While working with a student chamber music ensemble recently, one student commented that as a group they could have done more with the dynamics. This student is a fine musician and a bright person, but he/she (like tooooo many musicians) missed the point.
The newly formed trio had just played a piece and it was indeed lacking something, but dynamics wasn't it. To me, the generic word "dynamics" is misused ALL the time to actually represent the idea of musical understanding or expressive playing. Think of the last time that you heard a GREAT performance. Were you ever thinking, "wow, those DYNAMICS were AWESOME"? Doubt it. More likely, the performer's clarity of interpretation, the way he/she conveyed the emotion, structure and meaning of the piece with finely crafted phrases, attention to utilizing great technique, intonation, timbral choices and conviction of playing were what you found meaningful.
I explained to the group that if they KNOW what they WANT to express in a given piece of music and play it with conviction, then "dynamics" as a stand-alone idea don’t really exist. More often, dynamic indications, along with tempo and articulation markings, are used to enliven the composer’s expressive ideas and help define the overall character of a piece, not solely a change in volume. A dynamic marking at the beginning of a piece, along with the tempo indication or other descriptive words helps to reveal the mood and character of the work. When used at the beginning, middle and ends of phrases, the composer is indicating the scope of a gesture. For instance, a phrase that builds from pianissimo to fortissimo at the highpoint will carry much more emotive/expressive power than one that only moves from pianissimo to piano. Sudden changes in dynamic markings help to indicate a change of mood, character, etc. (These are often accompanied by different articulation marks, so notice those too!)
Dynamics are a natural part of expressive playing, but without understanding the phrase/piece, you might as well be turning a volume knob on a stereo. It can get louder or softer, but you have to think about WHY you want to make those choices.
So, instead of saying, “we should play with more dynamics,” replace that with either, “we’re not playing this with the expression that this piece needs” or “we don’t yet entirely know what we’re trying to express.” Then get back to work studying the piece and make some MUSIC.
Oboe and out,