Playing wind controller in a pit orchestra (part 2 of 2)

In the previous post I told you about how I got involved playing wind controller (a Yamaha WX5 in my case) in a pit orchestra for a production of Seussical the Musical. This post talks about some of the lessons I learned along the way.

  • relative volume

    It is very difficult to get the relative volume of all sounds just right. For example a piccolo cuts right through even at lower volumes; if you set it too loud you will pierce everyone’s ears (including your own). So be prepared to tweak this whenever needed during rehearsals, and hopefully it will iterate to the ideal setting.

  • dynamic range

    The dynamic range of each sound needs careful adjustment, both related to what’s written in your sheet music and to the relative volume of the orchestra. To be able to get a smooth diminuendo to ppp, make sure you have set WX5 “wind zero” as low as possible (but be careful not to set it too low or the sound will never turn off at all). Make sure “wind gain” is set such that you can really get that fff when called for.

  • articulation

    Each sound has different requirements regarding articulation. Some sounds need true legato, other sounds (harp!) definitely need an attack for each note or it will sound weird. Furthermore since e.g the Overture and the Entr’acte call for some “Flight of the Bumblebee”-type 16th note runs at break-neck speed, this really requires the WX5 to be set to “fast response” mode (or these lines would be unplayable). The downside of that is that you get more ‘glitches’ (incidental notes), especially for sounds that have a fast attack (like harp). Practice hard to get your fingerings as clean as possible; however, no matter how good you are, there’ll always be some glitches.I myself find that the advantage of fast mode far outweighs the occasional glitch.

  • breath control

    For some sounds (piccolo, oboe, …), you want to be able to change the volume of a single note (crescendo/diminuendo), but for other sounds (bells, harp, …) that would just sound unnatural. Finetuning breath control (to what extent it controls the volume) is therefore very important.

  • intonation or pitch bend

    To avoid sounding ‘dead’ or ‘mechanical’, sometimes you need to be able to intonate notes slightly off their exact pitch. However, with some sounds you need to be very careful; I’d advise against pitch bend on e.g. a harp sound [note: I am aware that there are modern compositions for harp that call for some form of bend by e.g. using the pedal or extreme pulling on the strings; best leave that to the real harp players for now]. But be careful with your intonation or you will sound flat or sharp the whole time. This is especially tricky when you can’t hear yourself properly (for instance when the orchestra is playing very loudly). With e.g. saxophone you have direct physical feedback via the oral cavity and the jaw bone, but for wind controller you need to rely on your ears, and when that fails just the muscle memory of your mouth. You could use the bend light on the WX5 for support, but I can tell you that it is very hard to look at that light, read your sheet music and watch the conductor all at the same time. 😉 In the end I resorted to setting the pitch bend to a minimum, so zero for sounds that don’t call for it, and at most one semitone for those sounds where it would be needed or appropriate.

  • playing so many different sounds

    Bob “Notes” Norton says it best:

    “Each patch must be treated as a separate instrument. You must learn what that patch can do, and what it cannot do, and then exploit what it can do. Plus you should learn to tweak the patch to get the most out of it for your playing style and your personal expressive devices.”

    All of which means you really need to put in the hours on each of these sounds to get the most out of them and blend in with (or stand out from if that’s what’s called for!) the rest of the orchestra.

  • switching quickly

    With so many different sounds, you will find that you have very little time to switch sounds or instruments. I put my sounds in the performance bank of my synth module in consecutive order. That way, I only need to switch to “next sound” or “previous sound”, which is very easy to do from the WX5. To avoid having to copy around sounds that I need more than once too much (something you shouldn’t forget when you change one of the copies and need the changes in the other copies as well…), I make a state diagram (can you tell I’m a software engineer?) with the respective sounds in the vertices and the edges labeled with “short” or “long” depending on how much time I have to switch. I then “flatten the graph” by putting them in a linear order that requires as little duplication as possible (some duplication is usually unavoidable however). In my sheet music I then write the number of the patch at each sound, and put an arrow with e.g. “+1” or “-3” whenever I need to change patches, where the delta is as low as possible when there’s very little time (like half a bar or even less). The redundancy (writing both the delta and the absolute number of the patch) is to be able to double-check that I have selected the right patch: in the heat of the moment I might do “+1” when “-1” was called for. Tip: when there’s no time left to correct this, it’s better to not play at all than to play with completely the wrong sound.

  • playing with or without strap

    Since at several points I also had very little time to switch from tenor sax to wind controller, I had to resort to keeping the tenor sax in my lap and pick up the WX5 without being able to attach the strap. Now I find that because the WX5 is so light-weight, it really needs to be played with a strap. E.g. try playing a C# (all keys open) with one or more octave keys, without a strap… My solution was to rest the bottom end of the WX5 on my upper leg near the knee (‘fix’ it in the small dent between the end of the quadriceps and the knee) and use the mouthpiece in my mouth as the other ‘fix point’. As to being able to quickly pick up or put down the WX5: I have another chair next to me on which I put my 19″ case that has my synth module mounted and lay my WX5 on top of that (so I take up two seats in the orchestra).

Hopefully my experiences are of help to any other wind controller players out there. Feel free to comment!

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2 Responses to Playing wind controller in a pit orchestra (part 2 of 2)

  1. Pingback: From WindWorks Design: Wind controller in a pit orchestra | Bret Pimentel, woodwinds

  2. Thanks for these very interesting articles, and good tips on making a wind controller work in this setting. I’ve reblogged it, since I think my own readers may be interested.