From the Practice Studio – Expressive Technique: Dynamics

By Brad DeRoche

Brad DeRoche is an active concert and recording artist. He holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in Classical Guitar Performance from Eastman School of Music and records for the Centaur Label.
He serves on the board of trustees for the Guitar Foundation of America and is currently Professor of Music, Music Department Chairperson and Director of Guitar Studies at Delta College.

Introduction

From the Practice Studio is a series of posts designed to improve our practicing. In my many years of experience as both a performer and educator, I noticed that most of us “students of the guitar” often approach learning technique in a haphazard or unstructured manner. Because of this, I developed a somewhat unique approach to practicing expression and other techniques that I found helpful for both myself and my students. My approach is to systematically apply most of the common and practical expressive concepts and articulation marks to our current technical drills. This way, we are practicing not only control over the movements of a particular scale or arpeggio, but also the expression that would typically accompany it in a piece of music, thereby eliminating the disconnect between technical and expressive playing. The goal of these articles then, is to help us to improve how we structure our technique practice and help make us more expressive, artistic musicians. So, let’s get out our instruments and work through some ideas together….

Expressive Technique: Dynamics

I personally believe in structured practice, and that includes organizing our approach to learning expressive techniques. So, let’s start by examining how we apply dynamics to our technique exercises. Most technique books offer very little information describing (or prescribing) practice approaches with dynamics, yet it is absolutely critical that we use dynamics in every piece of music we perform. It is one of the most important elements in creating an interesting artistic interpretation of any piece of music.

The physical aspect of dynamics involves string displacement: the further the string is stretched or displaced before release, the greater the energy that will be put into the top of the guitar upon release, and the louder the sound. My recommendation is to try to push the string inward toward the body of the guitar as much as will allow, rather than pulling upward (away from the body), or sideways (across the body). This is similar to the concept of rest stroke, or apoyando, but pushing the string inward can be applied to either rest stroke or free stroke. There will always be a certain amount of movement sideways in order to release the string, but again, focus on moving the string inward toward the body as much as you can. If the finger approach angle is approximately 45 degrees to the string, it will allow the player to both push the string inward toward the body, and pull the string across before releasing it from the fingertip, without touching the other strings. Players will need to experiment with the angles in order to produce the tone and dynamic levels they are satisfied with.

To begin, let’s assume that there are at least eight different dynamic levels that we must have control over. There are far more actual dynamic gradations that can be made, but having at least eight, clearly distinct levels will be enough for most applications. The dynamic levels are: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, and fff.

Exercise 1: Appling the above dynamics to an arpeggio. Play a simple PIMA arpeggio a few times at the quietest (ppp) level until you are comfortable and satisfied with the sound and physical movement. Next, apply the same process, but make it just one notch louder (pp). Then, one notch louder to p, and so on until you are playing at fff. Finally, go backward from the loudest dynamic level to the quietest. It’s a very simple exercise that should take no more than one minute. For more advanced players, apply this to one of the Giuliani 120, or Villa Lobos Etude 1, first measure, or any other arpeggio pattern you are currently working on. This exercise is designed to make us aware of at least eight different dynamic levels in our playing. I also believe it is important that we think in terms of “pianissimo” or “mezzo-forte” or whatever level we are currently working on while we are playing this exercise. This helps us to have a better understanding – and control over – our physical technique when we apply it to a real piece of music. In other words, don’t just start quiet and play louder and louder until you can’t go any further. That’s another exercise, we’ll get to that in a moment.

Dynamics Ex 1

Exercise 2: Use the same eight dynamic levels in a scale. Let’s start with a one octave scale pattern. Any major or minor scale is fine, I have chosen a C major scale for the sake of simplicity. Begin by playing the scale, ascending and descending, at the ppp dynamic level. Repeat several times until you are comfortable playing at this dynamic level. Then, play it again, this time at the pp dynamic level. Proceed in this manner until you have played it at all eight dynamic levels: ppp, pp, p, mp, mf, f, ff, and fff. For a more advanced technique, apply this same concept to two and three-octave scales.

Dynamics Ex 2

Next, let’s work on gradually increasing and decreasing the dynamic level, using Crescendo and Diminuendo.

Exercise 3: In this exercise, we are going to start from our quietest dynamic (ppp) and grow gradually louder until we are playing at our loudest dynamic level (fff). Let’s apply this over the same PIMA arpeggio (or more advanced patterns if you are so inclined) as in the first exercise. Get gradually louder from the beginning of the measure until you reach measure two. Diminuendo in measure two. Do this exercise several times. Be sure to keep the tempo steady as you get louder and quieter, there is a tendency to speed up as we get louder, and slow down as we get quieter. That is another exercise we will get to in an upcoming article, but for now, keep it steady. Next, make the crescendo last over two measures and the diminuendo also over two measures. Finally, expand to four measures of each. This will give you control over gradual crescendo and diminuendo.

Dynamics Ex 3a Dynamics Ex 3b Dynamics Ex 3c

Exercise 4: As in the previous exercise, we are going to start from our quietest dynamic (ppp) and grow gradually louder until we are playing at our loudest dynamic level (fff), though this time in a scale. Let’s apply this over the C major scale pattern (or more advanced patterns if you are so inclined) as in the second exercise. Get gradually louder from the beginning of the measure until you reach measure two. Diminuendo in measure two. Do this exercise several times until you are comfortable controlling it. Next, play a two-octave scale, apply the crescendo to the entire two-octave, ascending scale. Then, apply a diminuendo over the descending two-octave scale . Finally, expand to three-octave scales if you are able. This will give you control over gradual crescendo and diminuendo in a scale pattern.

Dynamics Ex 4ab

Finally, let’s practice Subito, or sudden, dynamic changes: sub. p or sub. f.

Exercise 5: Using our PIMA arpeggio (or Giuliani/Villa Lobos, etc.), start by playing one measure of arpeggios at a quiet dynamic level, p, for example. Then, at the beginning of the second measure, suddenly change (subito) to f for one measure. Repeat the procedure several times until you gain control of the physical aspect of it. This sudden change would be marked sub. p or sub. f in a score. Practice this exercise several times, then decrease the number of beats between each dynamic change until you are changing every beat.

Dynamics Ex 5

Exercise 6: Using our one-octave C Major Scale, start by playing the ascending scale at a quiet dynamic level, p, for example. Then, as you descend, suddenly change (subito) to f for one measure. Repeat the procedure several times until you gain control of the physical aspect of it. Next, start with f for the ascending scale, followed by sub. p for the descending scale. Remember to keep your tempo steady as you change dynamics. When you are comfortable with a one-octave scale, expand to two and three-octave scales.

Dynamics Ex 6

In closing, these exercises are just a starting point for our study of dynamics on the instrument. What is important, I believe, is that we consider all the possible dynamic markings, and apply them to our standard technical drills. In this article I have shown how to apply dynamics to both arpeggios and scales. However, this same procedure should be applied to block chords, tremolo, slurs, and other areas of our technique. Improving as an artist requires the use of our creativity when working on technique, but we should also be structured and organized. Using a practical approach, such as the one described above, allows us to make consistent progress toward the goal of being more artistic and expressive in our practice and performances.


3 thoughts on “From the Practice Studio – Expressive Technique: Dynamics


    1. Hello Peter, just received this response from Brad for you…

      Glad to answer it if I can. Here it goes:

      Yes, there is indeed a great little exercise for working on dynamics within a block chord! It’s based on the technique I showed in the first part of the video, where I push the string in toward the soundhole. You just apply that to a 3 or 4 note chord. What I have done, and taught to my students as well, is the following:

      1. Place you right hand fingers (PIM) on a 3-note, block chord. The Giuliani 120 Studies #1 is great for this, but you can choose any chord you like.
      2. Press your M (middle) finger in toward the soundhole MORE than the other fingers.
      3. Release all three fingers (PIM) simultaneously. The M finger should be louder because you displaced the string further. Work on this until you have good control over the sound and the movement.
      4. Next, practice using the I (index) finger, same as above, then P, until you have gained control over the movement of each finger. It’s actually more difficult to control than it might seem.
      5. Once you have mastered a 3-note chord, move on to a 4-note chord with (PIMA).
      6. n advanced version of the above would be to add the dynamic levels exercise from the video to the accents in the chords. Start with PPP, but add the accented note/finger, then move up to PP, then P, MP, MF, F, FF, and FFF.

      Hope this helps. If you other questions, feel free to let me know.

      Cheers,
      Brad


  1. Thank you for presenting this subject I have not seen/watched anything specifically o this subject.
    I found it very interesting and will add it to my practice. I will endeavour to add it to my scores too.
    A most enjoyable lecture.
    Thank you
    Geoff (U.K.)


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