Archive for the ‘Ensemble’ Category

Balancing the Viola in a String Quartet

by Camden Shaw

Shmuel Ashkenasi, first violinist of the Vermeer Quartet, said to my quartet once in a coaching: “There are only four causes of balance problems in a quartet: ignorance of the score, ego, register, and quality of instrument.” At the time, I remember thinking how unremarkable the list was: each problem was understandable, and I didn’t really find any of them to be a revelation. But then, over time, I got to thinking: if these causes of balance issues are so obvious, why are so few ensembles well balanced? If we all understand the basic causes of imbalance, how is it that 99% of ensembles don’t allow the listener to hear everything of importance? And why is the violist either way too quiet or way too loud?!?

After studying my group and my own playing, I have to say that I was disillusioned on many levels. The first thing I learned was that of the four causes, ego is by far the most prevalent in ALL of us and trumps every other balance issue: regardless of knowledge of the score, for instance, if someone WANTS to sound impressive or to revel in their own sound, they can quickly drown out what we need to hear. I don’t exclude myself from this problem—in fact, after paying attention, I realized that when I find myself playing too loudly, most often it’s because I like hearing myself; I don’t want to sound thin or stingy.  Also, if I’m honest, I love it when after a concert people say they loved my sound, or compliment me on my instrument; and while this is shallow of me, I know that problem is not unique to me. I’ve witnessed it with all four members of my quartet and in almost every ensemble I’ve ever heard: when one is playing in a chamber setting, it is easy to feel lost in the mix, and we all want to feel noticed and appreciated.

Ego, however, is something that affects all four instruments roughly the same, in the sense that it has more to do with humanity than it does with instruments. So, why is it that of all four instruments, the viola seems the hardest to balance? (Although you violists are, in general, a modest and wonderful bunch!) I would say that 80% of groups don’t have enough viola sound in the mix, and 10% have too much. Is that the fault of the violists?  Not usually, and never exclusively! Assuming all four members in a quartet have instruments of approximately equal power, the viola still has the greatest natural disadvantage: register. The viola is not only in the middle of the sonic spectrum most of the time, but it’s the LOWER middle. (Goodness. That gets about as much attention as fat-free vanilla ice cream. That’s being a nerd at math camp. That’s being the “boring guy” in your accounting firm.) Compounding this problem is that the viola’s f-holes, even if the violist sits on the outside of the group, are pointed backward and not out to the audience; still, with a certain amount of “turning out” now and again, it is, in my opinion, better than sitting in the back with the second violin, because in that setting the f-holes are pointed to the side, which hardly helps, and the two most easily heard instruments are on the outside of the group.

These are all issues we know—the violist is in a tough register, the violist’s f-holes are pointed back, the violist is now in a bad mood. But again, I wonder, why is it that we all know these problems and yet don’t fix them? Here’s the fun part: the solution! First, we need to address the fact that if you’re not being heard in a passage where you’re the primary voice, it does not matter what register you’re in. It doesn’t matter how crappy your viola is! You need to be heard. If you can’t be heard, can you play more without departing from the desired character? Probably. Most of us play too shyly for a big hall. But if you’re being forced outside the character of the line, stick up for yourself and make sure your colleagues realize you’re the primary voice. Study the score so that you’re also sure when you’re the primary voice, and don’t be distracted by fancy writing (e.g., the first variation in Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet, movement 2: the melody is in the second violin, NOT the first violin. The first violin has only decoration and is not primary material, and yet in 99% of performances the audience is completely fixated on the first violin instead of how the decoration enhances the second violin’s tune.)

Assuming that everyone in your ensemble always knows who is primary (never assume that by the way), there is a very important tool to help multiple parts be heard: playing with very different types of sound. Not necessarily different volumes, mind you: only qualities. “Color” of sound, although all too cliché, is a valid way to bring attention to a line without sacrificing volume from the others. In my quartet, Milena is such a wonderful balancer because she can change her quality of sound so quickly; if she has to come out of the texture even for a two-note motif, she’ll do so in a way that gives her sonic profile without seeming brash or just “loud.”

This brings me to the idea of having a “quartet sound.” Having a quartet sound is not only about blend, as so many people think; of course, one must be able to blend with one’s neighbor. But just as much as it is about blending, ensemble sound is about structure.  Constructing a quartet sound is much like constructing a building—but unlike a building, a quartet sound is almost never the same texture all the way up. By this I mean that it is very rare for all four players to be playing with the same proximity to the bridge, and therefore the same “density.” Instead, a quartet sound is sometimes like a brick sitting on top of an exercise ball—sometimes a feather on an anvil—sometimes like a peach, all fleshy and sweet on the edges but with real density in the middle. What this means is that the cellist, for instance, doesn’t always play with the most “core,” as some suppose. The cellist can support from beneath without being the densest sound in the group; and if we really understand the difference between volume and density, the melody could technically be the quietest thing in the group in volume but have such density that it’s indisputably primary to the listener.

In my quartet, we believe that the primary material should have first choice as to the quality of sound it desires, as well as the quantity; and we then frame that sound with sounds that either support it with similar quality or distinguish it with contrast. This type of balancing deals mostly with knowledge of the score, as little ego as possible, and a manipulation of density of sound. In my opinion, therefore, the 10% of violists who play too loudly, (against all odds!) are the ones that do not understand the difference between volume of sound and function of sound. They are worried about projecting and therefore play louder than the other members of the group in order to compensate for their disadvantages; but this is not a solution to the problem. What we need to do is tailor our quality of sound, as well as the quantity, to the ever-changing musical situation at hand.  So the next time you can’t hear yourself, or your colleague, go through Mr. Ashkenasi’s list honestly, and fix the problem with the qualities of sound being used! And don’t tell the violinists about their ego, it’ll only make them worse.

— A cellist and admirer of great violists

Playing with the San Antonio Symphony by Blake Turner

As a music student, I’ve naturally found that much of my time is spent working in the practice room. In recent years, a large portion of my practice sessions have been focused on orchestral excerpts for orchestra repertoire class and either summer festivals or professional auditions.  Individual practice helps us as players to reach our goals, but it can’t teach or prepare us for everything. And for myself, I’ve found this holds true for orchestral playing. In the past, I’ve worked on excepts with the intention and hope of eventually joining a professional orchestra, and while practicing excerpts helps us to single out and perfect important portions of major works, nothing can replace the experience of playing with a professional symphony.

0402a SA symphony

Me, with the viola section of the San Antonio Symphony

One such opportunity for me occurred this past January, in which I got to play in the viola section of the San Antonio Symphony for winning the AVS Orchestral Excerpts Competition. Having been raised in the San Antonio area, I grew up attending concerts and watching the symphony, so it was very surreal for me to be on the same stage with musicians that I had idolized as a young violist. Apart from enjoying myself and soaking in the whole experience, I took notice of what a professional orchestra like the San Antonio Symphony did differently or better than the other orchestras that I had played in.

Something that really impressed me during rehearsals was everyone’s focus and attention to detail. The fact of the matter is that professional orchestras do not have the luxury of many rehearsals and the time to spend combing bit by bit through the music. This means that more of the responsibility falls on the musician, not the conductor, to bring out the subtleties within the music.

Again, something else I noticed that was tied to good musicianship and efficiency was how closely the symphony musicians listened to each other. If there was a section that didn’t go smoothly or was out of tune, everything was usually fixed the next time we ran the passage.

These are all aspects of orchestral playing that I understood were important, but they gained an extra degree of significance for me after that week. The whole experience was just another reminder to me that a large part of our growth and development as musicians comes not just while in the practice room, but from sharing and performing music in the real world.

Orchestra Etiquette by Blake Turner

The orchestra, if you take the time to think about it, is one of the more complex work environments in the world. Where else do you see groups of 100 people or more, all in the same room, sitting in very close proximity to each other? With so many musicians working together for hours on end, it is crucial that symphony members be professional and follow orchestra etiquette.

2013 Autumn Shepherd School Orchestra

The Shepherd School Orchestra

What is etiquette? The Cambridge Dictionary simply defines etiquette as “the set of rules or customs that control accepted behavior in particular social groups or social situations.”

To my knowledge, there is no official set of rules that dictates orchestra etiquette. However, from my own experience and with some help from Joan DerHovsepian of the Houston Symphony and my colleagues at the Shepherd School, I have compiled a list of general rules.

Don’t Look Behind You

As a string player, I’m often tempted to look behind me at the wind and brass players. Sometimes a wind player will play so beautifully, I want to see who it was and acknowledge them. But I have to tell myself, don’t do it!! It is very distracting for wind and brass players when 20–30 eyes start ogling them. Be polite and look forward.

Avoid Tapping Your Feet

I sometimes catch myself tapping my feet in rehearsal, and I quickly stop when I realize what I’m doing! Even though I’d like to believe that I have impeccable rhythm (I don’t), I know how distracting it can be to other players around me when I tap my feet.

Inside Players Mark Parts

It is the responsibility of the inside player on a shared stand to mark the parts with bowings and changes during rehearsals. If you are the inside player, be proactive and alert. Once the conductor indicates something needs to be marked down, don’t wait for your partner to do it, do it yourself!


It may go without saying that orchestra players must have their parts prepared before rehearsals. You are showing respect for your colleague’s time, your audience, and yourself.

Talking During Rehearsal

Keep your conversation during rehearsals to a minimum. If you need to discuss something with your stand partner regarding the music, make it brief so that both of you can stay on track in rehearsal.  Leaving questions about notes or rhythms, etc., for orchestra breaks is preferred so as not to waste valuable time. Follow the chain of command. Consult the principal player of your section before going directly to the conductor.

Here are some professional tips from Houston Symphony Assistant Principal Violist Joan DerHovsepian:

Page Turning

“The most important responsibility an inside player has is to make a timely page turn for their partner, so the outside player can play seamlessly. Arrive for the turn early with page in hand, wait one second to make sure your partner has scanned the remaining music, and turn swiftly.  Dropping a few extra notes so this turn can be done at just the right time shows respect for your partner and is always appreciated.”

Rice Symphony Class Photo

The Houston Symphony

Staggered Bowing

“The outside player may change bow on held notes or staggered bowing passages where they are comfortable. It is the responsibility of the inside player to watch sensitively for this change and make their bow change just before or after their partner. This courtesy is easily overlooked, but I’ve always felt it creates harmony on a stand when there is this common awareness.”

Bring Your Own Pencil

“When two people share a stand, it is polite that each will bring his or her own pencil (with functioning eraser) to every rehearsal. Share music, not germs!!”