Playing ppp

October 7, 2017, 4:43 AM · Dear all,

My question is how do you play very very softly with good tone throughout and no shaking of bow. When I try I lose good tone, bow stops and is shaky and as I play more over the fingerboard and less hair I lose grip and run out of bow when trying to keep consistent tone. When I get good tone I am then too loud. I can't seem to master this technique.

On a related note, might sound silly but when playing in orchestra do you strictly follow the dynamics? For example at mf you play a certain loudness keeping reserves for ff and pp? Following markings as closely as possible so at mp you go down one notch and then f you go up two notches and then mf back down one notch etc. How strictly are you suppose to follow the markings and does playing higher notes kind of automatically give you a louder sound so you actually back off if maintaining the same dynamic marking?


Replies (13)

October 7, 2017, 7:44 AM · I think you've answered your own question - good bow control is not quite there yet. I can only suggest a few lessons from a good teacher to sort it out, and a good teacher will.

Regarding orchestral dynamics, especially in symphonic music, markings such as fff and even ffff are the composer's instructions to the ensemble as a whole and are intended to encourage the brass, woodwind and percussion in particular - this is where earplugs for the string players are a very good idea.

fff or ffff for a violinist is in my view nonsensical - ff has always been used to indicate the maximum sustained volume for stringed instrument. So in a fff symphonic ensemble continue playing at your usual ff with plenty of bow and no-one will notice, not even the conductor. There is a soloistic technique to get above the orchestra and that is to start the first note of a forte phrase with a very brief sforzando. That sfz attracts the audience's attention and they "hear" the rest as being louder than it actually is.

As for playing very quietly in full orchestra I remember one occasion when a slow movement finished in pppp (or was it ppppp?). During the dress rehearsal the conductor told the string sections to lift their bows very slightly off the string over the last couple of measures but to still keep them moving. This really did convince the audience that they were hearing the best ultrapianissimo ever!

October 7, 2017, 8:59 AM · > "This really did convince the audience that they were hearing the best ultrapianissimo ever!"

Fantastic ! And very clever !!
I'll try to use this trick ! :D

October 7, 2017, 9:17 AM · I recently had the problem of a shaky p/pp tone. My teacher told me to increase bow weight (using the bow-hand index finger) gradually while approaching the tip, and release gradually during the downstroke. It worked like a miracle.
October 7, 2017, 9:58 AM · "This really did convince the audience that they were hearing the best ultrapianissimo ever."

But .. did it "project" as well?

October 7, 2017, 10:02 AM · All I can say is play as soft as possible with good sound. Your bow arm could be tense, causing the bow to bounce etc. Also keep it mind that the weight of your arm should push your fingers against the bow, not hand muscular pressure.
October 7, 2017, 10:28 AM · On a lot of instruments it is close to impossible to play beautiful ppp, this is something for good equip with excellent setup.
Of course your playing abilities matter the most, there is no other possibility than a lot of guided practise, a hell lot. Beautifull ppp is something limitited to the good players.
To the other part of the question:
It completly depends on the piece and situation. I just reacently played the Dvorak Terzetto again. There I follow quite strictly, you need something less than p later if there is a p.
If you play Bach Urtext you wont find much about f or p.
Thinking of Sibelius violin concerto: if I am not mistaken it says p at the beginning. Most times I heard mp there or a loud tone with piano tonecolour.
Edited: October 7, 2017, 12:03 PM · @Paul But .. did it "project" as well?

I'm quite sure it did, right to the back of the 2000-seat Colston Hall, even though it doubtless slipped under the ambient 25dB of the audience background in doing so ;)

I suspect that in most well-received performances there is some element of smoke and mirrors, examples of which I gave in my previous post.

October 7, 2017, 11:31 AM · If you have problems with bow shaking in ppp, try dropping your wrist lower than the bow, so it supported from below not suspended from the fingers.

Cheers Carlo

October 7, 2017, 2:59 PM · Thanks for the tips. I will try the couple of them that were mentioned. There were some nice insight that I never thought about.

I forgot to add that adding vibrato makes it even more challenging to keep good sound andbow control. I guess my vibrato is just not loose enough and the violin shakes and is very evident at ppp.

October 7, 2017, 3:24 PM · If you try Nathan Cole's one-minute bow experiment you'll be playing ppp whether you want to or not! :)
Edited: October 7, 2017, 4:22 PM · I suggest watching the ALL STAR ORCHESTRA that has just resumed on PBS, starting it's 3rd season last week. Comprised of top (low-digit-stand) players from top US orchestras you can clearly see how the expert string players ALL use their bows the same way to vary tone and dynamics. Also - in all 3 seasons this "show" has had presented the best orchestra video I have ever seen - and if you have watched many you know they usually suck - but for this show they have 18 video cameras recording continuously so they can edit what you see to perfectly match the sources of most important sound.

But to play sort basically use less bow, closer to the tip and closer to the fingerboard the softer you want to play. I was always taught to not vibrato for very soft passages. If you find your bow shaking when you do this, try holding it around the entire frog - like a Suzuki baby - it might make your bowing steadier. And be sure you are bowing straight because a crooked bow stroke can tend to skip.

For very loud playing - bow as close to the bridge and as fast a bow as the appropriately chosen sounding point allows - too fast and it will not grab and the sound will go bad (depends on your fiddle). Strong vibrato really brings out the massed/mixed overtones that are engaged by the width of vibrato in the vicinity of the chosen pitch to make the sound seem many times louder. (One problem I've noticed with some orchestras (z.b., Vienna Philharmonic) is that when "overdone" in orchestra big vibrato can give the violin sections a very fuzzy sound because massed vibratos are never in sync. and the apparent pitch is very broad.)

Edited: October 8, 2017, 11:16 AM · Soloists and Orchestra string players have a different approach to dynamics. The soloist needs to be heard at the back of the hall, so they are never less than a well-centered, "spun-tone" mp-mf. In an orchestra section, if I see anything less than pp I take all the weight off the bow, slow down the bow-speed, turn off the vibrato, fake it, eventually just stop. I'll have to try that air-bowing trick next time. Each instrument has a maximum volume that it can produce; if you try to push it harder, the quality just deteriorates, gets noisy, not louder. Most composers write dynamics for the whole orchestra, not individual lines, so when you see fff-ffff in a Tchaikovsky crescendo, that is for the brass and percussion to take over. What is more important than the written dynamic is your parts' importance; do you have the main melody or the background. jq
October 9, 2017, 2:59 PM · You could always take the easy way out, pretend to play and softly hum the music.

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