Dynamics (variation in loudness) is a common missing ingredient from piano performances. Without dynamic contrast, a pianist's playing is lifeless and dull. Adjudicators of festivals or exams frequently recommend to "use more dynamics". Dynamics are often in place during rehearsal but absent during the performance. In this case, performance anxiety is the culprit. In other instances, the underlying cause is deeper and more complicated.
First, let’s explore the absence of dynamics caused by performance anxiety. Sufficient practice involving dynamics is essential. When learning music, we often break it down and work on dynamics near the final stages of learning. However, we must allot enough time to secure the dynamics. I strongly recommend memorizing the music a minimum of one month before a performance. With adequate practice, we will be more likely to successfully execute the dynamics under the pressure. I have addressed the topic of performance anxiety in more depth in a previous post titled Managing Stage Fright: The Inner Game.
Next, we will deal with the more complicated issues related to this topic. Nicola Cantan wrote the wonderful book titled "The Piano Practice Physician's Handbook" In this book, she categorizes three different dynamic aliments. These pathologies are Dynamic Deficiency, Fortissimo Fixation, and Pianissimo Preoccupation. In the following, I will elaborate on each one. No worries all three have effective remedies.
The absence of dynamic contrast in one’s playing
A perceived information overload often accompanies dynamic deficiency. Tempo illnesses such as vivace influenza and presto infatuation can exacerbate this aliment. The cause root of dynamic deficiency is not in the comprehension of the signs and symbols (addressing this situation is easily). It is similar to articulation anemia, lack of desire or a feeling of being overwhelmed is the underlying problem.
- A lack of dynamic contrast in one’s playing.
- Not placing importance on dynamic marks.
- The belief that including dynamics is too difficult
To remedy this disease, we need to have a game plan for dynamics. This must include the shaping of each phrase as well as an understanding for the contour the the work as a whole. To assist you in this process consider how the dynamics fit into the narrative of the music. Come up with a possible story to accompany the music if the piece is not directly descriptive or story-telling. Play the piece through a few times to help to spark your imagination. Once you have your story, play through the piece a few times with exaggerated dynamics while you dramatize the music. Next, play the piece, imagining the full story-line as you play.
Refusal to play at a volume other than the maximum
This issue is most common among beginners, although some pianists up to an intermediate level display particularly resistant forms of the disease. Many pianists with fortissimo fixation think of playing the piano as pressing buttons. They believe that if they press the right button at the right time then they are playing correctly. If this is the case, it’s no wonder each key is pressed down swiftly and emphatically, creating the harsh banging sound that results.
- Unpleasantly loud playing almost all the time.
- A “heavy-handed” piano technique.
- Failure to recognize how loudly one is playing.
The trick with this remedy is to make it into a game called ‘As Soft As...’. Think of the quietest thing you can and it doesn’t matter what example you choose; anything quiet will do. Now play something simple (a scale, piece or exercise you know well) “as soft as a ”. Play more and more softly using the comparison you has chosen, for example: “A swan gliding on a pond is even softer. Swans make almost no sound at all!.” When “as soft as a ” is mastered with the simple scale or piece, apply this to the original piece. Keep in mind that playing pianissimo is difficult and mastery of "as soft as" will require practice time.
Refusal to play at a volume other than the minimum
This affliction is less common among young children. It usually affects shy, uncertain or nervous pianists and is very prevalent among older beginners. In the same way that we might speak more softly or with a quiver in our voice when speaking a foreign language, pianists with pianissimo preoccupation feel uncomfortable playing loudly, especially if they are unsure of the notes. This fear of making a mistake prevents them from playing with conviction and ultimately inhibits their musicality. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: they think they won’t sound musical so they play so lightly on the keys that they don’t sound musical. We need to break this cycle quickly or these hesitant pianists are very likely to give up altogether.
- Very quiet or hesitant playing.
- A touch that is too light, bouncing from the key-bed as soon as it is struck.
- Expressing a fear of being overheard by neighbors or passers-by.
Roar! This remedy will have to be used in many practice sessions for maximum effectiveness. The ‘Roar!’ is really very simple but can get uncomfortable for tentative pianists – so be prepared to be persistent. Play the first note, notes, or chord of whatever piece you are working on as a warm-up. Play them as loudly as possible. Continue to ‘Roar!’ before every scale, exercise and piece.
Cantan, Nicola. The Piano Practice Physician's Handbook: 32 Common Piano Student Ailments and How Piano Teachers Can Cure Them for GOOD.