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Unconvincing Dynamics is a Sin

Richard Floyd • CommentaryFebruary 2023 • February 19, 2023

SBO+: This topic applies to every genre of music so our string and choral colleagues should not overlook this great article.

Let’s begin our discussion of this omnipresent sin with a simply stated reality. Dynamics are totally valueless. They are of no consequence and serve no purpose until the dynamics are perceived by the listener. You can “think” them all you wish and “hear” them with all the resources of your musical soul.

However, if the dynamic contrasts you are attempting to infuse into the music do not reach the listener’s ear and intensify the message of the music, they are void of meaningful consequence. You have sinned! 

What might contribute to this transgression? I would argue one factor is our overriding desire to make the music “sound good.” Thus balance, blend, and tuning are omnipresent in our priorities. In our valiant attempt to address these three very noble priorities we “play it safe” and surrender to our ear’s “comfort zone.” We gravitate to a dynamic range that is safe and orderly. Never too loud or never too soft but always in balance, in blend and in tune. Welcome to the world of mf music making!  A world that is void of expressiveness and artistry but always “sounds good.”

So how do we rid ourselves of this sinful practice? How do we use the thoughtful, artful application of dynamics to embellish and enrich the musical tapestry? First, let’s acknowledge that in simplest terms dynamics exists for two primary reasons. Dynamics can provide contrast, highlight impactful moments (at both ends of the dynamic spectrum) or infuse drama as the music unfolds. In addition, and equally important, the rise and fall of dynamics are essential to the creation of phrases and the shaping of lines. Within the framework of these simple parameters there are limitless gradations of dynamic variances. It is our challenge to reveal them.

So where do we start? First, let’s think for a moment as an educator and/or conductor about what our immediate reaction might be if the music exceeds a controllable dynamic level resulting in flaws in balance, blend, and tuning. Our immediate reaction often is to make it “sound good.” We admonish students to listen, balance and blend. Certainly, it gets better but it also is likely to get softer. But at what price? The loss of volume and intensity. Basically, we have not solved the problem, but rather simply covered the flaw. How much more fruitful it might be to simply accept the challenge that it is possible to achieve richness of sonority at the desired volume. Perhaps not immediately but certainly over time the optimum volume can be achieved with tonal beauty. We must “go for it.” But we are in a hurry, and we want to make it “sound good.”

The converse is also true. The dynamic marking in the score is ppp. The students strive for the softest sound they can produce, and the result is fuzzy, unfocused, and lacking intensity. We dutifully admonish students to use a more intense airstream and “firm up those embouchures.”  Is mission accomplished? It’s doubtful, since likely the students have simply increased the volume to achieve a more mature acceptable tone quality. We move on thinking we have “checked that box.”  But we also have returned to our mf world. 

In both cases, the long-term optimum solution must be to “push the envelope.” To challenge students to expand both extremes of the dynamic spectrum with beauty, richness, intensity, and sonority.

So where do we start? Let’s look at the “warm up ritual” that is the preamble of virtually every rehearsal. It has been my observation that inevitably this is executed at a mid-range dynamic level. After all, we are trying to get everyone to “sound good.” So, let’s accept the challenge to expand the dynamic ranges we employ as we warm up and review fundamentals. Vary the dynamics. Whatever the daily routine, vary the volume employed to explore the entire dynamic spectrum from ppp to fff. And then, you guessed it, go beyond your achievable dynamic range, and push the envelope.

Now remember, context also plays an essential role in cultivating convincing dynamics. There must always be an awareness of dynamic relationships. If the peak arrival point of the work is fff and you are already playing at your maximum sustainable volume a phrase prior to that moment, all is lost. When the real climax arrives, all you can do is let your eyes get bigger. Or, If the mf marking called for 16 measures from the fine is played too soft there is no room to achieve the gentle ending dynamic of ppp perhaps accompanied with the composer’s request for morendo. The goal is always to create artistic contrast and this expectation often calls for a reassessment of the dynamic spectrum available to you. Perhaps the mf dynamic should be louder thus giving you the opportunity to finesse the ending. 

Finally, one must remember distance impacts volume and intensity of sound. Thus, the dynamic contrast you hear on the podium will be very different from what is perceived by the audience. What is required might be referred to as “artful exaggeration.” The term “pushing the envelope” referenced earlier might have special meaning here. To do any less is a sin. 

In summary, be mindful of the wise words of Gunther Schuller so eloquently stated in his book The Compleat Conductor. “Dynamics are one of the composer’s most basic tools with which to decorate the music, to clarify lines and to create variety of expression…in short, to create real music.”

GIAmusic.com

The transgression of unconvincing dynamics is explored in detail in The Seven Deadly Sins of Music Making by Richard Floyd and published by GIA. In our next installment, we will explore the sin of perceiving all rhythms literally.

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