Seven Pairs of Ears
How can I raise the quality of my own performance?
How can we make our ensemble sound better?
How can I help my colleagues to perform to a higher level?
Having spent the first half of my career as a horn player working in orchestras or in the dark recesses of orchestra pits, I found myself (to my surprise) at the age of 40 standing in front of large groups of young musicians with the task of making an ensemble sound good. Being “poacher turned game-keeper” was a change of life for me, opening my perception of music in a way I could never have imagined.
It started when I was asked by Derbyshire Music Partnership if I would set up a music centre in my own town. Never being one to say no, it started with a small intermediate ensemble (that’s generous … it was the band from hell!). As the group grew and I got more and more into it, I decided to take some conducting lessons.
At every stage along the way I asked myself one question. How can I help the players to make this sound better? If it is terrible, where do I start? If it is quite good, how do I make it better? If it is already a high standard, what can I offer to bring it to new heights?
In my quest to develop my ensemble coaching skills my two main influences were George Hurst and Tim Reynish. Every summer for ten years I went to study conducting with George, who I regard as one of the most important figures in my musical life. From George I learnt so much, especially the importance of being faithful to score, knowing what the players need visually from the conductor and knowing the music thoroughly. Although I don’t think I realised it when I was a student at the RNCM and he was the head of our department, Tim was a massive inspiration; a wonderful conductor who could show all the nuances of the music and had a clearly developed rehearsal technique.
So, did I find the answer to my question? Well one thing I did discover is that it is not enough to have a good pair of ears … we need at least seven good pairs of ears in order to listen to and give attention to the many aspects of musical performance, and a toolkit of responses to address the problems inherent in them.
One of the most useful references was an article by Tim Reynish in which he set out in very practical terms the important elements of training a wind band. I have tried to formulate my own ideas over the years, drawing together ideas from many sources.
Although the focus here is on the wind orchestra, I think the principals are equally relevant to an individual working on their own performance, a chamber group rehearsing or a director coaching an orchestra.
1. Rhythmic Accuracy and Ensemble
I put this at the top of the list because I think it is the most essential in any performance at any level from junior to professional; a performance will always be terrible if the players are not together.
• Are the players listening and fully aware of each other?
• Do the section leaders take the lead, breathing visibly?
• Does the ensemble breathe together and help the ensemble visually by moving together?
• Is there a corporate sense of internal pulse?
• Do players end notes together, holding full note values?
• Are the smallest notes clearly pronounced and played with the right “proportion” (eg. Almost double-dotted as in a baroque French overture such as Handel’s Fireworks Music, or nearer to a triplet in something more “jazzy”)
Dynamic control is for me one of the most important elements in performance, not just within a phrase but on the bigger architectural scale of music. It is the main tool in achieving phrasing – what is a phrase if not a crescendo and a diminuendo, as in the rise and fall of speech, but it also creates the “contours” of the music on the larger scale, with a highest and lowest points within each piece.
It requires players to have the technical control of their instrument to sustain a tone from a pianissimo entry down to nothing!
As a rule of thumb all dynamics, particularly in a wind orchestra, should be marked down one level, except at the climax of a piece, which is often the only point in a piece where the brass can open up and make their magnificent blaze of sound.
• Do the players know the strongest and softest place within the structure of the piece and control their dynamics to show this?
• Do the players know what the “function” of their part is? For example, is the passage a solo, a countermelody or accompaniment? The dynamic will have to be adjusted drastically if for example a trombone section is accompanying an oboe solo. In any orchestra a long note should nearly always be treated as accompaniment with a strike and a diminuendo, unless it is part of a cantabile solo line.
• Do the players understand the harmony and the relative dynamic levels within a chord? For example, the 3rd in a Major chord should be softer and the Root stronger.
3. Balance and Blend of Sound
Balance and blend of sound is mainly an issue of dynamic control. The wind orchestra presents its own set of challenges with regards balance and blend. Without the envelope of a string section providing the core of the tone, there can be issues due to the relative power of the instruments – a trombone forte for example is very much stronger than an oboe forte. Coupled with the fact that many wind bands have unbalanced sections, balance requires a lot of care and often significant adjustment to marked dynamics.
• Does the orchestra accompany its soloists properly, in chamber style?
• In tutti passages do the sections listen for balance? For example, are the brass over-powering the woodwind and do the percussion play too loud for the ensemble?
• Is there proper attention to balance within sections and within chords?
• Are players aware of the tessitura of instruments. Eg. High clarinets can be very difficult to play softly, whilst a low flute solo will carry far less easily and require very careful balance.
4. Tuning and Intonation
Obviously a paramount consideration for all players, but tuning can present particular challenges in the wind orchestra. In the standard symphony orchestra, with its balanced pairs of wind, often working in octaves, and its four part “harmony” in the brass, the tuning can be more straight forward than in a wind orchestra, particularly when we do not have a conventional instrumentation. An army of flutes can be a nightmare to tune, and an over-enthusiastic brass section can destroy all sense of tonality.
• Can the orchestra tune a simple chord, with an understanding of the relative tempering of pitch (eg. In a major chord the flattened 3rd and the very slightly raised 5th)?
• Are the players sensitive to harmonic shifts?
• For younger orchestras are the players able to tune their instruments properly, listening and knowing how to adjust?
• Do the players have enough flexibility in the technique (embouchure) to adjust tuning subtly?
5. Tone Quality and Timbre
As a solo player we focus much of our time on developing a controlled, centred and singing sound quality, but within an orchestra this is compounded by the combinations of instruments which effectively creates “new” instrumental sounds. In a wind orchestra there are countless different possibilities and composers from Mozart to Hesketh and Ellerby have explored the new sounds that wind instruments can make in combination, rather like the stops of an organ.
6. Articulation and Phrasing
In a chamber ensemble much of the rehearsal time will be spent discussing and agreeing on phrasing and precisely how passages should be articulated. The aim is to achieve a unified approach.
An orchestra or wind orchestra is effectively a large chamber ensemble and the same discussions must be had, although not in the intimate space of a quintet. This is where the conductor is required to be the arbiter and to convey a unified musical intention.
• Do the section leaders communicate with each other to establish conformity?
• Are the players listening and working within sections to match their style?
• Do the player respond to the directions of the conductor?
7. Style and Architecture
At the end of the day all of these technical considerations serve the purpose of the music and the composer’s intentions. Our duty to the music is to be faithful to the score and musical conception.
In many ways this is where the conductor really makes a difference. The Director’s perception of the structure and nature of the music, and their ability to convey that through their gesture, body language and ensemble training skills will enable he players to understand the full context of their performance.
It is our responsibility as musicians, whether playing or directing, to give life to music, to show our audiences what it means to us and hopefully to inspire the same mystery and excitement that we feel in music.