In many cities around the country, the summer night is filled with music. Cookouts, festivals and get-togethers are opportunities for laughter, singing and dancing as families and friends gather to spend time together. In some cities, the orchestra takes advantage of longer days and warm nights to offer outdoor concerts to the public.
A perfect way to introduce children to the sights and sounds of classical music, the outdoor concert can be relaxing and fun, without the formality of a concert hall. Before you take your family to the local park to enjoy the music, it can help to familiarize yourself with the components of the orchestra.
An orchestra is made up of a large number of musicians who play an assortment of instruments together. The musicians are divided into sections based on the type of instrument they play, and they sit together in their groups. These instrument groupings are typically made up of the strings, the woodwinds, the brass, and the percussion instruments. The musicians are led by a conductor.
Standing alone, back to the audience, is the conductor. Typically a proficient musician in his or her own right, the conductor makes sure that everyone is playing the same thing, at the same time, in the right way. It may seem as though the conductor is simply waving his or her arms around, but each movement is designed to signal musicians with cues about the music.
Every conductor has his or her own style of conducting - from the flamboyant personality who makes large arm movements, to the understated person who quietly guides the orchestra. Each conductor’s personality shines through his or her work and offers the audience a unique look at the work of the orchestra. There is no right or wrong method of conducting, and many conductors add to the show with their on-stage antics.
String instruments use vibration to make sounds. Strings are stretched across hollow instruments and are either played with a bow or plucked. The string section is made up of violins, violas, cellos and bass-violins (sometimes referred to as double-bass). The largest part of orchestras, these sections combined may have as many as 60 musicians.
Most orchestral scores are written for two violins, lending themselves to a division of the violins into a ‘first violin’ and ‘second violin’ section. The string sections are located on either side of the conductor, making them highly visible to the audience. To the conductor’s left are the first and second violins, the largest group of musicians in the orchestra. To the right are the cello and bass-violins, with the giant bass-violins standing in the back.
Instruments in the woodwind section are long hollow tubes of either wood or metal. Musicians blow air through a thin piece of wood - called a reed - or across a mouthpiece. To change the sound or pitch of a note, musicians use their fingers to open or close holes in the body of the instrument.
Within the woodwind section are the flutes and piccolos, clarinets, oboes, bassoons and double bassoons. This section of the orchestra may have 15-20 musicians. The woodwinds sit directly in front of the conductor in groupings based on their instrument.
Typically considered the loudest part of the orchestra, the brass section makes itself heard, despite being one of the smallest sections. Composed of approximately 10 musicians, the brass section includes the French horn, the trumpets, the trombones and the tuba. Their instruments are made of metal, and have cup-shaped mouthpieces.
Typified by the ‘puffed cheek’ look, musicians press their lips into the mouthpiece and force air out, similar to making a ‘raspberry’ sound. This creates a vibrating column of air inside the instrument, which makes music. Changing the length of the tube, either by extending or retracting slides, or by opening and closing valves can alter the sound, allowing the musician to play different notes and tones.
The smallest section of the orchestra, many percussion sections have only one or two musicians. Their presence on the stage, however, cannot be missed. The percussion section is home to the tympani - large drums that can be played with sticks, brushes or hands to produce different sounds.
It also holds the illustrious cymbal, or ‘gong’ as well as other forms of drums. Within this section may also be a triangle, shakers or any other instrument that is played by shaking or striking. The percussion section is located in the back of the orchestra, in the direct line of sight of the conductor.
In some orchestras, additional instruments may be added as needed to complete the musical score. This may require the addition of a piano or a harp. These large instruments may not always be included for orchestra performances in smaller settings or outdoor venues, but are almost always used for concert hall performances.
Both large instruments are considered part of the string family, as they are made of strings stretched across large openings. However, because of their size, they are typically placed on opposite sides of the orchestra, one behind each string section on the left and right of the conductor.
Enjoying an evening with the orchestra can be a wonderful way to introduce your children to the beauty of music. Many outdoor performances are filled with classic, familiar tunes that will have audiences singing along, giving attendees a glimpse of the versatility and skill of the musicians. The next time your town park hosts an orchestra, pack a picnic and take your family - it will be a night that everyone can enjoy.