Have you ever found yourself at the end of a piece, playing a diminuendo, nervous that the final chord might not sound?
If you were nervous up to that point, your hands were probably shaking at the end! When the last chord doesn’t sound, what are you going to do, try it again?
How in the world can you ensure that a diminuendo will be successful?
Dynamics are relative
One of my adult students is playing a Bartók piece right now. The dynamics indicated are mp, p and pp. My student has a tendency not to play “out,” so the “pp” sections are especially scary. And there’s the problem of a diminuendo at the end of the piece, in a “pp” section.
Let’s look at that for a moment.
A diminuendo may seem difficult and unsettling. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What if we calculated the range of the diminuendo by finding a comfortable level for the end first? Then add sound going backwards. The sound you arrive at when you’ve reached the beginning of the diminuendo is the level you need to start it with!
Now let’s look at dynamics throughout a piece.
Every dynamic marking indicates a range of sound
When playing a phrase or section marked “piano,” my students are sometimes afraid they will “play too loud.”
Music must be expressive. Music has phrases, and phrases have arcs.
Dynamics fluctuate around each marking. Not everything is notated in the music, nor would we want it to be. Think for a moment about how much ink would be on the page! Seeing what we need to see would be impossible.
So, whatever the dynamic marking, you will want to play phrases. That means playing at the level indicated, but not in a static way. You will fluctuate above and below that level, too. (“p” “p+” “p-“, say)
Dynamic scheme of a piece
Even if you’re sight reading, you can do this: look through the entire piece to see what the dynamics are.
In the case of the Bartók piece mentioned above, there are only 3 dynamic levels indicated: pp, p and mp. I would advocate not playing the softest you’ve ever played in your life, but making a clear difference between levels of sound your focus, with all the pp notes sounding.
What matters is that the different levels are heard. Not that you will be playing forte, but you do need to be comfortable with the softest passages.
The eminent violinist Joseph Fuchs impressed upon his students that “piano” does not mean “unheard.” For example, when playing a concerto, you have to send the sound to the back row of the balcony. Listen to a few concerti with the score for confirmation.
When there is a core to the sound, it will be heard.
Protect your dynamic range
We all have a dynamic range within which we are comfortable. Going beyond that is not necessary. All it takes is a little planning.
When an extended section of a piece is marked “forte” and is followed by a crescendo, how can we handle that?
I’m asking because I miss notes when forcing loud playing. Some instrumentalists experience a crack in the sound. And singers, with the great variety in voice types, have very different levels of “fortissimo.”
If you need to be louder than forte, choose a spot to start over at piano, then crescendo. In this way, you will use your entire dynamic range. Audiences will hear a thrilling crescendo, without which everything will have sounded the same.
Look ahead to be effective
When the dynamics change from phrase to phrase, take care to make the change happen on the first note of the new phrase. The difference in sound levels will be stunning! If the change happens a note or two into the phrase, it sounds like “Oops, I forgot. Sorry!”
There is one more important issue in the Bartók piece mentioned earlier. In a piano section, there are two diminuendos!
My student and I looked at this very closely, trying different options. We found that beginning each diminuendo at about a mezzo-piano worked very well. In that case, piano came at about the midpoint.
The most important conclusion, for me, is that dynamics are not static. We all need to remember to be flexible and expressive, think outside the box, and listen.