Embracing Similarities #2: What Orchestras Can Learn From Bands

orchestras can learn from bands

Many commonalities exist between the band and orchestra, yet an unnecessary divide can develop between the two. In our previous post, we began to bridge this gap by looking at what bands can learn from orchestras. This week we consider the reverse question.

Parallel of Breath and Articulation to Bowings

The weight and speed of the bow have a direct correlation to the attack and speed of the air in wind instruments. Talking to wind players about string technique, thus, is useful in expanding their conception of musicality. In a converse sense, illuminating analogies about wind playing may be made to help string players appropriately conceptualize and imagine the sound to be created.

Most string players lack even a basic awareness of wind players’ technique; thus, inviting them to think about the consonants that a wind player might choose, or the speed of the air they employ, can be immediately useful. The very act of creating the analogy in a player’s mind can cause them to alter their sound noticeably, even if the change is not fully conscious.

Clarity of Ensemble Execution

Younger players trained in a band setting tend to be better at—and more aware of—ensemble execution than string players of equivalent experience. Because the envelope of a band sound often involves clear attacks, band members become better habituated to precision than do string players, for whom truly accurate rhythm can be a challenge.

Fundamental to a band’s way of being is the practice of breathing together. While string players need to breathe in a human sense (i.e., because they need to be alive to play), they do not tend to think of breathing as a systematically useful thing in relation to an ensemble. Teaching a string section to breath together can yield clear results, but requires constant reinforcement.

In a further extension of this concept, string players can be taught to choreograph their bows at the same time to ensure togetherness of attack.  Given the complexities of string technique, even players who are aware of what is technically necessary may often forget to execute the required actions, and may need to be reminded frequently by the conductor and rehearsed to increase habit strength.

An important fundamental to be emphasized in music that requires precise attacks is that all string players must begin with their bows on the string. In highly rhythmic music, string players should be instructed to set the bow on the string at the same time before playing their note; the conductor or principal string players may, for instance, choose a rest before the note to be played. Such a practice increases the likelihood that the attack will be together.  It also helps string players internalize rhythm into their bodies, which, as previously mentioned, can be challenging as a result of the complex set of movements required to play a string instrument.


While achieving a wide dynamic range can be difficult, wind players in large band sections nevertheless tend to learn more easily to listen and play inside the section, forcing more attention to blend/balance. Wind players with band experience are likely to have more natural and intuitive listening skills and blending abilities. This skill can come in useful in an orchestral wind setting, as the orchestral wind section can be difficult to blend without careful attention.

Clear examples are often found in conventional Viennese classical scoring (pairs of woodwinds, trumpets, and horns). Dating from a time and culture in which rehearsals were scarce and music was not written with an eye towards posterity, orchestration can often be under-thought, with many uncomfortable doublings (whether at the octave or in prime unison) and unfriendly voicings. Such voicings may include odd-seeming distribution of notes in a chord in such a way that it makes it unobvious how to play in tune or with good balance; a common example is the practice of excessively doubling the third or the fifth of a major triad.

Conductors have an important role in guiding orchestral winds here. The players must learn to recognize the distinction between a solo versus ensemble passage and change roles rapidly (one moment an exposed solo, the next a blended wind section).

Intonation and Balance

Although a problem common to bands and orchestras on all levels (from earliest beginner to high-level professional) is the constant struggle with intonation, there are aspects of what bands do that orchestral string players can learn from.

String players are often taught to use vibrato constantly to enhance the overall beauty and uniformity of the section’s sound. Many string players are so accustomed to doing so that they vibrate only semi-consciously, without any particular thought or control. Such a habit can be a hindrance when fixing intonation, since vibrato is, by definition, a controlled and intentional way of playing out of tune.

Many band instruments habitually use little or no vibrato (clarinets, for example, and most of the brass instruments); and other woodwinds get used to using a vibrato that blends well with these instruments. This allows wind players (especially brass players) to fix intonation problems quickly since the related problems and solutions are fairly easy to hear.

If string players are, similarly, habituated to use no vibrato when attempting to address intonation, the results are likely to be much more successful, and musicians’ ears to be better trained. String players must be invited to “open their ears” and listen carefully, and, if they are unsure of their tendencies, to play softly to fit into the pitch center of the section.  

Listening Down

Furthermore, wind players, especially brass, are more used to “listening down” to bass instruments than are strings.  Since the bass instruments often play the root of the chord, such habitual listening makes brass players much more likely to play in tune and to adjust their intonation quickly when problems arise.  They tend to develop a better natural sense of balance, especially when playing static, block chords.

String players, on the other hand, as a result of pedagogy and a traditional emphasis on solo repertoire, learn to focus intently on the individual quality; when this happens unconsciously in an orchestral context, the result is that they may not listen carefully for how their pitch fits into the overall balance of a chord.  Though this is essentially a balance issue, the perception will often come across as an intonation problem.

Violinists and violists who are not used to listening down also often tend to play sharp, as they consciously or unconsciously believe that it increases the tension in the sound. In fact, in many cases, it compounds intonation problems that might already exist. For example, they may play the third of a major triad sharp, when (according to just intonation, a way of approaching tuning based on the natural harmonic series) it should actually be played slightly flat of where it might normally lie on a fixed-pitch instrument.

Helping the upper strings develop harmonic context by constantly guiding their listening to the cello and bass sections—asking them to play in tune with the lower voices—is a good way to start to address this problem

In Conclusion

In a world of ever-increasing specialization both of musicians’ careers and performing ensembles, it can be easy to forget that greater musicianship tends to be achieved by listening to others, not merely by focusing on oneself.

Stepping outside of one’s disciplinary comfort zone, challenging unconscious assumptions, and becoming aware of ingrained habits can enhance critical listening for teachers and students alike, as well as encourage collegial discussions, and broaden ideas/rehearsal techniques.

The result can only strengthen ALL music-making efforts in BOTH the band and orchestra and beyond!

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