October 2021
The Return of Ensemble Playing:
Now What?!
by Jennifer Carpenter
After a year of playing virtually (or not playing at all!), it feels good to be returning to some in-person playing. Perhaps you took advantage of the many opportunities to take a virtual class, and now you’re ready to put those newly found skills to the test with your fellow recorder players. Are you ready to play ensemble music but aren’t sure how to make it sound the best you can? Here are some strategies that will get you and your ensemble back in shape.
Playing in Tune
It feels so good to hear another live recorder player next to us! But it’s even better when those sonorous sounds are pleasing to the ears. I recommend starting by tuning your unisons, fifths, and octaves. Far too often, I hear a person sustain a given note and ask someone to match it. That’s actually pretty hard to do! Instead, try this:
  • Have one person play a short tuning note (full sound, though!). The next player then repeats that note. Let the others listen and critique whether the 2nd player’s note was higher/lower/in tune with the primary tuning note. Our ears register the relationship between the first pitch and the second one much better when they are played in succession.
  • Play the note/chord together only after checking the tuning with the prior exercises.
Try playing an ensemble tuning exercise that concentrates on building chords. Bach’s 4-part chorales work well for this, too. 
  • Listen for the unisons and octaves. There should be no “beats” when playing these.
  • The fifth (e.g. C-G) should be a little higher than in equal temperament.** Go for a pure fifth by concentrating on the “buzzing” (a good thing!). 
  • Add the third last (e.g. C-E-G). A major third will be a little lower than found in equal temperament; a minor third slightly higher. Again, listen for the “buzz.”
Can you use a tuner? Yes! However, it’s much better to train your ears so that you can make adjustments while playing your pieces. Also keep in mind that most tuners are initially set to equal temperament, and one of the advantages of playing recorder is achieving those wonderfully pure intervals. Establishing your base pitch (tonic) with a tuner is a good idea, but see if you can build the chords using your ears. Many tuner apps now let you change the temperament - also a great idea!
**Temperaments are tuning systems that make compromises to the pure intervals. When you temper an interval, you are making it wider or narrower than found in just intonation, which focuses on pure intervals. A long story made very short, tuning in nature is imperfect and there are many tuning systems (temperaments) that have been created to deal with this imperfection. Western society decided upon equal temperament in the 20th century, a system that has every interval except the octave a little out of tune.
Staying Together
Can you all see each other? That’s the first step!
Next, I recommend:

Determine your tempo. Look at a characteristic section of the music (usually a more rhythmic section), and let that guide your tempo. After all, you should only take it as fast as you can play the hardest part.

Do you know your most commonly made mistakes? I do - counting, especially those pesky rests! Talk through them so everyone can address their concerns. Common errors include:
  • Slowing down when getting to a fast section or speeding up scalar passages
  • Imprecise dotted rhythms and triplets
  • Placing pick-up notes, notes preceded or followed by a rest, or coming out of a tie
  • Not breathing together

Pay special attention to first and last notes.
  • Appoint someone to give a clear gesture that indicates both the tempo and affect. Usually, this is done with your breath. I practice this all the time, even when I’m by myself. It is an important skill that needs to be rehearsed. 
  • Practice stopping the last note together, whether in a phrase or at the end of the piece. The leader can use a small circle with the recorder to signal the end of the note. 
  • ALL eyes should be on your designated leader for the beginning and ending of pieces, and important internal cadences. 

Keeping tempo.
  • The leader must “conduct,” usually through breathing and instrument gestures to help keep the tempo (you don’t need to indicate every beat with your gestures). Toe tapping is also fine. However, try not to conduct or beat time with your body. It is very distracting to the audience and often slows down the ensemble. 
  • Don’t be afraid to use a metronome during rehearsals - it’s very revealing!
Let’s Make Music!
I encourage you to analyze the music together. Each part fits together to create the affect, and knowing how they fit can determine performance decisions. Here are some examples:

  • Determine the form: is it a dance, are there repeats, is it imitative, does the theme return regularly throughout the piece?
  • Find your phrases. Is there a main theme or predominant motive that goes throughout the piece?
  • What lines are essential (melody) and what lines are supportive (harmony)? This relationship can change throughout a piece.
  • Where are the major cadences?
  • How do the rhythms fit together?
The fun part of playing music with others is creating a collective interpretation of a piece. Ask questions:

  • What is the title and what does it imply?
  • What is the tempo or character indication?
  • What is the character of the theme or primary phrase?
  • Are there any striking intervals (dissonances!), rhythms, or modulations? What about sequences?
  • Assign and write down descriptive words. It helps jog your memory about what you are wanting to create. 
Use your recorder tool box! Ours is an instrument of subtleties and each of these tools helps create the character you want to achieve in a piece.

Articulation: the gamut of articulations available to recorder players largely defines the musical expression and the phrasing of a piece.
Dynamics: for recorder players, it’s mostly about learning how to deceive the listener’s ears. We can achieve dynamics by varying our articulation, length of note, vibrato or swelling of notes, alternate fingerings, even instrumentation. 
Breath(ing) and Tone:
  • How and where we breathe largely translates into good and bad phrasing.
  • For good phrasing breathe: on a rest, after a long note (as long as it is not creating a dissonance with another player), before or after a theme, after a cadence, between two leaps, between two chord notes belonging to the same chord; follow the vocal text, if applicable - use the commas and periods in the text to help determine where to breathe.
The idea is to think how each of the above elements can be used to shape the factors you determined in analysis (e.g. every player plays the theme in the same manner). 

There’s a lot to think about when getting together with our recorder-playing friends! I encourage you to try just a few of these strategies next time you get together. When those get comfortable, add a few more. It can be overwhelming to try to do it all at once. Once you establish a working and enjoyable routine, your ensemble will shine!
For further reading on the subject of ensemble playing, I highly recommend Bart Spanhove’s book Finishing Touch of Ensemble Playing.
Jennifer Carpenter is a former ARS Board member who is a recorder professional and teacher. She currently plays with Parish House Baroque, directs the Denver chapter of ARS, and lives in Colorado Springs, CO.
Do you enjoy our ARS NOVA emails?

Click here for our archives, with articles on many topics ranging from how to care for your recorders, to useful apps, to scholarship and grant opportunities though ARS. 

If you've received this from a friend, sign up for your own monthly subscription using this link.
How to Join the ARS
Take advantage of our 1/2 price rate for first-time members! Get immediate access to all the information available on our website, as well as other member benefits including the quarterly American Recorder magazine.
USA: First year $25/ Canada: $30