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This series of articles is written with the beginner and intermediate level performer in mind. It is also written primarily for musicians that play instruments and sing during their performance. However, with a little imagination these principles can be applied to public speaking, teaching or reading poetry. These suggestions are by no means original. Many of them come from more seasoned performers of music and other arts who I cite whenever possible.

Performance Dynamics

I recently visited Tumulty's in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to catch the Wednesday Night open mic run by JPat. The basement room in which the open mic takes place is an excellent setting because the only things going on there are the music and the bar. As usual, it was a great night of music that varied in style and quality. The room was quite full of college grads and twenty-somethings. One thing that struck me was that some performers were able to get the audience excited about their set, while others seemed to fade into the background. And the difference was not simply because some people sang better or played their instruments better. More than anything else the difference was their use of Dynamics.

What are dynamics and how do you use them?

Dynamics are the ups and downs of a musical piece. Ken Trotta, who performed that night, put it this way. "A song is like a roller coaster. Your job as a performer is to take people along for the ride. So sometimes you play quiet, sometimes loud. There are places for stops." You can also build up a song gradually, as is done in a song we all probably know, "Stairway to Heaven." Or, you can start a piece explosively as is done in Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. You know: DA DA DA DA DA!! That one. Yeah!

How can one learn to use dynamics?

Probably the best way to learn dynamics is to watch other performers - both those you think are effective and those you think are not. Notice how those who vary the volume or other elements of their singing and playing usually put on a more engaging performance than those who don't. Keep in mind that dynamics involves more than just volume. It could be the inflection in the voice or the particular way an artist attacks his instrument.

I learned a little about dynamics from the Italian Bluegrass great Beppe Gambetti. Beppe has a way of playing his guitar softly yet energetically while he sings, and at the end of a line he often strikes his guitar with gusto. I asked him to show me his technique, and he showed me how to flick the strumming wrist as if you had honey on your pinky and a feather was stuck on it and you are trying to flick it off.

You can learn many techniques by simply asking other performers how they do it. It's a great excuse to meet a musician you admire and it is usually taken as a compliment. It's also a great way to network with your peers. However, the final say as to what dynamics to use and where and when to use them should come from the song itself. If you really want to express a song to its fullest extent, you have to develop an intimate relationship with it so that you know what the words really mean and what the music is capable of conveying. Let the song take you on it own unique roller coaster ride.

There are more elements to effective stage performance than one could ever count, but dynamics is definitely among the most noticeable. Ken Trotta said, "There's nothing worse than watching someone get up on stage and play everything monotonically." So when you think about spicing up your performance or getting people to listen a little more closely to your music, ask yourself if there is room for better dynamics. There probably is.

Spook Handy runs "The Spook Handy Show", New Jersey's longest running open mic, at the Corner Tavern in New Brunswick. The show began in 1985 and has over 860 nights under its belt. He is also a songwriter and performer and a co-coordinator of the Princeton Songwriters, the New Jersey chapter of the Nashville Songwriters Association International. For more information on Spook Handy go to www.spookhandy.com.



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