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Dynamics within the Dynamics

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Many players I hear don't seem to be very concerned with really observing the dynamics written on their music. Sections marked p are usually played somewhat softer and those marked f are played louder, but the range is not large and the in-between dynamics are not well defined. And when they encounter a ff or pp they don't seem to make a full effort. I nag my students about it and myself as well - it's all too easy to get lazy if we aren't careful.

But let's make the challenge even harder, shall we? What about the dynamics within the dynamics?


There is no absolute measurement for dynamics. A p in one passage may be played louder or softer than a p in another passage. First, there is the overall "mood" of the passage, which might call for a little louder or softer sound from the ensemble. But usually our challenge is to discern the role of the line we are playing.

While I was in the Coast Guard we often played Clare Grundman's Fantasy on American Sailing Songs. I don't have the part in front of me, but this is what I recall near the end. There was a passage marked mp that was largely just chordal support for lines in other instruments. To maintain balance I had to play really softly. But then the next passage, marked with a p dynamic, was the melody line. That one had to be played louder in order for the line to have the right sound. So I played the mp softer than the p. In such places I consider the p to be an indication of style more than volume. I tried to play the melody line with a soft quality rather than a soft volume. This meant keeping the tone gentle and even - not making an accented sound on emphasized notes, for example.

The line was in the lower-middle range of the euphonium, so that is partly why it needed to be boosted a bit. If it were in the upper-middle range, I probably would not have needed to emphasize it. Even within the excellent Coast Guard Band, players would not always heed the range they were playing in when deciding how loudly to play. I led some brass sectionals, and we would spend time just balancing the chords that came at prominent places in the music we were preparing.

If your brass section is playing a full major chord, it is a fairly tough job to balance it. Unless you have exactly one player per part, and the notes of the chord are not doubled at unison within the score, you will have a "random" doubling on various notes. For example, our group would typically have 2 euphoniums and 2 tubas each doubling their own notes. The 4 trombones would be playing on 3 notes, so 1 would be doubled and the rest not. Our 4 horns might have a total of 2 parts or 4 parts. And there was almost always some doubling on the parts in the trumpet section. Then within each instrument's section, you have players in various ranges of their horns. Then you have the natural tendency of certain chord tones to be more easily heard. Etc.

As we worked on really listening to the chord, our balance improved. Good musicians listen for good balance, but we are not always asked to do so to this level of detail. Two euphoniums playing a concert D above the bass clef, for example, make a considerable amount of sound. It's a very resonant range for us. But that same note down an octave is not particularly strong, even with two players.

Another challenge is changing roles within the same passage. You may be playing a background of mostly chord tones under a melody. But often in music there will be little moving lines in the accompaniment when the melody gets to a sustained pitch. So if you are playing a long string of half notes and see a couple beats of moving eighth notes, listen to see if those should be brought out. If you were playing this section at a marked p, you might need to make more of a mp or even mf effort to bring out those eighth notes. In some cases it may just be a couple notes that need to be brought out. When I listen to good British brass bands I often notice this kind of sensitivity - it seems to be something they do especially well.

Remember, the most common way of writing scores is to put the same dynamic in all parts. The section a [A] might be p in all parts, and the section at [B] might be mf in all parts. But there will almost certainly be individual instrumental parts within each section that ought to be brought out or held back a bit. In some of my euphonium-quartets I would write layered dynamics. I might have as many as 3 different dynamic markings in the same passage among the 4 parts, trying to bring out the important lines a little bit. Overall this seems to do more to create confusion than to clarify my musical thoughts as the arranger. Players are more used to seeing the same dynamic marking in all parts and then adjusting them according to importance.

So the next time you are playing through a piece you know so well that you are almost bored, make the effort to do some critical listening to the balance of all the notes you play. I'll bet there are a considerable number of adjustments that you could and should make, and that will enhance both your playing enjoyment and the enjoyment of the listener.

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