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Part of harmony

An armchair walking tour of the orchestra
Sunday, October 15, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:50 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

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The horn has been called "the soul of the orchestra."

(SARA DEBOLD/Missourian)

Maybe you learned about instruments in music class in elementary school. Or by watching Disney’s “Fantasia” — remember “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” Mickey Mouse and his army of brooms or the hippos in tutus and toe shoes in “Dance of the Hours”?

Some of you might even have been music majors and can tell an oboe from a bassoon, a trumpet from a trombone.

But if you never learned about it — if the

orchestra is as mysterious to you as chaos theory is to, well, almost everybody — help is here. Top off your coffee and turn the page for an armchair walking tour of the orchestra.

If you’re at a concert, somebody carrying a violin is going to walk on stage and tune the orchestra. Actually, the concertmaster, as he or she is typically called, cues the principal oboist, and the oboist plays a single note — a tuning pitch for the rest of the orchestra. Most oboists will tell you, by the way, that it’s a pretty scary moment.

The woodwinds tune first, then the brasses, then the strings. Except for the timpani, the percussion doesn’t tune.

What are these sections, anyway?

The woodwinds are, from highest to lowest, the flutes (although flutes are almost always made from metal); the laughing, haunting clarinets; the snake-charming oboes; and the bassoons. Depending on the piece, you might spot an itty-bitty flute — that’s a piccolo — or a huge, sink pipe-looking thing — that’s a contrabassoon. And you have your occasional saxophone (in Ravel’s “Bolero,” for example), bass clarinet and English horn (considered part of the oboe section).

“People used to think the sound of the flute was sensual,” says Steve Geibel, associate professor of flute at MU. “They didn’t want their daughters to hear it.”

Geibel also says the flute is sometimes considered the “vox humana,” or the “voice of humanity.”

MU Assistant Professor Rodney Ackmann says his instrument, the bassoon, is often stereotyped as “the clown of the orchestra.” However, bassoons are versatile and can sound dry and brittle or warm and lyrical.

The brasses are, from high to low: the trumpets; the horns; the trombones; and, sometimes, the tuba. Ricky O’Bannon, a trombonist with the University Philharmonic at MU, says that when it’s played badly, the trombone sounds like a little kid yelling. Trumpets, on the other hand, are the dashing young men of the orchestra — declarative, sure of themselves, impossible to overlook.

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The layout of bars on a xylophone is similar to that of a piano.

(SAMANTHA CLEMENS/Missourian)

You have your variations in the brasses, too: piccolo trumpets, bass trombones and Wagner tubas, which are usually played by hornists.

The composer Robert Schumann called the horn “the soul of the orchestra.” Marcia Spence, associate professor of horn at MU, agrees but adds “heroic and warm” to the description. Horns are the only brasses that have a seat at the woodwind table, too; they are part of woodwind quintets.

The lowest-pitched and largest brass instrument is the tuba. One could say that it plays the same role in the brass section as does the double bass in the string section. The tuba was not always used in orchestral works, but composers began to include it toward the middle of the 19th century.

If you sit close to the stage, all you’ll see are the strings (and the back of the conductor). Usually, the order from left to right is first violin, second violin, viola, cello and double bass. Again, that’s highest to lowest in range. You could think of this way, that the violins are the trumpets of the string section and celli are the hornists.

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Students in the University Phillaharmonic at MU pratice violin and viola at Loeb Hall on Oct. 5.

(SAMANTHA CLEMENS/Missourian)

What’s the difference between violins and violas? Violas are larger in size and lower in pitch than violins. Brian Sherwood, a violist in the University Philharmonic, likens the viola to “a violin with a little bit of cello in it.”

The cello is much larger than the violin and viola, and cellists hold the instrument between their knees. The cello, along with the double bass, often plays the harmony, not the melody. Michelle Stewart, a cellist in the philharmonic, calls it the most romantic instrument.

Anchoring the string section is the double bass. The double bass is typically played upright, but it is so large that bassists cannot play sitting down, unless they perch on a high stool; they look like a contented couple, the bassist and his or her double bass. The instrument is played not only in orchestra, but in wind ensemble, jazz bands and country groups. Blake Duren, a double bassist and tubist at MU, calls his resonant string instrument “a cross between the tuba and the bassoon.”

In the back of the orchestra is the percussion section. Instruments in that family far outnumber those of other instruments; there are just so many pieces, from teeny finger bells to thundering timpani that look like giant cauldrons.

Timpani are probably the most often-used percussion in orchestras, and they have to tune, too. The timpanist has a little pitch pipe stashed in his or her pocket and sounds the tuning note oh so quietly; usually just the horns hear because they sit by the percussion. Then the timpanist lightly taps on the drumhead with a soft-headed mallet and matches the pitch by pressing a brake-like foot pedal.

The timpani is capable of extraordinary dynamics, from a sound as soft as the rumble of distant thunder to the deafening booms of barbarians at the gate. Taylor Thorne, a percussionist at MU, described the timpani as “a harsh, percussive replication of an upright bass.”

You might have noticed that we’ve ignored the person out front, the one waving the baton. We’re going to save conductors for another story. They’re a whole other breed.


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