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Strings Music Festival: Learn 4 families of instruments

Soprano Ellie Dehn performs at the Strings Music Pavilion at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3.
Courtesy Photo

Upcoming at Strings

7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3 — Music of the Baroque (baroque ensemble with soprano Ellie Dehn)

12:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4 — Jay Roemer & Friends (free, at the Botanic Park)

11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 5 — Open classical rehearsal for families (free, age 4 and older invited)

8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5 — Loudon Wainwright III & Iris DeMent (singer-songwriters)

10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 6 — Yoga and Classical Music (free, in Strings Music Festival Park)

7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6 — Orchestra: Vienna in 1800

Tickets are available at 970-879-5056 and stringsmusicfestival.com.

I move a lot of chairs and music stands around the Strings Music Pavilion these days, usually in the service of setting up or striking an orchestra. Luckily for me, hundreds of years of music history provide a road map for my organizational and logistical efforts. A western orchestra is made up of four sections, or families — strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion — and the location of each instrument onstage is pretty standard.

Upcoming at Strings

7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 3 — Music of the Baroque (baroque ensemble with soprano Ellie Dehn)

12:15 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4 — Jay Roemer & Friends (free, at the Botanic Park)

11 a.m. Friday, Aug. 5 — Open classical rehearsal for families (free, age 4 and older invited)

8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 5 — Loudon Wainwright III & Iris DeMent (singer-songwriters)

10 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 6 — Yoga and Classical Music (free, in Strings Music Festival Park)

7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 6 — Orchestra: Vienna in 1800

Tickets are available at 970-879-5056 and stringsmusicfestival.com.

• Strings: instruments that produce sound from strings that are plucked (guitar, harp), bowed (violin) or struck (dulcimer, piano).

• Woodwinds: instruments that make sound by having air blown into them, either across an edge (flute), through a reed (clarinet, saxophone) or between two reeds (bassoon.)

• Brass: instruments that make sound by vibrating air through the lips into a mouthpiece. They may or may not be made out of metal.

• Percussion: instruments that make sound by being hit, shaken, scratched or rubbed.

Notice that these families have nothing to do with what the instrument is made from and everything to do with how each group produces sound. Flutes and saxophones are both made of metal, but they belong to the woodwind family, not the brass, because they don’t use the lip vibration method to make sound. It could certainly be argued that brass instruments and woodwinds are cousins, since they both produce sound with air. But the method of producing the sound and the resulting timbre of the sound are so different, the groups are categorized as separate families.

It could also be argued that, instead of being a string instrument, the piano belongs to the percussion family, because it produces sound by hammers hitting the strings. In fact, after (admittedly brief) research online, it seems that the question of which family can claim the piano is an ongoing argument among people who care about such things. For my purposes, which consist solely of “where do I put this onstage?” the piano is a string instrument and sits behind the violins in orchestra setup. (Unless the orchestra is playing a piano concerto; then, the piano sits front and center in the solo position. Let’s not even mention the logistical nightmare that happens when the piano has a starring role in one piece but has to move to its modest, rear position for another piece in the same program. I’m so grateful that Strings’ pianos have wheels.)

Orchestra configurations can differ, depending on the instrumentation and the conductor’s preferences, but in general, the families are grouped together and set up from stage right to stage left in the following manner: first violins, second violins, violas, cellos, basses behind cellos.

Woodwinds are grouped together mid-stage, behind the violas. Brass are usually in a row behind the winds, but occasionally, they are grouped by the basses, if space is tight. Percussion goes behind everybody. Because the Strings stage is relatively shallow, I tend to set up timpani at stage left rear, behind the basses, and percussion at stage right rear, behind the violins.

At their kids’ performances, C Street Brass makes a reasonable-sounding trumpet onstage using just a piece of rubber tube and a plastic funnel. And just to prove that instrument families are about sound production method and not materials, if funnel-tubing guy shows up to play an orchestra concert, I’ll give him a seat in the brass section.

Ali Mignone stage manages for Strings Music Festival, among other things. When she’s not telling roadies and musicians what to do, you can find her hiking, biking or skiing around the Yampa Valley and blogging at thequirkyquill.com.


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