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The Power of Quiet.

I'm a brass player. LOUD has always been a hallmark of my musical perspective on the world. I got a rush whenever I played Fanfare for the common man,

the Olympic Fanafare,

and even a spirited brass section in a symphony,

but I only started to really become a musician when I learned how to play softly. My first foray into pianissimo didn't happen on the French Horn, it happened in chorus. There's nothing as glorious as a chorus who sings a well-supported forte, but when that forte is off-set by a pianissimo that has the audience straining to hear, the music just sparkles.

As I consider how I want to begin this next school year, I think I shall addict my students to the beauty and power of their pianissimo.


Well, let's look at a third grade lesson.

We'll have to sing and play songs that help students demonstrate their awareness of loud/soft. Always begin with something fun that has a strong physical element. That organizes the children's nervous systems, calms them, and focuses their attention.

For older children: choreograph the two, eight-counts and have students lift a foot on the fermata sections. (The video is of this. Note how the students become quieter and more focused as the song progresses.)
For younger children (our third grade class and younger): have students keep a steady beat anywhere on their body when the music has a steady beat. Freeze when the beat isn't steady.

Song 1: Seven Jumps

Activity #2: Solami
Next, let's awaken the children's voices with a bit of call and response. Here you can do Forbidden Phrase or Forbidden Rhythm. The rules are simple.

1. Pick a forbidden phrase. For first grade, the phrase is always "so, la, mi" so we call the game, "Solami." I wean second graders off this three-note phrase by their second semester. Choose a simple phrase or snippet of rhythm. If you do rhythm, everything you do is clapped rhythm. If you do a phrase, it's a phrase. NEVER mix up rhythm and pitch. They are different concepts and elementary children cannot mix them up. (High School can)

2. The teacher sings a phrase with hand signs and singing. Students MUST echo BOTH the hand signs and singing UNLESS the forbidden phrase is sung, in which case they are to be silent.

3. If the class messes up, teacher gets a point. If the class is mean to someone who makes a mistake, the teacher gets a point. If the class or any person in the class doesn't sing when they should, the teacher gets a point. THE ONLY time the class gets a point is if they all are quiet on "solami" or the forbidden phrase.

4. I play until one side gets five points.

Change up the rules though. When the forbidden rhythm or phrase is sung by the teacher, the students sing it very very softly. Perhaps phrases sung with the same opening two notes could be FF and everything else would be mf.

Song #3: A Round
You could choose anything for this: an abstract round on solfa, Let's put the rooster in the stew, Big Tom, Ghost of Tom, All Things Shall Parish, etc. Choose a song that is a beautiful round, but can be sung with satisfaction as a unison song.
1. Teach by rote or using notation, depending on how advanced your students are.
2. Draw awareness to your left hand, and make a game out of the students following it.
3. For older students, have them practice being the left hand, showing loud and soft, articulations, etc
4. Have individual students judge the group. They sit out and listen for the chorus's reaction to the left hand gestures of the conductor.
5. Record their best singing to play at the beginning of the next class.

Game #4: Old Roger is Dead
This game, found in 120 Singing Games and Dances, is a rolicking, fortissimo, role-play. It's a blast. Play a few rounds of this.

Ballad #5: Something for their winter concert, an autumn song, or a children's ballad
Accompany the children on guitar or piano and enjoy telling the story of the song. It's best if they already know the song somewhat. Popular songs are good for this too. After the children are confident with the song, have them consider where the dynamics of pianissimo or fortissimo would be most effective. Why? WRITE THIS STUFF ON THE BOARD. Use scribes for older students. Have the students really value the connection they are making.

Notate the music or lyrics to show what the students agreed on. Try singing a sample verse or section to illustrate that they were right. PUT THE SONG AWAY and have the students demonstrate to themselves in the NEXT class that they were right. Have a new song for them to work on in the next class. Bring out the round again, illustrate the musical concept for that class with the round as well.

Game #6: Listening Game
For this, you can have students do a "who's singing" game like Doggy doggy, Who's that tapping at my window, or similar. You could also have a playlist of a variety of genres of songs that illustrate piano vs forte. Have students stand for forte, put their heads down for piano. You could even make this a movement activity where loud is up, soft is down, and everything in between is danced on various levels of crouching around the room. Here is a sample playlist.

John Legend, "All of me."
Tchaikovsky Symphony 4 opening
A Chopin prelude
Iggy Azalea: "Fancy"
C&C Dance Party: "Gonna make you sweat"
Whitney Houston: "I will always love you."
Theme from Thais flute solo

On that last one, have the student line up at the door to calmly leave your room. Debrief them after the song is over. "What did we work on today?" "What was your assignment for next week?" (to listen to their singing of the round and see if they can do any better, to remember how they were going to use dynamics to enhance the ballad)

A Moment with an Old-Timer

The inspiration for today's post is Roger Voisin, a great teacher and fine man who left this life recently. Mr. Voisin is one of those jewels who twinkle in our lives, but their flaming inspiration never goes out. Yesterday, I had occasion to chat with one of his former students. She explained how "One of the first things he did was to put his trumpet right...(she placed her hand by her head) within a centimeter of my ear. And he played the sweetest little melody. It was crisp and pure and I thought, 'that's amazing!'" Not only had my friend never heard a trumpet player play so softly before, she'd never heard any brass instrument play so softly.

Another old-timer who recently passed, James Decker, taught me how to adjust my slides to play "whisper soft". He said, "I played this way with Heifitz during the Brahms Horn trio, second movement. I'll never forget it. All of a sudden, I played softer than he could. He leaned in a
nd his eyebrows went up like this." (Mr. Decker proceded to show a look of utter, delighted puzzlement.

Evidently, Mr. Voisin's pianissimo was learned at the knee of his, rather sadistic, father who had young Roger put a splinter of wood between his top front teeth when he practiced. If Roger used any pressure in his embouchure, it would hurt like holy hell. Roger Voisin had very strong lips and played with next to no pressure.

Philip Farkas advocated putting the French Horn on a table or piano and playing  open notes without hands to decrease the need for mouthpiece pressure.

Whatever the "trick" to make it happen, a great pianissimo is produced with impeccable technique. One cannot muscle a soft sound. One must support it and nuance it. This is a very sophisticated, advanced musical skill. Only the best of the best can play softly well, but when you introduce a student to it, you expand their mind and give them a wonderful ring to reach for.

Start this coming year making your students reach higher than they ever have before. By making them reach higher, you'll be reaching with them.

Happy Summer!


Thanks for a great post. I remember a choir teacher of mine once described pianissimo as a pressure cooker with the lid on. That always stuck with me.

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