Combined Horizontal and Vertical Effects

As you develop a storehouse of techniques to alter the effects of your interpretation, it feels almost as if you’re sitting at a soundboard manipulating levers.  Sound delay here, extra reverb there, brighter here, louder there.  This may sound superficial, but effects often form the content itself.  It’s related to the age-old question: Which is more important, the prose or the content?  Substance envelops both.  When effects become as beautiful as the work itself, heightening its affect, the interpreter has entered the realm of true mastery.


It’s not life.

It is living.

~ unknown


Dynamic Differentiation



Stop acting so small. 

You are the universe in ecstatic motion.

~ Rumi


Dynamics is one of the most misunderstood concepts in music-making.  As the 20th century progressed and we entered the Urtext Age, the concept of dynamics became more and more boxed-in and distorted.  If the score says mf, every note must sound mf.  Taking liberties outside of the designated dynamics still occasionally prompts critics and colleagues to question one’s interpretive seriousness, especially in Europe.

When listening to a great pianist like Rachmaninoff, one is struck by the grand scope of the dynamic range.  His piano begins where most pianists’ forte stops.  Yet it SOUNDS piano and IS piano!  And this brings us to an important point about dynamics and energy — dynamics are only indirectly related to decibels of sound; they’re related to relative decibels of sound, but more importantly, they’re defined to the listener’s ear by the relative level of the performer’s energy and the quality of that energy.   A piano can sound forte, for instance, if it’s forced.  Simply stated, dynamics represent mood, color and relative energy levels. 

One’s energy level changes from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, and the performer must be sensitive to this and counterbalance it when necessary, without forcing.  Rachmaninoff plays piano with a big sound but a calm mind and relatively relaxed joints, so the effect is piano.  Yet underneath the melody, there are seemingly infinite layers of dynamics, which lends his accompaniments a rich, orchestral effect.

Dynamic differentiation has to be sculpted out to the last detail, both vertically and horizontally, and the two are always fighting for supremacy.  The most stunning vertical effects often have to be called in check because they destroy the horizontal dynamic landscape.  Likewise, breathtaking dynamic scope in a small gesture or phrase often has to be toned down for the sake of the larger horizontal architecture.  It often feels like chasing your own tail.


Zen is not an art,

it’s not a religion.

It’s a realisation.

Gene Clark


Start by defining the vertical landscape moment by moment, exaggerating the dynamic contrasts as much as possible.  Remember that it’s easy to make gestures smaller but effortful to make them larger. 

Take any chord and see how much dynamic contrast you can attain with each note.  How many distinct dynamic levels can you achieve with only one hand?  Even two is a great point of departure. 

Explore your own perceptions.  When you play a three-note chord with three distinct dynamic levels, what is the general dynamic level that the chord projects?  It’s possible to maintain the effect of a pp even with one of the notes standing out in a muted f.  This sort of effect is often notated in orchestral scores but extremely rarely in piano scores!  On the other hand, sometimes a single note played forte in a chord is enough to create the impression of a full forte for the entire chord, whereas if the same chord is played with every note forte, it sounds, dull, thick and heavy.

Next, returning to the horizontal, try to define each gesture with enormous, romantic sweep.  Begin pp and swell into a large f that then disappears into nothing.  The process of exaggeration is always purifying.

A general recommendation about dynamics:  try to increase your dynamic range daily.  It’s a process of gaining strength and sensitivity, but more than this, it’s about gaining access to the strength and restraint that you already possess.  And it’s equally a matter of psychological growth and self-mastery.  You need to learn how to take your normal self and grow expressively in superhuman ways.  It’s a long process to learn to feel big and actually become big.  Remember also that in Art, as in most things, nothing ever stays static — it either grows or shrinks.