Hello friends and colleagues! Welcome to the Ensemble Sound Blog Series. The blog posts in this series are meant to help you think through and hopefully help you come up with some ideas on how to achieve your ideal ensemble sound! As always, these posts are not meant to tell you what to do, but to hopefully make you think more about what you are doing!
“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something that you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” – Doris Lessing
Deciding on your ensemble sound
The first step to improving your ensemble’s overall sound is to know what you want your group to sound like. I didn’t realize how important this step was until I actually had a sound in my head that I wanted my students to work to achieve. My approach to teaching students changed when I clearly knew the sound I wanted. For the longest time I worked really hard to teach my students to use a lot of air to create a strong full sound. This resulted in a decent ensemble sound from my students that was strong and supported. We would work on the pyramid of sound (balancing to the tubas) and balance within our music. What I realize now was that I was only teaching my students to balance volume not teaching them how to listen and match tone! (A topic for a future blog post.)
I found my ensemble sound when I came across some recordings of the University of Houston Wind Ensemble while under the direction of Eddie Green. What struck me was how vibrant and pure their sound was and yet at the same time I could hear every single instrument. As soon as I heard the recording of a transcription of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring, I knew that this was the sound that I wanted my groups to emulate. I had to figure out how they were able to play with such a vibrant sound yet create this clarity to their sound. Clarity! That is what my groups were missing. How on earth was I going to get my middle school bands to achieve even a little bit more clarity? My definition of clar
ity is not just hearing what you are supposed to hear. It is the idea of hearing: every single instrument top to bottom, every single note in a chord and also each individual instrument that might share the same part (e.g., 2nd clarinet and 2nd alto sax). I fully understand that my middle school band will probably not ever sound just like the University of Houston due to obvious reasons but I am quite certain the quality of sound my groups are now producing are much closer to what I now consider my ideal sound. By working on these concepts I have become a better teacher, my students have become better listeners, and my ensembles sound better!
There are many exemplary ensembles such as the Marine band, the Navy band, the Eastman Wind Ensemble and the many other wonderful college wind ensembles. I was fortunate enough to hear the Baylor Wind Symphony at Midwest last year and it was a breathtaking performance. I highly recommend that you check it out! Each has a wonderful quality of sound that they achieve in their own unique way. The music of these groups is more accessible than ever as a quick search of iTunes or YouTube will show you. I would also encourage you to listen to professional recordings of full orchestras, chamber orchestras, choirs, and small ensembles. You never know when you will find the sound that “strikes a chord” with you. When you are listening, be an active listener. Ask yourself what do you like, what do you not like, what are the members of this group listening for, what instrument can you hear the most of? Question everything! When you find a group’s sound that you like, do research on the group, the conductor and any information that you can get on how they are achieving the sound they are creating. For me, I found out that there was a book about Eddie Green and his teachings as well as his own fundamentals series published by Hal Leonard. Jackpot! (Check out my earlier blog post about the book On Teaching Band: Notes From Eddie Green.)
The next step is figuring out how to work on achieving this sound with your ensembles. Obviously, this is the most challenging part but also the most rewarding for yourself and for your students! I had no idea that having a sound in my head would completely change my approach to teaching my students. It opened up so many new ideas and possibilities and it all started with the question of “what do I want my ensembles to sound like?”
Be on the look out for Blog #2 of the Ensemble Sound Blog Series coming soon!
Thanks for reading!
Part 2: The Power 5
Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode I: The Return of the Power 5
Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode II: The Quest for Purity
Part 3: The Power of 1-1: Episode III: The Journey Continues
Part 4: High-Definition Articulations
Part 5: Bridging the Gap: The F Remington
Part 6: Sustains: The Final Chapter