In part two of this six-part series of getting yourself out of the box in your improvisation, I want to discuss dynamic range.
When I refer to “the box”, I am talking about the limits young or less experienced improvisers find themselves in regarding musical attributes such as note range, articulation, harmony, and in this case, dynamics. Truthfully, even more advanced players sometimes find themselves playing within limited ranges of certain musical attributes.
Improvisation is difficult for a number of reasons. We start out struggling to find the ‘right’ notes to play over a series of chords within a tune. “What scales should I play?” is a first question, and unfortunately, ‘correct’ note choice tends to dominate the focus of improvisers for far too long in their playing.
One of the many attributes I’m calling attention to that is lost in the obsession over note choices is dynamics. Playing soft to loud.
As I’m suggesting you do within each of these posts in this series, listen to a recent recording of your playing. How narrow is your dynamic range? Are all your lines pretty much the same mezzo forte or forte dynamic?
Consider the emotion that dynamic range creates for the listener, and not just in jazz. The great symphonies of the world do not stay at the full potential dynamic energy of the orchestra throughout the entire piece.
I remember the first piece of music I ever heard on a new technology in the early 80s called a CD. Yeah, I’m old! What immediately struck me that I remember to this day was the wide dynamic range of the medium. Much more than cassettes or vinyl of that time.
The music that captured my attention that night was Mahler’s 5th. The arc of dynamics I heard from that little round magical disk was astounding.
Consider those very first few iconic notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Fortissimo on those first two motifs gets your attention followed by the soft piano dynamics. Beethoven is saying, “HEY, pay attention to these first eight notes. Ok, now let’s begin to play around with them…”
I know that you’re not an orchestra, but consider the range of dynamics you play within your improvisation. Soft gets listers to ‘lean in’ and listen, and loud immerses them in sound that commands attention.
Dynamics also provides structure and a narrative to a solo. If everything you play is one dynamic, we have trouble following you musically. Dynamics plays a role in the form of your solo.
Here’s a brief example from a favorite player of mine who is a master of dynamics (and use of space)…
As an exercise for practicing, strengthen your ability to go from loud to soft and from soft to loud by playing scales alternating from one dynamic extreme to another. Do the same by arpeggiating chords. Do so counterintuitively by playing from low notes loud to high notes soft. Do the more natural soft to loud on those chords or scales and you ascend. I remember my first private trombone teacher back when I was a young kid. Each lesson involved me playing an etude as soft as I could. I remember marveling at how soft HE could play those pieces.
Keep in mind that dynamics are a natural part of musical expression. You are not playing soft just to play soft and loud for the sake of loud. If you are sensitive to the musical voice inside you, it will guide your dynamics.
Listen to singers modulate their dynamics. They do this better than most instrumentalists.
I should also remind you that silence is also a dynamic. If you notice your tendency to fill every possible space with notes, ask yourself if that is your most musical expression. Ask yourself that same question if you find yourself playing everything at the same dynamic level (probably loud).
Another master of dynamics and space is Miles Davis. I’l leave you with one of thousands of tracks I could share from him that illustrate his great range of expressiveness through dynamics and space. Not only did Miles play each note with modulating dynamics but listen to the dynamic curve of his single long notes.