3.3 Dynamics

Of course indicating dynamics is a very important part of what a conductor does and we have already touched on this in some of the previous examples.

You might expect that a big gesture is loud and a small one is quiet and that can often be the case. In section 1.7 we saw how crescendo and diminuendo can be indicated by increasing and decreasing the size of the frame we conduct in.

You might want to look back to the Shostakovich example in section 2.3 to revise conducting very softly – very small gestures and the importance of breathing to give confidence when the hands are doing very little.

However, a reasonably generous beat can also be appropriate if the music is quiet, but flowing and positive: a cantabile or dolce marking rather than pianissimo misterioso, for example. The reason for this is that the further the beat travels, the quicker you have to move through the space to maintain the same tempo. Motion with quite a lot of speed can often convey release and lightness; it translates into faster bow speed for string players or wind players to create a less sustained sound.

In the Mussorgsky excerpt you will see that the conductor lays down the fortissimo chords at the beginning, then she doesn’t move from that point. This is telling the musicians to sustain the sound rather than release it – in fact, human nature dictates that getting the musicians to really sustain requires such effort that we sometimes have to indicate a crescendo in order to prevent a diminuendo happening.

When the crescendo is written, very little is indicated at first because usually they happen too soon: the musicians see it coming and get louder too quickly – especially brass players!

You will also see how she indicates the sudden dynamic changes the beat before they happen, for example the subito fortissimo at the end of measure 11.

The conductor could have helped the players a little more by breathing with them for the softer dynamics. She is a string player, so this is not untypical!

The following two excerpts deal with sudden dynamic changes from soft to loud.

In the short Haydn example note how dramatic the gesture on the first beat of the last measure is, in order to convey the subito fortissimo on the second beat. It should be surprising, after all. If you are able to practise this one with at least some string players, pay some attention to how very different the players response to your beat is when they play pizzicato and arco. Getting these two very different methods of producing sound to be together is not as straightforward as you might think – and that’s before considering the wind and brass.

In the Mozart, which should be conducted in 2, the subito forte is an off-beat, therefore the conductor indicates it on the second half note beat. You’ll see that the gesture here is short and sharp because of the staccato nature of the music. In other words, the change of dynamic is achieved by a gesture that is more energetic rather than bigger. As a general rule, don’t be tempted to show the forte or the sfp with an extra gesture on the quarter note in question. As well as being too late for the musicians to process the information you are transforming something that should have the feel of a syncopation into something that has the feel of a beat. The exception to this might be where an extra gesture is needed to help maintain good ensemble unity.

A final point on dynamics is to remember that everything is relative. Perhaps more than any other aspect of conducting technique, you will often have to do something other than what is on the page, in order to achieve what is on the page. Here are some examples of what we mean by this:

  • Most ensembles will play forte if the music says forte. If you conduct with the energy of forte as well, the result will usually be fortissimo.
  • On the other hand, if the music says piano the default could be to play mezzo piano because it’s easier. The conductor might have to conduct pianissimo to achieve piano.
  • On yet another hand, young inexperienced musicians might not make a very confident sound in piano dolce so it could be necessary to conduct a bit “louder” to encourage them.
  • The conductor Hans von Bülow, who as well as conducting the premiere of Tristan und Isolde was one of the first great orchestral trainers, used to talk about how crescendo meant loud and diminuendo meant quiet: in order to enhance the effect and prevent it happening too early, conduct very softly in the beginning of a crescendo and loudly in the start of a diminuendo.
  • Until the 20 th Century (and still common in many present day cases) most composers wrote dynamics vertically – that is, every line has the same marking and little attention is paid to the fact that the brass may be too strong for the woodwinds if they all play the same, or that a solo line might need to be played louder than a sustained accompaniment. The conductor may need to indicate radically different dynamics to different parts of the orchestra in order to achieve good balance.
  • Forte in Mozart is unlikely to be the same as forte in Shostakovich
  • Piano in a Haydn cello concerto is unlikely to be the same as piano in the Haydn trumpet concerto
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