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A Really Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

(Questions about the orchestra-- for kids)
by Justin Locke

(Part of the Teacher's Guide Materials supplied with Peter VS. the Wolf.)

1. Why do we call it an orchestra?

The word "orchestra" comes from a Greek word ("orcheisthai") that means "to dance." When the ancient Greeks built their theaters, they would leave a place in front of the stage for dancers and the chorus to appear in the performances. This area in front of the stage was called "the orchestra," which (more or less) meant "the place in front of the stage where the dancers dance."

As musicians were added to spice up the shows in theaters, the musicians were put-- where else-- in "the orchestra" (that is, the space right in front of the stage). And bit by bit the location of the musicians became known as what the musicians were. (Sometimes when you go to a concert or a theater you can buy "orchestra seats," which doesn't mean seats in the orchestra, it means the seats that are below the level of the stage.)

2. What is the difference between a "Symphony Orchestra" and a "Philharmonic Orchestra"?

Answer: not much! Many orchestras have different names (mostly to make themselves look different from other orchestras!) but most of them have the same instruments.

In case you're interested, the word "philharmonic" comes from two words:
"phil," which means "to love," and
"harmonia," which means "harmony."
When you put them together into the word "phil-harmonic," it means "love of harmony."

The word "symphony" is from a Greek word meaning "concordance of sound."

Of course, even though they call themselves one or the other, they still play contemporary music once in a while.

There are other types of orchestras that really are different. For example, you can have a "string orchestra" which is just strings (violins, violas, cellos, and basses), with no woodwinds, brass, or percussion.

An Orchestra with fewer string players (something like 8 violins, 4 violas, 2 cellos, and one bass) can call itself a "chamber orchestra";

But if there are no violins, violas, or cellos, you call it a band, even if there are string instruments like guitars, pianos, or string basses. Does that make sense? not really. oh well. . .

An Orchestra is made up of lots of different musical instruments. It makes it easier if you divide them up into "families" of instruments. These are:



brass, and


Technically speaking, pianos and harps are string instruments, but no one really thinks of them that way. They're sort of off by themselves. Then of course there's the saxophone which some people say isn't a musical instrument at all . . . just kidding . . .

The members of each family of instruments have certain things in common in terms of how they produce their sound. The members of each family are different because they play notes in a different "range"-- that is, some of them play low notes and some play high notes.

There are some Italian words that are useful to know when dealing with music and instruments, because you will hear them all the time. First of all, low notes are called bass notes, middle range notes are either tenor and (higher) alto, and the highest is often called the soprano. Some examples include: alto flute, tenor saxophone, and bass trombone. Of course, in choirs that is how you name the voices of people (soprano, alto, tenor, bass).

Why do we use italian words? Hmmm. Well, orchestras and instruments have been around for a long time, and so you may find a lot of odd little traditions surrounding them. Very often there is not much logic to why an orchestra does things this way or that way-- "It's tradition." Which is a fancy way of saying "that's how we've always done it, so why change?" Many of the traditions we have with orchestras began in Italy, somewhere around the year 1500 A.D. And we've just kept those Italian ways of doing things all this time.

3. What is the difference between a violin and a viola?

Again, string instruments are a "family" of instruments, and violins play the highest notes, violas play notes a little lower, cellos play lower still, and string basses, the biggest string instrument, play the lowest notes. Violas are bigger than violins and are tuned a fifth lower (that is, five of the white keys of a piano lower). The technique of playing them is very similar and because of that many people who play one also play the other.

String basses are often called "bass fiddles" and "bass violins," but this is not really "correct." A string bass is not a big violin. It belongs to another family of instruments known as "viols." (Pronounced "VI - oles.") Like all viols, the sides of a "bass viol" are sloped away from the neck, it usually has a flat back (violins have curved backs), and it's tuned in fourths, not fifths.

Just for fun: notice that all the violins move their bows in the same direction all the time. . . or at least, they're supposed to! But remember there are two "teams" of violins (the first and second violins). Try to see if you can tell them apart-- this will probably be hard to do! (Hint: see if some violins have their bows going in different directions)

Here is a typical seating plan of a symphony orchestra.

4. What does the conductor do?

There are lots of things the musicians all have to agree on when they play, like how fast and how loud. . . and of course, everyone has an opinion on the subject! It's the conductor's job to decide all that stuff. This is called "interpreting" the music. By waving his arms around in special ways, the conductor tells the musicians how fast to play, how loud, and just generally encourages everyone to do their best.

Just for fun: when you watch the conductor, see if you can see the "pattern" of the movements he/she makes. Hint: Music is divided into "bars," usually with 2, 3, or 4 beats in each bar. If there are 4 beats in a bar, the conductor will go: down on 1, left on 2, right on 3, and up on 4 (this last motion is called the "upbeat"; have you ever heard of being "more upbeat?" that's where that word comes from). Practice this at home to your favorite music! (But don't do it at the concert, some of the musicians might follow you instead of the conductor, and you'll get what musicians call "a train wreck.")

When watching the conductor, remember that it's not so important what he does when the musicians play a note. What's important is what he does just before the musicians play a note. Good conductors let the musicians know a beat ahead of time how they want a note played.

5. How do the musicians know what notes to play?

Each musician has a music stand in front of them, with their "part" on the stand, which has all of their notes on it. Notice that each string "section" (for example, all the violas) plays the same notes at the same time, but their notes are different from the notes of the other string "sections" (the first violin section, the second violin section, the cello section, and the bass section) and the wind and percussion instruments. Instruments like the violins and woodwinds have the "tune" most of the time; see if you can hear the instruments that AREN'T playing the tune. Sometimes, musicians "rest" for a long time. Try to find some musicians that AREN'T playing!

6. Where do the notes come from?

The notes were all made up beforehand by the "composer." The composer thinks of a tune and decides which instrument will play it. Then he writes other notes that "accompany" the tune, and writes those down as well. Do you know any famous composers?

Some people who write music don't make up a tune-- they use someone else's tune but assign the notes to someone else, say, to the violins instead of the flute. This is called "arranging." Maybe you've heard a melody you know in an elevator. This is an "arrangement" of that melody. Melodies can be "arranged" for orchestra, band, or piano, or singers.

7. What is "tuning"?

Before (and in Peter VS. the Wolf, DURING) the concert, the musicians all "tune" to the oboe. The oboe plays the note "A"; Then all the other instruments make sure that the "A" on their instrument is the same as the oboe, then they tune their whole instrument to that "A." For example, the violins will all tune their "A" string to the oboe's "A," then they will make sure their other strings are in tune with their "A" string. If the orchestra didn't tune, it would sound funny and a little sour. Musicians have to tune constantly, because slight changes in temperature and humidity can make their instruments go out of tune.

8. Why do they tune to the oboe?

Well, again, it's mostly tradition, but it's also because the oboe is the least adjustable instrument inthe orchestra (next to the piano of course). Once a oboe player carves up a reed, that's it. It's easier for everyone else to adjust to the oboe. At least, that's how it used to be, and now it's a tradition.

9. How much practicing goes into a concert?

Well, first of, all, "practicing" is one musician figuring things out alone, and a "rehearsal" is a bunch of musicians working things out together.

Before the musicians in an orchestra get together, each musician spends a lot of time practicing and taking lessons to learn how to play his/her instrument. In professional orchestras, the musicians are usually so good they don't need very much rehearsing at all! In the rehearsals, the conductor tells the musicians what tempos (that is, how fast or slow) he/she will take the music, and they all make sure everyone knows which piece comes first, and other little changes in the music. The conductor then has to discuss things like balance (for example, you have to make sure the brass don't play so loud that you can't hear anything else). The amount of rehearsing varies with each orchestra.

10. How am I supposed to act at a concert?

Well, when in doubt, try to keep quiet. This is hard to do sometimes. Clap at the beginning when the conductor comes out, and clap at the end (don't clap in the middle unless everyone else does first). If you really liked the show, you can clap a long time! If the musicians get tired of your clapping they'll just walk out. Generally speaking, at a classical music concert people don't clap DURING the music (although at Peter VS. the Wolf you may find yourself laughing and clapping a lot during the show!). Don't pester your neighbors, and don't chew gum! If you get to see the instruments, don't touch them without permission (your hands have oil in them and shouldn't touch things like the bow hair of the violins); some violins cost as much as $200,000!

If you have a question about how orchestras work, and I will do my best to answer it!!

If you would like to hear some fun stories of what it's like to play in a major symphony orchestra, read Justin's book, "Real Men Don't Rehearse"!

A really young person's guide to the orchestra
copyright 1996 Justin Locke

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