What do orchestral musicians need from their acoustic environment?

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What do orchestral musicians need from their acoustic environment?By Stephanie Eslake

So you’ve heard the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra booming through the Federation Concert Hall. Or perhaps you’ve caught a live performance broadcast on ABC Classic FM while you’re at home with a cuppa.

But have you ever wondered what these musicians think about the concert hall, and how its acoustic affects them while they’re playing for you?

In this interview, three orchestral performers talk about their experiences of performing in the Federation Concert Hall. This year, the venue is undergoing a series of major acoustic upgrades, after 20 years of live music in the space.

(You can read all about these changes through our chat with acoustician Andrew Nicol.)

TSO violist Anna Larsen Roach, timpanist Matthew Goddard, and French horn player Roger Jackson come together to tell us about their relationship with the Federation Concert Hall, and how they respond to its acoustic environment.

Let's talk about acoustics. How would you define a “good” acoustic environment?

ANNA: A good acoustic is one in which I can hear all sections in real time with minimal delay. I would also hope for control over the volume of sound. For instance, if a section wants to play very quietly, the sound should be representative of this.

MATTHEW: A good acoustic environment needs to have just the right amount of resonance to allow the sounds to bloom and blend within the space without obscuring the detail and nuance. It needs to balanced across the frequency spectrum with no particular emphasis in one range compared to another.

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ROGER: I think it is fair to say we all prefer playing in a space that supports the sound with some amount of sustained resonance (reverb), and which particularly favours the frequencies that give the impression of a full, pure, and rich sound quality. Musicians also require a level of clarity of sound, to aid with ensemble, and also to gauge the overall blend so we can make adjustments to our own input.

How much do the acoustics of a venue impact your personal performance?

 ANNA: I am a violist, and my instrument fits into the middle register of the orchestra. These notes are sometimes lost in an acoustic with a very active, overly resonant sound. Our instruments can play an important role with harmony and rhythm, so without these middle parts, the sound wouldn’t have significant balance or clarity.

MATTHEW: In many ways, the space is an extension of the instrument, and you need to understand how what you’re playing projects into the space and is received by the listener. For me, playing in a very resonant acoustic such as the Federation Concert Hall requires a very different approach to playing in much drier venue such as the Princess Theatre in Launceston. Both situations present their challenges.

ROGER: All musicians thrive on confidence. Knowing what is happening musically, and feeling that the acoustic is presenting our sound in a positive way, are major contributors to that confidence.

And how does this apply to working within your section and interacting with other players?

ANNA: We rely more on visual cues when the sound is lost in the hall, and it is quite challenging to hear each other when everybody is performing at once. The level of sound can sometimes be too great to hear the second row of woodwinds where I sit on stage.

MATTHEW: As a timpanist, I’m a one-person section. If I’m playing with the wind section, I need to play with a different quality of articulation and colour compared to playing with the basses, brass or percussion. Often, it’s difficult to hear something on the other side of the orchestra, and developing a visual connection is crucial when the aural connection isn’t enough.

ROGER: The most obvious impact of acoustics on a player is upon ensemble. When we can't hear colleagues, nearby or across the orchestra, then playing in time becomes a matter of guesswork, usually based on feedback from the conductor. Musicians also constantly measure their dynamic against what they hear. Sometimes, a player can feel isolated if all they can hear is themselves, and conversely can feel swamped if they hear too much of everyone else, and not enough of themselves.

What are some of the differences between the way musicians and audiences listen out for acoustic elements? And what do you listen for when you’re in an audience?

 ANNA: When I’ve listened in the Federation Concert Hall, it looks like the performers are playing with dynamic differences but unfortunately the sound is lost due to the acoustic. The audience should have a good sound from every seat, and I would hope this issue could be improved with our new acoustic treatments.

MATTHEW: As a performer, it is of paramount importance to be able to hear the detail of what is being played on stage. Detail and clarity are the most important factors for me, perhaps to an extent that one wouldn’t wish for as an audience member.

ROGER: When listening to an orchestra from the audience, I like to feel as though I am being enveloped by the sound, rather than feel as though the sounds are happening in the distance. I realise the sounds are being created at a distance, but a good acoustic makes it seem as though the players are not so far away.

The Federation Concert Hall is experiencing some big acoustic upgrades this year! How would you describe the current acoustic environment?

ANNA: The sound is extremely reverberant, and you can feel there is the capacity to make this a better space with some thought and care. Our space is a learning process, and we are fortunate to be able to manage the acoustics. Having a very reverberant concert hall, we are able to dampen and manipulate the sound, which wouldn’t be the case if the hall had poor reverberation.

MATTHEW: The Federation Concert Hall is an extremely resonant hall and for me is a difficult space play in. Timpani are bass instruments, naturally resonant and right at the back of the orchestra, so it’s challenging to project with any clarity. The larger the audience, the easier it gets. All those bodies have a very positive acoustic effect!

ROGER: The Federation Concert Hall in its current state has been somewhat challenging for me in several ways. The excessive reverberance makes me feel as though any mistakes or split notes will hang in the atmosphere forever. The reverberance also makes my own sound seem remote, giving less direct feedback.

What changes are you most looking forward to?

ANNA: I’m looking forward to the lower half of the orchestra being able to just play, without being informed that the sound is too loud or overbearing. Instruments is this category are the basses, tuba and French horn, and it can be quite tiring keeping the sound in check constantly. I’m also looking forward to having more clarity of sound in the viola section. I can’t wait to perform live to the public again, and show people what has been going on behind the scenes.

MATTHEW: I’m very much looking forward to the more controlled acoustic that we’ll have in the hall, both on stage and from the audience perspective. I know how hard we all work on stage to play with detail and subtle nuance, and I’m looking forward to much more of that making it out into the audience, rather than being obscured by the acoustic. I’m also very optimistic that I’ll hear much more the clearly the wonderful playing of my colleagues on stage.

ROGER: The acoustic design changes to the Federation Concert Hall have been driven mostly by the need to reduce the reverberance. I'm hoping these changes will alleviate many of the problems outlined above. I hope that some changes to the surfaces around the stage will improve clarity across the orchestra.

Read our interview with acoustician Andrew Nicol and stay up to date with TSO News to learn more about the Federation Concert Hall acoustic upgrades.

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