Friday, 19 March 2010

Playing in groups - interpreting dynamic markings

When you are playing a solo with piano, you do the written dynamics, scaled to whatever size of room or hall you are playing in. Fitting in isn't much of an issue.

But when you play in a band or orchestra, the temptation is always to play out a bit in order to be heard over everybody else. So everybody plays a good solid mf even in the soft passages, and when they notice even that doesn't get through, they play a bit louder still! As a result, all dynamic range for the group disappears, leaving no audible distinction between passages which are nominally soft and those which are supposed to be loud.

There are some general rules that you have to follow when playing in orchestra or band.
  • If you are playing accompaniment, play two notches quieter than the written dynamic. So for instance if there is an instruction in the part to play mf, you play p.
  • If you have a long held note as part of the accompaniment, start it 2 notches quieter than the written dynamic and then immediately drop one further notch. Long notes are boring. They are part of the texture, but absolutely must be lower in dynamic than the moving parts.
  • If you are sharing the tune, play the written dynamic.
  • Hairpin instructions for brief crescendos and diminuendos should be exaggerated. They are there for a reason, and so they have to be discernible to the audience. But an exaggerated crescendo has to be matched with an equally exaggerated diminuendo to return you to your original dynamic.
  • If you aren't principal horn, make sure you aren't playing louder than the principal - match whatever he or she is doing if you are playing similar stuff in harmony together.
  • If you are solo on the tune, play one or two notches louder than written, probably with a "projected" tone.
This is the basic balance for a large group. If everybody in the group gets into the habit of doing this, the sound texture suddenly acquires a beautiful clarity. Details become audible that couldn't be heard before. The conductor can then make individual adjustments - he can choose to ask individuals to bring out items of interest, e.g. countermelodies or rhythmic flourishes.

This is especially important in band rather than orchestra. With an orchestra, there is quite a bit of variation in tone colour available between the strings, the woodwind and the brass. With band, the string tone is unavailable and you just have wind sounds (plus percussion and perhaps string basses). So the range of tone colour variation is significantly reduced. All the more important to give the audience more variation in dynamic level, otherwise the performance becomes very boring and one-dimensional.

But this requires a degree of trust. There's no point playing accompaniment quietly unless everybody else is willing to do the same. So you are dependent for the effect on everybody agreeing and remembering to play the accompaniment softly. Until a group is used to doing this, it may mean that the conductor has to keep reminding you.

In both band and orchestra, the horn players spend most of their time blending into the middle of the harmony. That's the nature of being a tenor instrument. At one point you'll be joining with the woodwind, at another you'll be adding warmth to a cello tune, and at another you'll be with the brass for a chorale. But in many pieces, in the principal horn may be lucky to have 8 bars of solo. I've played plenty of pieces where the horns have less than that.

Blending is what horns mostly do. They form a tonal cement that glues together harmonies and provides an element in a wide variety of composite tone colours. It might not sound all that glamorous, but at least you have a separate part each. Have a thought for the second violins just in front of you in orchestra. 12 or 16 of them all playing the same notes, even less opportunity for individual expression. They rarely play the tune but are stuck in the middle of the harmony. And they have more notes they have to practice.

Playing in orchestra or band is about teamwork - and just as in a sports team each player has his or her own defined role, so it is in an orchestra. You can choose to be good at the role or not. If you want to become a professional, you have to understand and accept the role. If you are an amateur, you may surprise yourself how much pride you can gain from doing your bit as well as you know how.

1 comment:

  1. In amateur groups I often find that the dynamic range is narrow. When a passage is marked loud or soft, how do you tend the dynamic to be more extreme than it currently is? How do you help to increase the dynamic range?