We musicians hear the word “dynamics” and automatically think soft, loud or in-between. But the root of the word dynamic means power, and that’s what our dynamics should be bringing to our music: expression with the power to move a listener.
Musical dynamics bring the same energy to a piece of music that an engine brings to a car or motorcycle. At times we might choose dynamics that resemble the almost effortless gliding of a Rolls Royce; other times we might prefer the roar and speed of a motorcycle.
But whatever type of music we are playing, that music won’t go anywhere, it won’t communicate to an audience, if we don’t create a dynamic performance. I don’t mean a performance that’s flashy and dazzling, unless that’s what we want the piece to say. Rather, we want our dynamics to bring our music to life, to help our audience connect with the beauty and meaning of the piece.
The dynamics you choose for a piece all must support your “big picture” idea of the music, and there are three main functions that they fulfill. I call them “The Three C’s” of dynamics: Contrast, Change and Conversation.
Dynamics provide contrast between soft and loud. Sometimes the contrast is sudden, as in a sfzorzando, or a clear delineation as in an echo passage. Sometimes it is more subtle, maybe changing only slightly from mezzo piano to mezzo forte, perhaps.
Your task? To make the contrasts audible. It’s not enough that you feel that you are making a dynamic change. The change has to be perceived by a listener, and remember that the distance between your harp and the listener lessens the effect. So when it comes to projecting dynamic contrast, you need to think bigger. It’s similar to the stage makeup that a theater actor uses. Your contrasts must be larger than life, bolder than you think, to survive the distance between you and the listener.
One simple exercise: Play a simple scale at a piano dynamic. How many shades of “louder” can you play? Can you create a mezzo piano, a mezzo forte, a forte and a fortissimo? Can you play softer than your original piano dynamic? Experiment by playing the scale in using as many different dynamic levels as you can. Pay attention to how your body feels, how much energy you use to create those levels. You should be relaxed, even at the loudest and softest levels.
Dynamic change is sometimes abrupt, but more often we use a crescendo or decrescendo to achieve a gradual change in volume. (Sometimes, but not always, these changes are accompanied by a change in tone color, but that is a subject for another post.) These changes provide energy and direction to the musical line. They provide dimension and subtlety beyond simple dynamic contrast.
Your task? To make the changes (crescendi and diminuendi) even and gradual along their entire length. This requires technical control and a clear sense of the goal dynamic level. For instance, if you have a crescendo that needs to last for four bars, you must make sure that you don’t reach the peak dynamic level at the end of the second bar, leaving you nowhere to go for the remaining two bars. Or using that same example, you don’t want to keep pushing through the crescendo to a dynamic that is louder than you intended the goal to be.
One simple exercise: Using a one octave scale, set a starting dynamic and an ending dynamic. Play the scale slowly, changing your dynamic note by note, carefully graduating the dynamic change so that you arrive at the top of the scale at the proper volume level, and so that your dynamic change is even over the length of the scale. Using longer scales and smaller or larger dynamic ranges will help you develop even more control.
Your dynamics need to create the musical conversation between you and the listener. Imagine having a conversation with a friend where the friend only spoke to you in a monotone. It would be difficult to stay interested in the conversation, partly because you couldn’t perceive your friend’s interest in it. In a similar way, you are creating a conversation with your listener when you play. You need to reveal to your audience what you find interesting in the music, and this will engage their attention and participation in your musical “conversation.”
Your task? To use your dynamics to help tell the “story” of the music. Not every piece has an actual storyline, but every piece makes a statement of mood, energy, atmosphere or color. The dynamics you use and how you manipulate them must help to project that mood and pull the listener into the music.
One simple exercise: Use a short and easy piece of music that you like and know well. Make a list of five contrasting adjectives; think of the most imaginative ones you can. I like to use ones like “scintillating” or “exhausted” or “ticklish.” My point is that they don’t have to relate to the music at all. In fact, this exercise is more fun if they don’t. Now, use varying dynamic schemes to try to make your piece reflect each adjective in turn. Make it sound “exhausted” by using softer dynamics and lots of diminuendo. Or maybe it could sound “ticklish” with lots of quick contrasting dynamic changes. Be creative!
Musical expression has additional components beyond dynamics. This month’s free webinar, “Express Yourself! Practice the Music, not just the Notes” will take place on Tuesday, April 21st at 9:00 PM Eastern. I will give you the three fundamental skills to develop your musical expression and show you why practicing musically is something you should be doing now! Be sure to register, even if you can’t attend live, so you can get the replay recording and the bonus guide!