Playing in an ensemble is a worthwhile experience, but how do you adapt your own playing when working as part of the group? It will be necessary to consider a number of musical elements to gain a real understanding of how to best achieve this:
1) Dynamic level – how loud or soft you should be playing
2) Where the music you play sits within the piece
4) Rhythm, tempo and any changes in speed
5) Harmonic progression and cadence points
Dynamic level is an obvious musical element that needs to be considered carefully. The score will contain the dynamic levels for all of those around you and your part will contain the necessary information for you, but it is important to bear in mind that just because the part may well say anything from pp to ff it is important to consider carefully the levels of dynamics around you and use your ears carefully to adjust as required.
Although pp does stand for pianissimo and means the music should be played very quietly, think about how very quietly should be interpreted within the music that you are playing. After all, the dynamic marking pp will hardly ever be played at the same volume on two occasions, or the same within two different pieces.
Thinking about how your part fits into the music is something that develops over time and will improve as your understanding of the piece you are playing grows. When you are playing it is good to be aware if you are playing a melody line, a harmony line or the bass line of the piece. Even though you may play a melody instrument it is still possible that you may be playing the lowest part (or bass line) of a small section of carefully orchestrated music.
Dynamic level is again important here and it is important to know how your part fits into part of a melody line, bass line or harmonic progression. But it goes a little deeper than this, and thinking about blending can have a real impact on your ensemble playing.
When thinking about blending, it is important to consider a range of different things within a very short space of time. Do you take over a melody from another member of the ensemble? How does the idea transfer over to your instrument, what dynamic level does it start and end at, what phrasing has been used and how has the articulation been applied are a few of the many things that could be considered. If you are accompanying a melody line, are you playing a counter melody or a simple accompaniment figure? How does your line relate to those around you? Thinking about these points carefully, and marking the score will give the understanding and awareness of the music that you are playing to the level where you are truly considering ensemble. It is also important to remember that things around you may not always remain consistent and may require you to adapt at very short notice!
Changes in speed, including rallentandi or accelerandi require careful rehearsal to ensure that these are well coordinated so that the music moves together across the ensemble. It may be possible to watch a conductor for these changes and careful anticipation of the changes, as well as listening, in advance will allow speeds to change more effectively.
Being aware of changes in harmony or cadence points will enable a greater awareness of the intention of the music, assist with phrasing and musicality. There are a number of cadences to be aware of, but the main four that are used include perfect, plagal, imperfect and interrupted cadences. Knowing whether you are approaching a half close or full close cadence will allow you to understand where the music is going and how to approach the music that you have.
Knowing which note of the chord you are required to play will also allow for greater awareness of what role you have within the ensemble. Being aware of having the third of a chord for example will enable you to consider intonation or tuning or whether the chord is major or minor.
In terms of balance of the music it is generally good to have the lowest note of the chord as the loudest, the next note up would be slightly quieter and the highest note to be the quietest out of all the notes. This means that the chord, or ensemble, can be built from the bottom upwards. This provides a solid base for the chord that can help with tuning and intonation as well as ensuring that the balance can be achieved more easily by all players. Again it is important to remember that within every ensemble the role of each part can change significantly according to the different orchestrations or arrangements.
Working on these techniques, developing your awareness of how the music you are playing is put together and approaching what you are playing with a greater understanding will lead you to better ensemble and greater enjoyment.