What would go wrong if you played louder?

black smoke coming from fire

My university students are often, at least at first, quite timid about playing loudly. (This is probably a side effect of learning the instrument in a school band program. They learn to play quietly because their section is too loud. Or, they get the hand from a band director who doesn’t have the time or bandwidth to correct tone production issues.)

When I push them in lessons to play with soloist-level dynamic range, they often give me a weak mezzo forte instead of the fortissimo I’m looking for. The more I ask for volume, the more they dig in at an unimpressive medium-ish.

At this point I usually ask what they think would go wrong if they played louder. The consensus seems to be that it would sound “bad,” in ways that they generally can’t quite pin down.

So I give them permission to play so loud that something goes wrong. Then they usually find some volume they have been holding in reserve, but still fall short of what they are capable of. I usually have to insist more and more firmly that they play louder and louder to show me what will go wrong.

And, virtually all the time, nothing goes wrong. They find some more available volume, and probably a fuller tone to go with it. If I’m lucky, they learn the lesson and feel less timid about volume in the future.

The issue does often come back when we encounter something new, unfamiliar, or stressful, like a complicated ornament or a note outside their comfortable range. In those cases, I have to remind them to go ahead and put air into the instrument, and to allow whatever bad thing they are dreading to go ahead and happen. If it does (and it usually doesn’t), we can hear it and troubleshoot it. But sabotaging themselves by choking off the air just guarantees failure.

Use your air confidently and powerfully. You might discover that what you have been worrying about isn’t a problem at all.

How to do long tones (and why)

Long tones are at the core of most woodwind warmup routines. The most simple and obvious version is this: Simple sustained notes are good for developing consistent breath support, which is required to keep the long tone steady in pitch, volume, and tone color. (Some teachers also suggest them for developing “embouchure strength,” one of … Read more

Playing at professional volume

stressed black girl covering ears

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. … Read more

Big dynamics

If you’ve ever been to a theater production, and then gotten to meet any of the actors up close, you might have been shocked by their makeup. You don’t notice it much when they are on stage, but up close it can be pretty extreme. Stage actors need strange-looking makeup because they perform under bright … Read more

Local vs. big-picture dynamics

An important part of interpreting music is figuring out how to use dynamic markings. They aren’t as simple as just playing louder or softer. It helps a lot to understand the difference between what I call local dynamics and big-picture dynamics. Unfortunately, they are marked in sheet music using the same symbols, so it’s not … Read more

Decrescendo to zero

Woodwind players often struggle with decrescendos that quit too soon. (“Decrescendi” if you prefer.) It’s pretty disappointing to play a graceful phrase and have the last note end abruptly instead of fading down smoothly to zero. There’s not a special technique to deploy in order to make successful decrescendos to niente. This delicate dynamic effect … Read more

Woodwind dynamics and the embouchure

There’s a lot of confusion about how different dynamic levels are produced on woodwind instruments. How do you think it’s done? If you said something like “blow harder or softer,” you are asking for trouble.

Playing full-spectrum music

I’m far from being a photography expert, but I do have one trick. (This is a music-related post, I promise.)

In general, good photos take advantage of the eye’s full light-to-dark range. In other words, the very darkest part of the photo should be very black, and the very lightest part should be very white.

Here’s a photo that doesn’t meet those criteria—the darkest and lightest parts of the photo are both sort of medium-grayish.


But a quick “auto-level” procedure in photo-editing software (like the free Gimp) corrects this by adjusting each pixel of the photo, basically making the dark ones darker and the light ones lighter:

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