At some point, hopefully soon, many groups will tentatively begin a return to some sort of normality. There will be a huge role for organisers in making the return safe and reassuring to all of the players and their relatives. Venues may be different, certain rules could make things feel very different from the days before Covid-19. Musicians will find themselves more isolated from their sections and other sections than before. So how do we as conductors, musical directors, leaders, make this work effectively?
Given that the details of how, where and when rehearsals can get underway will be handled by committees and organisers, it is the role of the conductor to ease the groups back into musical excellence in a carefully managed way. I want to address some aspects of this here. I have spent years developing methods for ensuring constant improvements in ensembles of many kinds with players of a generally high standard. There will now be a necessity to assess the impact of several months without rehearsals and a variety of practice regimes within the group of players. The temptation would be to start where we left off only to find that the situation and result is a not good for the morale of the group.
With more space between the players and the sections a group could take almost three times the space formerly needed. Inevitably, this will seem strange. Players will hear themselves far more clearly but those in sections that double a lot might find cohesion a little harder to achieve. Clarinet sections in wind orchestras, string sections, cornet sections in brass bands; all of them need to phrase together, match attacks and note shapes as well as the crucial intonation and balance.
Often a player will depend on someone close by who dictates phrasing well and note lengths which are easier to match with proximity.
There are certain skills that we encourage and value in ensemble playing and particularly when sections need to double. The fundamental ones will be the ultimate solutions here and should improve the group even when restrictions are eased.
The first time I played in a top professional symphony orchestra, whilst still a student, I was amazed at the ease and sheer accuracy of the rhythmic subdivision within the sections and across the orchestra. Partly it was natural to the players to do that but they also had such refined techniques that they had practised it into their regime. Many amateur players have great techniques although certain elements can cause them to rush easier passages and trip up on more complicated ones. Multiply this across a section and it can cause a lack of focus and this has a knock on effect disturbing the balance and the tuning. If players have to take more responsibility and can hear themselves very well in the space, it’s possible that in time there will be a marked improvement in rhythmic cohesion. This will open up space in the soundscape and allow people to play more in tune.
No player wants to play with poor intonation and although they can usually identify that things are not quite right, they find it hard to take appropriate steps to address it. With more physical space and players taking personal responsibility, there is a pathway towards improvement.
Note shaping and attack
When working with individual players, it can be difficult to explain some concepts of note shapes and attacks until the player has mastered resonance, producing a consistent and centred sound. All instruments have their techniques in this respect with correct use of air, bow etc being a crucial part of the solution. Brass and wind instruments create a set of frequencies which not only characterise the timbre but also form the carrier wave that helps the sound to travel across the group and the venue. Essentially, high frequencies travel faster and are more directional than lower frequencies so with those resonances under control the sound is vibrant and travels well without overblowing.
Many amateur players and their instruments are very capable of producing vibrant and centred sounds and in individual lessons in small rooms the variability of this element can be missed. When players produce a note tentatively and add the correct procedures after production a huge shift in resonance can make the sound bulge and over distance it can even sound as if the music is behind the tempo. If one player can do this, imagine 18-25 players with similar issues. An audience, and the more distant members of the group perceive this as a lack of rhythmic cohesion and the players causing it will be largely unaware due to their proximity to one another.
It takes a lot of time as a musical director to eliminate this problem because the individual player is often unaware of the impact on the sound of the ensemble. Yet, by trying to get players to improve their control of phrasing and breathing this can be improved. It is possible that with space between players increasing, more individual responsibility could help to solve this problem. This could create the space in the score that is needed to improve intonation and articulation.
In every musical group from small ensembles to huge symphony orchestras the individual player needs to be able to hear themselves and others in the correct proportions. In groups where balance is handled electronically with amplification, monitoring and mixing, the constant struggle is feeling that others are too loud with the result that everyone increases the volume with disastrous results.
With new rules on spacing there could be fewer problems with being “drowned out” yet there may be issues with the ability to pick out parts that you need to blend with.
If we think of space in terms of the audio spectrum there are many ways to divide it up. In groups without discipline, space is totally filled up, often with undesirable elements such as the “bulgy note” issue explored above.
There are ways to create space in the music and when this succeeds, everyone wins; players, audience, conductors, recording engineers, everyone. Balance, note shaping, attack variability, rhythmic subdivision, articulation and phrasing can be carefully rehearsed to create that vital space. Let’s address them in turn.
Many groups find it difficult to achieve a full dynamic range and this is largely due to the fundamental easy to produce and loud normal playing level. Groups ignoring subtle dynamics are often bland. They get accused of playing too loudly yet when they really are required to create a full on fortissimo they rarely have the power to do it. The result is a lack of a real dynamic map of a piece and huge element of large ensemble music is lost. When things are often too loud, players suffer listening fatigue and the tuning can become quite impossible to fix. It is essential then to insist on an understanding of the group and sectional dynamics. Players need to get used to the feeling and the thrill of playing softly and the power of playing strongly. Forte is just normal; yes, it means loud but that is normal for many instruments.
If a solo singer has complex lyrics to express, this is not too difficult and the listener can easily hear both text and notes. Add more singers forming a choir and the articulation and diction becomes absolutely critical. The chorister has to over articulate some things in order for the group message to be heard. Instrumentalists have lyrics too but in the form of articulation laid out in the score. A solo player can be subtle about this yet they have to be carefully observed in order to bring life to the melody. Sections need to be even more careful to be attuned to the group articulations otherwise the space, which is so critical, is filled with inaccuracies. Imagine one player slurs a passage whilst two others do not. Result? Blurred and indistinct music. Space can only be created when players are disciplined about the group articulations and this includes note lengths, short notes, accents and tenuto notes which must connect. Some passages with multiple counter melodies are distinct because of the frequency, the timbre or the relative dynamics. However it is the role of the shapes of the phrases and articulation to give clarity to complex textures and allow the full impact of the score to be audible. Success in this area will inevitably improve intonation as players are more able to hear themselves and others.
Philip Jones as a teacher and player was always encouraging the need for phrasing and breathing to give consistent resonant life to music. Many players of all instruments allow the intensity or the richness to lapse within phrases and this can result in the continuity of communication to be lost. Once the listened has lost that thread, it can be hard to bring the interest back. This problem can be magnified when groups of players fail to keep that energy going throughout a phrase. It can happen to amateur string sections very easily and it takes a great deal of encouragement and energy to avoid the issue. Essentially, making music is all about energy and communication and nothing comes out without a lot going in. The new space arrangements could make that even harder due to the lack of group energy that players are used to feeling. Whilst conductors are often preoccupied with the correction of rhythm, pitch and tempo, it is of great importance that the musical phrases are understood and brought to life. A few minor errors can happen at any time but if the music doesn’t live and breath, there’s almost no point in creating it.
If you’re still reading then you’re probably already doing all of the above and have some further suggestions which I’m happy to include in this discussion. We often conduct in a room with large numbers of people and yet we’re quite isolated and have to form our own methods and procedures I’m only sharing things here that have worked in the past. We can all share things that might work in the future.