The Amateur Musician and Dynamics

I’ve had some recent encounters with the sometimes-awkward relationship between amateur musicians and dynamics.  From my perspective (IMHO), it’s often about brass musicians not playing loud enough – not realizing the impact fortissimo really should make.

I think it comes down to three things: self-confidence, self-perception and embouchure comfort zone. I think those are also in order of increasing ease to fix – i.e. the last on the list is the easiest to fix.

In a lesson a few years ago with Chris Lee (of the Winnipeg Symphony), we were working on the March to the Scaffold. He said I needed to be louder. So I played it again in what-I-thought-was a louder dynamic. He stopped me and said “no, louder”. I repeated it louder and he cut me off and said “no, louder”. I totally thought I was loud. My motto in ensembles has been “play louder until you get a look from the conductor” but apparently this wasn’t loud enough for Chris (and perhaps I’d been fooling myself too). So then he pulls out his iPhone with a sound level detection app and asked me to play a note double-forte. I did. He wanted me to reach a particular decibal number. He played to show me. Whoa. That was loud! My turn next — I tried and tried and finally got near the decibal reading but I was working like a dog, like my embouchure was going to rip off my face and get sucked into the tuba.

Fast forward two years: OT is playing Prokofiev R&J Suite 2 – final movement. I’ve played lots of double-fortes since that lesson with Chris, but this fresh in my memory – and different than before. With the work I’ve done using James Thompsons’ buzzing books, it’s like having a new set of lips. Fat, edgy and HUGE low Bb’s with half the effort! Hello middle embouchure, where have you been all my life??  It finally felt like I was able to keep up with three trombones.

In your listening, you hear some great orchestras with great brass sections making the windows shake. Don’t you just love cranking up the stereo for Holst’s Mars and Jupiter – not to mention Uranus? What about listening to some recordings and saying “dammit! you can barely hear the [insert favourite instrument here]!” Think about that — it’s such a waste of effort and your time to sit in an ensemble and play to be barely heard in the final product.

Sure, there are points where any instrument has its “filler” moments — where you’re “just a note in a chord”. So what do ya do? Think like a pro!

Embouchure Comfort Zone

This is the easy part to fix – I don’t mean to harp on and on about James Thompson’s book, but I gotta. It has made me into a new tubist. You HAVE to try it! It will [re-]train you on two key points of your embouchure:

  1. single embouchure for your whole range; and
  2. consistent sound quality for your whole range.

For me, no.1 meant a single mouthpiece position on my lips for the whole range vs. the side-to-side shuffle I was doing (left for high and right for low). The work of these two points combined magically resulted in my dynamic range opening right up – tender pianissimo’s and HUGE fortissimo’s with half the effort.

Self-Perception

I’m talkin’ here about realizing how loud you are with your perceived double-forte. Listen to your favourite recordings of loud orchestral music. The big stuff. Can you hear the the first trombone, first trumpet, first horn or tuba? Are they distinct from the rest of the orchestral sound? Maybe one of them is playing the third of the chord – is it minor or major?

Each has their own colour and it should shine through a well-balanced fortissimo.

Back to you – where are you sitting? where’s your horn pointing? Is it towards the floor with chairs and people’s legs in front of you? That’s going to absorb a lot of your sound and you have to be conscious of that to get heard at the other end of the hall.  Think about that for a second — how loud do you think you’d have to speak to be heard in the cheap seats way back there.  You might even have to yell, but it’s more about projection.  Think beyond your immediate vicinity and think about making sure your sound travels all the way to the end of the hall.

There are a number of articles available on the net about sound propagation, but here a general idea:

The general rule of thumb is that, under ideal conditions (no reflecting surfaces or other background sound or interference), a sound level drops 6 dB for every doubling of the distance from the source.

Picture it — 1 foot, 2 feet, 4 feet, 8 feet, 16 feet, 32 feet … etc.  That quite a loss of sound – 36 db so far.  Imagine in a large concert hall.  AND – that’s in ideal conditions with no interference or reflecting surfaces, etc.

Self-Confidence

Now that’s a hurdle.  Fear affects self-confidence and fear comes from self-doubt.  Practice – a little or a lot – gives you a better foundation.  If you are comfortable with your part, then you’ll play it confidently in ensemble practice and learn how it fits in with the other parts (by listening, eh?).  With both those settled and feeling good, you’ll play well in performance.

Performance self-confidence in terms of “stage fright” comes with exposure.  The more you perform, the lower the adrenaline will be each time and the easier it will become.  Performing is exciting, and should be – you want the audience to enjoy it and they will sense excitement from you.  Replace the “OMG what if I f*ck this up” fear with “we are going to knock the socks off this audience”.

My personal problem is being put to the test:  getting judged.  I know I can play and I know I play well.  I’ve worked hard on cultivating my tuba sound and I believe it’s a good one (still progressing, of course).  But I’ve got this fear someone’s going to point me out and say “you’re doing it all wrong”.  I feel lately though that I’ve “started to come into my own”.  I feel confident in my own abilities and my own expertise and that feels good.  I don’t have all the answers, that for sure, but I know what has worked for me and it just might work for you too.

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