A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Atlantic Music Festival, a classical music festival held on the grounds of Colby College in Waterville, Maine. I enjoyed pieces performed by professional musicians as well as very talented up-and-comers. In this incredibly talented group of performers, a few inarguably were performing on a different level. But what about their performances set them apart, and what lessons can be learned for professional voice users?
What struck me most as I watched the performances was that the musicians who garnered the most positive feedback from the audience demonstrated mastery in the modulation of volume. Of course, all performers have a sense of loud and soft – it is indicated in the music by the composer. But the standout performers, in my opinion, embodied that variation in how they struck the keys, how they moved their bodies, how they interacted with the music. It added such dynamism and even intrigue to their performances.
Upon leaving the program, I couldn’t stop thinking about the implications of my discovery. I have always taught my clients in the public speaking world and the broadcast world about the different tools available to add emphasis: pace, pitch, and volume. But not until this instrumental performance did I recognize volume as a sign of true mastery of material. In these musicians, the ability to modulate volume left me with the impression that the material was imprinted in their minds and in their bodies. Even in their souls. It demonstrated absolute confidence in their understanding of the music and in their ability to bring it to life off of the page.
Now as I analyze delivery, I am even more conscious of how powerful volume modulation can be for a speaker in any situation. We so often focus on projection and getting the voice to carry, and I think that the idea of projection is too often simplified into the practice of increasing volume. In fact, if intention is crystal clear, and confidence in one’s self and in one’s material is high, maximizing volume is not always necessary. Very often, pulling back on volume can be as effective. In fact, when used well, lowering one’s volume is an even more powerful choice, as it can draw your listeners in, creating a sense of intimacy and intensity.
Pushing for raised volume can also limit your ability to vary delivery in other ways. It can limit pitch variation and variation in pace, as far too often these are tied together (increasing volume can lead to elevated pitch and a rushed pace). The ability to disentangle these components can be extremely effective.
You may be asking, “How can I convey a sense of urgency and energy if I am not always projecting?” Well, listen to this recital and perhaps you will experience as I did how powerful effective variation in volume can be and how choice quiet moments in a performance can actually heighten intensity. Below is a video of a wonderful interpretation of the first movement of a Sonata for Cello and Piano (in D minor, Op. 40) by Shostakovich. This is one of the pieces I saw performed at Colby’s festival. The entire selection is very intense and much of it is loud, but there are choice quiet moments that draw the listener in, enhance the intensity of emotion, and keep the music from becoming tedious.
As you strive to find strategies to improve the effectiveness of your speech, volume modulation may be a component you have yet to explore. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!