Geeking out on "light music"

In addition to being a musician, I am also the "orchestra manager". I really dislike the term because it has the word "manager" in it. I don't manage anything, Plus, the word "manager" implies it is someone who has control over something. Not me :-) I think the term "orchestra facilitator" would be much better. Still way too long, could do with something sexier, but it sets the right tone: I do not want to control the orchestra, I want to serve it as best as I can. 

Is "Light music" a term in english? I am not sure, but it is in dutch, where it basically means (and I am paraphrasing) "anything but classical music". That's a lot. This is about that "light music".

This is a group of amateur musicians. Even though a few of them are professionally schooled, they still pay their membership contribution like everybody else in the ensemble. So, in the role of "orchestra facilitator", I feel it is important to know what our members like and dislike about being part of this group. So, a survey was sent around, asking them questions about the various aspects of playing in this orchestra. Out of all the answers, one recurring theme struck me: Several people responded that they wanted more of a challenge musically, as opposed to playing a lot of "light music" we had been performing recently.

During our last performance we supported a folk-song band, which was fun but the arrangements were not very challenging indeed. (The audience had a blast though, as did we!) After talking to a few of them, I kept hearing "light music" is a lot easier to because it is "always so loud" and therefore, tone and tune do not matter as much. Nor does it have to be played as precise as a classical piece. 

I fail to see how a blanket statement like that can be true. Sure, it may not be your favourite genre, but playing any kind of music as best as you can requires attention to all the details, no matter the piece, style or genre.

There are many aspects in music making in a such a large group (~50 musicians), that are always important, regardless of the piece or genre you play. Playing in tune is of course, always a necessity. More instruments playing at the same means it is harder to keep everybody in tune. Additionally, accents, intonation, all that is not specific to one genre. And maybe for a particular piece, the part you are playing is not the most technically challenging, but to play it well together is what making music together is all about. You may have the same rhythm to play as someone who is sitting 20 feet away from you, with 50 others in between doing something else. Listening to each other and making sure you are both in exactly the same tempo and tune, is hard. Really hard. Ignoring that stuff will make playing your score easier, but not improve the experience for the audience.

For example, let's listen to "Splanky" performed by the Count Basie Orchestra: 


Around 10 seconds into it, the trumpets and trombones start to play the main theme. At 0:29 seconds, the saxophones joins in and a "question and answer" pattern emerges. Listen closely at those trumpets and trombones at the beginning. Their part alternates groups of notes going down, the next going up, then going down, etc. Everytime, a downward group of notes is played, the last note is really short, ends abrubptly. Everytime an upward group is played it ends in a sort of "wah" sound. The last note falls off slightly. And all the musicians playing, play it the same way. Start exactly at the same time, in tune and articulate the "sentences" the same way. That is no coincidence, that is making music together.

Then, the saxophone section join and they repeat whatever riff the trumpets just played. Sounds boring on paper, because it is just more of the same. But, listen carefully and you will hear the exact same intonation and articulation when the saxophone section plays that riff as when the trumpets do. But, in a different "color". Saxophones are obviously different instruments, so you get a different sound. That's what makes that 'question and answer'-pattern interesting. As if two people are having a conversation. (followed by a great saxophone solo!)

The Count Basie Orchestra consisted of 16 to 18 people, of which 3 types of horns in the horn section (trumpets, trombones and saxophones), which is a pretty common setup for a big band. Imagine playing something like this with a full wind orchestra, in our case consisting of 50+ musicians of which 10 saxophones, 5 trumpets and 4 trombones. And many more different instruments (flutes, clarinets, oboe, french horn, tuba, etc). Playing a piece like that in a similar style and getting those details in and perfect with so many musicians is what making music is all about. For me anyway. In itself, those notes aren't difficult at all. But getting it all together is what makes this a challenge.

So in my opinions you can like or dislike a particular genre, but great music and great musicians can be found in any type of music. Not just classical music.

Image credit: Steve Maw