Musical Chairs

by Kenneth Amis
Tuba player of the Empire Brass, Assistant Wind Ensemble Conductor at MIT

To presume that one seating arrangement is ideal for the presentation of every piece is like believing that all the art in an art gallery looks just as good under the same lighting.  Like visual art, music consists of a variety of colors, textures and moods, all of which can be supported or obscured by the layout of the performers.  Should the seating arrangement of a concert band or wind ensemble be determined by what is best for the conductor, what is most helpful to the instrumentalists, or what presents the clearest aural picture of the music to the audience?  Ideally, the stage setup should fulfill all these conditions, and, if not, the priority must lie with the objective of the performance.

Down in Front!

It is certainly true that on a concert stage, the instruments with less penetrating power should be positioned so that the audience can hear them at all times.  But, as you know, being heard is just the first step to being musically expressive.  There must be a consideration beyond the volume potential of an instrument, beyond simply its degree of presence in a sound canvas.  The type of sound that you are striving for should be supported as much as possible by the placement of your players.  For example, if you are performing a work in which a warm, round, mellow sound from a featured French horn section is vital to the realization of your concept of the music (Holiday for Horns comes to mind), having them be audible is just the beginning.  Even if your horn section feels comfortable playing in tune and in tempo at extremely loud dynamics from the rear of the ensemble, the issue of importance is whether they obtain the required type of sound and not just adequate presence.  A quick fix is usually to have everyone else play soft enough so that the appropriate instruments can focus on timbre rather than volume.  This may be necessary if the instrumentation of your ensemble  is unbalanced, or the piece is inappropriately scored.  However, this practice can often lead to the accompanying players playing so softly that they feel powerless to contribute in any meaningful way to the musical phrase and become submissive in their performance.  Rearranging the positions of key performers for such a work (or an entire concert) can expedite the realization of your musical ideas by giving you more timbral flexibility with important voices while providing others with a wider margin in which they can continue to be imaginative and spontaneous.

Simon Says...

There are, of course, logistical issues which arise when one unshackles the musicians.  When rearrangements are done mid-concert the most obvious concern usually has to do with having enough space for the players to maneuver quickly and orderly and maintaining a flow to the concert.  Many collegiate wind ensembles regularly change their setup with the varying instrumentation of each piece.  These ensembles are usually small and can therefore do this quickly and comfortably.  Depending on how many people are being moved, this may be a little more challenging but should still be manageable under all but the most extreme conditions (outdoor band shells and gazebos can be notoriously small).  The key to expediting a seating shift is simply having each person know where to go, when to go and how to get there.  Rehearse it once or twice and most students above the middle school level do fine.  For a performance of Bach’s Contrapunctus XII (a four-part fugue), I had almost an entire high school concert band (all but the tuba players and percussionists) get up and switch seats between selections on a program.  These thirty-five individuals did this in an unhurried manner in only forty seconds and were seated and ready to play before I could finish introducing the piece to the audience.  If there is also the need to move chairs and stands, having everyone stand aside while two or three pre-assigned people function as stage crew will keep things clear and safe.  Addressing your audience during this time is more than appropriate if you are worried about losing their attention.  The hardship of moving a group of musicians across a stage is often overstated—just look how fast they move when the rehearsal is over.

Three Card Monte

Many conductors feel lost when the instruments they expect to be in a certain place are somewhere else.  This is something which people who regularly guest conduct learn to overcome quickly.  Unless you're conducting a marching band, the musicians seated before you are not going to move about during the piece.  Like everything else, being flexible and being able to quickly reorient oneself takes practice.  It will only strengthen your visual and, by extension, aural awareness and in so doing increase your confidence as a conductor.  Of course, the more intimately you know the music, the freer you will be to visually engage the musicians of the present instead of cueing the ghosts of yesterday’s band.

Splitting and Doubling Down

Many pieces scored for concert band contain practical yet often unimaginative orchestration.  The same doublings, tripling and quadrupling of lines appear so often from piece to piece that most musicians intuitively understand the connotation when someone says that a piece sounds ‘band-y’.  Rather than re-orchestrating these particular pieces, why not try repositioning your players to give them a new perspectives on music and the relationships it creates between them and the other instrumentalists in the ensemble.  Seating the euphoniums alongside the tubas makes perfect sense when they are predominantly doubling the bass line.  However, if their function in a particular group of pieces is to provide the countermelody in unison or octaves with the tenor saxophone, alto clarinet and bassoon, then it would certainly be very advantageous to have these players seated together for a few rehearsals if not for the concert itself.

Young instrumentalists are often focused on the execution of their individual parts and can possess little awareness of those who may be playing the same line.  When the conductor makes a player aware of the doubling verbally, it is easy for this awareness to be utilized in nothing more than rhythmic synchronization or volume attenuation.  Corralling these players together will not only make them immediately and constantly aware of their relationship but reinforces the sense of ‘team’ and purpose that it necessitates.  This more intimate placement of the players of the same musical line will facilitate their communication on both technical and emotional levels, paving the way for more productive rehearsals and clearer and more imaginative performances.  Just because certain instruments are technically part of the same family (i.e., clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet), it does not mean that their harmonic and contrapuntal roles are just as strongly related.  It is important that your performers are always mindful of this.  Let’s take a look at one non-verbal way of heightening everyone’s awareness, understanding and appreciation for a composer’s compositional design.


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