We’ve covered a lot of ground so far. Congratulations. You have developed the habit of practicing regularly and effectively and I am sure you are reaping the benefits. Using the tools that we’ve discussed, as well as the wealth of information you have gotten from your teacher, I am sure that there are at least a couple of pieces that you are comfortable playing. The notes are flowing smoothly, the piece is up to tempo and you are probably feeling pretty good about your accomplishment!
The next logical step is to make your piece(s) musical, adding the dynamics and articulations that give the music it’s emotional expression. In other words it is time to make the music your own, to use the piece to express your own personal feelings and to give it your own interpretation.This emotionally expressive side of music is tricky territory but the things we use to convey emotion are quantifiable. Dynamics and articulations and their almost infinite combinations and variations are the physical tools that we use to communicate complex musical expressions and emotions. Just as you have developed the playing skills necessary to negotiate musical passages, you can also develop the skills necessary to play the dynamics and articulations that help you to create your own musical expressions.
I can hear you thinking, oh no, more hard work. I understand, developing the playing skills that you have been working on so far, can sometimes be a bit of a struggle as you break new ground . Though I can’t say that there isn’t more work to be done I can say that working on all of the different ways to play dynamics and articulations can be a great deal of fun. Having fun while working on learning new skills often makes the process of developing them much more enjoyable.
At the beginning of the this new learning process you might want to follow the suggested markings that are written into the piece by the composer, arranger or editor. Keep in mind that in most cases those marking are just suggestions. As long as you are playing solo, it is perfectly okay, in fact it is expected to feel and express the piece differently. In a quartet, combo, chamber group or orchestra each musician has less freedom of personal expression because you have to work with the group to create a unified expression. But for now, you are working on playing solo so let’s get started by following those written markings. Dynamics are a good starting point.
Dynamics express loudness. They help to drive the emotional content of music through loudness and intensity but it’s not just about volume, it’s about color too. Quieter passages often express things like tenderness or intrigue and louder passages things like conflict or bravery. The markings are found under the notes they apply to or in the case of piano music, between the two staffs. From softest to loudest the symbols look like this; ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, fff and are pronounced; pianississimo, pianissimo, piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte, fortissimo and fortississimo. However, even with all of those designations there are many shades of gray between each and every one of these markings. Most of the time we move between the dynamic markings in a gradual rather than a sudden way. The ultimate example of that would be the crescendo and the diminuendo (or decrescendo) which literally means a gradual increase or decrease in loudness. The ultimate exception being the sforzando (designated sfz) dynamic which means to play with a sudden strong force or emphasis.
That’s a lot of information and it only grazes the surface of musical expression. Now that you have the vocabulary it is time to have fun experimenting with the process of adding dynamics to your playing. It might be best to begin by playing a very simple etude or other exercise. If there are no dynamics written, lightly pencil some in and just work to follow what is written. Experiment with how loudly or softly you play each dynamic and how slowly or rapidly you move between each volume.You may notice that loudness and softness have a lot to do with context. Something may sound loud in one context and soft in another. The volume of what you are currently playing is perceived in relation to what you were playing before that. (Think of this real life example. If you are using a normal talking volume in a crowded restaurant chances are people will not hear you all that well and you will have to speak up, but using that same normal speaking volume in a library will seem too loud.) Experiment too with how you create the different volumes. For instance with string instruments volume can be controlled by bow pressure, bow placement on the string relative to the bridge as well as bow speed. Even with a very simple piece of music you should be able to feel, perceive and hear the differences. Feel free to erase the markings your wrote in and write in new ones and then play them.
Once you are comfortable it is time to play the written dynamics of the piece(s) that you are working on. Then experiment with your own variations in volume. See how it feels to play the soft passages loudly and the loud passages softly, etc. Try any and all different variations so that you become familiar with how each changes the feeling of the passage. While having fun with this you will be learning a great deal about the physical process of creating dynamics and their effect on the music you are playing. Next time we will add articulations to this mix to round out your understanding of the emotionally expressive side of the music you are playing.