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String Section Improvement Advice

Orchestra: How do you improve the sound of the strings in a hurry?

From Ray Randall
Posted July 12, 2007 at 08:51 PM

I recently posted a blog about building the Town and Country Symphony Orchestra, tcsomo.org. Yes, that's the actual name of the city. There are some incredible things that will happen, but only if the sound improves very quickly. No, firing everyone and hiring pros is not an option at this time. Until the money starts flowing in we're working with what we have now. A better sound will attract the better amateurs, and vice versa, but you have to get the sound first. If the high quality amateurs and professionals that we will eventually hire knew what was just around the corner they would flock here, but I'm not allowed to say what's going on or the sources will disappear.
When building a quality orchestra, like I did with the Stamford Symphony which is a full time professional orchestra, you have to start somewhere. Like Stamford we're starting with a core of quality people and not so quality. How would you improve the people that are here now in a hurry?

From Patricia Baser
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 08:55 PM
Can you program any pieces that are in string- friendly resonant keys? Or program pieces that play up the best features of your current players in all the sections. Can you try alternate seatings, like violins on opposite sides of the stage, or switch whether the cellos or basses are on the outside. Do you have enough strong players in the second violins to balance the higher register of the first violins? Is there any possibility of rearranging within string sections? (without stepping on anyone's toes!)
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 12, 2007 at 10:44 PM
Greetings,
Ray, the best way to improve a string sound bar none is to play a lot of Haydn symphonies. This was the appraoch used by Mehta to build up the Israel Philharmonic from scratch. Incidentally, compromises or alternatives rarely work. I have sene orchestras fall for `Haydn is for kids let`s do Mozart`- but Mozart may well do the opposite in my experience.
The key to sound is breathing together, the key to all this is bowing with abolsute unanimity. I have founf amateur orchestras (which I coach a lot) are often very reluctant to accept or implement a stritct policy of bowing in the same way. it often seems to take a greta deal of discussion and reminders to make this a common gola and work towards it. The difficulty with setting up this kind of structure and discussion is that although amateurs can be -exceptionally= good they tend to be very protective about being told apparently simple things. So are professionals at times but the actual job structure of a profesisonal orchestra tends to smooth things over. What I mean by this is that in a pro orchestra the `leader` is the leader and eveyrone knows what that means. In an amateur orchestra many players may be unfamiliar with the responsibilitiers and powers of leadership and be happy with an `anyone of us could be sitting there` kind of approach.
I would also avoid democracy in bowing parts. That is the job of the leader and conducter. Once you get front desk involved then the end result tends to be a mish mash. This is really undesirable because the ultimate sound of your band has to come form the nature and ideals of the cocnertmaster. That`s why you need a good one!
Also try and avoid rotating the front two desks if possible. Even if you need to have auditions keep these two desks stable. I resolve objections to this by pointing out that outside desk two has to play as perfectly as the cocnertmaster and be ready to play any and all solos if the cocnertmaster is sick on the day. This can have a surprisingly quieting effect.
CHeers,
Buri
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 04:08 AM
As a last resort for making an amateur group sound better fast, bring in a ringer or two.
From Rosalind Porter
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 02:23 AM
I would suggest scheduling some string sectional rehearsals if at all possible. It can be intimidating if you've got a tricky intonation or ensemble problem in - for example - your 1st violins and you have to keep stopping the whole band to correct it. The section becomes nervous - thus making more mistakes and the rest of the band get bored waiting for them to get it right.

If you've got good principal players and 4 suitable rooms to divide the strings into, you can let them run the sectionals, perhaps giving them details of any specific issues you feel warrant particular attention and conductor can then rotate amongst the sections to coach each in turn. Or else if it is violins who are main problem - let everyone else leave an hour early in rehearsal and keep them back to give extra coaching under tempo etc.

I've witnessed a top conductor making 1sts and 2nds of a top German opera orchestra play nothing but unison scales for 20 minutes at various tempi just to work on intonation - they pouted at first but after listening to themselves realised they sounded pretty um bad and it really made them work and eventually sound vastly improved!

From Roy Sonne
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 02:39 AM
When I started conducting a community orchestra here in the Pittsburgh area the string section was very weak indeed. The string sound was notably poor. As a professional violinist and symphony orchestra musician, I was able to use my knowledge to work on the string sound constantly. In any given rehearsal I probably had fifty comments to the strings about the use of the bow, vibrato, etc. I also did all the bowings myself. We also had regular string sectionals. Gradually the string sound improved until it became one of the orchestra's strong points. But it took a long time. There is no quick way.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 03:23 AM
Greetings
>In any given rehearsal I probably had fifty comments to the strings about the use of the bow, vibrato, etc

that sounds about right! Its amazing how often you can get a pretty decent section to play an importnat passage over and ove rand it just doesn`t sound right because the players are not aware they are stopping and starting the vibrato (usually something to do with the fourth finger...). A timely comment can save so much frustrating repetition without knowing why.
This last is the key to killing an amateur orchestra as far as I am cocnerned.
Cheers,
Buri

From Albert Justice
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 03:40 AM
I feel that Rosalind and Roy made good points. From a group behavior point of view, beyond music--I think finding teamwork principles and efforts that cover the entire group as a starting point. Musicians will be musicians, as Buri mentioned.

I know it's not the real world, though it is sometimes in a hit and miss fashion; but, overall group cohesion will create the environment within which to grow.

And in the spirit of Rosalind's remarks, I'd put my money in bringing in people to work with those sections.

From Ray Randall
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 04:26 AM
Thank you everyone, I'm passing these on to the CM and conductor. We have a core of very very good players and need to build on that.
From Kevin Jang
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 01:12 PM
It is important to have strong players in the back of the section. There is an old Philly Orch trick where the BACK of the section plays the strongest while the front play less. The sound travels over the section and creates a luminous string sound.
From Ray Randall
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 01:33 PM
That's an interesting thought.
From Martin Butler
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 01:42 PM
Interesting subject and some interesting replies! I think that the control of the speed of the bow is one of the strongest requirements for a good string sound. Work on something like "Andante Festivo" by Sibelius (it is 50 years since he died) with a professional string player/director who has a good understanding of legato bow changes. Take care that there are no "bubbles" in the sound and that the vibrato does not stop in between the notes.
From Christina C.
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 02:11 PM
It’s definitely more difficult to play at the back of the section. The stronger the player the better they can handle it & the orchestra benefits as a whole. This also ties in to my preferred approach to seating for amateur orchestras. I think it’s best to have one strong player on the outside of each stand. Of course one hopes that there are enough strong players to have one on every stand!

I would also second the recommendation for sectionals. Lots of the tricky parts for strings are buried under blaring brass & winds. Nothing like a sectional to really expose what & especially who needs work.

From Catherine Johnson
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 03:03 PM
Not to be obvious, but has anyone been reminded to practice?
From Albert Justice
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 03:27 PM
Catherine: Priceless.. ;).... I won't mention playing for my first two years with a convex trending wrist...
From Catherine Johnson
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 03:56 PM
Thank you, Albert.
From Ben Clapton
Posted on July 13, 2007 at 11:34 PM
Get a string playing conductor. We've got one at the moment with my youth orchestra, and he spends quite a lot of time with us - and it shows. Admittedly he's working from a good base of players that know how to play, but he's making us sound even better.
From Bill Busen
Posted on July 14, 2007 at 01:00 AM
One trick our highly-regarded university symphony conductor confessed to is to classify each string player based on whether they are better at intonation or rhythm (from the audition and from observation, I presume), and put one of each on each stand. I speculate that that is so that each player's stand partner is a role model for their weakness. (If they can't do either, based on what happened to me, switch them to bass.)
From Bart Meijer
Posted on July 14, 2007 at 10:10 AM
Again, I apologize if this is too elementary, but how about playing non-vibrato? Or with little vibrato? It helps to achieve good intonation, in a group as well as individually. Furthermore, too much vibrato rather subtracts from the group sound.
Hope this helps,

Bart

From Sander Marcus
Posted on July 14, 2007 at 12:02 PM
As an amateur who has been in a lot of those school orchestras and community orchestras, the wealth and depth of suggestions here are fantastic. Any conductor should read this thread carefully.

My two cents worth is not from the point of view of the conductor, but of the player. I always felt that I got the most from the conductors I played for when I listened carefully to what happened when they pointed out what the problem was and when we followed what they wanted. The key for me was listening.

But you listen differently as a player than you do as a conductor.

Based on that, here's an idea that just occured to me. However, I don't think it's very practical. Bring a couple of players at a time up on the podium with you, so that they get a chance to HEAR what's going on from your point of view. That might give them not only a clearer picture of what they need to do and why, but also a great deal more understanding of what you are trying to accomplish as a conductor.


Just a thought.
Great discussion.
Cordially, Sandy

From Jodi B
Posted on July 15, 2007 at 07:57 PM
There is great advice here. I would like to stress some things that have been said. First of all I would recommend getting a string conductor. The advice on bow speed was great too.... I saw this was done with my daughter's music camp this summer. I never heard such great sound pulled out of students' bows in such small amount of time. Next, I would also suggest that some one person do bowings.. this cuts down on arguments and keeps everything uniform. Here in my town they have actually hired someone to do all the string fingerings.

I am not too far from town and county in Missouri... nice to see them mentioned :)

From Ray Randall
Posted on July 15, 2007 at 11:15 PM
Good suggestions folks.
Sectionals with SLSO string, brass, and WW players start this coming season.
The CM does a decent job on bowings and 95% of the players follow them.
Some players are too timid right now to actually bear down and produce a tone that blends in. They can sound a little mousy, I'm working on that.
I wish a bunch of them would take some lessons.
Thanks everyone, any more suggestions are welcome.
From Nate Robinson
Posted on July 15, 2007 at 11:54 PM
Good stuff on this thread already. Maybe suggest to the section to play on more hairs, they will sound far from mousy immediately after doing this. When you get a whole group to do this, well it sounds great. I would also suggest maybe scheduling a few seating auditions (with screen between director and member) during the season. Have them play hard excerpts from the pieces being performed. A revolving seat system is a lot better I think than a set seating order. It will keep everyone interested and happy.
From Albert Justice
Posted on July 16, 2007 at 06:21 AM
I'd do well to follow the more hairs advice. 4sure. Sheesh gad though, when I start decimating Witch's Dance and Lully, oh well. I'll settle down.
From Sue Bechler
Posted on July 16, 2007 at 01:33 PM
Spend some time discussing violin set-up, string choice and replacement schedule, bow hair, bow tension, proper rosining technique (Slowly and firmly,please! Fast rosining can melt a crust onto hair), and tuning. If your sense is that the people in your group will listen politely but decide you weren't talking about them, maybe schedule some one-on-one time with yourself, a string expert or a luthier. People often noted that my elementary string orchestras didn't sound like grade-school; keeping after the above one of my best "secrets". Sue
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on July 19, 2007 at 01:19 AM
Greetings,
Ray, if everyone has a sens eof humor you could try one of my favorite exercises which is to stand up and play bend over at the hps so that your head is as close to your knees as posisble.
That generates a huge release of tension in the right armpit area and immediatley improves sound.
Another idea that works well with amateur orchestras is to ask them either to
a) play it as thye imagine their favorite player would play it.
b) Tell them they don@t have to listen to the sound at all. There only focus is to concentrate on looking like their favorite player as they play it.

It is also sometimes useful to remind people to listen to the people around them rtaher than their own playing.
CHeers,
Buri

From Ray Randall
Posted on July 19, 2007 at 03:11 AM
Good ideas, stephen. Got an E-Mail from the CM tonight. I've been copying him on all the suggestions. He's implementing some of them immediately and certainly next season. He agrees, from his e-mail, that we should emphasize our cadre of really good players and build from there. Even the semi-professional orchestra just beloe the SLSO here in STL doesn't have the opportunity we have and I do not want to blow it.
Thanks everyone.
From Rob Schnautz
Posted on July 19, 2007 at 04:17 PM
Any time I notice a musician is not doing well on a particular song, I simply tell them, "Take that one to lessons." I remind again them as we depart to take that song to lessons, and the next week, it's AMAZING the difference that one lesson can make! Private teachers seem to be able to fix just about every problem imaginable. Intonation usually takes more than a week to improve, though, especially when their teacher gives them new fingerings for the piece.
From Rob Schnautz
Posted on July 19, 2007 at 04:22 PM
"b) Tell them they don@t have to listen to the sound at all. There only focus is to concentrate on looking like their favorite player as they play it."

Ooops...accidentally read that as "Their only focus is to concentrate on looking [i]at[/i] their favorite player as they play it." Looking at a cute violinist might not exactly work for some.

From Ben Clapton
Posted on July 20, 2007 at 12:07 AM
Yea, looking at the cute concert mistress in my orchestra kinda stops me from playing... drop dead gorgeous!
From Ray Randall
Posted on July 20, 2007 at 02:56 PM
But can she play well? On the other hand if she's that good, who cares.

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