Performance Practice

Tim Reynish - Revised June 2016.

The band is of course a supreme vehicle for entertainment, education and ceremonial, but it also has a potential for carrying a message as emotional as the symphony orchestra. Below are a few pompous notes and generalities on what I consider to be elements of playing in band, as well as in orchestra, choir, opera or chamber music.


Much of the excitement in music comes from contrast, tension and release. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the tensions between a dynamic figuration and a lyric melody, between discord and resolution, between tonic and dominant, soft and loud, were more clearly delineated than in contemporary music.

We have BIG problems in structuring contrasts in the wind ensemble, with its often brilliant virtuoso writing and often too thick and heavy orchestration, but the solutions are the same for band as those for the orchestra.

We need to try to emulate our orchestral colleagues of the classical and romantic periods and create clarity of texture, elegance of phrasing, balance of sonorities. A reminder of some of the musical technical matters that are so important in the symphony orchestra might help us in our final search for perfection. NB These are generalisations and need to be used with discretion, depending on the context.


At any point in a musical phrase, you are moving towards a peak, or descending, either melodically or harmonically – and the sensitive accompaniment will be following these contours. Usually end with elegance, a diminuendo and a feminine ending, or a big heroic final build up. Singers do it naturally with phrasing following the words, string players also phrase, usually conditioned by the bowing. Even the best wind and brass players sometimes are not too subtle.


The German tradition is to make the smallest note in the measure the most important, sing through quavers (8ths) semiquavers (16ths) and demisemiquavers (32nds), lead through an up-beat over the barline, work on the clarity of the line


Clarity of diction is most important to the wind ensemble; as with well measured speaking, introduce breathing through commas and colons into the phrasing, make sure that rhythms are articulated but not overstressed. Notes should not quite touch unless, of course, legato. This is especially important with bass lines moving in long notes, repeated notes in a phrase. Pianists and percussion players are excellent at taking care of this aspect, we need aim at similar clarity.


A note that is repeated needs greater care with diction and articulation than a note that moves. Until the note is cancelled by a different pitch, the audience will continue to perceive the original pitch, so stress to players that repetition needs careful articulation – think of the hammer on a piano or a stick on a side drum.


Careful balance will help the articulation and diction of the whole ensemble –

1 all long notes and all repeated notes should be generally considered accompagnato – at least one dynamic below the main thematic and motivic material

2 all Hauptstimmen, (main tune), must be sung, all subsidiary melodies sung more than the accompagnato but less than the main tune.

3 Project the lower registers, blend the upper registers

4 Make sure that lower parts balance with upper, 2nd/3rd woodwind, tenor and bari sax, 2nd/3rd/4th horns, lower trumpets and trombones.

Phrasing, articulation and balance are the three most important aspects of our work.


Always remember that the wind ensemble is basically a very large chamber ensemble – there are times when, say, the trumpets and percussion will dominate, but most of the time percussion and brass are there to support the wind, and then to dominate once or twice at the really big climaxes, maybe only a handful of times in a concert.


For the wind ensemble particularly, we must consider forte as a light dynamic, so that we have room for a bigger forte, a fortissimo and finally a triple fortissimo. We must take the dynamics from whoever has the lead – so our forte might be that of the flute, and our pianissimo will also be that of the flute! Clearly we need also to grade the upper dynamics and the flute will have to balance the heavy brass – if the composer scores wisely.

Most composers write a dynamic right down the score, the same piano or forte used for flute or trombone, oboe or side drum, clarinet or tuba – we have to constantly ask the players to adjust: Is their part solo, is it accompagnato, is it the root or 3rd, is it high, is it low, should it dominate the texture or be subordinate, is chromatic? If in doubt, keep it light, but encourage your players to think and be aware of their role in any passage.


Use the ensemble for exploring your control of really quiet dynamics as well as really loud.

Start crescendo quietly and leave it late Start diminuendo early and make it quickly

Approach subito f or ff with a slight diminuendo, Approach subito p or pp with a crescendo –

contrast, contrast, contrast – but achieve it by lightening textures.

In pianissimo challenge your players – “Is there anyone who cannot play more softly”?


The architecture of a movement and of a work is of the greatest importance – remember that the first forte and fortissimo will be the lightest, remember to keep the tension and excitement – the answer is control – control – control, and end usually on an upsurge of tension and intensity.


Encourage your players to think where they are on the instrument It is easier for most instruments to sing out in the higher register where they do not actually need to work hard, they may need to project the low register more, that tenor/alto register can be hard to project in the ensemble. Usually, we need a warm rich base and bass to the pyramid; make sure that 2nd, 3rd and 4th players give due weight to the harmonies, perhaps even play a little louder than the top of the chord.


If you are encouraging a good sound with fine balance, many tuning problems disappear. Make sure that the lower octave is strongest, don’t play loudly in the top octave. Get your players to anticipate problems on their instrument, but keep flexible to other players and their problems. They may not have the same flexibility on a particular note or in a particular chord. I do not favour electronic assistance, it is so important to encourage players to use their ears and to listen especially to the bass. I like the great John Paynter’s method of tuning to a low F, starting with tubas and building a tutti mezzo forte unison, building through the low brass and wind to the high.


Do not confuse this with beat – the tyranny of the metronome and the foot-beating has nothing to do with springy forward phrasing and an excellent flexible ensemble – LISTEN & WATCH, not necessarily the conductor, but each other. Encourage your principals to be involved in discussing with your section dynamics, balance, ensemble, articulation, style, and to lead physically. It might be worth experimenting with seating, trying the principal in the middle.

On my website are a number of articles developing these ideas, with thoughts culled from the great books on conducting, put together by my colleague Mark Heron and myself.

Score Study Part 1: What's The Score?

Score Study Part 2: Some Thoughts on Score Study

Master Class or Take the Decibels Down

Warm Ups - Warming-up your Ensemble

Knowing the Conductors Role

Technique Of Directing

Choice Of Repertoire

Score Preparation - Analysis and Score Marking

Conducting, Not Directing

Rehearsal Techniques

Improving The Sound Of The Band

Please Conduct, Don't Talk