By Robert Sheldon
Is it at all important how you arrange the seating and placement of your ensemble? Why does it matter? What is there to be gained? I believe there are many reasons to have this discussion. Although every director may have their own opinion about what works for them, it is important to at least HAVE an opinion, and to have thought through the reasons why we have made these decisions. We have all seen those design shows on television where the owner gets a room makeover, and in doing so is amazed and thrilled that by changing up the placement of the furniture in their room that suddenly the space is so much better, revitalized and more appealing. Until the moment when the “reveal” takes place, they hadn’t changed the room in years because it had not occurred to them that it could or should be done differently. It is easy to fall into keeping things the way they are just because that is the way we have always done it.
Seating placement is all about the performers being able to hear each other, and the audience being able to hear the best possible representation of the performance. When thinking about the geographical placement of the performers, it is helpful to consider the physical rehearsal space in which you will be working each day. But you must also consider the performance site as well. What are the acoustical properties of these spaces? Are risers built in to the rehearsal space, but not used in the performing area? Or are risers used on stage, but the ensemble rehearses on a flat surface? Balance will change dramatically when back rows are raised. Likewise, balance can change given the direction of certain players’ instruments. Not only will the location of brass players and the direction their bells are facing affect balance, but the posture they are using and the height and direction of their bells while they play will have a major impact. Players who raise their bells up will be heard much more than the players who point their bells to the floor in front of them. Consequently a consistent and uniform bell height in the section will promote better balance.
We need to be aware of the needs of the individual players in the ensemble as well. The music selection is also something to consider. Can the soloists be heard? Can the sections that have musical conversations with other sections hear each other clearly? Can all instrumentalists that play similar parts during the piece see and hear the other players who are involved? If a duet occurs, can the players see and hear each other? It might be a good idea to change the seating arrangement for a specific piece of music to address these concerns.
Principal players are such an important part of our ensembles for many reasons. Not only are they often the strongest players in the group, but they are also the leaders, and therefore are the students with whom we may have the most eye contact, and the ones we cue most frequently when their entire section enters. Therefore, we want to not only have them placed in the ensemble where we can see and hear them most clearly, but they need to be seen and heard by the principal players in the other sections as well. It is worth considering placing the 1st trumpet player next to the 1st trombone player, especially when those sections play pieces where they have similar entrances. The same idea can be used with horn and alto sax, clarinet and flute, and possibly others, depending on the piece being performed. When the principal players play with more precision the rest of the section has a better chance of success.
We should also consider sections of the ensemble. If all of the low brass and low woodwinds play similar parts in a given piece, it makes sense to have them all in the same region of the band. Not only can they all interpret the conductor’s cues more easily, but they can also tune to each other as they play. Obviously this applies to other sections as well.
Horns can present a unique challenge due to the direction of their bells. I have found it best to seat the section so that the principal player’s bell is facing the rest of the section. In other words, the principal horn has the rest of the section to their right. Since you may not want the last chair horn’s bell facing the audience at the front of the stage, it may require seating the horns within the ensemble rather than at the outer edge. Here is where it is important to examine performance and rehearsal space. If there is a hard surface behind the horns, their sound will certainly be more evident than if they are just playing into other players who are sitting in back of them. If the performance site is different than the rehearsal site in this regard, problems can certainly occur. One way to control this is by using horn walls; I have made these from 3X4’ clear sheets of Plexiglas. These can be hung from the music stands of the players who sit behind the horns. The effect is a much more prominent horn sound that seems to work in all environments, and the balance remains more consistent.
The location of the percussion section is also critical. A hard surface behind the snare or bass drum can allow those instruments to sound much louder in the audience. If the mallet players are playing passages with the upper woodwinds, it is helpful to place them close to those sections. Likewise, if the timpani is located near the tuba section it is easier to tune and play with better confidence. A stage that is narrow could result in some players standing behind wing curtains, and that could make it nearly impossible for them to be heard.
Given that the seating of the ensemble can have an enormous impact on balance, intonation and precision, a careful examination of the seating chart we use can lead to immediate improvements in these areas. So I encourage directors to give it a try, change it up and see what happens!
Do you have any preferred seating arrangements for your ensemble? Has anything worked better or not worked at all in the past? We want to hear your thoughts!