The Paradox of Ensemble Playing

In recent weeks, the topic of playing well with others in an ensemble has come up several discussions I’ve had with fellow musicians. Some of it has been musical, some simple etiquette. This has led me to reflect on what it means to be an ensemble player. Douglas Yeo has some invaluable insights on this topic. One thought, in particular, resonated with me:

Back in my college days (early 70's), I went to hear the Chicago Symphony every week. After one particularly inspiring concert, I went backstage to offer my congratulations to Mr. Kleinhammer. I said something like, "Wow, you sounded incredible!" His response?
"If you heard me, then I was a failure. You should have heard an orchestra, not a trombone player."

An ensemble made up of players who thought like that would be a conductor’s dream and have nearly limitless expressive potential. As Mr. Yeo laments, this attitude is exceptional even in the professional world. How do we inspire the musicians around us to work towards being a single ensemble?

It begins with the paradox of ensemble playing: When everyone in the ensemble is trying to stand out, no one will be heard clearly. When no one in the ensemble is trying to stand out, everyone will be heard clearly.

Why is this? Consider some common actions players take to be heard better:

  • Playing louder
  • Playing with brighter or more penetrating tone
  • Adding vibrato
  • Articulating more
  • Changing note lengths
  • Phrasing differently
  • Playing slightly sharp or flat

To understand how these actions impact the listener, we must know how our brains process sound.

The brain uses a few key dimensions to sort through complex sets of sound:

  • Timing: Do the sounds start and end at the same time?
  • Volume: Are the sounds similarly loud or soft?
  • Pitch: Are the sounds similar in pitch?
  • Harmonics: Are the frequencies of sounds the ratios of integers (e.g. a perfect fifth being a ratio of 3:2)?
  • Timbre: Is the character of the sound similar?

The brain finds similarities in these dimensions and groups the sounds accordingly. When players employ the tactics listed above to stand out, it makes the music more difficult to comprehend by reducing the similarity of the various sounds.

Let us imagine an ensemble where everyone was playing loud and out of tune with bright tone, lots of vibrato, and different articulations and phrasing. The result would be chaos. With few similarities, the listener would have a difficult time deciphering the music or hearing individual voices. When everyone in the ensemble is trying to stand out, no one will be heard clearly.

Let us next imagine an ensemble where everyone was playing in tune, with dynamics, vibrato, articulation and phrasing that were aligned and appropriate to the music. With many similarities, the listener would have an easier time deciphering the music and hearing individual voices. When no one in the ensemble is trying to stand out, everyone will be heard clearly.

Now that we understand the paradox, what do we do?

  • Adopt the ensemble mindset: The first step is to change your own mindset. Come in to every rehearsal and performance with the mindset that your job is to make the ensemble sound good.
  • Broaden your horizons: Expand your awareness of the music to understand how you fit in. Listen to the rest of the ensemble during rehearsal to get the bigger picture. Seek our recordings to do the same. Make note of what you hear in your part.
  • Tighten up the details: Focus on playing together with the ensemble. Align rhythm, pitch, dynamics, articulation, and phrasing with the ensemble around you.
  • Evangelize: Once you have refined your own execution, start encouraging others to do the same. Share this article with them. Point them towards other resources to help get them on the same path.

As musicians, we only do as well as the ensemble. If you want to be great, you have to help your ensemble be great.