Sound Advice

Originally printed in the Winter 2010 issue of the Iowa Bandmaster. Reprinted here with permission of the author.

The foundation of any fine ensemble, whether it is an orchestra, jazz ensemble, marching band, chamber ensemble or wind band, is the quality of its sound. Therefore, it is incumbent upon conductors to possess a solid concept or aural image of the type of sound they desire their ensemble to produce, and to structure rehearsals and create teaching strategies which will enable their students to achieve and reinforce a particular quality of sound. Concepts of sound quality are shaped by many factors including the ensembles to which we listen, the instrument(s) we play and perhaps most influential is our ensemble performance experience.

There are numerous concepts of sound production, and I prefer avoiding conversations that debate “right” versus “wrong” concepts of ensemble sound production. Rather, I choose to respect a conductor’s decision to approach his or her ensemble’s sound in a certain manner, provided it is an appropriate quality for a particular composition and that the best interest of the music is served. I fondly remember my days as a high school and college student when I started listening to music in a more serious way, and thus began gaining greater appreciation for and insight into the many aspects of musical performance. As a trumpet player, my early listening habits tended to focus on instrumental ensembles including orchestras, brass quintets and wind bands. I was and continue to be an avid listener of classical music, and I recall eventually being able to differentiate the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Georg Solti from the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy simply by listening to the unique quality of sound that each ensemble produced. The CSO, of course, had that marvelous brass sound, while Philadelphia possessed a rich, lush string sound. Both were truly world-class ensembles, but their sounds were quite distinct. The point is that conductors of any ensemble, through deliberate thought and careful decision- making, should arrive at their personal concept of sound, and teach toward that concept.

ala breve

I know that my personal performance experiences as a trumpet player in the Texas Tech University Symphonic Band under the direction of James Sudduth and the University of Illinois Wind Symphony under James F. Keene significantly shaped my opinions about the ideal wind band sound. Like the conductors with whom I studied, I subscribe to the principle that the desired fundamental sound of a wind band is that which is a well- blended, dark, resonant sound that is built on the low sounding instruments within the band. Who has influenced your concept of band sound, and how has that influence affected the way you approach your ensemble’s sound?

I assume that a large number of wind band conductors have come to know this approach to balance and ensemble sound production as the “pyramid system.” This popular phrase resulted from the teachings and highly influential writings of Dr. Francis McBeth, especially his manual entitled Effective Performance of Band Music: Solutions to specific problems in the performance of 20th Century Band Music, I fully endorse the pyramid of sound concept for wind bands that has been championed by Francis McBeth for several decades now, and that concept essentially sets forth the idea that low voices in the band should contribute more sound to the full ensemble sound than the high voices.

To achieve a pyramid of balance, band members should think, listen, and balance down at the section, instrument family, and full ensemble levels. Ensemble members that play higher sounding instruments should fit their sound inside the sound of lower instruments. Special attention must always be given to inner voice parts or they will often fail to adequately contribute to the total band sound. It is important to constantly monitor for good balance within the band, but also to listen for proper blend, which results when students match volume, make a uniform quality of sound, and produce good intonation within sections and families of instruments. Good ensemble balance and blend are two essential components of achieving a satisfying band sound.

Conductors should teach their students what proper ensemble balance and blend sounds like and why good balance and blend enables bands to achieve a desired ensemble sound.

by Richard Mark Heidel

With this in mind, it can be effective to first demonstrate improper balance by having your band invert the pyramid of sound creating a bright sound, or by having individual players “stick out” in certain sections to illustrate the effects of poor blend. Following this demonstration, you can provide the band some type of signal which indicates to them to increase the bass voices while decreasing the treble voices, gradually creating more of a pyramid of balance that will affect the sound in a most revealing and positive manner.

Dr. McBeth proposed that pyramids may be created on various levels from the full ensemble to instrument families to individual sections. The three diagrams below from Effective Performance of Band Music illustrate this approach:

Diagram 1: Full Ensemble Balance

Diagram 2: Woodwind Family Balance

Diagram 3: Brass Family Balance

Notice that within Diagrams 2 and 3, there are “double pyramids” which indicate the proper balance within each family and for each


Page 1  |  Page 2  |  Page 3  |  Page 4  |  Page 5  |  Page 6  |  Page 7  |  Page 8  |  Page 9  |  Page 10  |  Page 11  |  Page 12  |  Page 13  |  Page 14  |  Page 15  |  Page 16  |  Page 17  |  Page 18  |  Page 19  |  Page 20  |  Page 21  |  Page 22  |  Page 23  |  Page 24  |  Page 25  |  Page 26  |  Page 27  |  Page 28  |  Page 29  |  Page 30  |  Page 31  |  Page 32  |  Page 33  |  Page 34  |  Page 35  |  Page 36  |  Page 37  |  Page 38  |  Page 39  |  Page 40  |  Page 41  |  Page 42  |  Page 43  |  Page 44  |  Page 45  |  Page 46  |  Page 47  |  Page 48  |  Page 49  |  Page 50  |  Page 51  |  Page 52  |  Page 53  |  Page 54  |  Page 55  |  Page 56  |  Page 57  |  Page 58  |  Page 59  |  Page 60  |  Page 61  |  Page 62  |  Page 63  |  Page 64  |  Page 65  |  Page 66  |  Page 67  |  Page 68