Balance and Blend


A Suggested Exercise
Distribution of the players
Experimenting With Sound
Pyramid Approach


I it is important to keep in mind the distinction between balance and blend as it applies to the band. "Balance" refers to the strength of the various sections (saxophone, trumpet and clarinet sections, for example) and the extent to which one or more of these sections tend to dominate the band as a whole.  A good balance will not necessarily be achieved if everyone plays at the same dynamic level.  More attention may need to be given to the melody, or to some moving inner line.

Good balance and blend are the result of careful listening
"Blend" has two related meanings.  The first meaning refers to the process of merging the sounds of instruments of contrasting tone colours (for example, a clarinet and an oboe) in such a way that they produce a sound that is quite different from the mere sum of their parts.  The second meaning refers to the extent to which the sounds produced by instruments of similar tone colour merge together to form a homogeneous timbre such that no one player dominates.

Like balance, a good blend is more often the result of careful listening than anything else.  There are no quick fixes.  Getting the brasses to use the same brand and size of mouthpiece throughout each section, for example, will not necessarily produce a perfectly blended sound (unless, of course, all players have exactly the same shaped teeth, lips, and jaws).  In fact, it may be argued that if you want similar sounds from different brass players it is essential that they be permitted to use different mouthpieces.  The blend of a woodwind section, on the other hand, can often be improved by matching mouthpieces and reeds.


A Suggested Exercise

One particularly effective means of dealing with the issues of balance, blend and intonation is to invite one section to play while the rest of the band listens. For example, instruct the first clarinet section to play one or two short phrases from a chorale in unison and then ask other band members for a response. Was the section in tune? On which notes - specifically - could a subtle beating sound be heard, suggesting that one or more players was a little off pitch? Was the section breathing properly? Did they demonstrate good posture? Did they blend well, or did one or two players dominate the section?

Do the same with the second and third clarinet sections, then ask all the clarinets to play together. Was there an acceptable balance, or did the first clarinet section dominate the others? Correcting this latter problem often requires urging the seconds and thirds to play more confidently rather than asking the first clarinet section  to tone down.

Focus on the need for the section as a whole to overcome any weaknesses.
Because the above approach risks embarrassing or even humiliating weaker players, it is usually best to avoid singling out particular students, even when their shortcomings are obvious. Focus instead on the need for the section as a whole to overcome any weaknesses, and encourage those listening to give positive as well as negative comments. By moving systematically through the band in this way and summarising the findings of the group in a kindly and encouraging manner, the band director can do much to raise awareness within the ensemble of the basics of intonation, breathing, balance and blend. It will also help produce a much better sound from the band as a whole. Try it! 

Distribution of the Players

Good balance is not necessarily going to be achieved if every section has the same number of players.  Indeed, such a system would almost certainly guarantee disaster, particularly if everyone insisted on playing at the same dynamic level. Depending on the register and dynamic level demanded by the composer, for example, a single trumpet player might drown out an entire flute section.  Similarly, there is unlikely to be a desirable blend among the clarinets if the ensemble’s best players hog the first part while the third part is relegated to one or two beginners.

Beyond this, the music will usually determine whether the band should strive for a single homogeneous sound (as in a chorale) or whether one or another section should predominate. Melodic parts, for example, will need to be heard over an accompaniment.  At other points, it may become necessary for an inner line to be given more prominence.

Experimenting with Sound

The following exercise is sometimes used by experienced band directors to help players become more aware of how balance can affect the overall timbre of a band.  Choose a major chord from a chorale (the final note of the last cadence is a good bet) and ask the band to play it.  Then assign each player a number from one to eight that divides the woodwinds from the brass and also roughly corresponds with the general pitch level of each instrument.  The following is presented as a guide:

  1. Piccolo, flutes, oboe, first clarinets.
  2. First trumpets.
  3. Second and third clarinets.
  4. Second and third trumpets.
  5. Alto and tenor saxophones, alto clarinet.
  6. First and second horns, first trombone, euphonium/baritone
  7. Tubas, second and third trombone, euphonium.
  8. Baritone saxophone, bassoon, bass clarinet.

Next, ask the players to imagine that each number refers to a particular point across the arms and shoulders of the band director.  For example, on the left arm number one corresponds to the tips of the fingers, number two with the wrist, three with elbow and four with the shoulder.  Similarly, on the right arm number five refers to the shoulder, six to the elbow, seven to the wrist and eight to the tips of fingers.

The different timbres produced can be highly instructive
The original chord is then played again, but this time with the music director holding both arms outstretched in front of the band.  The ensemble is then instructed to respond by raising or lowering the volume according to the extent to which the music director raises or lowers the positions of his fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders.  The different timbres produced in this way by the band can be highly instructive.  Needless to say, the contortions of the band director can also be hilarious, thus ensuring that everyone has a good time and learns something useful in the process.

The Pyramid Approach

A more sophisticated approach to the problem of balance and intonation is identified with the composer Francis McBeth [Effective Performance of Band Music, Southern Music Company, 1972]. It is based on the theory that, at any given dynamic level, the higher pitched instruments should be playing softer than the lower pitched ones. This is consistent with the notion that players should be able to hear the bottom notes of the chord so that they can tune to them.  McBeth illustrates the concept with the use of an isosceles triangle.  Today, however, the idea is more commonly known as the pyramid approach.

Once again the band is divided into groups, this time into four as illustrated in the following diagram.  The width of the triangle is a measure of volume, so that the higher the voice, the softer the sound.

Begin the exercise by selecting a suitable chord as before and then asking the band to play the chord at a pianissimo before crescendoing to a full fortissimo.  The band then does it again, this time with group four playing the full fortissimo, group three holding back at a forte, group two at a mezzo-forte and group one at mezzo-piano.  Reverse the instruction on the third attempt, with group four crescendoing to little more than a mezzo-piano, group three to a mezzo-forte, group two to a forte and group one to a full fortissimo.

Repeat the exercise with the brass and woodwinds separately
Chances are that the third attempt will sound very much like the band’s regular crescendo (first attempt), while the second attempt will produce a sound normally associated with that of a far more superior band.   It is often useful to repeat the exercise with the brass and the woodwinds separately.