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Master Class or Taking The Decibels Down

by Richard Strauss, Max Rudolf, Erich Leinsdorf, Gunther Schuller, Pierre Boulez, Walter Beeler and William Shakespeare.

Compleat Conductor, The Gunther Schuller 1994 Oxford
The Composer's Advocate Erich Leinsdorf 1981 Yale
Weingartner on Music and Conducting Felix Weoingartner 1969 Dover

We do have a problem with the wind band, that of decibels... in short we all tend to play too loudly. The reasons for this are five-fold, in part due to the brilliance of the medium with all of those primary colours jostling and competing, in part due to our choice of repertoire, in part due to the noisiness of our modern age, in part due to sheer laziness and in part due to poor conducting.

Gunther Schuller sums it all up, with reference to symphony orchestras, in his magnificent book, The Compleat Conductor (Oxford University Press).

The abuse, and misuse, of dynamics is perhaps the most common evil in orchestral playing today, (especially in the United States <and at BASBWE concerts - I added that>) being either tolerated or generated by our conductors. This is particularly ironic, since the technical abilities of modern players are so high that no claim could ever be made that subtle control is beyond their capabilities. And to excuse this dynamic laziness by saying "its more fun to play loud" or it makes a bigger effect" or "its more exciting" or more philosophically resigned - "it's just human nature", is insufficient reason and just plain laziness, carelessness.

He is talking about the great orchestras of the world; how much more important is it for us working with less than excellent wind bands to try to harness their dynamic exuberance?

At the 2003 WASBE Conference, Wayne Rapier, co-principal oboe for many years of the Philadelphia and Boston Orchestras, said that as a young player he used to sit in on rehearsals by Stokowsky to try to analyse why the performances were so great. He reckoned that Stokowsky had an incredible control of the architecture of dynamics, with two or three major climatic moments in a concert. I personally remember playing for Ferdinand Leitner in Brahms Symphonies, with our dynamic range extended incredibly - so that a fortissimo at the end was so much louder than a fortissimo at any other time in the work.

Richard Strauss Golden Rules

It would be an excellent thing is someone in each band, possibly a flute player or alto clarinettist, sewed a sampler for the conductor outlining some of Richard Strauss's Ten Golden Rules.

4 Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a short glance to give an important cue.

6 If you think that the brass is not blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.

There were instruments which I never heard over the BASBWE weekend Conference in 2004. Harp and lower woodwind were especially inaudible. Admittedly, much of the music in the repertoire exploited a bright, brash, attacking sound-world, but it is essential that we take care of the balance of what is in essence a huge chamber ensemble made up of trios and quartets of instruments of widely differing colour and timbre.

Max Rudolf puts it very clearly:

In most halls, the sound level of trumpets and trombones is just right if the conductor barely hears them. The same is true for horns in piano passages, while they often must be encouraged to bring out a forte marcato. Woodwind soloists should hit the conductor's ears quite strongly to make sure that their sound carries into the auditorium. This, of course, must not be accomplished by forcing the tone, which would hurt the instrument's sound quality and intonation. The solution lies in having the accompanying instruments play more softly

ERICH LEINSDORF in another of my bibles makes two excellent points about dynamic levels:

Vertical Dynamics

Composers often wrote one dynamic mark for the entire vertical scoring involved. They expected performers to adjust their instruments' relative strength according to the primary or secondary importance of their roles.

A Sustained Note Is Always Stronger Than A Moving Voice

There is one fundamental physical law that bears repetition, since so many musicians are unaware of it; a sustained note is always stronger than a moving voice....There is so much to be decided by the conductor who cares for a balanced performance that no amount of detail can possibly cover the permutations presented by such considerations as types of instruments (and players), size and acoustic of hall, seating arrangements, types of scoring....

Pierre Boulez explains the process of decision making:

There are times when respect for the musical text alone does not serve much purpose. You may have a secondary part written for a relatively weighty instrument, and a principal part written for a much lighter instrument. You have to change the dynamics. I have no qualm about doing that. As a fellow composer, I say to myself, "That's what he wanted to hear, but he didn't have enough experience to write down the exact dynamics,." So I change them, that's all.

The composer has written a certain number of instrumental lines and on the whole, he hasn't done so just to make a general amount of noise. He's composed those lines so that we can hear certain things, so that we can experience a certain hierarchy that's dependant on his writing. What I try to do is to bring out that hierarchy in a very precise way, even when its difficult.

You may be saying that all this is OK for playing Brahms or Bruckner, but does not really work in the wind band repertoire.

Walter Beeler, one of the great band trainers of the last century said:

Restraint is especially important in fast music; the spirit begins to suffer if played too loud. The audience tires, the players tire and it becomes a very determined piece. It's hard for a band to play with restraint because speed and excitement always tend to increase the volume. But if we rely on articulations, accents and rhythm (rather than volume) to bring about a condition of brightness, it will definitely be more musical.

Von Bulow

Diminuendo signifies forte, crescendo signifies piano.

Gunther Schuller

It is at that very highest level of performance that a wealth of interpretative choices and decisions become available at least to the really sensitive intelligent and imaginative recreator. It is in this realm that there is not one pp, but many subtly different pps; not one f but many different kinds of fs, and not one slur but many different kinds of legatos etc. etc. The more basic point however is that it is pp not a p or a mf.

Pierre Boulez

For me an orchestra's lack of discipline is always reflected in a feeble dynamic range....Something I do very often to push the dynamic register to the absolute maximum until it reaches what I think are appropriate levels for a given work.

Two anecdotes from past BASBWE Conferences underline a concern I have about our approach to musicmaking. A distinguished colleague in discussion talked about how monotonous the sound world was with the relentless loud music of the contemporary band. He needed strings, he needed small ensemble work to break up the programme, he suggested including transcriptions from earlier periods to change the pace.

Some time ago an equally distinguished colleague began a rehearsal of one of his works by telling us that bands play too loud, and requesting careful control of dynamics. The first time he stopped was to ask the saxophones to play louder in a passage - NOT to ask the rest of the band to play quieter.

The Importance Of Knowing The Repertoire

I would respectfully take issue with both colleagues. To the former, I would suggest that there is an incredibly rich vein of music available to us through which we can change the pace and vary the sound-world. I can remember hearing Duke Ellington on his last tour of UK, and the variety of pace and dynamic was exemplary, the programme was as carefully built as any by the Vienna Philharmonic or Chicago Symphony. We in the band world are only limited by our knowledge of what is available. Programme building is an Art, and following one loud brilliant piece with another and another, each ushered along with increasingly enormous gestures, is no way to build a programme. Ignorance of the possibilities is one of our biggest problems. Select carefully; as William Shakespeare advised - I count it but time lost to hear such a foolish song.

Ask The Accompaniment To Be Lighter

To the latter, I would suggest that we follow Max Rudolf's advice, and should almost invariably ask the accompaniment to play quieter.

Baylor University Bands Agree

I would go further, and propose that we consciously take down the general level. The great Russian conducting teacher Ilya Musin used to say that Forte is a characteristic. I have a couple of T-shirts which proclaim that Forte is a Light Dynamic. If it is treated as such, then fortissimo and molto fortissimo can take their place as truly exciting points in the score, with one or two really roof-lifting climaxes per concert, not a dozen in each piece.


Image of Tim Reynish wearing a tee-shirt which says Forte is still a light dynamic

Jeffrey Grogan of Ithaca College watches Tim Reynish getting dressed
during at a concert at Baylor University, Texas.