The title of this post is taken from a frequently recurring comment on the grade sheets my pupils received after taking a variety of ABRSM exams this term. Sometimes they ‘attempted dynamic contrast’, sometimes they ‘achieved dynamic contrast’ and one even ‘demonstrated imagination in dynamic contrast.’ Examiners speak in riddles sometimes, but I always read these sorts of comments with a slight guilty shudder because my students’ varying degrees of dynamic contrast (in terms of playing piano or forte or making crescendi) are entirely my fault. In the earlier grades (1 and 2 especially) I tend to neglect this aspect of playing in favour of
a) consistent intonation
b) knowing the pieces inside out (and preferably from memory)
c) having a good consistent sound, as a result of proper playing posture, a good bow-hold, and the ability to play ‘on the Kreisler highway’, i.e using that part of the string that lies roughly halfway between the bridge and fingerboard, and which permits the child to avoid squeaks and scratches.
c) using a variety of bowing articulations: staccato, legato, accents, playing well in the upper and lower half of the bow.
Of course, employing a range of dynamics is good and musical, and most children can be encouraged to play strongly, less strongly, or to make ‘surprises’. But, I also feel that it’s only possible to learn how quietly one can play after learning how strongly/loudly one can play while still making a good sound. After all, playing pianissimo still requires projection, and the same techniques, muscles, and sensitivities that allow one to project are used whether the music is ‘loud’ or ‘quiet’. Furthermore, I try to avoid the loud/quiet binary in favour of ‘strong’ and ‘soft’ as the latter words evoke sensations rather than merely volume.
Interestingly, having been told constantly in lessons during my last years at school and through three years of undergrad that my piano playing was never quiet enough, never gentle enough, never sensitive or lively enough, it was when I took lessons with a teacher who encouraged me to play ever more strongly for longer periods of time that I discovered the way to play (reasonably) beautifully in mezzo piano, piano, and pianissimo. Mainly this was because I had developed the strength to play *MORE*, so could also play less.
It also occurs to me that there is another aspect of teaching which falls under the heading ‘Dynamic Contrast’ and that involves the different forms of interaction between teacher, pupil, and parent. As I am a teacher who is very peripatetic (I go not only to different schools, but also to the houses of pupils, having no ‘home studio’). In schools, the relationship is really just between the child and the teacher. In my years of teaching in school, only one parent has come to watch a lesson. This was because the child was having a lot of difficulty with one technical matter, which was causing friction at home, during practice time. The parent came to watch a lesson, so we could work out how best the parent could help the child at home, and also so that the child could see that we had a united approach to fixing the problem. Interestingly, the problem ceased within about 10 days!
In people’s houses, it is slightly different. I have now reached the conclusion that I have no objection to parents observing lessons, but they must do this as part of a(n eternal) triangle of child-teacher-parent if it’s to be successful. That means watching every lesson, every week. And perhaps taking notes (meaning I don’t have to do any writing), and definitely asking questions. What doesn’t work in this scenario is if the parent makes ‘remarks’. If a child makes a series of errors, saying ‘Oh, show Corrina how well you played it on Thursday … Oh, he normally plays it much better than that.‘ It’s not conducive to helping a flustered child, and as a musician I understand very well that sometimes things just go WRONG, and there’s no shame in it. We just have to identify the problem.
Helicoptering, if I may use the word, is very little use. There are two types:
a) suddenly swooping in to listen to the child’s lesson without consulting the child or teacher. This unsettles everybody (including the teacher, who may be seized with worry – ‘why’s he come to watch? Is there a problem with my teaching? Am I to be fired?’ – and the child, whose behaviour often changes dramatically in the presence of a parent, and who may suspect that they too are in some sort of trouble).
There’s no problem, per se, with a parent wanting to be involved in a lesson, but if you, as a parent, have not hitherto done so, there’ll be all manner of things which you may not understand. And, to an extent, it is an intrusion upon the child, especially. Aside from music lessons, there are not many other opportunities during the school week for a child to have concentrated one-to-one interaction for 30, 45, 60 minutes with an adult. Some children really do guard this time very jealously.
So, if you would like to be in a lesson, as a parent, just mention it ahead of time, so everybody is prepared.
b) the other type of helicopter hovering is also tricky. This is when the parent is in the room, but engaged in some other task, such as working at the computer, reading a book at the other end of the room, or preparing a meal. In several situations I’ve been in, this is a sort of elephant in the room scenario: the ‘passive’ scrutiny on both child and teacher can be awkward, and it changes the ‘control’ that the teacher has over both music and disciplinary areas. I make it a point not to reprimand children for behavioural matters, and none of my pupils have been particularly naughty. Some can be a bit chatty, but generally I say ‘Ooh, that’s very interesting, please tell me all about it at the end of the lesson: we must work now!’ or words to that effect. However, over the course of a 45 minute lesson, every child will need a few moments of down-time, and usually I direct talk towards music or some aspect of the cello. It does no good if the hovering parent starts issuing instructions reprimands, as it undermines the authority of the teacher, and if I object, that undermines the authority of the parent. Teaching in the resulting power struggle is really difficult.
What does work really well, in my experience, if the parent is not going to be consistently present at lessons, for him/her to come in for the last five minutes. This is an opportunity for the child to demonstrate something to the parent – play a piece or a bit of a piece in a sort of mini-performance – and for some consultation to occur. Teacher and parent can discuss what’s going in the notebook, what the priorities are for the week, and whether there are any school trips, or similar things, that might prevent practice for a day or two. Again, this is an active form of participation and – in my view – must be consistent. If you have taken no active part in lessons or practice for weeks, suddenly coming in and asking ‘Well, how’s Sam doing?’ again puts the child and the teacher on the spot.
As I remarked in Part I, dynamics of the musical variety need to be carefully developed, in a consistent manner, and just as dynamics are a way of learning to communicate musically with an audience, there must be a consistent approach for for pupils, teachers, and parents to communicate.