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What Do Dynamic Markings Really Tell Us?

Dynamic markings are not the composer's indication of volume, but rather, an expression of mood. This should be my new mantra because I find myself saying it a lot lately. For those of you who follow my blog posts regularly, I am a big proponent for creative practicing, and a significant component of that comes from the decisions I make with the printed dynamics on a page.

One of the things that I always stress to my students when they are practicing is to question the meaning behind all of the details in the music. When it comes to dynamics, this one area, unfortunately, has become sort of automatic. Not one forte or piano is the same in volume and character––it is our duty as performers to figure out its context in a certain situation. I have included two contrasting examples (see below) of passages both marked piano, but with completely different emotional expressions. Remember: dynamics give us an idea of what the general volume we should play, but they do not tell us the full story.

Chopin Nocturne in B flat Minor, Op. 9, No. 1

Brahms Intermezzo in B Minor , Op. 119, No. 1

When I was a doctoral candidate at The Cleveland Institute of Music (CIM), I was fortunate to have chamber music coachings with Merry Peckham, former cellist of the Cavani String Quartet (CIM's string quartet in residence), and current Chair of Chamber Music at New England Conservatory. I owe much of my musical development to her and the Cavanis. Besides Merry's infectious passion for music and her lovable personality, she completely revolutionized how I thought about dynamics. For each marking, she would have us come up with adjectives, or what I like to call, "mood words," to describe what was going on in the music. Not only was this a fun and interactive way to delve into further details of studying a work, but it also refined how I think about and teach music.

Now, I take that concept and go a few steps further in this exercise: after I come up with mood words for each dynamic marking, I ask myself to justify why I chose those adjectives. In other words, what are some specific things in the music that can support my thinking? At this stage, I consider everything––harmony, chromaticism, melodic contour, rhythm, figuration of the support material and its interaction with the other parts, and the context of the passage.

Ultimately, it is the performer's job to ask the hard questions: what can we do musically to convey these emotions? Why did the composer choose to write in such a way? Did the composer have other options to his/her disposal? These are all questions to consider in capturing the essence of the music.

Next time when you practice, question the true meaning behind every dynamic marking. Do not take them solely for its face value. In most cases, I believe there is usually more to it than simply playing loudly or softly.

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