Playing at professional volume

One thing I notice about a lot of my younger university students is that they play softly. Sometimes they seem reluctant to play above what I might consider about a mezzo piano.

If I ask, many of them reveal that they spent their formative years in school band programs getting The Hand from their directors. Beginning oboists and saxophonists in particular can make rather pungent and conspicuous noises. And band directors, understandably anxious to produce a well-blended ensemble, give the traffic-cop “stop” sign of the raised palm to hush the worst offenders. Those young musicians learn quickly to play in a restrained, timid way, and that anything louder than a murmur is a faux pas.

I can’t really blame the band directors, who have a set of concerns different from mine. (When I have taught beginners in a private lesson setting, I have encouraged them to play loudly from day one, and treated softer dynamics as an intermediate-level technique.)

But much of college-level music study is about students’ development as soloists. In that context, they need to play with authority, and, well, volume. And they may find that college ensembles have different demands than their high school groups, too.

Fixing the problem usually doesn’t involve teaching much new technique, perhaps a review of proper breath support. The rest is encouragement and example from me.

Over the course of a few weeks or months, I play for them in lessons, showing how I can fill up the room with sound. I ask them to imitate that sound, and urge them on to louder volumes. If I ask them to play their very loudest, and then ask them to top that, they usually can—they are just afraid to, and warn me that if they get any louder it will sound bad. But surprise! It doesn’t.

If you aspire to play at a professional level, or teach students who do, explore the louder part of that dynamic range, and make yourself heard!

2 thoughts on “Playing at professional volume”

  1. Thanks Bret,
    I can tell you as a college band/orchestra director I often have trouble getting my winds to play out as they have been “blended” down. This is particularly challenging getting them to play out in orchestra..


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