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“Our Band Doesn’t Play Loud Enough!”

Thomas Palmatier • InServiceMay 2021 • May 4, 2021

This is one phrase I have never heard any musician utter. Indeed, nearly every musician feels their band plays too loud and doesn’t emphasize dynamics enough. With some follow-up questions, it’s often revealed they believe some other section in the band is at fault. However, members of that section inevitably blame someone else! This article is the final installment in a series of previous articles that will give you the tools to address this issue. I hope you will take a few moments to review those previous articles which are building blocks culminating in this one.

If it is a unanimous view that ensembles often play too loud and don’t have a wide enough dynamic range, why don’t we fix it? I believe one of the causes is cultural. Americans pride themselves on their individuality and if we admitted it, most of us believe “the other guy” plays too loud and we need to play just a tiny bit louder than them in order to be heard. The result is a decibel arms race. Many directors focus on getting the notes and rhythms correct first, intent on “adding the music” later on. The result is the habit of playing at all one volume is “baked in” to the music. We all know it’s harder to break habits than to teach it correctly the first time.

But how do we fix it? Remember, none of the musicians hear what we hear. If a trumpet player has French Horns blasting in their face and a snare drum flailing away inches away from the back of their head, how can we expect them to not overplay? Ensure the seating arrangement takes into account how sound is produced, projected, and heard by others in the band. Please review February 2019 SBO “Concert Band Set-up Fundamentals.” https://sbomagazine.com/concert-band-set-up-fundamentals/

If the musicians can’t hear what we hear, asking a section to balance with another one is futile if they can’t hear the other section. What we can do is help them properly place themselves in the sound picture by ensuring they know who is in the Foreground, the Midground, and the Background. Please review my column in the February 2021 issue, “Not Balance — Focus,” https://sbomagazine.com/focus-not-balance-how-to-change-your-ensemble-sound-to-ultra-3d/

You will be amazed at how effective this is in correcting “balance” issues. It informs the musicians that not everyone should be at the same volume even if everyone is written at the same dynamic. Once the ensemble becomes used to this concept of a 3-D sound picture (it doesn’t take long because they hear the improvement immediately), it becomes less necessary for you to stop and say who is in the Foreground, Midground, and Background. As a conductor, if I point at a section, that is a signal to everyone else that’s who they should be listening to and allowing to be heard in the Foreground. This works much more effectively than giving “the hand,” which seems to encourage those who are playing too loud!

The final step is to give the musicians an opportunity to discover what various dynamic levels feel like. Instruments don’t have volume controls where they can dial a 7 for mf. Start by defining forte. Forte means “strong but not loud.” Let the ensemble play a tutti chord and allow them to find what “strong but not loud” feels like. It’s generally a bit softer than their usual forte and will ideally be a full, rich, and unforced sound. Forte feels good! Ask for the same intensity and breathing but at slightly lower volumes. For each decrease in volume, repeat until they have a chance to assess what it feels like. Do this at four levels and they will then have successfully “felt” f, mf, mp and p. Whenever dynamics get compressed, usually between f and mf, a quick review of the process can reset the dynamic range. If the ensemble is struggling to play piano, playing the first note of the piano phrase, working it at f, mf, mp, and p and then starting the phrase with that feeling fresh in their ears, will help to achieve the piano. I don’t ever practice ff. If forte has been set at “strong but not loud,” it’s easy to ask them for more power and get a great ff that’s not overblown.

The final step in the process is for us to develop habits to better serve the composer’s intent. Composers are amazing people who often ask musicians to do things that don’t really work. An eight-bar crescendo from mf to f is at best, “meh.” Also, many composers use lots of crescendos but never really reset at a lower dynamic level. Here are three things I learned from working with the fabulous musicians of The Army Field Band and The U.S. Army Band:

Crescendo means “start soft.” Start the crescendo at least one dynamic level lower than marked. Preceding the crescendo with a slight diminuendo often makes it feel more organic.

After reaching the destination of the crescendo, it’s often advisable to reset at a slightly lower volume. The mf to f crescendo described above is now actually mp to ff with a reset to forte. This achieves the crescendo the composer really wants without increasing the overall volume.

Back off on the volume of longer notes (usually half note or longer) after the initial attack unless a crescendo is indicated. There’s almost always a moving part elsewhere that needs to be revealed. Doing this makes it possible to hear what needs to be heard while decreasing the overall volume level.

Performing proper dynamics is the musician’s job. But directors must insist on it consistently and use appropriate techniques to help the musicians do so.

 

I need your help! After three years of writing monthly columns for SBO Magazine, I need some new ideas for articles or books you think your colleagues should be introduced to. Contact me at www.ThomasPalmatier.com with your ideas — please!

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