make it your own kid. Copy from others, but put Karen in there!

It's good to copy and mimic and learn, but at some point; and, really beyond the context of your remarks, flow with those dynamics as well.

I've heard renditions of Bach, that were really 'too' sweet? That kind of thing.

Your stalling is nothing more than a psychological obstacle I bet--whip it's tail!!!!

December 15, 2007 at 03:37 AM · Karen,

With the Bach, it may be easier to relate it to the dances (and how the Preludes introduce the dances). For example, if you study the piece and see a phrase repeated one after another (like in the 6th suite Prelude, first few lines), it is much like two people interacting with each other (1st occurance of the phrase is F, the next is p). The other is a transition to the change of a key or a different phrase - there will be dynamic changes there as well typically.

The idea of thinking of music as a story is a good one... or a narrative between two or more people.

December 15, 2007 at 04:00 AM · That was very well said Mendy... My coach described parts of Bach, including Bouree's, exactly--like that. And what was I working on when I grabbed a breath over here.

At U. Cinn. Conservatory--they actually danced for flow of expression in Bach....

December 16, 2007 at 03:27 AM · Greetings,

Karen et al.,

here we are tiptoeing around a really interstign subject which is absolutely central to the most efifcient way of learning the violin;).

I envy you becoming aware of this stuff at such an early stage. The basic concept central to practice is asking whta the purpose of praciticng is... sounds like a koan , but the idea that one is praciticng to improve four basic things (intonation, rythm, tone, expression) is surprisingly far from people`s minds when they pick up the insturment. Probably, the majority of string palyers pick up the insturment without a conscious plan, play soemthing and then ask retrospectively `whta now?` when they actually havent really listened to what they played anyway. What happens next?

The string player tends to automatically make a decision that intonation was bad because that is what is hard for us. Thus Perlman notes that piano player stend to be more musical because they are able to think of phrasing right from the beginning...

However, once one makes a conscious decison to pay attention to the four aspects of ones perfomance then one can actually -choose- to practice the aspect that apepars weakest. In your case this would probably be dynamics, but it certianly varys day by day.

The next step is to isolate precisely where you consider one of the four criteria is not fucntioning IE in bar five ther eis a crescendo but I actually got weaker on the last two notes. Ergo I practice the last two notes, then put them in a wider context etc etc.

If one doesn`t have an approahc to praciticng similar to this then ther e is actually not a great deal of point in practicing at all. Its just performing.

A very detailed explanation of an appraoch like this can be found in a book by Lewis Kaplan called something like `artistic Development of Musicians.` East to find via Shar or google I think.

Would make a nice Christma spresnet for yourself.

Kaplan also make sa rather interesitng point- if one approaches a piece from a phrase and dynamic point of view firts before really focusing on small detials of notes the faster the piece develops. IE big to small is more efficient than small to big.



December 16, 2007 at 04:57 AM · Karen,

To get back to our sheep though... I thought your question was interesting because for me, the dynamics are an integral part of the expression of the piece. As I'm sure you'll hear other people say, the dynamics are as much about tone color as volume, so you don't so much have to remember the MP or F marking as you do remember the type or color of the tone. So, for example, I don't remember the actual dynamc marking at the beginning of the Mendelssohn concerto (although I"m pretty sure it doesn't say forte), I remember that penetrating, thin but beautifully singing thread of sound that I want, and that IS the dynamic, no matter what the stupid word in the music is. At other times, the dynamics are balance suggestions, and then what I'm remembering is something like, "oops, gotta stay below the viola here", or "man, gotta cut through that loud first violin". Again, the actual word used on the page is irrelevant, having already been translated into a relevant direction that has to do with either tone color or balance. Since tone color and balance both are so redundantly tied into the music, and the way one conceives and practices it, I never forget them like I might bowings or notes.

Hope that helps to illuminate, Lakoff style, what I'm thinking about when I'm thinking about dynamics.

December 16, 2007 at 07:33 AM · Hi Karen, I’ve been away from for a while and just saw this thread – great questions and wonderful responses!

These days for me, dynamic is not another layer at all, but its basic part of the piece that I’ve got to deal with from the very beginning. This is what dynamic means to me:

a) It is about bowing: it’s about the speed, contact point, weight of the bow and bow division associated with a particular note or particular part of a (longish) note. I can’t learn the note right if I don’t also pay attention to which part of the bow I should be using, the distance it is to the bridge and how fast it ought to move, etc. For instance, if the last two notes need to be louder when I’m doing a down-bow, I have to remember to save the bow early on or change the contact points or both, or I may have to change the bowing to make it an up-bow, etc. Every important note has to be planned this way.

b) It is about left hand, such as vibrato speed and type of vibrato I use. This is also part of the initial consideration when I learn the notes, especially the longish ones. Another one I recently learned is that the way/strength that my LH finger land down on the string can also create certain dynamic for the phrase. One example is the Adagio of Bruch G minor Concerto, bars 43-45, I’ve been taught to achieve “sf” on these notes by hammering the LF finger rather than pressing the bow. How cool is that and how can I not remember once learned!

c) It is about learning how the piece supposed to sound as a whole, including the piano or orchestra parts. I would listen to the whole piece again and again to get a broad sense as to the contour of the music as well as which parts the violin has to ‘compete’ with the other instrument and where she can whisper to herself. I also try to sight read the piece by singing and imagine how the ‘song’ I like it to sound. It’s much easier for me to fine-tune the phrasing by singing than playing. Once I’ve got a pretty clear idea in my head how I want this piece to sing, then I’ll put extra marks on the sheet, even if it means I’m not strictly following what the music suggests. Yes, I do this to my teacher. Sometimes she buys it, sometimes she doesn’t. But this is a thinking process that I’d like to go through to learn the piece.

So I guess what I try to say is that if I’m learning a piece by memory, I learn the bowing and dynamic and fingering all at once, and since they are so interwoven, it would be hard for me to miss out one aspect without missing the others which would make the checking necessary before I’m off for too long. This sounds like I’m trying to achieve too much all at once, but as I do small chunks each given time, I in fact find this is way more efficient than trying to break the piece down usual steps such as first getting all the notes, then intonation, then dynamic of the whole piece, etc, etc.

Also, of course dynamic has a lot to do with where you are playing. If you are in a small studio without any furniture, you’ll hear more dynamic going on with the same amount of playing in a larger and less acoustic-friendly place, vise versa.

Finally, I do have to listen to my playing very, very attentively to discern whether the dynamic and the tone are working together. It’s not always easy even when I’m most concentrated because our ears have to be trained and can be refined. This I believe is big part of on-going violin learning for most amateurs. I think it was Ricci who said that violin playing is all about being careful. I used to know what ‘being careful’ means but not any more, as I think there is always more room for me to be careful when it comes to listening to my own playing. That’s said, I’m certainly hundreds times more careful now than a year ago. This is what gives me some hope. I'm sure you feel the same way.



December 16, 2007 at 08:28 AM · Yixi---I 'very' much agree with you in a practice spirit, but not in a musical spirit.

If a violinist solos, the orchestra in my mind should meet them as much as they meeting the orchestra.

The synergy, is music.

Further, music is about living, emotional expression on some levels; and, in the abstract layers a certain kind of existential moment as well. Some go so far as to call it one of the primary elements of mythos.

I experienced the Beauxart Trio recently. And though they practice much as you see things I think, I dare say that their synergy flows not in a randomness, but at least in a "are we having a good day" kind of thinking.

Thus, the flexibility to adjust to one or the other's day--a generlization, creates the need for a mature flexiblity in dynamic that can adjust on the fly.

Now personally, some days I play largo based on the weather, or my mood, or playfulness. Some days, I play more stacatto than others. Some ----days, I rock the heck out of Sonata in C for the heck of it. This, of course is existential.

The matter in my mind then is arriving at a mature place, where that synergy 'in group' can express, flow, evolve, and inspire, without--sounding canned.

December 16, 2007 at 08:47 AM · Albert, thanks for you comments but I was talking about practice and I practice performance so I'm very much aware of that the music is the begining and end and everyting in between during the practice. I'm not sure what specific point(s) of mine that you disagree with though.

December 16, 2007 at 10:17 AM · It's a living moment--you--and the orchestra, or whatever. Connecting that can change on--well, connections first, and synergy second, but not in some haphazard way.

Let me say it another way. I have accompanied one of the best voices in southern West Virginia on piano. We love each other as friends and sort of family.

I'm always listening to her inflections, breathing, ...... And not striving for practiced entries--but for ''''magic''''. What if, one element ''inspired'' you for more forte kind of thinking--on a given day?

There'd be a master class. The practice'd be towards the rose garden.

December 16, 2007 at 01:29 PM · These are wonderful responses! Thanks! Many things for me to ponder for a long time. Would anyone mind if I printed them out to discuss with my teacher? (If I can get to my lesson tomorrow. The snow looks pretty bad outside my window right now).

One thing that comes to mind as I read people's different approaches, though, is that I still have to work with my own brain. No matter where you go, there you are. And I'm a serial rather than parallel thinker. I don't really multitask. It may look like I am on the surface, but what I'm really doing is switching back and forth between tasks rapidly, in a serial fashion.

I read somewhere that many (even most?) people do this. That multitasking is one of the great myths of the modern world. Don't know if I believe this is true generally or not, but it sure seems to be for me.

So a layering sort of approach appeals to me at a gut level: I can imagine switching between the different layers more and more rapidly and fluently as I get increasingly comfortable with each. But I can't really imagine splitting my attention that finely in the moment. As I've mentioned elsewhere, I have ADD, so there isn't that much attention available to start with. Yixi's comment about being "careful" struck a chord with me, but a dissonant one. There's only so "careful" I can try to be without becoming totally self-conscious, overwhelmed and paralyzed. Yixi, I know you didn't mean it that way for yourself. I'm fascinated by the differences in the ways people are able to think.

December 16, 2007 at 01:47 PM · karen, my simple answer is that it is easier to remember something if you can sing it inside or aloud, and that the singing at least to you makes sense in terms of phrasing and expression.

of course, as others have suggested, to be able to sing it "correctly" takes much more understanding and studying.

December 16, 2007 at 07:57 PM · Karen,

Thanks for your understanding. When I said being careful, I didn't imply you or anyone aren't careful enough in the sense that the term is usually understood. It’s not a notion in a moral or prescribed sense that I’m addressing. Being careful uttered by Ricci in his recent DVD I saw, strikes me as though he is pointing toward a general truth or Tao (Dao) or the Way about the fundamental approach a violinist should adopt to be good at it. This is the sort truth is probably beyond words so one has to borrow the everyday expression 'be careful' to 'stake' a large unknown but fascinating territory to work towards or within. It is something I can sort of sense it but have a hard time to put my finger on, whatever it is called.

In terms of what I said about learning bowing and dynamic and fingering all at once, I think this is consistent with what you described the way you mutitasking, namely switching back and forth swiftly. It’s not as mythical as it sounds. I don’t think our mind is designed to literally do more than two things at the same split second and be very good at all of them. I switch focus back and forth constantly to get the notes right at first, and eventually when I learned the notes, they become one thing for me to deal with. Does this make more sense?

December 16, 2007 at 06:38 PM · Albert, thanks for answering my question but out of utter most respect, I must ask you again what exactly you think that I'm lacking in my previous comment to Karen that makes you feel there is the need to tell me what music is? I'd appreciate it if you could quote a sentence or two what I wrote and then comment on it so that I don't have to keep guessing. As I said, I do value your opinion, especially when it's to the point.

December 16, 2007 at 07:43 PM · I think, that layering, creates 'mature' flexibilty in expressiveness. Moreover, I was not directing my comments about musicality at you.

December 16, 2007 at 10:37 PM · Greetings,

Yixi put it much bette rthan me . The dynamics are the music. Without dynaics ther eis no character because ther e is no direction (we are back to the robot). If one cannot finf the direction of evry note (does it lead into or away from the one before, the enxt one) then the music is not there.

I haveN@t seen the context within which Ricci talke dbaout being careful, but I would hazrad a gues sthat what he was talkign about was being aware. Of payign atrtention in the pracitce room. It is only through this propuinquity that one can be fre eto take risks on the stage,



December 16, 2007 at 11:13 PM · I saw that in her remarks as well, but I thought I saw Karen's question was not in a routine of applying dynamics, but in getting basic fundamental musical flow, through the dynamics.

--not--so much in how to just practice them--but to fundamentally get 'at' them...

Finally ppp:fff, are though important, symbols on paper.

And given what all she said, I think I'd advise here to take a simple but pretty song and hear it being sung as she practices ppp:fff to first,

get her in touch with dynamics.

December 16, 2007 at 11:14 PM · Greetings,

there is one absolutely golden rule of approahcing any piece of music which dictates the whole dynamic edifice. Find the single moemnnt of absolute dynamic power. (on rare ocasisons such as in the Chacconne ther emay be more than one- its veyr rare). All other dynaics are worked out exactly in relations to this specific moment. This guide sall the proportions of the whole work and is integral to any pracitce done at any given moemnt in any part of the whole work. In the case of concertos this applies to all thre emovements simulataneously.



December 16, 2007 at 11:38 PM · Karen, when I have to make a connection that's coming slowly with something, I also--try--not perfectly of course to break it down into smaller steps.

Incidentally, I just had to relearn the most basic aspects of ppp:fff on the actual instrument, and that is without even relearning to shape phrasing.

You probably have better rhythm than me---that's my cross on this thing. It use to be so bad on piano years ago, I had to actually tap my foot early on.

December 17, 2007 at 02:33 AM · This may sound strange, but have you tried to just put away the instrument, sit down, and read through the score?

Memorizing music with the fiddle in hand is great learning a specific set of muscle movements, for example, the right notes and the right time in the right part of the bow. However, this doesn't require much thinking on your part.

Dynamics require a lot of thinking. We can make a lot of connections in the music if we sit down, look at the phrases, watch the dynamics the composer put in, and figure out what we want to do with the music. I find that just reading through scores is very beneficial for when I go through and play the music.

I hope you find this helpful.

December 20, 2007 at 08:21 AM · Thanks Buri, your comments are like early xmas presents:)

Karen, I wonder how your lesson went. I just came back from my lesson where we chiefly worked on Mozart VC in G Major. I couldn’t stop thinking on my way home that just how much she has helped me with my new understanding of dynamic by working on Mozart. I’m going to make another sweeping claim here: dynamic is really not about those markings on the music sheet. The Urtext shows very little of it, but you simply can't play the piece without tons of contrasts and that articulation is an immediate concern: you've got to deal with the articulation and phrasing right away -- to do it like Buri referred to what Perlman had said about how pianists play. The dynamic markings later people put on various versions seem to be so insufficient once you start to hear the Mozart inside. But, story-making, visualizing and emoting won’t be enough if the first hurdle of the technical issues as I discussed in my earlier message aren’t dealt with. I still maintain that musical issues are often technical issues, especially for us armatures, and technical maturity leads to musical freedom. Treating a few technical issues in tandem within a particular musical context seems so trite but if we really believe in and practice it this way, it not only helps one in making more music sense of a piece therefore making one feel more natural and flowy, but it also helps the memorization of the piece, as nicely explained by Olivier and Buri in a recent thread related to this issue. Incidentally, that is why I want to learn concertos and other challenging pieces before I’m getting too old, even though I don’t intend to be a concert soloist. Certain stuffs one can learn from a major concerto the smaller and easier pieces won’t offer. And hopefully I’ll be freer after I’ve worked through them properly.

December 20, 2007 at 01:36 PM · My sense of this follows Buri,etc.,that the dynamics given should be part of your initial learning. When you try to add and remember them after you have memorized notes & bowings, in effect you are trying to undo what you have learned, which is more or less dynamics-free. So you actually have to unlearn what you are used to hearing, and learn to hear it differently. BIG waste of time and frustrating, yes! First learnings stick with us, even accidental ones. Finding a recorded model you really like and listening to it till you can almost play along w/o seeing the sheet music is a great way to build up your aural skills for this. Sue

December 20, 2007 at 03:10 PM · It always struck me that the dynamics are part of the organic whole of a piece of music. As such they should have a certain logic to them, a naturalness that grows out of the way the work is conceived. If they don't I question the work. I'll never forget the Furtwaengler performance of the Franck Symphony--he inverts many of the dynamics and the result is the most coherent performance I've ever heard. Again if you look at the piece as a whole rather than removing the parts as you learn it the dynamics should be obvious and apparent otherwise, ask yourself what's wrong.

December 20, 2007 at 03:50 PM · If you spent time thinking about how to work the printed dynamics into your interpretation, I don't see how you could forget them!

December 20, 2007 at 05:57 PM · Aural+written. yes..

Having watched several of the players on the Art of Violin 2--expect variety as well.

According to your ability to learn note+bowings+expressiveness in the same pass, you will have more--or less, luck.

For me personally I liked to learn notes>bowings>make notes of markings>then finesse from aural.

December 21, 2007 at 03:58 AM · Hmmm...Interesting thread. I never really had a problem with memorizing any other parts of music outside of the notes. I guess, it is because in youth orchestra they were always yelling, "Look at your time signature, look at your key, look at the dynamics!" those factors just became second nature and easier to memorize when you practice taking those things into account first before tackling the notes.

December 21, 2007 at 11:51 AM · I'm very glad I had all you guys to "talk" to before I talked to my teacher about this. It helped me a lot with getting my point across verbally. This thread has made me very aware of the limits of using words to talk about something expressed better in the language of music.

Because the discussion is getting a little too abstract for me now . . . my question is actually quite basic and at least originally had to do with what you say or do in your head in the moment while you are committing music to memory. When I'm learning notes, I "say" something to myself internally. It is something (but not exactly) like the note name. That becomes the mental substrate that I then commit to memory through repetition.

But does anyone actually say the word "crescendo" mentally to themselves, for example? Or "up bow"? Or "slur"? Or is there something more symbolic to visualize, like a hill or mountain? Something like one of Emily's pictures: a path in the snow going downward for a decrescendo? Something that you can repeatedly, consciously call to mind in order to memorize?

Whether it's something you use at the very beginning of the process when you're first learning the notes, or a layer you add later, either way you still need this mental substrate. Or not?

December 21, 2007 at 09:45 PM · If you could not 'hear' a piece of music before or while you were working on it, what would you do? Unless I believe, you are 'very' advanced, pulling the entire cart along at the same time is just too overwhelming. The expressiveness through dynamics will come with repetition I believe. Now, I approach each piece of music as if to make it my own forever, so that is important as well.

I still go all the way back through my material, and play everything just to keep it evolving, as I evolve. And that's not even counting my freestyle periods of just playing things that come to the strings.

Obviously, people who are always under pressure learning two hour scores, cannot see things this way. That 'substrate' you are getting at, is in repetition and mastery, as I am understanding you.

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