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Tuning Up: Learning about orchestras and what they do

Just what is an orchestra, anyway?
An orchestra is a group of musicians who play music together. Most often the term is used to describe a group like the Boston Pops Orchestra, an ensemble composed of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Other types of orchestras, such as jazz orchestras, also exist, composed of different collections of instruments. The word "orchestra" itself comes from Greek, and refers to the front part of an ancient theater where the performers stood.

How does a professional orchestra work, and what's that guy doing waving a baton? The orchestra is a team with a leader and, as in any team, certain players have specific duties. The conductor selects the music the orchestra will play and leads rehearsals and performances. The musicians are divided into sections based on the kind of instrument they play.

photo of violinThe largest number of players in a symphony orchestra play stringed instruments: violins (usually divided into two sections), violas, cellos, and basses. Each of these instruments is played in the same way: by drawing a bow across strings or plucking the string (called pizzicato). The four members of the string family, however, differ greatly in the range and tone of the sounds they produce. Violins have the brightest tone and the highest range; basses have the darkest tone and lowest range. Violas and cellos fall somewhere in between. In general, each string section plays in unison -- all the first violins play the same part at the same time. This is easy to see during a performance. If you watch closely during an EVENING AT POPS, you'll see all of the bows moving in the same pattern as the musicians draw them across the strings.

The woodwinds are seated just behind the strings. These instruments include the piccolo, flute, oboe, clarinet, English horn, and bassoon. Most of these instruments are made of wood. (The flute and piccolo were originally made of wood but are now often made of metal.) As their name indicates, woodwinds make a sound when air travels through a hollow tube and comes out holes on the end and sides of the instrument. The oboe, clarinet, English horn, and bassoon are fitted with small pieces of plant fiber called reeds through which the players blow air. If you have ever folded over a blade of grass and blown through the end to make a sound, you already understand how a reed instrument works. Now just imagine the blade of grass is connected to a long wooden tube with many holes and buttons.

Unlike the string musicians, woodwind players are more likely to have specific parts that take advantage of the distinct sounds these instruments make. The oboe, for instance, has a very different voice from the flute, and neither sounds anything like a bassoon. Sometimes, however, wind instruments, like strings, will play together in unison. Watch and listen during an EVENING AT POPS to see how many different woodwind voices you can pick out.

photo of french hornThe brass section sits behind the woodwinds. Brass instruments include the trumpet, French horn, trombone, and tuba. Like the woodwinds, their sound depends on air blown through a tube, but in this case the tube is metal and bent into a circle (for the horns) or a rounded rectangle (for the trombones and trumpets). As a player blows through the instrument, she depresses keys or moves slides to adjust the instrument's pitch. Unlike woodwinds, there are no reeds on brass instruments; musicians blow into metal mouthpieces instead. The brass section of an orchestra is loud! In the Boston Pops Orchestra there are only 17 brass players (five French horns, eight trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba), but together these instruments can make as much sound as all 49 string players combined!

Like the wind players, each brass player may perform a separate part, and each brings a particular color and range, from bright and high for the trumpets to dark and low for the tuba. They also add a lot to orchestra tuttis -- the times when the entire group is playing the same music together. Many students are familiar with brass instruments from their school band -- a band is just an orchestra without strings.

photo of drumThe final section of the orchestra is small but tremendously important: the percussion section. In every other section of the orchestra, musicians generally play only one instrument, although sometimes a player will switch from one closely related instrument to another -- for instance, from flute to piccolo. In the percussion section, however, players master a range of instruments, including the bass drum, timpani (or kettle drum), cymbals, xylophone, snare drum, bells, and even wind machines. In the Boston Pops Orchestra, there are five percussionists and one tympani player, and, although their number is small, just one cymbal crash or snare drum roll can demonstrate how vital percussion is to the orchestra.

Orchestras often include additional instruments: Harps are frequently added, as are pianos, organs, and saxophones, as well as other popular instruments including guitars.

What's a rehearsal, and what's it for?
After the music is selected, the conductor and orchestra meet for a rehearsal. They usually wear casual clothes and meet on stage in the concert hall, although sometimes rehearsal rooms may be used. Unlike a student band or orchestra, professional orchestras have very limited rehearsal time -- and they must use this time well.

During the rehearsal, the conductor talks to the musicians, and the ensemble plays through some or all of each piece on the program. The conductor sets the tempo (the rate at which a piece is played) and alerts the musicians about practical matters, such as whether a section of a work will be repeated or not. He or she is also responsible for determining the dynamics, or volume, of each part of the music, as well as the overall interpretation. Conductors also maintain balance between the orchestra sections.

How does an orchestra stay in tune?
If you've ever heard an out-of-tune piano, you know a familiar melody played on it can sound quite odd. Orchestras must solve this problem as well. A note played on one instrument must sound at the same pitch as the corresponding note played on another instrument.

photo of oboeOrchestras solve this problem in several ways. Before a conductor comes to the podium, the first player in the violin section, who is known as the concertmaster, will rise and ask the principal oboe player to sound a "tuning A," a note which the oboe plays the same each time because of the way the instrument is made. The other musicians can then tune their own instruments, adjusting the pitch up or down until they hear that their note is the same as the oboe's.

As part of their long training, professional musicians become sensitive to pitch and tuning and very skilled at making any necessary adjustments during a performance. Sometimes the music moves too quickly or the pitch changes too drastically for the players to adjust their instruments in time. For the most part, however, musicians make sure their tuning is correct at the beginning and then listen closely as they are playing.

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