Okay, so maybe the term “revolutionary” is a bit over-the-top, but not by much. My whole understanding of dynamics was altered recently as I sat in on my brother’s cello lesson. His teacher explained that in each piece, my brother should utilize the full dynamic range of the instrument, executing each dynamic marking in relation to that whole range. I had previously thought of dynamics mostly in absolute terms, rather than as being relative to the whole. And even when I did think relationally, I never thought of it quite to this extent.
I’ve already used this explanation countless times with my students and the quality of their dynamic control and contrast has improved dramatically. For instance, we look over a piece and identify the loudest dynamic marking in the piece [it may be mf or it may be ffff!]. This is the point at which we want to be playing at the loudest range of the instrument. I have the student demonstrate. Then we find the softest dynamic marking. This is where we will play at the softest range of the instrument. Again, the student tries it out. All intermediate dynamic markings are performed in relation to these two extremities. My students have really connected with this understanding of dynamics, and their playing is so much more musical as a result! No longer are the dynamic markings some abstract idea of loud or soft; they have something concrete to “grab hold of” both technically and musically as they incorporate the dynamics into their playing. (Undoubtedly there are exceptions to this, but at least with my students, the tendency more often is to have too little contrast in their dynamics, rather than too much, so this has proved to be a very effective tool for them at this point!)
Perhaps this is something that has been perfectly obvious to everyone else for years, but I’ll risk exhibiting my ignorance in case there are others who may benefit from this view of dynamics that has “revolutionized” my teaching (and playing!)! 🙂