Sunday, July 8, 2007

Seating for the "SOUND"

During the past few years I have observed a moving away from the symphonic band tonality to a more homogeneous ensemble "band sound" concept. This concerns me because I think we are losing the vitality of the many timbres of the various sections and sub-sections of the ensemble.

I wrote the following to paper in order to generate discussion concerning this issue in my instrumental music methods class at Old Dominion University. I also use it for the basis of an article that appeared in the March,'04 issue of the Instrumentalist magazine

As a starter, lets discuss:

Seating for the "SOUND"

Developing workable seating arrangements for instrumentalists can create quite a dilemma for both the veteran and inexperienced director and is not a responsibility that should be taken lightly or without considerable thought. The placement of students in their various sections within the ensemble greatly affects the overall "band sound", timbre, and musical presentation. I have observed, over the past several years while serving as an adjudicator of bands and orchestras at various Contest/Festivals, that many performances are being adversely affected because of where players are seated in their band or wind ensemble. There is a pressing need to address the issue of seating the band.

Different seating arrangements have been documented and their effectiveness debated over the years. The development of the wind ensemble, problems with instrumentation, the influence of the marching band, and changing concepts of tone, blend, and balance have brought about much diversity in how directors approach seating. The purpose of this article is not to suggest a perfect arrangement or to discuss the merits of a particular setup that would be appropriate for all bands, but to offer concepts and suggestions that might be considered when addressing this important topic.

The "aural focal point", or point of focus for the ensemble sound, is generally considered the audience. It is obvious, however, that many conductors are not hearing the same "sounds" that the audience and/or adjudicators are hearing. It is unrealistic to expect the ensemble to give an exemplary performance unless serious consideration is given to exactly what is coming off the stage.

The physics of sound have a great effect on the overall tonality of every musical ensemble. Instrumental groups are greatly affected by these natural laws. Certain instruments are directional, while others have omni-directional characteristics. Most brass instruments are considered directional, with the sound being projected directly to the audience. This effect is negated within the band somewhat with upright bell instruments (tubas and baritones) and French horns. Woodwinds, on the other hand, are basically non-directional in nature. Therefore, in order for the conductor to be able to control the sound coming off the stage, students playing directional instruments would be positioned in a way to play "through" the conductor to the audience, giving him or her the ability to control the focus of sound.

Instruments are also constructed from various material which help determine their basic timbre and the volume of sound produced. And, of course, the way the embouchure is formed to produce the tone is also very significant in determining the quality of sound. Brass instruments generally have a louder tonality than woodwinds. This would necessitate positioning instruments with a "softer" tone quality in the front portion of the band. Each of these basic physical characteristics of musical instruments, directional and omni-directional, tone production, tone quality, and timbre will greatly affect the sound of every ensemble. Therefore, placement of instruments within the ensemble seating arrangement is crucial.

Most inexperienced teachers begin their career seating their students in a manner to approximate their university ensemble experience. This might work well if there is excellent instrumentation and a mature tone quality throughout the ensemble, but generally, this is not the case.

When determining where each section of the musical ensemble is to be placed within the basic seating arrangement, the director must consider several factors. Listed below are just a few:

• Tone projection
• Timbre and Tone of each section
• Strengths and weaknesses of sections and individual musicians
• Effect on the Audience/Adjudicators

Each director has a "mind's ear" concept of how he or she would like the ensemble to sound in terms of tonality and timbre. Some favor a light sound while others prefer the ensemble to have a darker quality. One teacher might elect a dominant "brass" timbre, while others stress the "woodwind" tone. The essence of the band or wind ensemble sound, regardless of size or maturity, is its’ tone and timbre.

Choral ensembles spend much time and effort in getting a consistent tone throughout the group. Each voice must have the same basic tone quality in order to obtain proper intonation, blend and balance. Therefore, great effort is expended in trying to have every singer, regardless of vocal part, to get the same tonal quality. One of the prime objectives of the choral conductor is to obtain the "one voice" sound.

Carried over to the band, this concept is vital in order to create a consistent, distinctive quality within each instrument section. Tone development of each students is critical in achieving these characteristics. Therefore, the teacher must develop fundamental teaching techniques to meet this end. Embouchure, breath support, posture, mouthpiece, and instrument quality each plays an important part in developing the desired "band sound".

The traditional orchestra setup offers many basic aural concepts, which can be carried over to the band and should be considered. In the typical orchestra seating arrangement the string section is located across the front of the ensemble, with the violins stage left, violas right center, cellos right front, and the string basses behind the cellos. The winds usually are placed in the back center of the ensemble with the percussion in the stage left rear.(Illustration #1)

This conventional orchestral model works very well when applied to the band with the woodwinds replacing the strings in the front portion of the ensemble. (Illustration #2)

One big difference that must be considered, however, is that all string instruments have the same basic timbre, while flutes, clarinets, oboes, bassoons, and saxophones each has a distinctive tonal color. Therefore, it is very important that we keep each of these sub-sections grouped together. Many of the ensembles I have recently observed do not follow this concept. Saxophones, bass clarinets, and double reeds are scattered throughout the ensemble, creating lose of timbre and distinctive sectional tonal quality.

The following observations are offered for consideration:
• Many times, bass clarinets are placed removed from the soprano clarinets and positioned in various parts of the ensemble, even beside tubas in the back of the band. Although this arrangement might help weak tubas hear their part, the bass clarinet timbre is lost to both the clarinet section and the ensemble. The bass clarinet is a member of the clarinet family and its' first consideration should always be to serve as the bass voice of this group. Would a string quartet place it's violins and viola on one side of the stage and the cello on the other?
• Saxophones were created to be the "link" between woodwinds and brass. Their timbre is unique and should be treated as such. Often altos saxes are seated with the French horns, the tenors with the baritone horns and trombones or the baritone sax placed with the tubas or bass clarinets. This type of arrangement negates the saxophone timbre and tends to "wash out" the characteristic tone quality of the other instruments around them. The effect is an alto, tenor, or baritone voice with little distinct instrumental color. If possible, saxophones should not be used as substitutes for inadequate instrumentation or a support group for weak sections, but should be considered as an entity unto themselves.
• Oboes have a very distinct timbre. Their placement in the ensemble is critical. The individual tone quality, the ability to "play in tune", and musical maturity of the individual student should determine placement in the ensemble.
• Bassoons placed in the rear of the ensemble with or near tubas lose their distinctive tone quality and do not have the ability to project their sound through the entire ensemble, therefore, should be seated near the front of the ensemble.
• French horn bells project the sound to the right rear and, when placed in the center of the band, take on a non-directional character. Major balance problems are created when the horns are placed on the side of the ensemble, especially stage left.
• Up-right bell tubas and baritones become less directional and take on a different quality in the ensemble than do bell front instruments.

Placement of the percussion section is also a concern. Balance problems often result when percussion instruments are placed to near the front edge of the stage. The model in illustration #2 places the percussion section on stage left and to the rear portion of the ensemble, however, either side works equally well as long as the percussionists are placed in a position where they "play through the band".

Another arrangement would be to position the timpani on stage right with the tubas center stage. This arrangement tends to clarify timpani parts and to give security to the basic rhythmic pulse created in the bass voice of the ensemble.

A similar version of this arrangement would be to "flip-flop" the setup.

Additional musical concerns develop when the percussion section is separated by a large space between it and the back row of wind players. This detachment tends to create a rhythmic disconnection with the ensemble along with balance and blend problems.

Before a seating arrangement is established, it is extremely important to assess the ensembles' strengths and weaknesses. This is a never-ending process and must be viewed as a vital procedure that should take top priority in the development of any successful program. Just as the daily evaluation of rehearsals and lessons is essential in preparing effective plans for the next day's classes, so is a comprehensive "year-end" evaluation necessary in determining the overall growth and development of the program. The competence of each individual musician greatly effects the ensemble and ultimately determines its’ strength.

A good place to begin this assessment is by revisiting the evaluations given to the ensemble by adjudicators of various concert performances in the past. Categorize all strengths and weaknesses, such as "the over-all band sound", sectional tone, intonation, blend & balance, and other technical and musical elements, instrumentation, and selection of music.

Selection of repertory should also be considered when adopting a seating arrangement for the ensemble. Blend and balance are of particular concern. Placement of double reeds could be critical if the pieces selected contain exposed solos or vital parts. Most selections, regardless of difficulty, require two, three, or four independent brass parts in each section. When trumpet, French horn or trombone sections are placed on the sides of the ensemble, playing across the group, second and third players must be able to balance first players who are seated on the outside next to the audience.

This arrangement also creates problems for adjudicated performances, with balance, blend, and timbre become critical issues for the judging panel.

As seen when directional brass (trumpets and trombones) are placed on the sides of the ensemble, each adjudicator will probably have a different aural prospective of the groups sound. Judge #1 will probably hear the trombone section well. Judge #2 will hear less "edge" on the sound, with Judge #3 hearing having a difficult time hearing the entire trombone section. The same problems are created with the trumpet section placed on the opposite side of the stage.

Many times directors are critical of adjudicators for commenting about hearing the ensemble very differently in the areas of blend, balance, and timbre. Certain seating arrangements, however, create many problems in these areas for adjudicators. Adjudicators are asked to give a critical analysis of what sounds are coming off the stage and as illustration #5 shows, these sounds can vary widely in different areas of the auditorium. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the director to back away from the ensemble and listen to the group from the audience/adjudicator prospective. This will allow the teacher to determine if all parts can be heard in their proper balance.

The concepts and opinions offered here are not new or drastically innovative. Richard Colwell & Thomas Goolsby , Donald Bollinger , and many others have long advocated variations of these tonal concepts and instrumental ensemble seating arrangements. It may be time, however, to reconsider this very important aspect of presenting the ensemble to the listening public, always keeping in mind the importance of the conductor hearing exactly what is being heard by the audience and adjudicators.

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