Thoughts On Balancing The Band

I have recommended Erich Leinsdorf's book The Composer's Advocate before as being essential bedside reading for every conductor, with an honoured place next to The Compleat Conductor by Gunther Schuller. I came back to Leinsdorf's chapter entitled Knowing the Conductor's Role time and time again.

There Are Many ff Spots In The Preceding Forty Minutes Of Play And Every One Of Them Is A Bit Different

On the subject of dynamics, Leinsdorf sums up the dilemma in a discussion of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony:

The optimum effect is created by a well-considered scale of dynamics. Achieving it requires a firm resolve that nothing before bar 427 of the finale in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony shall reach the triple-forte level. There are many ff spots in the preceding forty minutes of play, and every one of them is a bit different. The scoring is different, the emphasis is different and the impact should be different.

Perhaps the most decisive nuance in this whole reckoning will be the single f, which is, alas, often overdriven.

Soli - Accompagnato - Tutti

The wind ensemble or wind band must essentially be regarded as a chamber group, and one of our primary concerns is to temper dynamics to achieve a good clean balance. We need to challenge our players to think all of the time whether they are tutti, soli or accompagnato, whether they are in a low tessitura where they need to project, or high where they need to cool off, whether there note in the chord or passage in the movement is important and needs more emphasis.

Again, Leinsdorf is our guide:

They Expected The Performers To Adjust Their Instrument's Relative Strengths According To The Primary Or Secondary Importance Of Their Roles

Another kind of balancing problem arises from conventions of classical scoring and is sometimes apparent even in the early twentieth century. Composers often wrote one dynamic mark for the entire vertical scoring involved. Rare are the instances of graded dynamics in scores prior to 1850...(or in wind band scores of the last century).They expected the performers to adjust their instruments' relative strengths according to the primary or secondary importance of their roles.

A Sustained Note Is Always Stronger Than A Moving Voice

The balance between sustained brass accompaniment and motivic work in wind or strings is often very poor. Leinsdorf has the answer, and he is talking about conducting Mozart or Mahler with the New York Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony; the same rule of thumb applies to our performances of McBeth or Maslanka.

There is one fundamental physical law that bears repetition, since so many musicians are unaware of it; a sustained note is always stronger than a moving voice....There is so much to be decided by the conductor who cares for a balanced performance that no amount of detail can possibly cover the permutations presented by such considerations as types of instruments (and players), size and acoustic of hall, seating arrangements, types of scoring....

Erich Leinsdorf on approximating the timbre of different periods
Preparing scores for performances, the conductor will discover the differences between a wind choir of 1810 and 1910 to be so great that any resemblance is almost co-incidental... The dynamics of brass instruments must be adjusted, especially on long-held notes

Gunther Schuller underlines our responsibility in sorting out dynamics:
It is at that very highest level of performance that a wealth of interpretative choices and decisions become available at least to the really sensitive intelligent and imaginative recreator. It is in this realm that there is not one pp but many subtly different pp's; not one f but many different kinds of f's not one slur but many kinds of legato. It seems that it rarely occurs to conductors and their apologists, if it is a question of balance or dynamics, to occasionally make the other parts play softer.

If one has crescendoed too much too early, it leaves no room to crescendo further. If one has arrived to early at the top of a crescendo curve, one has no choice but to remain in that dynamic plateau and await the point where the crescendo really should have peaked.

We need constantly to remind our players to think of their role in any passage, and if necessary we need to change the dynamics.

Boulez explains his thinking on contriving a good balance:

There are times when respect for the musical text alone does not serve much purpose. You may have a secondary part written for a relatively weighty instrument, and a principal part written for a much lighter instrument. You have to change the dynamics. I have no qualm about doing that. As a fellow composer, I say to myself, "That's what he wanted to hear, but he didn't have enough experience to write down the exact dynamics, So I change them, that's all".

The composer has written a certain number of instrumental lines and on the whole, he hasn't done so just to make a general amount of noise. He's composed those lines so that we can hear certain things, so that we can experience a certain hierarchy that's dependant on his writing. What I try to do is to bring out that hierarchy in a very precise way, even when it's difficult.

If I taught elementary conducting in Music. Ed. Classes, I would direct my students towards the teaching of Walter Beeler of Ithaca College. He sums up for bands what Leinsdorf, Schuller and Boulez are insisting on for orchestras.

Too Much Of The Loud Nullifies Any Attempts Towards A Musical Climax

Most writers will leave the dynamic balance up to the conductor or the performers. The fortissimo that goes up and down the score is rarely how it should be played. We have to explain what fortissimo means. It means different things where it occurs in the score, whether it is in the melody or support areas. Too much of the loud nullifies any attempts toward musical climax. The smallest voice in the texture determines the dynamic. Nothing is constant. If the brass are playing against the woodwind, it is the woodwind who define forte. The brass cannot play like "brass" but must think of themselves as "brass players who are balancing woodwinds. The purpose of dynamic change is to sustain interest on the part of the listener, as well as to create a mood. Obviously, the wider the dynamic range of the band, the better prepared they are to do both. In the name of good taste, we should caution young players that no dynamic indication, no matter how many fff 's ' requires the absolute maximum of sound that can be gotten from an instrument.

Dr. Tim