Performance Practice

by Tim Reynish

Revised 23rd August 2010 - Suggestions for improving ensemble work for conductors and players.

A former student from China wrote to me recently after attending an orchestral conducting course, and suggested that the technique of conducting strings is very different from conducting wind, brass and percussion. I disagree. Clearly the response to the ictus of our beat from, say a xylophone, a harp, a solo violin, a large string section, a flute or a trumpet will all vary, but I believe that our approach to the technique of conducting remains constant. For example, the type of beat which we give to a string section for a Brandenburg Concerto, a Mozart Serenade, a Tchaikovsky or Dvorak Serenade or a Stravinsky Concerto for Strings will vary enormously according to the response we expect or hope for, but the rationale is the same, the beat will, we hope, indicate the quality of sound, the dynamic, the attack and weight, the phrase which is to follow, and also the speed. Starting together is probably the least of our problems.

Similarly, the attack, or lack of it, from a 19th century wind and brass chord, will be very different from that of the 18th or 20th century, so our problems are the same whatever the group, whether strings, wind, brass or percussion, whether student, amateur or professional. However, it is easier to coax a fine degree of sensitivity from strings - our aim must be to emulate the string conductor in our approach to the wind.

The band is of course a supreme vehicle for entertainment, education and ceremonial, but it also has a potential for carrying a message as emotional as the symphony orchestra. Below are a few pompous notes and generalities on what I consider to be elements of playing in band, as well as in orchestra, choir, opera or chamber music.


Much of the excitement in music comes from contrast, tension and release. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the tensions between a dynamic figuration and a lyric melody, between discord and resolution, between tonic and dominant, soft and loud, were more clearly delineated than today. We have BIG problems in structuring contrasts in the wind ensemble, with its often brilliant virtuoso writing and often too thick and heavy orchestration, but the solutions are the same for band as those for the orchestra.

We need to try to emulate our orchestral colleagues of the classical and romantic periods and create clarity of texture, elegance of phrasing, balance of sonorities. A reminder of some of the musical technical matters that are so important in the symphony orchestra might help us in our final search for perfection. NB These are generalisations and need to be used with discretion, depending on the context.

Remember that we have problems which on the whole the orchestra does not have

  1. 1. Our dynamics must differ drastically depending on our function - in the big band, or on the football pitch or parade ground, they will be strong, even strident, in the concert hall they need to be tempered, with far more sophistication - hopefully.
  2. 2. The internal balance in each section is far easier to achieve in the orchestra, with its pairs or trios of instruments. The tutti players must listen to the solo players, and to the rest of the orchestra, and watch out for their melodic and harmonic job.
  3. 3. Without a cloud of strings enveloping us, we need to be particularly careful of tone, blend and balance, and this will help with intonation.
  4. 4. With so many players, we need to listen - not just hear - the rest of the group - very difficult in most acoustics.

Phrasing - at any point in a musical phrase, you are moving towards a peak, or descending - and the sensitive accompaniment will be following these contours. Usually end with elegance, a diminuendo and a feminine ending, or a big heroic final build up

Articulation - the German tradition is to make the smallest note in the measure

the most important, sing through 8ths, 16th and 32nds, lead through an up-beat over the barline.

Clarity of diction is most important to the wind ensemble, introducing breathing through commas and colons into the phrasing, giving clarity to repeated notes, making sure that rhythms are articulated but not overstressed. Remember Dr Revelli's dictum quoted by Jim Croft about notes not quite touching unless, of course, legato. This is especially important with bass lines moving in long notes.

Repeated Notes - A note that is repeated needs greater care with diction and articulation than a note that moves. Until the note is cancelled by a different pitch, the audience will continue to perceive the original pitch, so stress that repetition needs careful articulation - think of the hammer on a piano.

Balance will help the articulation and diction -

  1. 1 all long notes and all repeated notes MUST be generally considered accompagnato - at least one dynamic below the main thematic and motivic material
  2. 2 all Hauptstimmen, (main tune), must be sung, all subsidiary melodies sung more than the accompagnato but less than the main tune.
  3. 3 Project the lower registers, blend the upper registers
  4. 4 Make sure that lower parts balance with upper, 2nd/3rd woodwind, tenor and bari sax, 2nd/3rd/4th horns, lower trumpets and trombones

Chamber Concept - always remember that the wind ensemble is basically a very large chamber ensemble - there are times when, say, the trumpets and percussion will dominate, but most of the time percussion and brass are there to support the wind, and then dominate once or twice at the really big climaxes, maybe only a handful of times in a concert.

Dynamics - apart from forte being a light dynamic, we need generally to take the dynamics from whoever has the lead - so our forte might be that of the flute, and our pianissimo will also be that of the flute! Clearly we need also to grade the upper dynamics and the flute will have to balance the heavy brass - if the composer scores wisely.

Most composers write a dynamic right down the score, the same piano or forte used for flute or trombone, oboe or side drum, clarinet or tuba - we have to constantly ask the players to adjust: Is their part solo, is it accompagnato, is it the root or 3rd is it high, is it low, should it dominate the texture or be subordinate, is chromatic? If in doubt, keep it light.

Dynamic Contrasts - Use the ensemble for exploring your control of really quiet dynamics as well as really loud.

Start crescendo quietly and leave it late Start diminuendo early and make it quickly

Approach subito f or ff with a slight diminuendo, Approach subito p or pp with a crescendo -

contrast, contrast, contrast - but achieve it by lightening textures.

In pianissimo challenge the players - "Is there anyone who cannot play more softly"?

Architecture The architecture of a movements and a work is of the greatest importance - remember that the first forte and fortissimo will be the lightest, remember to keep the tension and excitement - the answer is control - control - control, and end on an upsurge of tension and intensity.

Tessitura - Think where you are on the instrument It is easier for most to sing out in the high register, where we do not actually need to work hard, we may need to project the low register more, that tenor/alto register can be hard to project in the ensemble. Usually, we need a warm rich base and bass to the pyramid; 2nd, 3rd and 4th players, make sure that you give due weight to the harmonies, perhaps even play a little louder than the top of the chord.

Tuning & Tone - if you are making a good sound and are well-balanced, many tuning problems disappear. Make sure that the lower octave is strongest, don't play loudly in the top octave. Anticipate problems on your instrument, but keep flexible to other players and their problems. They may not have your flexibility on a particular note.

Do not spend too much time on initial tuning - with a less experienced band, I like to tune quickly with a unison F, building from the tubas through the lower instruments, giving the players the responsibility of checking as they join in. Then I will play for perhaps ten minutes and then re-tune after they have warmed up. If you are limited for rehearsal time, do not spend too much time on warm-up exercises and scales, and keep these flexible in tempo and dynamics, so that they are drawn to watch your technical work.

Rhythm Do not confuse this with beat - the tyranny of the metronome and the foot-beating has nothing to do with springy forward phrasing and an excellent flexible ensemble - LISTEN & WATCH, not necessarily the conductor, but each other.

Principals - encourage them to be involved in discussing with their section dynamics, balance, ensemble, articulation, style, to take responsibility for their section and to lead physically.

It is worth experimenting with seating - Trumpet 3 - Trumpet 1 - Trumpet 2

Wind Band Seating

It is also worth experimenting with the overall seating. I recently conducted the Dallas Wind Symphony, who have a front row seating inspired by Frederick Fennell, with the oboes outside left and bassoons outside right, giving the double reeds a prominence they rarely have in the band In a recent article, David Whitwell advocates where possible having six small rows of players, percussion around the sides, trumpets on right blowing across. Seating must however depend on your acoustic and the shape of the stage, your repertoire and perhaps even strengths and weaknesses of your players.