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Forte: ‘Loud’ doesn’t mean just turning up the volume knob

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Sara Mayo, principal trombonist, Yakima Symphony Orchestra.

YAKIMA, Wash. -- It’s time to talk about volume in the orchestra.

In live music, there’s more to volume than turning a knob on a stereo. Changes in volume are also changes in tone, color and effect, especially if you’re a brass player. When our music is marked forte (“loud”), fortissimo (“loudest”) or sometimes even fortississimo (“oh no what is happening”), we are often thinking more about effect than actual decibel level.

So, if you take a recording of a musician playing piano (“soft”) and turn the volume all the way up, you will not get forte. You will instead get loud piano, which is not really the intended effect. Both loud and soft playing have their own unique qualities that go beyond volume, and while an expensive set of speakers will get you partway there, to get the full effect you really do need to be in the room where it happens.

For fortissimo to be authentic, it must be a visceral experience.

Unfortunately, loud brass playing is sometimes a little too visceral for the other musicians on the stage, which is why we have sound shields. Trombones and trumpets are very directional instruments, and so you may see clear plexiglass shields behind the heads of those musicians who are in the line of fire. Sound shields stand bravely as the first line of defense for the strings and woodwinds. At times it can resemble the penalty box that you see in hockey, though in our case it’s meant to be preventative rather than punitive.

Usually. There have been incidents.

(For the record, the musicians who sit in front of me in the YSO have always been very gracious. “No, it sounds great! Keep it up!” they’ve cried, their faces contorted in pain. Truly, art is suffering.)

We don’t usually take it personally. We’re not here to injure anyone, after all.

We simply have a job to do.

• Sara Mayo is the principal trombonist for the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. Learn more at

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