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Strengthening Second Chair: How Professional Players Balance the Section Sound

Paul K. Bhasin | January 2013

    Instrumental ensemble conductors strive to improve the quality and efficacy of each rehearsal. Over time, and often through trial and error, we discover remedies to problems related to sound quality, intonation, balance, and articulation. Some of the most valuable rehearsal conducting insights I have developed, however, have come from my experience as an orchestral trumpeter. The skills learned preparing to be in a professional orchestra included a vast vocabulary of stylistic and interpretive techniques necessary to playing in an ensemble section. When I turned to conducting later in my career, I found that all of these techniques could be applied to enhance large ensemble rehearsals.

Getting a Full Section Sound
    In all cases, at all dynamics, in nearly all compositional situations, the second, third, and fourth voices must play with greater volume during tutti passages because higher frequencies, which are almost always found in upper parts, sound more intense to the audience than lower frequencies do. This necessitates a reverse balance etiquette whereby all section players must play increasingly stronger as their parts descend in register.
    The simplest example of this is when two players of any instrument are playing an octave, which is an important way to develop fullness in orchestration. This orchestration effort is wasted unless the lower octave is played at a much stronger volume than the upper. Often, principal players in orchestras request that the person with the lower octave play with twice the volume of the upper players. This sometimes is still not enough; in certain thick textures, the lower octave’s sound can be covered by other voices in the ensemble.
    Jessica Valeri, 4th horn player with the San Francisco Symphony describes it another way. “In section playing at fuller volumes, dynamic balance is incredibly important. Often, when I see p, I play mf; similarly, when I see mf, I play ff.”
    Michael Tiscione, second trumpet player in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, has this to say about section balance: “Good section balance relies on thoughtful interpretation of dynamics depending on genre, textural priority, and the interpretive decisions of the principal. That said, in many instances my job as second trumpet requires me to play lower octaves with great strength to balance the upper octave.”
    When balanced correctly, sections will sound broad, full, and three-dimensional at all dynamics. In fact, if upper voices sound strident, asking for more from second and third players almost always fixes the problem.

The Key to Section Unity
    Many young musicians are unaware that in professional orchestras, a section player’s job is to play each tutti passage with the same articulation, phrasing, duration, volume, and inflection as the first-chair player. This means second, third, and fourth players must be actively leading as much as the first part in each section, but in a different way. As Tiscione mentions above, this imitation is especially critical when it comes to achieving good section balance. Every nuance and musical effort of the first player has to be faithfully duplicated in the section parts, and the key to success with this technique is listening attentively to the first player.
     This technique results in a unified musical sound from each section, similar to the sound produced by choral vocal sections. The sound is more intimate, even at the most extreme dynamics, and each section operates as a single team that is well prepared to musically interact with other sections. This results in more agile and flexible phrasing in the whole ensemble.

    If a composer indicates a half note, the section must sustain that note until the last possible moment. Wind section playing sounds best when the human voice is imitated, and one way students can match this is to keep notes singing through the end of the written duration as a rule. Great orchestra players do not allow the tone to change or falter before changing to the next note, regardless of the register.
    Sustaining appropriately is essential regardless of printed dynamic. If even one player in a section cheats a note of its written duration, the entire section sound loses resonance and fullness. To achieve the same sostenuto effects of the strings, each member of a section in a band must sustain to the absolute fullest extent possible in every situation.

Accent the Smallest Notes
    The most common example of this principle is the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm. The sixteenth note should always be accented, even if an accent is not indicated. The reason for this is that the fastest notes are the most difficult to hear at the back of a concert hall. The amount of accent needed will be surprising to young players. I myself was always taken aback at the amount of accent that my teachers would ask for, even on simple passages. The passage below shows unaccented sixteenth note examples that must be accented to be clearly and evenly heard at a fast tempo.

    Unlike orchestral playing, in which melodies are frequently assigned to string parts, wind ensemble parts call for regular melodic playing by all instruments. Habitually accenting fast notes in all passages greatly helps to give wind and brass instruments the same lively agility possessed by strings.

Increase Volume in Lower Registers
    As a part’s range decreases in register, a player should always increase the volume, especially until the melody rises in register again. This prevents the lower parts’ melodies from being swallowed by thick texture while lending a confident sound to the part.
    This increase in intensity as parts descend in register also applies to dynamics. Tiscione describes it this way: “Each section player must use increasingly clearer articulation as the parts descend through middle and lower registers; the notes in those registers require much greater presence to produce a cohesive section sound on a given articulated passage.”

    Successful orchestra players perform these techniques reflexively when they encounter appropriate instances in the music. It takes some time to incorporate these techniques into an ensemble section’s performance vocabulary. However, students will eventually react instinctively when they see examples that call for these techniques. When this happens, ensembles take on a more professional and mature sound. This unified effort from the players frees the conductor to communicate gesturally more often in rehearsal, which leads to students listening more across the ensemble and ultimately, to more confident and inspired music-making.