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 lights, which can wash out their features. And they need their facial expressions to be unmistakable to audience members, even in the very back row. Their special makeup techniques, which look unnatural up close, help them look natural and communicate visually under the unusual circumstances of a stage production.
Musicians need to take this same approach. If I practice a piece of music in a small room, subtle dynamic contrasts seem like plenty. But in the very different situation of a performance, in a large and reverberant concert hall, those nuances can disappear. I need to go bigger, stage-makeup-style.
That means practicing my music in ways that sometimes feels over the top or even a little obnoxious. But on stage or in a recording it will probably be just right—my sweeping, melodramatic dynamic contrasts will come across as natural and tasteful.
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 always immediately obvious which they are. When you study a new repertoire piece, ask yourself why the composer or editor has provided each dynamic marking:
Is it there to call attention to a major event in the music, like a new theme, a return to an old theme, or some other kind of climactic moment? If so, it’s a big-picture dynamic. In many cases there is some other evidence that this is an important moment: a double-bar, a fermata, a key or tempo change, an entrance after some rests, etc. (If you have studied musical form, you probably have some more ideas of what to look for.)
Or, is the dynamic marking there just to provide some shape and direction to a phrase? There’s no major musical event, just a hint about the momentary musical gesture. If so, it’s a local dynamic.
When you think in terms of local vs. big-picture dynamics, it’s clear that not all fortes or mezzo-pianos or crescendos are equal. If the composer uses dynamics to contrast two themes or sections, for example with one being soft and the other being loud, that probably calls for a dramatic change. (It may also hint that some other unwritten contrasts are appropriate, like nuances of tempo, articulation, or tone color.) But a one-measure decrescendo from forte to piano in the middle of a theme might be more of a suggestion from the composer about what direction that phrase should take, and should be handled with more subtlety.
Beware of the limitations of dynamic markings in music notation, and of careless editing, and use your best-informed musical judgment to interpret the meanings of those symbols.
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 just exposes a common shortfall in the fundamentals of tone production. Correcting this makes good decrescendos possible.
Softer dynamics are produced on the woodwinds by shrinking the aperture (opening) in the embouchure. The flute has an independent aperture, which can be made smaller or larger at will. The aperture on reed instruments is built around the opening of the double reed, or the opening between the single reed and the mouthpiece. Reducing the aperture of the lips on reed instruments applies a slight pressure that squishes the reed closed a little, reducing its opening. (This is a lip movement, not a jaw movement).
As the opening is reduced, airflow into the instrument decreases. At a certain point there is no longer enough power to keep the reed or flute air jet vibrating, so it stops. Hopefully, this occurs at such a soft volume that it seems like the note faded away completely.
When the note ends too abruptly, check to make sure breath support isn’t decreasing with the decrescendo. Steady, powerful breath support as the aperture decreases equals an increase in air pressure. This keeps the reed vibrating as the opening and the volume decrease toward zero.
Consistent, strong breath support and a flexible, well-formed embouchure are the keys to successful decrescendos.
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 “use more or less air,” you are on the right track, kind of. But how do you put more or less air into the instrument?
If you said something like “blow harder or softer,” you are asking for trouble. Adjusting volume by increasing and decreasing breath support causes all kinds of nasty problems, especially sluggish response, unfocused tone, and saggy pitch at softer dynamic levels.
So what method is left to adjust the volume of air entering the instrument, and the corresponding loudness or softness (weirdly, also called “volume”)? Surprise, it’s your embouchure. Take a look in the mirror at your flute aperture, or look at the opening in your oboe or bassoon reed, or the opening between the tip of your clarinet or saxophone reed and the tip of the mouthpiece. By manipulating the size of this opening, you can control the volume of air passing into the instrument, while keeping your breath support powerful and steady.
The opening isn’t large to begin with, so bear in mind that the adjustments needed are incredibly small. But your lip muscles are well-suited to very small, subtle, expressive movements—certainly more so than your larger breath support muscles.
If you are an advanced player, you are probably doing this already, maybe without realizing it. But if you are struggling with dynamics-related problems, like unstable pitch during crescendos and diminuendos, or the inability to maintain tone at pianissimo, you might want to reexamine your technique.
Try this: play a note in a comfortable range at an easy mezzo-forte, with powerful breath support. Without letting up on the breath support, apply just the slightest squeeze with your embouchure. (For me, the sensation is that my lips don’t really even move, they just firm up a little.) Gradually increase the squeeze—don’t forget to keep the support strong—and see what happens.
Try it again, this time starting with the lips squeezing, and see what happens as you allow the embouchure to become more and more relaxed. This maxes out when the reed is almost completely free to vibrate at its widest amplitude, or when the flute aperture gets too large to maintain focus in the tone. (At this point you may be able to get more volume by straining harder with your breath support muscles, but notice what happens to your pitch and/or tone!)
Like so much of woodwind playing, the real key here is breath support. If you remember to keep it steady, then creating dynamic changes from the embouchure is really quite intuitive and produces much better results.
Incidentally, this is why recorders, pennywhistles, and other “fipple” flutes really have only one dynamic level; the opening can’t be manipulated effectively because it is rigid. Blowing harder or softer does change the volume but at unacceptable cost to intonation. (This is probably a major reason the transverse flute essentially replaced the recorder in Western music—it could play with dynamic contrast.)