Basic crescendo: What is wrong with it?
The crescendo. It is a basic and universal musical concept, one of those words that has drifted out of the realm of music and into the everyday lexicon to describe anything that is building, increasing, gathering momentum. The concept (getting louder) is easy enough for beginners to grasp in their first lessons, yet accomplished artists expend a great deal of energy and effort trying to bring it to refined perfection. In the following essay, Rozalie Levant explores some of the common mistakes that are made with crescendi, and she offers some fresh solutions and ideas for approaching this ever-present symbol.
The seemingly simple concept of crescendo—a gradual growth of tone volume—often translates into forceful, excessively loud sonorities and disobedient fingers.
Ironically, two essential characteristics of crescendo, when taken too literally, are the reasons for its incorrect implementation. These characteristics are:
(1) the definition of crescendo, referring to a gradual dynamic growth
(2) the ability of the graphic sign for crescendo to appear in various sizes, suggesting the involvement of any amount of notes
The relationship among the notes in any musical measure resists the idea of a gradual increase in tone volume. The notes in a phrase cannot grow gradually because they possess unequal tone volume, prior to any dynamic growth. Similar to accented and non-accented syllables in a verbal sentence, certain notes in a measure are more dynamically powerful: there are louder, heavier notes, and other less significant, softer notes.
Fat and skinny notesOne way to envision the dynamic inequality of notes is to examine what I call "fat" and "skinny" notes. The first group includes notes on the downbeat, longer notes, and notes that begin beats that also contain shorter notes. The rest are "skinny" notes—those on the upbeats, shorter notes, and the notes that fall within beats.
If we look at intonation in verbal speech, we see that the non- accented syllables in a word cannot exceed the dynamic range of the syllables that have a natural stress. The natural emphasis of certain syllables create what are, in essence, pre-existing dynamic conditions. For example, try to pronounce "The strawberries and raspberries were great" with a truly gradual increase of volume on each and every syllable from beginning to end. The sentence will quickly start to sound like nonsense! Likewise, the skinny notes, even those in a crescendo, cannot sound louder than the preceding fat notes. Subordination of the skinny notes to the fat notes is a dynamic reality of musical speech, which must be preserved at all times.
The problem with pre-existing dynamic conditions in a musical measure is not settled by just the recognition of dynamic differences between fat and skinny notes. Both dynamic groups—fat and skinny notes—are capable of migrating from one category to the other. The fat note becomes skinny, or soft, when finishing a diminuendo phrase. Many fat notes also have to be removed from their class of fellow louder notes with an increase in speed. In these situations, the distances between fat notes shrink, and a high concentration of fat notes may chop the melody, jeopardizing its free flow. Running along with other notes in a fast musical passage, fat notes unregretfully lose weight when a pianist wants them to sound light, and these notes thus effortlessly replenish the skinny population.
While moving the fat notes into the skinny category benefits the free flow of the musical stream, attempts by skinny notes to be upgraded to the rank of fat notes can badly damage the musical development. It seems like fat and skinny notes represent opposite personalities. The fat notes are benevolent - they easily obey the pianists's will and do not mind a loss of dynamic power. The skinny notes, on the other hand, demonstrate tireless efforts to become something that they are not in a selfish need to attract attention, even if their actions ruin a musical phrase.
The prestigious birthplaces of the fat notes (such as downbeats) do not let the "skinnies," which often originate from the rural quarters of weaker beats, attain their dynamic ambitions. It is truly amazing how the desire of "skinny" notes to become audible, noticeable, and remarkable results in penetration of unwanted loudness practically everywhere, despite the will of the pianist. If the performer does not vigilantly and scrupulously examine the dynamic level of each and every skinny note, the rebellious society of skinnies will destroy the natural arrangement of loudness and softness in a measure or phrase. This excessive loudness can permeate the upbeats, the notes preceding and following fat notes, the shorter notes within a beat, and consolidated groups of skinny notes.
There is, however, one specific situation where skinny notes have the legal right to sound loud. These are loud phrases having crescendo marks in them. The skinny notes, though slightly softer than the fat ones, will sound loud in such a phrase, and they can unfortunately make the phrase chopped and forceful. A solution to this problem comes from the realm of technique. When playing loud skinny notes in a forte phrase with a crescendo, the pianist has to imagine that the fingers do not press each key vertically down, but rather peel off the top layer of the key in a horizontal direction, energetically pulling it towards the goal note of the crescendo. This does not mean a shallow touch—the finger still reaches for the point of double escapement. The feeling of a horizontal pull of the melody changes the speed of application of the arm's weight. This adjustment influences the actions of the piano mechanism and results in a substantial, yet flowing sound that does not stop the flow of the melody.
An arithmetic approach
The predominance of the skinny notes in a phrase (especially at a fast tempo), along with a necessity to suppress their eagerness to be promoted to the status of fat notes, necessitates a search for reliable notes that are capable of building a proper crescendo. Certainly these should be the fat notes. The often insignificant number of them in a phrase, however, along with their decrease in quantity when tempo increases, can leave us with a relatively small population of fat notes. So what is an optimal and efficient number of notes for making an effective crescendo?
A simple test regarding this matter produces a quite unexpected result: pressing one key several times, increasing the dynamic level of its sound with each stroke, one finds that it takes just five strokes to rise from the softest to the loudest sound. Even six notes of audibly different degree of tone volume make the phrase unnaturally forceful. Therefore, despite the visual expansion of crescendo manifested by its graphic sign, the real difference is created by a maximum of five (and minimum of two) notes.
Six strategies for building a crescendo
Keeping in mind the pre-existing inequality of fat and skinny notes and the strong limit on the number of notes necessary for crescendo, we can create different arrangements of these notes, depending upon the shape, tempo, length, and expressive needs of the phrase. These arrangements achieve the impression of gradual dynamic growth without inflicting aesthetic damage upon the music.
Skeleton and Shadow: I categorize different combinations of fat and skinny notes into six different types of crescendo. The most frequently used is a "Skeleton" crescendo, and it works for melodies with a wavy shape. We choose up to five fat notes (distant from each other) that form the melodic skeleton, and gradually increase the tone volume from one of them to the next. Skinny notes, meanwhile, are building a "Shadow" crescendo, resembling the shape of growing fat notes. If the second fat note is louder than the previous one, the skinny notes following the second fat note are slightly louder than the skinnies following the previous fat note (see Example 1).
We are actually creating two crescendi: a major one, built by the fat notes, and a supplemental shadow crescendo comprised of skinny notes. This crescendo sounds smooth and solid, despite being double-layered and having many notes.
Martini Glass: For fast passages having a straight shape (scales, for example), I use a "Martini Glass" crescendo. The shape of the symbol for this type of crescendo is similar to a martini glass resting on its side, with a long stem and relatively short, widely flared cone at the top.
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If the passage starts on a downbeat, its first, not quite soft note (the "base" of the glass) is followed by a row of notes that do not grow dynamically at all (the "stem" of the glass). Only near the last note does the crescendo open briskly and intensely, resembling the flared bowl of the martini glass. If the initial note of a passage is a skinny note, then it is soft, and we deal with a "base"-less modification of the martini glass.
Crescendo with Zero: The next type, "Crescendo with Zero," is used for a specific psychological effect when a performer demonstrates a very intense emotional effort, which is then suddenly abandoned.
Depending upon the melodic shape of the phrase, "Crescendo with Zero" appears in the form of either a "Skeleton" or "Martini Glass" crescendo. The difference is that the goal note of the "Crescendo with Zero" should be played not with zero sound, of course, but with a much softer sound than would otherwise be anticipated. The effect of "Crescendo with Zero"—an unexpected abrupt change of initial intention—does not allow its frequent application because of its special expressivity and uniqueness.
Wavy: Quite often, large melodic spaces are filled with many smaller crescendi and diminuendi. When several mini-crescendi are gradually growing, delivering the impression of one big crescendo, then such a crescendo is termed a "Wavy" (or "Stuffed") crescendo.
Each mini-crescendo starts from a lower dynamic level than the louder ending of the previous wave, but by the time each mini- crescendo ends, it exceeds the dynamic achievement of the previous mini-crescendo. This wavy dynamic development allows the performer to create the effect of a long crescendo that includes many notes. A "Wavy" crescendo can also be "Stuffed" with several diminuendi, each of which starts from a higher dynamic range than the preceding one.
Silent: The final type of crescendo in the artist's palette paradoxically has no dynamic growth whatsoever. That is why it is termed the "Silent" crescendo.
This crescendo conveys the strong emotional effort of the pianist to soak a motionless note with intense and increasing energy and seemingly propel the note towards the next one by the sheer force of imagination and will. The "Silent" crescendo fills all the gaps in a fabric of music: rests, spaces between the phrases, and long notes. This type of crescendo is one of the pianist's most valuable devices, as it is capable of creating and maintaining a precious quality of musical continuity.