An orchestral setup that Mozart would be proud of

Marshall Chasin
March 25, 2014

Although I have not seen Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart clinically for a couple of years, I know him well enough to know that he was ahead of his time, hated old conventions, and was always pushing the envelope to expand the music, especially when it came to the masses.

So, if Mozart were here today, how would he have changed the orchestral setup to be optimal for music, optimal for the musicians, and optimal for hearing loss prevention?  Actually, most of the changes to the orchestral setup would be for hearing loss prevention rather than music appreciation.  And I should mention a caveat-  Mozart’s orchestras were actually quite small compared to those of today, so perhaps  he is not the best one to chat with, but Johann Strauss was not available for a phone call.  A phone  conversation with Mozart would probably go something like this….

Me:  Ring, ring,….

Mozart:  What’s that ringing?  Am I hearing things?

Me:  It’s called a telephone- answer it! … hold that black thing to your ear… it’s upside down…. that’s better….

Mozart:  This is neat!  So, what do you want?  I’m working on a symphony.

Me: Oh, hi, Herr Mozart.  I want to ask you about how you would change the modern-day orchestra and how this would be different from when you were hanging around with your friend and mentor Joseph Haydn.

Mozart:  You can call me Wolfy.  And what a good question.  You must be a very smart person to come up with such a question.

Me:  Thank you…. errrr…. I would rather call you Herr Mozart, but it’s not just me that asks this question.  Many people are wondering why the orchestra was set up the way it was in the classical and romantic eras.  People have spent their entire careers trying to figure that out.

Mozart: Well, the first thing I would do is to stick the trumpet players out front.  They are pretty macho in any event so they would be happy to be seen by everyone.  And their annoying loud noise wouldn’t be aimed at anyone’s head.  They also wouldn’t have to play as loudly to be heard at the back of the audience so their lip muscles  – I think you call it the orbicularis oris – wouldn’t be overly strained so they could still play in their 60s.  Hey… I have a joke:  “Why do you instantly dislike trumpet players?…. It saves time!”….

Me: Mmmmm.  We have some readers of this blog who play the trumpet so I wouldn’t be too mean to them…. I am sure that there are also some funny percussion jokes such as “what do you call a drummer without a girlfriend?… homeless.”  So, what about putting the trumpet players on risers and leaving them at the back of the orchestra.

Mozart:  That would work too, but who is being interviewed here? I’m supposed to be the funny one here, not you!

Me: My apologies for being so funny Herr Mozart. What other suggestions would you make?  Let’s start with woodwinds.

Mozart: Ahhh, the mellow and beautiful clarinet!  My favorite instrument.  I hear that you play the clarinet as well, but that you are really quite lousy at it!

Me:  Grunt…. Well, I do have a Selmer 10 clarinet and a Vandorin mouthpiece!

Mozart: You are still a crappy player!  I would place the clarinets in a circle facing inwards and would place them nearer to the back.  I would then use a series of microphones to amplify the clarinet sounds.  I would also have them wearing in-ear monitors.  I think that these new-fangled microphones that you have are wonderful and would have loved them back in the olden days.

Me: I can understand why you may want to use microphones- they would allow the people at the back of the audience to hear your favorite instruments (and allow the clarinet players to be in a relatively quiet location up on stage), but why would you place them in a circle?

Mozart: Well, for the same reason that I would place the oboe, bassoon, and this wonderful new instrument called the saxophone, in a circle.

Me:  Well, you still haven’t answered my question- why a circle, rather than in a straight line the way they now play in a modern orchestra?

Mozart: Since you play the clarinet, even though you are really a lousy musician, you will know that all you really need to know to play the instrument is to pay attention to the sound energy below 1000 Hz- that’s a couple of octaves above middle C.  When you play a reeded woodwind like a clarinet, bassoon, oboe, or saxophone, you really only need to hear the lower frequency inter-resonant breathiness and not the higher frequency harmonics that are so important for the stringed instruments.  Placing them in a circle would allow them to hear each other better and placing them in the back with microphones means that they can be well heard.

Me: I didn’t know this.  Do you mean that people who have a high-frequency sensory-neural hearing loss such as that due to aging (presbycusis) will have minimal effect on reeded woodwind players?

Mozart: Duh!  Clearly that is the case, so that if anyone wants to take up a musical instrument in their 40s or 50s to play during their retirement years, they should take up a reeded woodwind like the clarinet.  Also, this also would be great for kids who are born with a high-frequency sensory-neural hearing loss.  Having them play in a circle will allow them to see the notes being played as well as being relatively close enough to hear whether they are on or off key.  My friend Ludwig Beethoven, had some trouble hearing and his life would have been better if he had composed on a clarinet rather than a piano.  Or better still, Beethoven would have had many more symphonies to his name if he had composed on a MIDI system.

Me: That is all very interesting.  You briefly referred to the stringed instruments a few moments ago as being different from reeded woodwinds.  How are they different and where should they be situated in an orchestra?

Mozart:  I would place the stringed instruments right behind the trumpet players and in front of the circle of woodwinds.  I would also make sure that the stringed instrument players were away from any orchestral overhang such as a performance pit.

Me: Why would you want to ensure that stringed players don’t have an orchestra pit (or low hanging ceiling) above them?

Mozart:  Actually my comments are more related to violins than to those other, more-bass stringed instruments.  It is true that all stringed instrument players need to hear the relative balance between the lower frequency fundamental (note name) energy and the higher frequency harmonic structure. The difference between an inexpensive student model violin and a wonderful Stradivarius violin is the optimal balance between the fundamental and harmonic structure.  If a violinist was seated under a poorly constructed musical pit overhang (and they are all poorly constructed), then the higher frequency harmonic components of the violin sound would be lost.  A great violin would sound like a student model.  The violinist would most likely start playing harder to re-establish the higher frequency harmonic energy, but then they would start playing at too loud of a level.  Hearing loss would undoubtedly ensue and they might start coming into a performing arts medical clinic (such as the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada) with wrist and arm problems.  You should also have them contact the Performing Arts Medicine Association for more information on this.  So, move the violinists out from under the overhang, and stick them behind the trumpet players.

Me: Well thank you for all of this.  If I may summarize:  (1) trumpet players should be at the front so that nobody needs to be downwind of their loud sounds; (2) clarinet and other reeded woodwind players can be shoved to the back but placed in a circle, with each instrument having their own microphones: and (3) violin players would be seated right behind the trumpet players with no orchestral performance pit ceiling above their heads. Is this correct?

Mozart:  I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Well, I need to go to my yo-yo lessons.  I love living in the 21st century.  Now go away, but first tell me how to I hang up this telephone contraption?

Me:  Thank you for your time Herr Mozart.

Leave a Reply