Dynamics: Your Student’s Artistic Vocabulary

by Mary Galime

As conductors it is your job to unify a group of musicians toward a series of musical ideas and goals you have for your programmed music. The younger the performer, the harder it is to do this. They know they must watch the conductor for the tempo, dynamic direction, when to start, and when to stop. The challenge we face with younger students is how to translate these almost mechanical reactions into something musical.

In my opinion, the most difficult of these translations is dynamics. They are the paint brush that brings a story to your music. They will provide a variety of colors and depths to your music, using a palette that many of your students are not familiar with yet. Or are they?

My father is from Greece, and functionally speaks English. We talk a lot about cooking, as Greeks do, and when he is telling me a recipe it is always in very basic descriptions because of his lack of English vocabulary. His recipe will sound something like this: “I put the chicken in the pot with some water and the red, salt pepper, too much garlic, too much cinnamon, clove, and this much water.” As the chef, I know what this recipe translates to (red is tomato paste for those of you still scratching your head), but if we had an audience, they would probably be highly questioning what the end product would be.

Our students speak dynamics in a very similar way. For example, if we turned a band piece into a conversation, your student might sound something like this: “I start, I play loud, soft, rest, play loud, soft, then loud again, finish.” There are not a whole lot of artistic brush strokes in this communication. While your students don’t have a wide musical vocabulary yet, they have a human vocabulary that they use on a daily basis to describe their trials, disappointments, and excitements.

The key to unifying your students dynamic expression starts with teaching them to bring their daily verbal drama to the context of your music. 

What type of piano is it? Is it a scared piano? A shocked piano? Is it cool and collected, warm and loving, or almost silent with resent? Sometimes I like to get them thinking about what they are hearing outside classical instruction. Is it a Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk” loud (bright and crispy trumpet lines), or Muse’s “Uprising” (tense and unrelenting), or is it Queen’s “We are the Champions” (unified and orchestrated)?

The structure of how we determine where we fit dynamically is still very important. Your students need to have an understanding of what role they play in the chord structure, what range they will perform as it relates to how well they will project, tuning, and musical importance (melody vs harmony). However, the balance to this structure is the artistic touch your students must add. The more adjectives you can have your students use to describe their dynamic, the better chances you have of turning a mechanical response to your direction, into something artistic.

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