Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Adjusting to the venue

A favorite expression among builders of fine pipe organs is that "the
room is the most important stop on the organ." By this they mean that
the acoustical environment has much more effect on the music than
anything they can do in making an instrument.

The same is true of a concert band. The acoustical environment in which
we play has a profound effect (and affect) on the audience's experience
in hearing us play.

We are very fortunate to have a bandstand in the park which is very
effective in transmitting our sound to the audience. It is based on a
Klipsch loudspeaker design called a "corner horn" and also based on 17th-
century Dutch pipe organ cases--all in a visual design that is
distinctly "Victorian." The height from ceiling to floor was designed
to create an air column that will support the lowest pitches from the
tubas and bass drum. The "gingerbread" across the front works like
"pipe shades" on a classic organ case... creating an infinitely variable
opening that supports all wavelengths of sound and therefore transmits
all instruments equally to the audience. The angled section of the
ceiling in the back is based on the physics principle "angle of
incidence equals angle of reflection" so that the sound of upright tubas
and upward-aimed bass drum head is reflected to the listening area--and
it gives a variable air column length to the bandstand so that there
aren't any "loud" or "soft" notes because of resonances. The concrete
floor and plaster-lath wall and ceiling materials are designed to be
reflectors rather than absorbers or sound. Even the trees get into the
act, creating a natural reflective barrier behind the audience that
creates just a touch of "reverb."

(An interesting aside.... when the 4th of July events come around and
they put bunting around the top of the bandstand they "kill" a lot of
its natural resonance, so sound reinforcement has to be used.

That being said, what can the players do to adjust to the venue when we
are playing "somewhere else?" Some venues are "bass heavy" and others
are "treble heavy" and others are just plain "dead" where the sound
seems to evaporate inches in front of your face. Usually the band can
present a concert that is enjoyable for the listener with just a few
adjustments in dynamic levels.

First... trumpets need to remember that when they play "into the stand"
the sound is being reflected back at them and will sound louder to them
but softer to the audience. This is counterintuitive. To be heard the
bell has to point above or beside the music stand so that the sound goes
outward rather than being reflected back to the player. This also
affects trombones, but less so, since lower pitches are more non-
directional. So when you are playing very loud with the bell pointing
directly at the listeners you will not sound as loud to yourself but
will be much louder to the listener. (This is where the conductor can
help... with hand signals and perhaps a comment between selections.)

Second, we have to be seated so the sound can get out of the band. The
sound vibrations are actually variations in air pressure that move the
eardrum. Your sound has energy, but doesn't care what it moves... the
eardrums of the listener, the fibers in the clothing of the person
sitting in front of you, the air in ceiling nooks and crannies... it is
all the same to your sound. This means that there needs to be enough
room between rows for the sound to get around the obstacles in the band
in front of the player. That's why many jazz bands have the trumpets
standing up behind the seated trombones, which are on risers behind and
above the saxes, which are the least directional of all the intruments
in a jazz band. That's partly why the woodwinds are seated in front of
the brasses in a concert band (to balance the sound by absorption in
players' backs), the other reason being the natural progression of sound
from low pitch to high pitch from back to front of the band so that the
players playing higher notes can tune to the lower notes behind them.

Finally, we have to be aware of the conductor's indication of sound
levels. Sometimes you may think that you are playing "ff" when the
sound is coming out "mp" and sometimes it may be the other way around.
You can't change the way the venue transmits your sound to the audience,
but you can change the general loudness of your sound. Trumpets and
Trombones can do this by the positioning of the bell of the
instruments. Other instrumentalists simply have to make an adjustment
in dynamic level.

When playing in an unfriendly acoustical environment, the quickest and
easiest way to adjust is to listen carefully during the warmup scale and
tuning period. If you find that the conductor's comments sound muffled,
then the space is "dead" and you'll have to play out more. If you find
that your tone really "rings" maybe you will need to drop a dynamic level.

Once we learn to "play the room" -- which we can learn in about a minute
if we pay attention -- we can make the audience hear the same sound that
they would hear if we were on our own bandstand.

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