Symphony 101

What is a symphony orchestra?

A symphony orchestra is a collection of musicians who play instruments of four basic types:

  • Strings: violins (smallest and highest in pitch), violas, cellos and double basses (largest and lowest in pitch). These players sit in a semicircle directly in front of the conductor and make up more than half the orchestra.
  • Woodwinds: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and related instruments. These players sit a few rows back from the conductor, in the center of the orchestra.
  • Brass: trumpets, horns, trombones, tubas and similar instruments. These instruments are the loudest, so you’ll see them at the back of the orchestra.
  • Percussion: the drums, bells and other fascinating paraphernalia that are struck, plucked, rubbed, etc. This includes the kettledrums, the harp, and on occasion, the piano. Some works use lots of different percussion; others may have a single musician playing the kettledrums. The percussion section is also found at the back or side of the orchestra.

How come there are more stringed instruments than anything else?

The sound of each individual stringed instrument is softer than a brass or woodwind instrument. But in large numbers, they make a magnificent, rich sonority.

What does the concertmaster do?

The concertmaster, Kermit Poling, sits in the first chair of the first violins. He acts as leader of that section, but also plays a leadership role with the orchestra as a whole. He is also the last orchestra musician to enter the stage before a concert and cues the principal oboist to “tune” the orchestra.

Why do all musicians tune to the oboe?

The penetrating tone of the oboe is easy for all players to hear, and its ability to sustain pitch is very secure. The principal oboist plays the note “A,” and all the players make sure their “A” is exactly on the same pitch as the oboe’s. This ensures that they all are in agreement about the tuning before the concert begins.

Why do all the string players share stands?

Fewer stands mean that the musicians, who are moving around quite a bit, have more room to play freely. Also, because the strings play more continuously than the other parts, their page turns can fall in inconvenient places where there should be no break in the music. Look closely and you’ll see that the player on the outside keeps playing, while the player on the inside briefly stops playing to turn the page.