On Dynamics

Dynamics are weird. 

In common knowledge, they're relative. Forte is loud compared to piano, and mezzo forte is only mezzo forte because it's relatively in between piano and forte. People are torn on what the markings actually mean. For instance, some believe that they represent a certain (ish) volume. Versus people (myself included), who believe that they each represent a particular "character" of the passage; forte is maybe more "outgoing" and piano is "shy" and "intimate" as opposed to representing loudness values. This way, I can allow myself to play a passage marked forte at a quiet volume as long as it has the "character" of forte.

BUT...

Not only are they relative to each other, but they are also relative to the dynamics of everyone else in your group, and this is where most people get lost. The thing is, where your dynamics fit into everyone else's is the key. Not where your dynamics are in relation to your own dynamics. This is a context thing, if you don't have context, or if you do have it but are ignoring it (more common), then there is no way to know REALLY what dynamic will fit, even if "mf" is written on the page. 

I played first violin in a symphony orchestra, and occasionally, the section would be told to play this passage with "more phrasing" and to "shape it more". I was always confused at what that meant. There were no specific crescendos or diminuendos written in, so... was the first violin section just supposed to suddenly like... synthesize a believable phrase? And who was to say that I would be phrasing it the same as the concertmaster, or that the person sitting behind me was phrasing it the same as my stand partner? I couldn't imagine trying to get a whole violin section to play the exact same unwritten dynamics for 16 bars without having unspoken arguments of hatred as we all phrased differently. Because if the section as a whole doesn't listen to the rest of the orchestra (it didn't), then we aren't all getting our dynamics from the same context and we'll all phrase it differently.

I was recording myself playing two violin parts as part of a string quartet arrangement for a song with vocals and piano. The arrangement was written out for me and all I had to do was play the parts. Except, a couple minutes in, I realized that something wasn't meshing even though I was playing all the right stuff (dynamics, notes, etc...). I realized that I was so focused on playing the dynamics the arranger had put in, that I was ignoring the phrasing of the singer and piano! These are the things that are actually giving your dynamics a context to sit in and be relative to. If you ignore that context, then your dynamics won't fit. So... I completely ignored the dynamic markings on the arrangement. I focused entirely on the subtle (and larger) phrasings of the interaction between the vocal line and the piano and played something that matched. I drew on the swells of the vocal, and some of the accents of the piano, and overall, my parts fit in very well. In fact, I looked at them after, and it turns out that I was doing stuff like ending the last note of my passage on beat three instead of beat four (which was the written in the music) because that's where the vocal ended. I was so in tune to the context of what I was working with, that ignoring the arrangemental dynamics helped my part to really fit with the actual song.

The takeaway is... don't pay so much attention the dynamic markings; I would suggest only using them to get an idea of the overall shape of the ENTIRE song, and ignoring them for most everything else. Listen for the context instead and your ear will know what fits. 

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