Section Playing Examined

One of my readers asked if I would write about orchestral section playing and the things that go into making a cohesive orchestral trombone section. First of all, this is a very complicated subject and dependent on the individual personalities involved. There are as many approaches to section playing as there are individual sections, as each is a compendium of the persons involved. Some sections are led from the principal chair, others are led from the 2nd or bass, others by the section as a whole. Our section in the CSO is a democratically run group, where we all have input into musical decisions as well as technical. As principal I don’t need to lead my section, as the players in my section are so technically and musically secure, they don’t need to be led. When you have a situation like this, all that is needed is agreement on stylistic elements, balance, dynamic choices, etc. We use the “Just” intonation system whenever possible for issues of tuning. This means adjusting intervals so they are beatless, ie; low major 3rds, high minor 3rds, low major 7ths. This has been a major factor in increasing resonance and producing a “pure” section sound. It takes people with open minds who don’t have the attitude: “I’M NOT OUT OF TUNE, IT’S YOU!” Fortunately we don’t have that problem in our section, as everyone is more than willing to adjust pitches for the good of the group.

I can foresee other possibilities for different section interaction such as an experienced principal player and relatively inexperienced section members, (or member.) That situation would require more active leadership from the principal in terms of style of that particular ensemble, also conductor preferences in regards to the trombone section. Another scenario could be a young inexperienced principal and more experienced section members. That could require more input from the section and the principal would be wise to take council from people acquainted with that particular situation. I love Mark Twain’s story about the kid at 16 who thought his father was an idiot, and when he was 25 he was surprised at how much the old man had learned! In other words, you hotshot audition winners; don’t be a dictator! Your section mates have a lot to offer in terms of knowhow and advice. Every situation is different. Some players want to be led, some don’t. Some are a pleasure to work with, others not. The good of the section and therefore the orchestra is the main goal, not personal gratification. If I had one idea to pass along as regards section playing it would be; play the biggest equipment you can comfortably, and play it SUPER CLEAR. Clear is pure, and pure is clear, and that concept is much easier to tune to, a vitally important aspect in playing in a trombone section.