The air-castle: Walls of music on stages

When we think about stage set-up, we often think about how the audience will see us, but hardly ever how they hear us. That is a missed opportunity, because not only the instruments ‘play the room’, so do the stages.

The percussionists are often placed in the back of the stage on an elevated smaller stage of their own. This set-up gives a lot of problems:

  • Understanding the conductor.
  • Projection of sounds.
  • A ‘grey’ sound-effect caused by interference of stages.
Timpani and other percussion on an elevated stage.

Conducting an elevated percussion stage

The conductor shows low loud sounds often by moving the hands downwards. But when the large drums and timpani are on an elevated stage, it’s impossible to do that. The conductor has to improvise and must conduct loud passages like this:

Conductor forced to conduct a low loud sound with his hands high.

Since the percussionists are far away from the conductor and have to look at their instruments, especially when playing mallets, they must be able to see what the conductor wants, in a split second. The difference in posture between these two conductors is mainly the facial expression. This is hard to see from a distance, at a dark stage, with blinding stage-lights, being busy playing.

A conductor must be able to point down and suggest low dark loud forces, while getting attention from a relaxed, focussed, timpanist.

Projection of percussion instruments

High pitched percussion instruments, like triangle and glockenspiel, sound very loud. It’s their nature to cut through the loudest passages. When glockenspiel and triangle are being played between the other instruments, they mix with the higher overtones of the orchestra. High overtones of flutes, clarinets and trumpets mix well with the glockenspiel, making its sound less piercing.

On an elevated stage, these instruments stand out and sound ‘on their own’. They literally sound ‘too high’, especially the percussionist is holding the triangle high in the air. Their sound is projected over the orchestra towards the listeners. Piercing over the orchestra, sounding as a stand alone instrument. It will not mix with other sound-colors. The stage set-up is preventing that from happening.

The stages interfere, sounding ‘grey’.

Double bass players like sharing an elevated stage, because they also like to play the stage. The instruments and the stage all vibrate together, giving a dark full sound. You can literally feel the music under your feet.

Chladni helps you see this and think about stage set-up in a different way:

Chladni plate being bowed: the sand pattern emerges naturally.

Imagine the stage being a Chladni plate and everybody playing a concert F. The waves in the air will interfere with the stage. The stage itself will vibrate with a certain pattern, like the sand-pattern in the picture.

The stage is an instrument by itself and plays the room. There will appear a structure of standing waves, walls of air dividing the room in spaces, following the shape of the sand-patterns on Chladni plates. The shape of the stage determines the FORM of the 3D standing waves in the room.

The vibrating stage is building a beautiful air-castle around us. The sand-patterns are the blue-prints for it’s architecture.

Apart from other causes, this might help explain why you sometimes don’t hear others playing from a certain position on stage, but when you move your chair around the stage, you do hear them. Even though they are still playing the same x dB. The other musicians were probably hidden behind a wall of standing waves.

Percussion on an elevated separate smaller stage will form their own sand-patterns of standing waves. These walls of sound built a different pattern, from those of the main stage. Underneath the smaller stage, these walls of sound interfere. The patterns of standing waves will interfere between the stages. This is a’grey’ sound, coming from between the stages. The stages sound ‘out of tune’.

There is not air-castle where the two stages are interfering: The combination of two blue-prints for one air-castle made it collapse: It’s a grey pile of rubbish.

Where to put the double bass?

When I was playing double bass in a windband on a wooden main stage, once, I got stuck in it with my needle. The orchestra was in tune and I felt the stage playing my double bass. It became very easy to bow the instrument. It was a very pleasant experience.

The violin as a Chladni plate.

Some time later on, I played double bass in a windband, standing next to the timpani on an elevated smaller stage. It felt very frustrating, my instrument closed up all the time. I had to work very hard, even though the timpani was in tune. The needle was vibrating with the smaller stage, but this vibration was not in sync with the vibration of the main stage, the air around me and the orchestra. Being in front of the orchestra, on the main stage is a better place for a double bass in a wind-band.

When thinking about stage set-up, we need to think about what we will sound like, rather than what we will look like. We and all the stages ‘play the room’. Chladni makes us see music from a whole different perspective.

You want to get a wonderful sound from a small orchestra? Read more about Orchestra Set-up and how to play the room best.

By Anneloes Wolters


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