Make Your Band into Dynamic Detectives

Mike Lawson • ChoralCommentary • September 8, 2016

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As the marching season fades behind us and we move into a more concert band-focused period of the year, we are all looking for ways to improve the sounds of our indoor ensembles. Amongst the many factors we have to contend with – tone quality, rhythmic and pitch accuracy, intonation, and more – one item can often hide from our ears “in plain sight” as it were: balance.

Improper balance not only obscures the quality of your band’s sound, but it also negatively affects all of those other factors I just mentioned.

Now, when we speak of “balance” in the musical world, we are actually speaking of two separate ideas:

• the ratio of the volume of lower notes and voices to higher notes and voices

• the ability of the audience to clearly hear the primary line, followed by the secondary line, and the tertiary line.

It’s that second item I want to tackle. We all seek clarity in our ensemble, meaning that the audience members always and clearly know what the most important voice is. This is much harder than it sounds because it requires our ensemble members to know not just their own parts, but the parts of everyone else in the band! Therefore, your students must become dynamic detectives.

Teach Your Students to Play in 3-D

In order for your performers to interpret the dynamic markings on their page, they need to know if they are the foreground, the middle ground, or background part. This is harder than it sounds, as it requires understanding all of the other parts in the band. My favorite way to teach this is to play a game of “Who’s Got the Melody?” Here’s how it works:

• Have your band play a large portion, or all, of a work in which you’re trying to develop balance clarity.

• Percussion are always in, but they always have to play softly unless they have the melody.

• Everyone else can only play when they have the melody. They must rest and listen when they don’t have the melody.

You will be stunned to hear not only the moments when the trombones playing tied whole notes play because they thought they had the melody, but the moments where no one plays because no one knows that they’re the melody. Once you’ve been able to find these moments have students mark the areas where they are the primary line, then go back and play the music as written. But this time, tell the students that they must hear the melody over themselves at all times. The sudden improvement in balance and clarity will be eye-opening! Keep in mind that this learning of the composite line can be very granular and involve jumping around the band even within a measure, beat by beat.

Seven Dynamic Rules of Thumb

Despite some shades of grey that can result from modifiers such as “piu” or “molto,” we’re basically stuck with six usable dynamic levels: pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, forte, and fortissimo. That’s a rather low-resolution scale for something as subtle as a concert band. Additionally, we often see the entire score, every part, marked the same dynamic! There’s no way each and every member of the ensemble can be playing the same volume. Therefore, let’s teach our students to be dynamic detectives by having them learn the following rules:

The more repetitive your part is, the softer it should become.

If you are playing a repetitive line, then chances are strong that you are a motor rhythmic accompaniment or other sort of ostinato. You are the framework upon which melody will be arrayed, so play softer!

If you have an important part that you establish and then repeat after a new voice enters, your part should become softer when that new part enters.

This is related to the previous rule, and often happens in the low brass and lower woodwinds. Even if your part is fairly interesting rhythmically or melodically, this new voice is more important as it is a new color. This is especially in fugue-like moments, where the initial voice of interest becomes a countermelody to the new melodic voice.

If you are playing in unison/soli and there is a sudden divisi into a chord, then you must suddenly play louder.

Your players have to overcome acoustics and physics here. If your trombones are playing a unison soli section, and then the line suddenly opens into a divisi chord, the individual parts must play louder so that this chord sounds as loud as the previous unison moment. Play the divisi moment louder!

Play higher notes and lower notes louder.

Again, this is the science of acoustics. Higher notes carry more energy, and therefore we perceive them as louder. Higher parts in higher tessituras just don’t need to be played so loud. Lower parts in lower tessituras have to have some extra sound to be balanced.

Just because you have the most notes, it doesn’t mean you’re the most important part.

This often applies when woodwinds are given some ornamental running lines above a broader melody in the lower winds. Because all those running 16th notes look so interesting, it’s easy to assume that the melody is there. But the melody is most likely a chorale or augmented melody that must be heard above this ornamentation. Play softer than written!

A solo is always louder than it’s marked.

The word “one” or “solo” replaces any dynamic marking with “be heard over everyone else in the ensemble, with the best sound you can make.” Our finest performers are often our best students and followers of instructions. That means they need to be convinced that a solo marked “mezzo piano” is anything but “medium soft.” Play louder!

If you begin a note, then sustain it while new voices enter, you must get softer.

This often happens on long, loud notes! If you have a loud, accented whole note, that you sustain while other voices enter on later beats, you’ve got to get out of the way of those new voices. Reduce your volume!

I hope that you’ll try these methods with your concert ensembles soon! The “who’s got the melody” game is always fun and eye-opening for students and director alike. And with the improved balance, your audience’s ears will always know exactly what to listen for at your next performance.

Dr. Ward Miller currently resides in Minneapolis, MN, where he spends his time arranging and composing, and working as a music education consultant.

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