Tuesday, September 27, 2016

A Brief Introduction to Dynamics

In musical notation, dynamic markings instruct performers to play a passage loudly or quietly. Dynamics provided are relative – that is, there is not a specified volume level associated with a particular marking. There are two fundamental indications: f, or forte, and p, or piano. The forte marking means “loud,” and the piano marking means “soft.”

Very rarely will a performer be instructed to play a piece entirely at one dynamic level. By concatenating forte or piano markings, a composer imparts the level of loudness or softness. The marking ff (“fortissimo”) is louder than f, and pp (“pianissimo”) is softer than p. Continuing to link together the marking indicates more intense levels – fff is louder than ff, which is louder than f; ppp is quieter than pp, which is quieter than p. In the middle are mf, or mezzo-forte, and mp, or mezzo-piano, which indicate a moderate level of loudness and softness, respectively.

Other instructions let the performer know whether to employ a dynamic marking suddenly or gradually. “Crescendo” instructs the performer to gradually increase the volume, and “diminuendo” means gradually become softer. “Sforzando,” abbreviated sfz, tells the performer to accent a note or play a note louder. The fortepiano indication, fp, means play loudly initially, then immediately play softly.

Dynamics are very important and help provide color and interest to music. A passage ordinarily played quietly can impart a very different experience to an audience if played loudly and forcefully. It is crucial to understand dynamics to properly interpret the intentions of a composer, but it can also help a performer develop their own unique approach to interpretation when dynamics are not provided.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

10 Songs for Fall

Thursday, September 22nd, is the Autumnal Equinox – the first day of Fall. We’ve compiled our listening list! Have you?

From yearning for the changing colors of the seasons to sadness about the end of a blissful summer, here are ten songs for the onset of Fall. Did we miss anything? Let us know!

Monday, September 19, 2016

10 Piano Pieces for Beginners

Have you been playing scales, arpeggios, and other piano exercises? Looking for some actual music to sink your fingers into? There’s a lot of music out there. Some pieces are amazing to listen to, but technically challenging and beyond the reach of many pianists. Other works are easy to play, but perhaps lacking in musical aesthetic.

Here’s a list of works that are approachable, but also fun. Some will require more practice and skill than others, but none should be out of reach of pianists who are learning their craft and diligent in improving their skills:

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Top 5 Beethoven Piano Sonatas

There are few collections of musical compositions more important that Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas. These are the transitional works that signaled the end of the Classical era and the onset of Romanticism. They influenced innumerable composers following Beethoven – their innovative structures, use of counterpoint, dynamic contrast, and general mastery of craft all forever changed the direction of music. Several of Beethoven’s works were so visionary that they would not be appreciated literally for decades after the composer’s death.

Each Sonata is unique, and all have elements and history that make them remarkable. Here are five that have stood out in the test of time:

This is a popular work from Beethoven’s “early period,” reflecting considerable influence from Mozart and Haydn. It portends the dynamic contrasts that would define many of Beethoven’s works throughout his life. It includes a rare instance of hundred twenty-eighth notes.

Arguably the most recognizable of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas, “Moonlight” features a highly evocative melancholy first movement. Although this movement sets the tone, the piece is unusual in that the structurally most important movement is placed at the end of the work.

Piano Sonata No. 23 is remarkable for its stark contrasts in dynamics and tone as well as structural innovation. It is a very challenging piece to play, and arguably the most difficult Beethoven wrote until he completed Piano Sonata No. 29.

Regarded as the most technically demanding Piano Sonata Beethoven wrote, “Hammerklavier” is long, complex, and relentless. Like many works in Beethoven’s “late period,” it is highly contrapuntal and includes an extraordinary fugue in the final movement.

This is Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, and one of few with only two movements. The second movement is a series of variations on a theme, and the third variation in particular is notable for its ragtime or boogie-woogie-like sonority.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

5 Tips for Practicing

The fun part about playing music is the ability to perform a piece you’ve mastered. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to get to that point. Practicing is usually frustrating and generally unpleasant. Just as composers suffer the “tyranny of the blank page,” so too do performers have the comparable struggle of learning a challenging piece they don’t yet have under their fingers.

So, how do you get through the very real struggle? Here are 5 tips to help you practice:

1) Take it slow. There is a great temptation to play a piece at the given tempo right from the start. This comes from a desire to master the piece quickly. Unfortunately, it takes time to develop that mastery. Playing sections slowly, and increasing the speed very gradually, will help you get the piece “in your fingers”  - that is, you will develop kinesthetic memory for it. More importantly, you won’t pick up a bad habit: if you play piece too quickly, you’ll make mistakes, Keep doing this, and those mistakes might stick with you!

2) Repeat, repeat, repeat! It’s boring, but, like playing sections slowly, it will help you learn a piece to the point where you’ll develop a kinesthetic memory for it. Don’t try to play the entire piece at once; learn it section by section, and once you’ve mastered a section, move on to the next one.

3) Reduce distractions to the greatest extent possible. Focus on learning the section you are studying. Don’t be tempted to play other, unrelated pieces. If you have trouble concentrating or get frustrated, take a break, but don’t get lost in other things.

4) Maximize the productivity of your practice time. Set aside a specific amount of time to practice – even if only for half an hour. Much more important than the amount of time spent practicing is the QUALITY of the practice. If you know you’ll only be able to meaningfully practice for 30 minutes, then set aside that amount of time. Two hours sounds good, but if you only focus for a small fraction of that time, then have you really practiced for two hours?

5) Play in front of supportive friends. Playing in front of other people is a very different experience from playing alone. Your friends can better evaluate dynamics, phrasing, and other musical elements no less important than just the notes and rhythms. Most importantly, you will be better equipped to play in front of your actual audience!

What is your favorite practice tip? Let us know!