Escaping the Pyramid Trap: Reconstructing Conceptions of Balance

Mike Lawson • ArchivesChoral • November 5, 2010

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One of the most common strategies for creating what is typically referred to as a “band sound” is framed around the concept of pyramid balance. The premise of this model is readily explained in detail in the text Effective Performance of Band Music, one of several important contributions by composer and teacher Francis McBeth.

Through the course of numerous conversations and observations, I have found that many conductors around the world adhere closely to concepts presented by McBeth, but often with what I would consider a limited application. To say that the band sound is a pyramid, simply functioning from low to high through the ensemble, does not fully consider the original ideas about balance presented by McBeth. Even writing in 1972, McBeth began to differentiate band sound by types of repertoire in this case, contemporary repertoire and the inherent balance required in order to achieve the composer’s specific intent. This is actually quite progressive for McBeth, especially considering that today, he might be viewed as musically conservative.

When we discuss balance, and thus band sound, we must realize it is inextricably tied to the specific repertoire we intend to perform. The traditional application of the pyramid balance system in many ways may not be as efficient a vehicle for teaching ensemble sound as it once was, and hopefully the following discussion will offer a different perspective on how we might apply the principles of pyramid balance into a more modern and repertoire relevant model.

Before you line up the tar and feathers for me for seemingly going against decades of dogmatic ensemble pedagogy, let’s consider McBeth’s full discussion on balance. It is important to note that McBeth begins his discourse on balance with a conversation of pyramids, not the single pyramid we so often observe being taught to ensembles. Again, the progressive McBeth begins the explanation from the perspective of repertoire.

The first presentation is one of a double pyramid based on instrument families, the brass and woodwinds, arranged from low to high. McBeth then proposes ways to incorporate this system in college, high school and even junior high ensembles. What I find interesting is that in the instructions for achieving these balances and sonorities, McBeth seems to indicate that it is indeed the repertoire which determines assignation of a specific voice to a portion of the pyramid; for example, in junior high pyramids, sometimes brass and woodwinds occupy the same space on a given pyramid. This is primarily due to the type of compositional style of much of the junior high music of that time. This music is constructed with a clearly defined SATB role for instruments based on tessitura, while high school and college repertoire tended to be more complex in role assignment to instruments, a scenario that to some extent is still true today.

McBeth then describes in detail the idea of a “Christmas tree pyramid” comprised of pyramids that overlap and a numerical system for dynamic contrast. These indicate that higher voices crescendo less while lower voices crescendo more, and finally, McBeth presents the relationship of balance to pitch, and supporting the pyramid through the guise of listening, even going so far as to state, “hearing ‘down’ is the best way (I will almost say the only way) for young players to play in pitch.”

I would like to begin by asserting that the principles set forth by McBeth are both valid and valuable. Additionally, as with many theories or pedagogies, the principles are flexible if applied inquisitively and with intelligence and founded in good musicianship, rather than being applied through misunderstanding or inefficient pedagogy. Unfortunately, I also feel very strongly that using pyramid balance has simply been a justification for repetitions of chorales, and the pyramids balance is not the normal means of application. It has also served to propagate the “hearing down” system, which, when we move beyond SATB-type works, is irrelevant and impractical.

A single SATB pyramid does work effectively with many pieces in the band repertoire. One need only listen to the great recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing the Stokowski Bach transcriptions, or some of our great classics from the band repertoire like the chorales from Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music to hear this beautifully presented. The laws and properties of physics define relationships between high and low sounds and how fundamental pitches affect tones higher in the harmonic/overtone sequence. These points are irrefutable. However, when I listen to the greatest orchestrators from the orchestral genre: Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Ravel, Stravinsky, and the list could go on, I don’t hear what I would consider a predominantly “dark” sound.

Our concepts of balance should be considered, even as McBeth indicates, from the standpoint of repertoire. At one point in the development of the wind band, the band was an orchestra of winds, and it is not simply semantics when we say that today, the modern wind band is a wind orchestra. This has a dramatic impact on how the ensemble sounds, and has been driven not by a desire to make the band smaller, but instead the evolution has been demanded by changes in the repertoire. This, in effect, requires that we reconsider the sound model we teach students in developing an appropriate repertoire-based band sound.

The weakness of the single pyramid balance system (see diagram) is that it always assumes specific instruments fulfill specific roles within a work. The tuba (bass) always plays louder, the flute (soprano) always plays softer. What if the flute and tuba are not playing music conceived within a traditional functionally harmonic framework? The tuba pitches would not be sounding resultant overtones for the flute. What if the registration for the flute is very high or very low in relation to the tuba? These are extreme examples to be sure, but we could cite similar situations between a flute and a bassoon.

Escaping the Pyramid Trap: Reconstructing Conceptions of BalanceIt is perhaps more efficient to consider balance, again as McBeth indicates, in a series of overlapping pyramids, in which each instrument maintains its own pyramid. This system works because in almost all cases, the parts within same instrument groupings are aligned low to high, thus creating a situation in which a second clarinet should always have slightly more volume than the first clarinet because when the tessitura is considered, the part would be sound balanced when in fact the volumes are different. If we then overlap instrument families on top of each other (see layered example) we get something that looks more like the Ziggurat of Ur (see diagram 2) than it looks like a pyramid. Instead, we create what I refer to as a vertical balance system, which is much more flexible than the single pyramid. In the vertical system, the focus is placed on listening to the same instrument first (for example, the clarinet), the similar instruments next (such as woodwinds) and finally the entire ensemble. This is exactly how we tune, so why not create a balance system that relies on an identical type of hearing? It is efficient and it works.

In a vertical system, each player, no matter where in the pyramid they fall, listens to the ensemble. The player then makes a determination based on the function of his or her part as to how loud it should be played. In a Bach chorale-type passage, players would hear an SATB alignment and lower parts would play out while upper parts might scale back thus creating something that looks like one big pyramid perhaps. Unfortunately, I would argue that most of the music played today by wind bands does not conform to that model. At any given moment, a tuba could be assigned the “soprano” part, a texture part, a chordal part, a motivic gesture, a rhythmic ostinato, and the list goes on… and in each of these instances, the tuba player would need to listen to the ensemble and constantly adjust volume based on the role of their part. This would not only happen in sections of music, but often these shifts of role happen at every barline, which demands flexibility in order to achieve a proper balance. If the tuba player has been taught “I must always play louder,” then clarity will be an issue in the music.

As I type this, I am listening to one of John Mackey’s new works, “Asphalt Cocktail,” and I can assure you if this were to be performed with a traditional single pyramid sound, it would not be the same piece of music. Why would we not want to teach a balance system based on listening and intelligent musicianship and decision-making? This most closely resembles what we want students to do in rehearsals, and seems to me to be the most efficient and effective way to create an ensemble sound that will reflect the repertoire we actively perform.

Dr. Ken Thompson serves on the faculty in the College of Musical Arts at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Additionally, he serves on the conducting staff of both the Detroit Symphony Orchestra where he directs the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Civic Wind Symphony, and the Toledo Symphony Orchestra, where he serves as Artistic Director of the Toledo Symphony Youth Orchestras and Conductor of the TYO Philharmonic.

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