support Tutorials CDs PPT mouthpieces

Ensemble Playing

Tenor Viol

Full of frets in North Shropshire
Café Supporter
Messages
6,721
Locality
Whitchurch, North Shropshire UK
Playing and Performing in an Ensemble

I thought I would write some notes on this as it is not something that is discussed much on the Forum and as those who have read my posts will be aware, playing in an ensemble of some sort I believe is one of the most useful and satisfying things most of us can do – whatever our ability level. However, there are some aspects of playing in a group which may not be obvious if you are not used to it, so I thought I would attempt to pull together some thoughts on it. My background is nearly 25 years' of choral singing in ensembles from as few as 2 voices to a part to a scratch choir of over 800 for a BBC TV programme. Since taking up the cello and sax, I have played with various groups in the 20 - 50 players range.

Instrument groups come in all sizes from duets to symphonic wind bands or orchestras of 100 or more players. There is one major distinction: smaller groups tend to be self-directed, whereas larger groups will have a leader or even a conductor. Whatever the size of group, the issues remain the same.

#1 Timing

The first thing that often throws people is that of timing. In a group, the tempo/pulse will be constant and dictated by the conductor/leader. This can be a shock if you are used to playing things at your own pace and suddenly find yourself playing quicker or slower than you would expect. So your first challenge is to play at the given tempo.

If you are struggling to play all of the notes at the given pace, well don’t – stick in the ones you can manage, preferably (usually) on the beat and ignore the other notes. It is far more important to be in the right place at the right time than playing all or even the right note (although that helps).

#2 Self-awareness and Dynamics

You need to be aware of your playing and how it fits in with what is going on around you. A common mistake is to see a dynamic marking of ‘forte’ and to give it some stick. Forte is not an absolute marking: it does not translate into a sound pressure level or mean 95dBA. It is a variable dependent on the venue, the nature and context of the music and what and how many instruments there are. Silly example: a violin playing as loud as possible will be easily drowned by a trombone playing fairly quietly, so ‘forte’ has different meanings here.

#3 Self-awareness and Blend

As well as dynamics there is the related issue of blend. This is a complex subject, so let’s break it down:

· Balance refers to the loudness of the instruments against each other: is one part too prominent and sticking out? Is one part too quiet?

· You cannot blend two instruments, they will always be heard as separate instruments, you can balance them though

· With larger groups you can work on blend. In a properly blended sound, no one voice can be heard distinctly in the mix – unless it is soloing or doing something different. In a good chamber choir you do not hear individual voices. It is the same with instrumental groups. Obviously differences in tone colour and timbre may make something evident. If your piece is ‘tune and accompaniment’ can the tune be heard? Can the accompaniment be heard?


#4 Temptations to Avoid

Some common traps and pitfalls…
  • Don’t get louder just because you’ve got the tune, unless you’re supposed to
  • Don’t get louder just because you’re high in your register or rising up the scale
  • Don’t get quieter just because you’re doing down the scale – what are the dynamic indications?
  • Don’t get faster when going up and slower when going down, and
  • Don’t get faster when louder and slower when quieter
  • Don’t speed up in the easier bits and slow-down in the trickier ones
Those pitfalls are very commonplace – I’ve encountered them in every group I’ve sung or played in.
 
Last edited:

Jonesy

Old Fart At Play
Messages
736
Locality
Birmingham, UK
Don’t get faster when going up and slower when going down.

Don’t speed up in the easier bits and slow-down in the trickier ones

Exactly what our band directors keep trying to drum into us (especially the drummers).
 

jbtsax

Well-Known Member
Café Supporter
Messages
9,148
Locality
Beautiful Springville, Utah USA
Good information @tenorviol. Let me add some additional thoughts gleaned from my experience playing in symphonic bands, jazz ensembles, and conducting school age groups. First of all I would summarize everything written above as good listening. Good musicianship in an ensemble has to start with listening. Here are some things I was taught to listen for and match, both in my section and throughout the ensemble.

  • Pitch - It has to start with pitch otherwise nothing else matters. Matching pitch requires careful listening and adjusting to those in your section. The section then listens and matches pitch with the other sections in the ensemble. Generally a wind band will tune from the bottom up, taking the pitch from the tuba section.
  • Intensity - The intensity or loudness of your part must match others playing the same part. This means not playing louder than others, but not playing softer as well. Your voice must carry its weight in the ensemble, but not dominate other equal voices.
  • Tone quality - Another word for this is timbre. Each player's tone quality must match others in the section. A tone that is bright and edgy will not blend with other tones that are round and "centered".
  • Style - Style primarily has to do with articulation on wind instruments. The style is generally determined by the nature of the piece, and the conductor's recommendations. A section should follow the 1st chair or section leader whose job it is to know and demonstrate the proper style.
As I taught these ideas to my groups, I joked that if players don't match these four things the sound is the PITS.

A good way to teach these concepts is to go through at least one section in each rehearsal and have each player play a whole note one after another, beginning with the first chair. For example a Bb concert, mezzo forte, regular style articulation. The job of all of the section members is to perfectly match the pitch, intensity, tone, and style of the player before them. It is really easy to hear which players come in too loud, too soft, out of tune, or who tongue differently. Remember the main idea is to teach good listening.

Once a section can do this exercise very well, there is one more step. They then are asked to play the same note and hold it as long as they can, and enter one at a time a beat apart beginning with first chair. When the section can do this perfectly when they are all in, you don't hear 10 clarinets---you hear one with a big rich sound. You don't hear four alto saxes---you hear one.

This is what ensemble playing, balance, and blend is all about----many sounding as one.
 
Last edited:

Nick Wyver

noisy
Café Supporter
Messages
6,086
Locality
Minster On Sea
· You cannot blend two instruments, they will always be heard as separate instruments, you can balance them though
Is that what you meant to say? Did you mean two different sorts of instruments?
 

kevgermany

ex Landrover Nut
Café Supporter
Messages
21,390
Locality
Just north of Munich
Excellent tutorial.

I'll add another hint. Don't play at PP because you don't know the piece, or are uncertain where to come in. It's worse than not playing. Often the others are listening for your part, or you have a small solo.
 

Jeanette

Organizress
Cafe Moderator
Messages
27,049
Locality
Cheshire UK
Excellent tutorial.

I'll add another hint. Don't play at PP because you don't know the piece, or are uncertain where to come in. It's worse than not playing. Often the others are listening for your part, or you have a small solo.


Unless you want to annoy the band leader then it's great (no @tenorviol I have never done that in our group). I have only done it once when I was very annoyed with someone :)

Jx
 

Tenor Viol

Full of frets in North Shropshire
Café Supporter
Messages
6,721
Locality
Whitchurch, North Shropshire UK
Is that what you meant to say? Did you mean two different sorts of instruments?
I probably ought to have been more nuanced in my comment. You cannot blend two voices as their characteristics will still be heard. You can with very good attention to detail blend two instrumentalists, but it is hard.
 

Tenor Viol

Full of frets in North Shropshire
Café Supporter
Messages
6,721
Locality
Whitchurch, North Shropshire UK
Excellent tutorial.

I'll add another hint. Don't play at PP because you don't know the piece, or are uncertain where to come in. It's worse than not playing. Often the others are listening for your part, or you have a small solo.
Completely agree. If you don't play/sing out you will neither get into playing the piece properly nor sort out your mistakes. And, as you said, people may need to hear your entry to cue off it to validate where they are up to and if they don't hear your part, it may throw them off... Responsibility!
 

jbtsax

Well-Known Member
Café Supporter
Messages
9,148
Locality
Beautiful Springville, Utah USA
How careless of me. I left out a few of the more important rules of good ensemble playing for saxophonists.

7. When you squeak in the rehearsal, turn and give your stand partner a dirty look. The director will think he did it, and your stand partner won’t know for sure.

8. When you break your only reed right before the concert, be sure to tell your director as you go onstage. He will appreciate you caring enough to let him know.

9. Play very softly in all of the practices and then really loud in the performance. Your mom and dad paid a lot of money to rent or buy that saxophone, you owe it to them to hear you in the concert over everyone else in the band.

10. Always stop playing immediately when the conductor stops waving his arms. This is true even if you are only part way through the song. It gives the director the false impression that he is in control of the music. This rule doesn’t apply the night of the concert when you are far too nervous to look up.
 

Attachments

  • 10 Helpful Tips for Beginning Saxophone Students.pdf
    17.7 KB · Views: 33

MandyH

Sax-Mad fiend!
Café Supporter
Messages
3,568
Locality
The Malverns, Worcs
I would also add....be aware of your dynamics - if another part goes Forte and you part is marked Pianissimo, this means either of 2 things: 1) the other part is meant to be louder than you, or 2) the other part has made a mistake!
Either way, it does not mean you also need to be Forte.

Spoken as the Bari player, who on the rare occasion I get the feature (and am marked to come up in volume) may be drowned out within a few beats by another part who decided to also come up in volume because I did , but was not marked thus. (Mumble, mumble, moan, moan!)
 

Tenor Viol

Full of frets in North Shropshire
Café Supporter
Messages
6,721
Locality
Whitchurch, North Shropshire UK
As a cellist, we rarely get the tune in film music - it's usually the horns or violins. It's annoying when we do to have the trombones drown us out....
 

jbtsax

Well-Known Member
Café Supporter
Messages
9,148
Locality
Beautiful Springville, Utah USA
Back with my serious hat on. Some of the finest conductors I have had the privilege of working with have mentioned that the contour of the melody---where the loudness rises and falls should be patterned in the accompanying parts even though they are not marked as such. This requires careful listening to the melody. Generally speaking, but not always, as the notes go higher the phrase gets louder and as the notes go lower, the phrase becomes softer. This can be easily "over done" if one is not careful.
 

Jazzaferri

Well-Known Member
Messages
2,702
Locality
Victoria BC Canada
Rehearsal is a time for learning what everyone else is playing and how you fit in NOT for learning your part.

Unless you are pro level symphonic sight reader, learn your part at home before hand.
 

Tenor Viol

Full of frets in North Shropshire
Café Supporter
Messages
6,721
Locality
Whitchurch, North Shropshire UK
Back with my serious hat on. Some of the finest conductors I have had the privilege of working with have mentioned that the contour of the melody---where the loudness rises and falls should be patterned in the accompanying parts even though they are not marked as such. This requires careful listening to the melody. Generally speaking, but not always, as the notes go higher the phrase gets louder and as the notes go lower, the phrase becomes softer. This can be easily "over done" if one is not careful.
You're right, sometimes referred to as 'rainbow' phrasing... Has to be done sensibly lest it becomes overly mannered
 

jbtsax

Well-Known Member
Café Supporter
Messages
9,148
Locality
Beautiful Springville, Utah USA
I can think of no better example of balance and blend in an ensemble than the Mi-Bemol Saxophone Ensemble.

 

Richard63

New Member
Messages
15
Another thing that those not used to ensemble playing find difficult is the amount of time you spend not playing! This means counting bars. Get it wrong and your triple forte entry will be very embarrassing or you will end up never playing a note in the whole piece. Count "1,2,3,4 - 2,2,3,4 - 3,2,3,4" etc.If you do lose count (and everyone does at times) listen carefully to the rest of the ensemble for clues that might get you back in the game. If you are playing two to a stand don't be afraid to ask your fellow player for some help. My earlier comments notwithstanding, some courage is necessary. A player who never makes an entry for fear of getting it wrong is no use to anyone.

Don't let any of this put you off. Playing in an ensemble will vastly increase the pleasure you get from playing and make you a far better player.
 

Jazzaferri

Well-Known Member
Messages
2,702
Locality
Victoria BC Canada
I was asked to come and play with his community big band by A band leader I play with.

Charts are at or beyond the ability level for most of the players. Some of the charts are pro level Plays them at top end of range.....hmmmmm.....glad it comes to an end at the end of this month. I can't think how many bands I hear that sound like they are over reaching.

I would rather play in a band playing a hip easy arrangement of twinkle twinkle where everyone is locked in than a pro level big swing face where most of the players can't make the notes a fair bit of the time.

Tried gentle suggestions.......brick wall.........Why,I keep wondering......do so many do that........oh well
 

Jeanette

Organizress
Cafe Moderator
Messages
27,049
Locality
Cheshire UK
I would rather play in a band playing a hip easy arrangement of twinkle twinkle where everyone is locked in than a pro level big swing face where most of the players can't make the notes a fair bit of the time.

I couldn't agree more, I think you need to try something a little beyond your current ability to improve but for confidence and to sound good most pieces should be at the level of the majority :)

Jx
 

Tenor Viol

Full of frets in North Shropshire
Café Supporter
Messages
6,721
Locality
Whitchurch, North Shropshire UK
Hmm @Jazzaferri that's just silly - where is the sense, or the enjoyment in that?
 

jbtsax

Well-Known Member
Café Supporter
Messages
9,148
Locality
Beautiful Springville, Utah USA
The true measure of a good director is choosing the right music for the group. My mentor in college used to say, "A festival (concert) is a place to show what music your group can play---not what it can't."
 
Top Bottom