Dynamics...

January 28, 2021, 9:43 AM · According to my teacher, my tone is quite good, but my dynamics are pretty much non-existent. I suspect this is a normal issue at my stage. (Suzuki 4/starting on the last Seitz and also on the Concertino - Rieding Op. 21).

"I" can hear my dynamics, indeed they sound great to me but of course my ear is so close. The point is for others to be able to hear them - and right now that's over Zoom. I've recorded myself with Audacity and yeah - it's far less apparent than I think when I'm playing.

I do understand the various components that go into this - bow speed, weight, and sounding point. I've experimented with the difference between my JP Corona and Codabow Prodigy, but I always go back to my JP.

Curious to hear how others may have gotten past this, or have helped their students to address this. This can't be an unusual problem. As a member of my teacher's ensemble if we could actually meet in person I suspect that would go far in fixing this, but of course we're all playing in isolation right now.

Replies (22)

January 28, 2021, 10:05 AM · Exaggerate everything
January 28, 2021, 10:16 AM · I try that Jake, apparently not enough. Yet :)
Edited: January 28, 2021, 10:54 AM · Be sure that you don't have 'audio compression' activated on your recording device. That's a feature which automatically adjusts the amplitude gain according to the recorded volume - its used for speech recording so that the person's voice stays reasonably constant. However, it will totally eliminate the dynamics of your playing.

If Audacity will not allow you to turn it off you might try Rec Forge II (at least on an Android cell). You can turn it off there (its a neat program but does take some getting used to).

As far as dynamics are concerned, you will get a lot of advice on soundpoints, bow speed and pressure. However, the instrument and its setup are also a important factor. Some violins just give full volume all the time and its hard to tame them. However, you CAN improve things with strings. IMO avoid most high-tension strings like Evah Piratzi. Lovely big sound - but not easy to play PP. Favour instead low-tension ones like Obligato or Tzigane - or my current fave, largely because of the bang for the buck, Warchal Amethyst.

Edited: January 28, 2021, 11:27 AM · Elise - thank you, I've started to wonder about the software and will look into it further. I record, and have lessons, on my Windows 10 laptop.

My mic is a Blue Yeti.

My strings are Warchal Ambers which my antique instrument seems to prefer. Given my level I'm not ready to point to my my setup/instrument - but I hadn't even considered that. I don't think Ambers are high tension strings, but will verify that.

January 28, 2021, 12:27 PM · Find an observer (real or imaginary) who can listen to you 100 feet away. If you can convince that person of the difference between dynamic levels, you are on your way to having solved the problem. Are there any parts in your concerti where you have imitations (first forte, then piano)?
January 28, 2021, 1:08 PM · Just a point - your teacher is probably correct BUT video calling compresses sound - makes the loud dynamics softer and the soft dynamics louder. As a teacher I've found the dynamics the hardest thing to listen to with students during lockdown learning.
Edited: January 28, 2021, 3:16 PM · Good to know that about video calling James. I think he is correct though, when I record myself I note the same thing...it's not near as different as I think it is.

When I record I notice the same problem moving from P to FF or FF to P. I will follow Elise's suggestion about the possibility of my recording software compressing the sound. At my level I'm not about to accuse my instrument - but if I can't move the needle on this I will visit my luthier to check my setup. At least I could play for HIM in person to see what is happening - or isn't.

January 28, 2021, 3:21 PM · Another voice for exaggerating. It seems that most people hear their own dynamic as much more extreme than it is. I don't know if this is psychological problem (we all hear what we would like to hear just like we tend to believe things that we wish to believe).

My teache told mer years ago: Your dynamic is ok when you think that it is absurdly exaggerated. He was right.

January 28, 2021, 4:44 PM · Having a good dynamic range in your playing is of course very important, but I'd be cautious about thinking dynamics as literal volume control. For example Mendelssohn Concerto II, Brahms Sonata I and the Debussy Sonata all start p, however I would approach the start of those pieces completely differently when thinking about what colour the composer perhaps was looking for with the p dynamic.
Edited: January 28, 2021, 5:31 PM · Greetings,
hear hear to James. I think sometimes one has to accept the limitations of an instrument rather than stressing out trying to find something that isn’t there in the first place.
Rather, focus on developing the most vibrant, non forced volume you can. Simon Fischer’s five tone production exercises practiced everyday will work wonders at any level of player. there is a very good video of the ‘pulsing exercise’ (sinking the bow in and out of the string in one stroke on the Daniel Kurganov website which is well worth a look.
Incidentally one of the ways we trick ourselves with crescendos and decrendos is with anticipation. That is ‘crescendo’ actually means ‘quiet’ initially but we have a psychotic ally tendency to immediately get loud which means any hope of crescendo is non existent.
Cheers,
Buri
January 28, 2021, 6:57 PM · Part of it is "seeing dynamics" because my book 1-3 students are typically using bow distribution and bow speed. For example, a crescendo phrase should look like smaller bows gradually lengthening into longer bows (which have to be faster in order to cover more length of bow). In the book 4 last Seitz, B minor section, each measure basically takes up a full bow length, but it's the speed and how it changes, which part of the bow is faster or slower, where the pause or string crossing is, that conveys the mood. (For the young ones, I ask them to come up with a personal tale of woe, such as: sibling broke my favorite toy, I didn't get my ice cream reward, looking forward to going to somewhere and it got cancelled, etc.) In book 3-4, we work on starting to interpret F and P as representing the "character" of the music or phrase rather than strictly volume.

Some students also tend to play with rather "still" posture, as if they want to disturb the air around them as little as possible, and the limited movement is correlated with limited dynamic range. Sometimes I'll play on mute to "show what dynamics look like", then ask them to play on mute to "convince me of your dynamics". Students at this level can't really "fake" their dynamics so if it looks right, it's either right or close enough for now.

January 28, 2021, 8:13 PM · My teacher says my dynamics are bad right now too, and our lessons are with Skype, and he's never said this before about my playing so it was kind of a shocker. Not sure where the settings are within Skype but I will look for them now. I know where they are in Zoom.
Edited: January 29, 2021, 7:18 AM · Everyone - thank you for your comments, much appreciated. I will experiment with exaggerating even more, and also with bow tension.

Paul - is that the "turn on original sound" setting in Zoom? I do keep the "sound compression" setting as low as it will let me. That being said, he HAS heard dynamics from me in the past, so I'm inclined to think it's the student and not the tech - but I will do what I can to rule that out.

Mengwei - that's an interesting comment about "still" posture. I may resemble that comment...

Stephen I will check those out, and I'm not familiar with Daniel Kurganov. At least not yet, and I've one of Fischer's books so will review that as well. Thank you.

January 29, 2021, 8:43 AM · Contra James: I think as a first order consideration dynamics is indeed about volume control. The finesses can and will be added later. Volume control is especially important for orchestra playing. Less for concerto playing where the piano-effect comes from the orchestra being soft and the soloist needs to adjust to be heard above the orchestra.
January 29, 2021, 8:56 AM · I was told as a young pre-teen/teen that I needed to "move more".* I was definitely not "naturally expressive" and possibly, I was also self-conscious and unwilling to experiment. I remember in recent years observing a teen girl working on Bach A minor in a Suzuki program masterclass. The teacher was trying all sorts of things to get her to "loosen up" and "express" and she was just having none of it. The parent seemed disappointed so I tried to encourage her privately that I was similar and that her daughter would come out of her shell when ready.

When I wrote about "still" posture, I had one particular book 5 teen student in mind, who is in the "needs to move more" category but doesn't exactly remind me of myself or the aforementioned teen girl. The best way I can describe my student's stillness is that her bow arm moves and her left hand/fingers/arm move but seemingly very little else does. We've been working on "moving more", which results in more variety in her bowing, which results in more variety of dynamics.

*I was also told that I needed to "breathe" - to which I would think to myself, of COURSE I'm breathing, or I wouldn't be ALIVE. To overcome this in any of my smart aleck young students, we work on breathing and cuing fairly early on: how the "music breathes, the bow breathes, and you breathe [but it's not about oxygen]". In book 1, breathing is typically a "down bow circle". Later, there is breathing for an up bow, breathing at a bow pause, breathing while the bow is moving, etc. - all of which lead to body movement, bowing variety, and therefore more "expression".

January 29, 2021, 10:50 AM · I remember something from a good conductor; Suspense, drama, is created by playing soft, piano, not forte. We can still have an intense quality of sound (vibrato, focus) while playing piano.
January 29, 2021, 2:45 PM · Greetings,
although I am a diehard Heifetz fan, I can’t honestly say his masterclasses did that much for me. However, one point he made continuously stood out : use more bow, more bow , more bow. When I look at videos of older players like Heifetz, Misltein , Oistrakh et al, they seem to have this astonishing abilities to play slashing bow strokes from one end to the other that I don’t see so much in modern players. I heard Milsteins last concerto performance and he just filled the hall with resonate sound . Now I’ve finished waffling. There’s is an interesting exercise in Simon Fischer’s ‘Practice.’ Take the Kreutzer e major etude (The one with all the bowing variations. Set the metronome at 50 and play a half bow on each note for one beat. This is quite slow and easy. Now increase the speed of the metronome slightly but keep using exactly the same half bow. Then increase slightly and so on. AS the tempo increases one is forcing oneself to go beyond the normal comfort zone and actually use the bow (of course, observing changes sound point , weight etc)
Depending on level , you can use any etude with regular rhythm patterns (no 2 for example) or even just open strings. One might even fo it in the lower half for fun I suppose.....
At the very least, after this kind of work, when confronted with a crescendo on short detache notes one can think with confidence of increasing the amount of bow one is going to use.
Cheers,
Buri
Edited: January 29, 2021, 3:03 PM · Buri, as you may know from other discussions, I'm working on the Kabalevsky Concerto, so of course I'm studying the Oistrakh recording because the concerto was written for him. And yes... no note is too short for Oistrakh to use anything less than his whole bow. Bach Double? Same. I could make an analogy to a device ... oh, never mind.

Regarding dynamics I could not express it better than Albrecht: "as a first-order consideration dynamics is about volume control." That stuff about "expressive pianos" and the speed of your vibrato and all of that is fine but those are second-order effects and may not be in the domain of the intermediate amateur. And why don't we just be forthright? If you are playing a concerto the rules have to be broken if you can't be heard above the orchestra. My daughter recently had an audition and I heard her practicing one of the excerpts, which was from the first movement of the Grieg Holberg Suite. As the auditions were by Zoom, I advised her to exaggerate the contrast and to ham up the visuals that one would normally associate with dynamics. It worked perfectly -- she got a very respectable seat. However, I will not go so far as to recommend that you fake out your teacher in your violin lesson with these kinds of antics.

And yes "original sound" is what you want in Zoom. Zoom is designed for voice conversations and powerpoint shows.

January 29, 2021, 3:34 PM · if you have a larger room or some kind of hall available with good acoustics, you might try focusing on the sound coming back to you from the room, as opposed to the louder sound under your left ear. Doing that, you'll perceive more nuance in your playing and automatically want to adjust your sound to make it bigger and more expressive. This might take a little time or the right place to hear it at first, but once you do it's easier to hear it in a smaller room, too.
January 30, 2021, 2:59 PM · Ear plugs might help in that part of the process, at least in your left ear.

To Joel: Joe Silverstein once quoted Otto Klemperer in a rehearsal. "Forte is like iron. Piano is like steel."

January 30, 2021, 6:35 PM · Greetings,
that is a really important point I think. I always recall being coached on a Beethoven piano trio with the coach saying to me about a long passage in repetitive triplets marked piano, ‘Here we have one of the most challenging aspects of this work. How top make a Beethoven ‘piano.’ That is, it is soft but it must have an electrifying intensity at the same time.’
IE the character of a particular dynamic, depending on function of passage, composer, period, aural logistics and so on, will vary immensely. I always found it very telling that Milstein (of all people) insisted that the Mozart concertos should be played within a restricted dynamic spectrum.
Maybe we should forgo the word ‘dynamics’ altogether and call them ‘characters’? :)
Cheers,
Buri
Edited: February 1, 2021, 3:21 PM · @Stephen Symchych.

I use the ear plug technique, and it works like a charm. My ear plugs are just inexpensive cotton wool which is easily accessible and does the job. Leaving the right ear unplugged will give some idea of what the audience will hear - note that the unwanted bow noise you hear in the left ear when playing loudly without a plug is much less loud than what the right ear hears on the other side of head away from the violin, and is inaudible to an audience just 10 feet away.

In particular, what I do is to use plugs in both ears when working on projection and I try to hear the same sound level as I would when playing fff without plugs. If I can hear the fff when plugged, and without bow noise, then I know I'm doing it right - and very importantly, not risking possible hearing damage.

When I was a teenage cellist I was a member of the local county youth orchestra, which gave concerts in Bristol's two thousand seat Colston Hall, now renamed "Beacon Hall" for reasons that are not relevant here. At end of an afternoon rehearsal in the hall, prior to the evening concert, our conductor Arthur Alexander, himself a professional cellist, asked us cellists in the first two desks to stay behind for an extra thirty minutes or so for special practice.

Mr Alexander asked each individual cellist to play as loudly as possible while he listened at the back of the auditorium. Sure enough, there came back the famous parade ground sergeant's shout, "I can't hear you!". When he got us playing at a level when he didn't need to shout he rejoined us and told us that we now had to play even louder, loud enough so that we could hear our own echo from the back of the auditorium, giving us further instruction concerning bow speed, pressure, sound point, and vibrato. When we had achieved this feat we were told that was how we were to play in an important passage for a cello quartet in the evening's concert. It was a success.

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