Working on dynamic contrast

While working on dynamic contrast with students, I find there is a leap that takes place when they realize there is more than just forte vs. piano. However, establishing the outer reaches of their dynamic range is a good starting point. I work with my students quite a bit on producing a strong and rich sound. We also work on creating a soft sound that is beautiful yet solid. I have found that when trying to play softly, students frequently play with a thin and airy tone. I talk to my students about the difference between playing solo dynamics vs. orchestral dynamics. For orchestra students, it is a pretty big epiphany that dynamics need to be what the entire section produces together. It seems equally important to remind students that for their solo playing, piano dynamics must be strong enough to be heard in the back of the hall. 

For beginning Suzuki students, dynamics can be introduced in games such as hide-and-seek even in the midst of working through the Twinkle variations. As students reach more advanced levels, dynamics become more nuanced. Definitely as of book 2, students should be working on the mezzo dynamics and crescendo/decrescendo. As I have written in previous posts, at this point in their violin study, a student should be actively listening for the sound coming out of the violin, focusing on intonation, tone and dynamics. Additionally, etude books such as Wohlfahrt, Mazas and Kreutzer include studies for developing dynamic contrast.

When overwhelmed with difficult pieces and/or a lot of music to learn, unfortunately it can be easy for dynamics to fall by the wayside. When a composer notates a specific dynamic, they are giving you information about the emotional and artistic intent of the phrase and how it functions in the overall structure of the piece. Therefore, you need to bake your dynamics into your piece early on in the learning process. It is also important to research the authenticity of dynamics especially when playing music from the Baroque and Classical eras and any heavily edited piece. It doesn’t mean that you won’t end up using an editor’s dynamics but it is good to know the origin especially if it feels counter to your natural, musical impulses. I encourage my students to look at the autograph or scholarly edition of, for instance, unaccompanied Bach or Handel sonatas. I suggest they compare the available versions of their piece and then start making interpretive decisions.

Once some decisions have been made about interpretation and the student has worked on bow technique for creating dynamic contrast, it’s time to put it all together. Very often students are still pretty lost when presented with a piece such as the 1st movement of the Handel Sonata in F major. I begin by having students identify phrases. Students need to be sensitive to more subtle harmonic changes such as a half step accidental change over a bar line. They also need to pay attention to thematic changes by looking for the presentation of a new rhythmic pattern. This process can seem daunting for some students. Teenagers in particular will often just want to finish and move onto the next piece. It’s still worthwhile planting the seed of higher level, interpretive playing.

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