Hey there, worship low-enders! I hope this column finds you doing great. I thought that I’d share a fun party trick with you, as the basis for the thoughts behind this column.
Here it is: find anyone who has played in a group for which I served in a music director or bandleader capacity. Mention my name and the word “dynamics”. Then, just sit back and enjoy. 99% of the time, eye-rolling will commence; bonus points if they emit a groan and/or make disparaging remarks about me!
I will admit, I harp on the subject of dynamics and allow the non- or misuse of them to be a personal pet peeve. My own obsession aside, I truly do think that it is easy to defend this position. Dynamics can single-handedly and drastically change the presentation of music. Conversely, not employing dynamics can turn great music into meaningless mush.
I have discussed dynamics in this column space before where we investigated the bassist’s role in group dynamics, over a song form. Since writing that column, it has occurred to me that there is a concept worth considering, before becoming concerned with group interaction. Simply put, it is important to understand the available dynamic range of your bass, by itself.
This column requires reader participation, so grab your bass and if amplified, turn your amp to medium-loud and don’t alter your settings for the following exercises. Now, play the softest note you can. Softer. Softer still. On a scale of 0-100, where ‘0’ is not playing at all, we are trying to get a ‘1’. Got it? Great. Now play as loud as you can (don’t alter any amp settings, add any effects, or change to a different attack technique). Go for the ‘100’! Got it? Neighbors not too upset? Even better!
You have just demonstrated the two extremes of your available dynamic range. This means that from not playing at ‘0’, we have 100 “degrees” of dynamics – and we should use all of them!
When I work with a worship bassist who is striving to become more dynamics-aware, I often find they subconsciously consider the following framework:
0: not playing
10: reserved for a very rare, extremely soft moment
45-65: where 99% of playing falls by default, not intention
100: reserved for the last note of the last song of the last set after the massive drum roll.
The result is playing that misses opportunities to be expressive.
The good news is that we can work on becoming effective, dynamic players!
Below is a starter set of exercises to explore the full dynamic range of your bass. For consistency, I’ve marked dynamics above measures in the aforementioned number format (0-100). The only formal music notation that I’ve used is the crescendo (an increase in volume, marked by “<”) and decrescendo (a decrease in volume, marked by “>”). These exercises are only useful if you truly use the entire dynamic range; check frequently to ensure you aren’t making abrupt jumps from one level to another.
Try these exercises out and make up your own. Anything that you can do to explore the full range of the bass is going to be helpful and enlightening.
Outside of practice, it isn’t bad if a situation doesn’t call for the use of your instrument’s entire dynamic range. However, it is important to understand the range that is available so that you can be intentional about the dynamic levels you choose for your playing.