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December 1997 Experiments in Band Seating, By Harry Begian

In the 1930s when I heard a concert by William D. Revelli and the University of Michigan Band, the sound of that ensemble was the most refined I had ever heard and gave me a new concept of what a band can and should sound like. At succeeding concerts by Revelli I analyzed the factors that contributed to the warm, rich, and refined tone. I concluded that it resulted from well-balanced instrumentation that was blended in tone and intonation.
   Several years later I experimented with instrumentation and seating plans at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School to produce good balance, blend, and intonation. For good balance the woodwind section should be the dominant sound of the band, with the clarinets as the lead instruments, similar to violins in an orchestra. To add to the resonance and sonority of the clarinet section, I included alto, bass, and contra-alto clarinets along with the Eb sopranino. Although the alto clarinets were later omitted, I have continued to use the Eb sopranino because it carries the clarinet sound into the upper ranges without relying completely on the flutes.
   I also learned that multiple bass clarinets and contra-alto clarinets help to create a full-bodied and rich sounding woodwind section. The saxophonists in my Cass Tech band were excellent students taught by Larry Teal, so 1 used only four players with soprano or bass added when necessary. Because saxophones blend well 1 seated them in the center of the band between the woodwinds and the brass.
   For better balance and a predominantly woodwind sound I toned down the brass section and tried to draw a distinction between cornets and trumpets. This proved impossible simply because all of the players owned trumpets and could not afford both a trumpet and a cornet. The rest of the brass included a full complement of horns, -trombones, baritones (euphoniums), and tubas. I consistently used a percussion section of six except on a few pieces that called for more players.
   Early in these experiments I learned how greatly a seating plan affects the sound and balance of an ensemble. This first became clear to me at concerts of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra when guest conductors changed the seating of the orchestra. The sound, balance, and blend was different with each seating change and with each conductor’s concept of sound. I later read a music review on the exchange conductorship between Fritz Reiner and Eugene Ormandy that explained how Reiner made the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra sound like the Chicago Symphony Orchestra while Ormandy made the Chicago orchestra sound like the Philadelphia orchestra.

After considerable experimentation I settled upon the following instrumentation for a symphonic band:
1 piccolo        
8 flutes       
3 oboes (1 Eng. horn)   
3 bassoons (1 contra)   
1 Eb clarinet        
16-20 Bb clarinets   
4 bass clarinets       
2 contra-alto clarinets
4 saxophones
7 cornets
3 trumpets
6-8 horns
6 trombones
4 euphoniums
4 tubas
6 percussion

   I have rarely deviated from this instrumentation of roughly 80 to 85 players, but at the University of Illinois I occasionally added players who were musically capable and deserved to play in the top band instead of sticking rigidly with my ideal instrumentation. I settled on the illustrated seating chart after experimenting with various plans during my first three years as a high school band director. This one best suits my concept of balance, blend, and texture. Moreover, all sections can be heard clearly, including softer sections such as the woodwinds.
   Because tubas, baritones, and horns often comprise the harmonic basis of band works, these sections should be placed close together. Euphoniums and baritones are seated next to the tubas because they frequently play bass lines with the tubas but an octave higher. Place the tubas, baritones, and horns in the center so that they can be heard well from all positions.
   Seated in front of the horns, the saxophone section is the link between the brass and the woodwinds and supports the middle range along with the horns seated behind them. Because the saxophone is a brass instrument played with a reed-mouthpiece it blends equally well with brass and woodwinds. The oboes should sit directly in front of the saxophone section because arrangers and composers often use these sections together, either doubling an oboe melodic line with the alto sax or providing a harmonic background to an oboe with the saxophone section. The bassoons sit next to the baritone saxophone in proximity to the tenor and baritone saxes with whom they often share registers and double parts.
   The left side of the band consists almost entirely of the clarinets, which further affirms the idea that they assume the violin’s orchestral role as the ensemble’s core sound. The numbers of players on the various parts are as follows: one Eb sopranino clarinet, four first Bb soprano clarinets, eight seconds and eight thirds, four bass clarinets, and two contra-alto and contrabass (Eb and Bb) clarinets. The Eb clarinet with multiple flutes takes the edge off the first clarinets when playing above the staff and tempers the high clarinet sounds while making the soprano woodwind sound fuller and in better balance with the brasses.
   The Eb and Bb contra-bass clarinets strengthen the band sound and allow for better technique than other contra-bass instruments. With flutes and piccolo directly to the right of the conductor, the soprano woodwinds are close to both the Eb and first clarinets so that the uppermost voices of the band balance with the clarinet section.
   The cornets, trumpets, and trombones sit behind two rows of flutes and piccolo to the right of the conductor with their bells pointed across the band and not at the audience, which would make their sound too prominent and disrupt their balance with the woodwinds. The cornet section constitutes the soprano voice of the brasses and should be divided as follows: three firsts, two seconds and two thirds. The three trumpet players sit next to the trombones because both trumpets and trombones are cylindrical-bore instruments.
   It is better to spread the percussion section along the back of the ensemble in the center, primarily for appearance, because if the entire section is placed at one side of the stage, the band looks unbalanced and lopsided. I put the timpani in close proximity to the tubas and string bass because they often play the pitches that the timpani has to match or support. The battery percussion (snare and bass drum plus cymbals) and keyboard percussion (bells, xylophone, marimba, and vibes) play in the back row behind the trumpets and trombones while the chimes are placed behind the clarinets and next to the timpani.
   A well-conceived seating plan and instrumentation will not bring forth a band sound of excellent balance, blend, and texture unless the conductor hears in his head the sound he wants from the ensemble. Whether conductors admit to it or not, the overall sound usually matches the sound the conductor seeks, either consciously or subconsciously. It is indisputable that two conductors can make the same band produce entirely different balance, blends, textures, and interpretations. Some conductors can create a pleasing and refined sound during a brief rehearsal because they know what they want to hear and how to achieve it. Band conductors are generally prone to dwell on improving only the individual tone production and intonation problems and neglect the overall balance, blend, and textural clarity.
   Basic to the element of balance are instrumentation, seating plans, and the ability to clearly hear what is musically significant in a composition. The present tendency of most bands is toward a predominance of brass and percussion sounds in poor balance with the woodwinds. This robs the ensemble of a truly refined overall sound. Too often the imbalance that results is attributable to poor instrumentation and faulty seating arrangements. When the emphasis is on technical and rhythmical facility or extreme ranges and dynamics, the ensemble balance inevitably suffers.
   The proper blend within and between sections of a band is essential to a pleasing and refined sound. Players should work toward a high level of pitch consistency and balanced dynamics within each section and between the sections of a band. Outstanding blending and balance of dynamics can rarely be achieved unless players and conductors rely on their ears to adjust both pitch and dynamic balances. The all too common dependence of younger musicians on stroboscopes, dynamometers, and other electronic crutches deprives them of developing the skill of auditory discrimination. The textural clarity of a band’s performance cannot help but enhance the overall band sound.

Harry Begian is director emeritus of the University of Illinois Bands and frequently conducts, lectures, and judges at festivals in the United States, Canada, and Australia.