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Will L

BALANCE

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In the topic on the Pegbox: THERE'S MORE TO IT THAN TONE, the subject of balancing two or more instruments has come up.  I wonder if anyone has any comments to make; I am particularly interested in what noted teachers have said about it.

 

My experience with balancing was that some people seemed to be obsessed with it.  One of my teachers did a lot of piano, violin, 'cello trios and I remember how often he asked people in the audience (at either rehearsals or after concerts) if the balance of the three instruments was OK.  I think balance becomes more of a problem the minute a piano is put in the mix.   :)  Then, if you have a noisy pianist the problem is multiplied. 

 

Once when being coached by members of the La Salle Quartet, I (the second violinist) was warned not to get too fancy with fingerings but, instead, to concentrate on getting on the most projecting string and register for a given passage.  As I remember it, the suggestion was to play a lot more in first position on a higher string (when in doubt).

 

Then I also wonder about how the choice of an instrument fits into this discussion. 

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Once when being coached by members of the La Salle Quartet, I (the second violinist) was warned not to get too fancy with fingerings but, instead, to concentrate on getting on the most projecting string and register for a given passage.  As I remember it, the suggestion was to play a lot more in first position on a higher string (when in doubt).

What you say might equally apply to the violist (generally my perspective).

I wonder how much effort people put into matching strings sets?

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The instruments involved matter, but, in my experience, balance is about choosing timbre and dynamic level.  So, it's a matter of matching bow speed, vibrato speed, and contact point.  Or it's a matter of not matching those things.  Knowing about how to balance is very helpful when you have a very nuanced view of how something should be balanced.  You know, in a Haydn quartet or even Mozart, it's pretty obvious the hierarchy of the voices, but, later, when the counterpoint gets thicker, sometimes the hierarchy is much more arguable.  A quartet can be 3+1, 2+2, 1+1+2, and 1+1+1+1... knowing that is a good first step.

 

In a quartet with 3 excellent instruments and 1 bad instrument, the bad one will stick out like a sore thumb.  But there comes a point in instrument quality where a master can overcome the limitations.  A bad instrument will always be bad, but a decent instrument will sound marvelous in the hands of a master.  We have a range of tricks we can use, and while not all violins are capable of all of them, a decent instrument is capable of enough of them to get us where we need to go.

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My experience with balancing was that some people seemed to be obsessed with it.  One of my teachers did a lot of piano, violin, 'cello trios and I remember how often he asked people in the audience (at either rehearsals or after concerts) if the balance of the three instruments was OK.  I think balance becomes more of a problem the minute a piano is put in the mix.   :)  Then, if you have a noisy pianist the problem is multiplied. 

 

 

I have developed a permanent aversion to piano trios after hearing one in a small hall with wonderful acoustics when the pianist drowned everyone else.The awful thing is that I forgot the name of the trio and went to hear them again some years later. 

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I think it's better not to mention names, but one of the orchestras I was in was a rather dispirited group, at the time.  A great conductor came in for a week and changed the sound of the orchestra so much that the old timers—who never even took their violins home—were beaming.  It was a beautiful thing to see enthusiasm on the faces of guys who were usually so dour and sarcastic.  They didn't know they could sound that good.

 

What did he do?  He spent almost all his time balancing instruments. The scene I remember most is how much time he spent getting the trombone section to match each other, particularly in dynamics.  And it wasn't the usual quick comment made in passing;  he actually spent enough time until the players got the hang of it and heard the difference.  (Although it is hard to put it into words.)  The richness of the overall tone of the orchestra improved beyond anything anyone would have expected.

 

Incidentally, some years later I mentioned this to some concert pianist who said that he took balancing the notes of chords very seriously, and that it was one of the things that goes with age if you don't work at it.

 

Anyway, it seems to me that there are a lot of problems which can get in the way of "balancing for maximum musical effect."  There's the music itself or the orchestration; the quality of the instruments; the awareness of the musicians; the difference in the strength or weakness of each musician's tone;  the hall; and probably other things I can't think of right now.

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What did he do?  He spent almost all his time balancing instruments. The scene I remember most is how much time he spent getting the trombone section to match each other, particularly in dynamics.  And it wasn't the usual quick comment made in passing;  he actually spent enough time until the players got the hang of it and heard the difference.  (Although it is hard to put it into words.)  The richness of the overall tone of the orchestra improved beyond anything anyone would have expected.

 

Yup.  Larry Rachleff seemed to spend a good bit of time balancing; he was always saying things like, "Violas, clarinets, 2nd bassoon and 2nd trombone, begin at letter E."  If you've never listened to the Shepherd Symphony...  it's a fine orchestra:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3mjVIBoK7tA

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Stephen, that is a FANTASTIC performance.   Often the very best orchestral performances come out of the Universities and Conservatories, more detail rehearsal time, highly motivated, excited as well as skilled intrumnetalists.  When I was at Juilliard, it was widely accepted by the most msuically saavy that the very best perfromances one could go to in NYC were those of the Juilliard Orchestra.

Crazy Jane - Lin is and has been in the very top echelon for decades.   He was a student when I was at Juilliard, and even then, (we called him Jimmy then) we knew he was very special - along with David Kim and Nadia Sonnenberg-Salierno (sp).  I saw a peformance of Isaac Stern and Friends where Stern had Lin play a double concerto with him (Bach I think).    Lin played circles around Stern, which, to Stern's credit, never made him shy away from inviting the best yound talent he came across for his concerts - he was a great man and mentor, but well into his twilight years as a violinist. 

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There is a lot of balancing in the Rouse, too--tone, vibrato, volume among the string principals. And then the powerful Jimmy Lin and his Strad must balance with the student soloists and their (presumably) less-than-Strads. 

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Stephen, that is a FANTASTIC performance.  

 

It is a good performance but not fantastic. "Fantastic" and "Great" are two words Americans abuse. There are plenty intonation issues there and timing issues too. Hesitatent attacks. Conductor is ok but only just. But the main complaint is that the orchestra sounds dull and monochromatic. This is good performance by a school orchestra but not "fantastic". Not BPO with Kletzky.

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Well, I agree with DR. S.

 

dan_s was being silly again.  What's the use in comparing Berlin with Shepherd?  Everyone knows Berlin is better (than just about everyone in the entire world), but they're not a school orchestra.  Shepherd isn't just a good school orchestra, it's a fantastic school orchestra.  If we were comparing it to Berlin, then to call it simply "good" (as dan_s did) is perfectly fair.

 

I doubt dan_s watches American college and pro basketball, but I think the point could be similarly made in that arena.  The basketball programs at, for example, Duke and Kentucky have been truly great over the years, but those programs' best teams couldn't compete with the worst teams in the NBA.  It doesn't mean that they're not playing great basketball at the college level.  And it doesn't mean that on any given night they couldn't give a more electrifying performance than the pros.  Shepherd often compares favorably with Houston.

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Stephen, that is a FANTASTIC performance.   Often the very best orchestral performances come out of the Universities and Conservatories, more detail rehearsal time, highly motivated, excited as well as skilled intrumnetalists.  When I was at Juilliard, it was widely accepted by the most msuically saavy that the very best perfromances one could go to in NYC were those of the Juilliard Orchestra.

 

 

 

Well, I agree with DR. S.

 

dan_s was being silly again.  What's the use in comparing Berlin with Shepherd?  Everyone knows Berlin is better (than just about everyone in the entire world), but they're not a school orchestra.  Shepherd isn't just a good school orchestra, it's a fantastic school orchestra.  If we were comparing it to Berlin, then to call it simply "good" (as dan_s did) is perfectly fair.

 

 

 

More clear now ?????  As I said it is the ABUSE of the word fantastic.....   

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More clear now ?????  As I said it is the ABUSE of the word fantastic.....   

 

 

Since I still disagree, I'm not sure if this means your fantasy life is much better or duller than mine.

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When I was in New York, the NYP was not so good.  It was a demoralized group who hated their conductor and in a good part eachother.   So saying the Juilliard Orchestra, in 1980, was better was not like saying the Shepherd School Orchestra, 2013, is better than the Berliner.   The point was that many Conservatory Orchestras do often give top flight performances.  However, there is more to a peformance quality than technical specs of intonation, etc.   There is enthusiasm and musical expression that also come into play.   I really liked this Shepherd School Performance.

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