Three Key Elements
What does it take to be a good ensemble player?
Everyone wants to do their very best when playing in the band, bowing in the orchestra, singing in the choir, or performing with the percussion, but of all the things to remember and focus on, how do we know what’s best? Excellent musicians make a habit of keeping three simple things in mind:
Good music requires us to play:
and In Tone.
In Time means we are playing the right notes at the right time. When organized, the sound becomes musical, right? When disorganized, our sounds become noise or cacophony. Remember: rhythm trumps notes. If we mistakenly play the wrong note at the right time, it will sound 50% correct. However, if we play the right note at the wrong time, it will sound 100% wrong. Rhythmical accuracy, counting, is more important. Use these best practices when playing and counting:
- Count in with the director at the beginning of a song, and start right on the first note confidently.
- When counting the quarter note beats, always subdivide: 1 and 2 and 3 and, instead of just 1, 2, 3.
- When learning a tricky rhythm part, start super-slow at first, then buildup gradually to performance tempo.
In Tune means we play the right notes. In addition to time signatures, we pay attention to key signatures, key changes, and written-in accidentals. In tune means we have an understanding of the peculiar intonation tendencies of our ourselves and our specific instruments. Use these best practices when playing and tuning:
- Warm-up before rehearsal, and tune your instrument before the director comes to the podium. Use a tuning device. Install a virtual tuning application in your smart devices and phones.
- Always hum a tuning note for a few seconds before playing it. Then, listen to the ensemble and determine if your pitch blends in, causes wavy distortion, or sticks out.
- Cold environments cause us to play flat; warmer environments tend to make us play sharp.
- If flat, make the instrument smaller (push woodwind mouthpiece in, push brasswind tuning slide in, or tighten the string). If sharp, make the instrument bigger (pull woodwind mouthpiece out, pull brasswind tuning slide out, or slacken the string).
- Use more air or more focused air.
- Check that the flute head-joint cork is in position.
- Check that the clarinet pieces and barrel are fully inserted and firmly connected.
- Check the brass bells for foreign material intrusion. Stuff inside the instrument will tend to make it sound flat. (*Read about the “Haunted Horn” in Doby’s book, Miracle in Music.)
In Tone means we always strive to play with the best, most pleasing sound possible. We pay attention to dynamic markings. If we use more air and play fortissimo, we control the airstream and don’t blast (unless directed!). We know the difference between legato, marcato, and staccato, and we place our articulations and attacks appropriately. We stagger breath, notice phrasing, and imagine ourselves singing the piece through our instruments. In tone sometimes refers to the style, genre, or technique of a piece. The written sheet of the music represents an approximation of what that technique, style, and genre ought to sound like (ie. don’t play a chorale like a march). To arrive at technique, we should always first focus on precision, rhythmical accuracy, and correct notes. Focusing on technique first does not always mean we’ll arrive at precision. Use these best practices when playing for good tone:
- Winds should practice lip slurs, blowing overtones & pedal tones, and playing long tones regularly.
- Strings should practice using long bowings.
- When playing, try to have an idea or picture in your mind about what the composer is trying to convey.
Lastly, do we know what the #1, best-overall practice is that the professional’s use while in rehearsal?
The professionals bring pencils to rehearsals! (Cue the applause)
The Pro’s and the performance majors take lots of notes and reminders right on the sheet music page. A director always knows when they’re in front of a competent and excellent ensemble when they see pencils on stands, in pockets, behind ears, in hair-do’s, and on the floor beside the musicians.
(*Just remember to keep the pencils out from the inside of your instrument!)