Dynamic(s), Reconsidered

dynamism /ˈdī-nə-ˌmi-zəm/ n.Sightlines Post 3

Energy and a strong desire to make something happen.

That’s the dictionary definition.

In my last post I addressed the propensity of some musical theatre performers to over-sing, albeit unwittingly. The connotation of “belt” with “loud” seems to be at the forefront of this epidemic. Due to a (very) “strong [and laudable, I might add] desire to make something happen,” performers often wind up with all their might, anticipating that fortissimo pitch they see coming their way in a song’s climactic moment.

The mindset preceding those blared, out-of-control moments of screlting (etymology, according to Urban Dictionary: “Scream + Belting = screlting”) is frequently to blame. When we step back and look at the ways in which we usually address dynamics in a musical score, one culprit begins to emerge as a consistent theme: the notion of pp, p, and mp as simply “soft,” and mf, f, and ff as simply “loud.”

This is a hard one. We’ve been taught throughout our music studies that the dynamic spectrum in music is analogous to the volume knob on a radio. Thus, we too often assume that the ff marking under that sustained high note at the key change means — simply, directly, and unabashedly — to “sing loud.” But to give a truly dynamic performance, one must also carefully consider the aspect of energy contributing to the definition of dynamism.

Too often one observes performers overloading the vocal mechanism by putting too much responsibility for an energetic performance on the single factor of vocal production. In my experience, this frequently stems from too little specificity in acting choices: objectives, tactics and the application of these in performing the song. In fact, the dispersion of energy throughout various aspects of one’s performance — i.e. physicality, action, textual momentum, pathos, and vocal realization) is one of the greatest skills a performer can learn.

One way to make use of dynamic indications (and most musical markings) in considering the flow of energy among the various aspects of one’s performance is to think of them as akin to stage directions. Just as playwrights use stage directions to indicate those intentions that aren’t readily evident in the dialogue itself, dynamic indications (along with articulation and phrasing markings) can be thought of as brands of “stage direction” that help to elucidate and support the lyrics. How might we use a f marking as a motivator for movement, say, or ff as a suggestion for a more specific choice of tactic — and thus remove undue stress placed on the vocal mechanism to convey all energy aspects of a given performance?

“How can I make my performances more dynamic?,” I’m often asked. A big recommendation: reconsider dynamics. Engage, Support and Allow. And remember: Dynamism = Energy, wisely delegated.

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