Developing effective dynamics in the flute choir

This season the music my flute choir is working is filled with dynamic effects. Some are simple and straightforward, others include big, quick changes. All of them need to be done cleanly and provide big impact. Wishy washy dynamic changes will be worse than none at all.

I have made plans for developing these in every rehearsal. Here is my strategy so far:

1. Practice big effects in isolation. Practice the special effects first, then integrate them into the piece. This draws attention to them, reinforces their importance in the player’s minds, and helps the piece feel more exciting right from the beginning, leaving room to create even bigger effects as the piece comes together.

2. Encourage, nay, DEMAND that players make the biggest effects possible. I want them to really punch that sfz, turn the volume way down on the piano after a fp while keeping the intensity going, etc. It always amazes when I ask for MORE, BIGGER, and players draw back, and give less, play smaller. When I can get someone to really let loose, get into the characterization, it is such a thrill for me, and them. Really, the world will not end if you play something so big that the note cracks, or heaven forbid, you draw someone’s attention. That is what those effects are for, to get the listener’s attention!! Maybe I should get a mannekin to put in the back of the practice hall and encourage people to play to it, give them a target. Hmmmmmmm.

3. Dynamic levels are relative. The particular dynamic level of any one part at any one time, depends on the role that part has in the music. There are no concrete dynamic levels. Excellent ensemble playing requires sensitive, ACTIVE attention to individual dynamic levels every single second. If every part is marked at mezzo forte, and everyone dutifully plays their concept of mezzo forte, but the melody line is indistinguishable, that doesn’t work. It may be ‘proper’, but it is not good music. The melody line has to be louder than the supporting parts, so either that player has to play out or the others have to play quieter, or both. Then as soon as the melody line moves to another part, the players have to balance that out. This requires engagement on the part of every player and attention on the part of the ensemble conductor or coach if there is one. I feel an idea for an ensemble balancing exercise blossoming!

Really when you think about it, while dynamic levels can be quantified using a decibel meter, who does that? I have personally practiced an exercise that required the player to make distinctions between 8 dynamic levels, from ppp to fff. This is great for developing awareness and control, and is an area that I don’t pay enough attention to in my own practicing. However, the most musical concept of dynamics is not to try to play at numerically defined levels, but to make sure your dynamic levels are discernible to the listener, fit the context of the music, and have the desired impact.

That’s more than enough for now. Time to put this into practice!!