5.5 Considerations of Orchestral and Band Layout and String Size

There are probably three main layouts for string sections. Most common (if you are standing on the podium looking at the orchestra) is from left to right, 1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos.

Another common option is 1st violins, cellos, violas, 2nd violins. This is often said to be helpful for earlier repertoire – Beethoven and earlier, and it can also be ideal for specific composers such as Mahler and Elgar. The Hallé Orchestra in Manchester uses this layout but often swap the position of the violas and cellos from week to week so that the same players are not always sitting in front of the brass.

The final option is 1st violins, 2nd violins, cellos, violas. This is often used by German orchestras, you’ll see this layout in a lot of older Berliner Philharmoniker videos.

Double basses will usually be behind the cellos, but having them in a line behind the woodwinds is sometimes done, this is favoured by the Vienna Philharmonic due to the design of their Concert Hall, the famous Musikverein. 

Wind and Brass layout in the orchestra does not vary much. You will almost always see woodwinds laid out with, from left to right, flutes and oboes in the front and clarinets and bassoons behind. An exception is the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam who have the clarinets and bassoons the other way round. Nobody really knows why!

Horns will usually be to the left of the woodwind as the conductor sees it, either in a row of four or “two and two” = 1st and 2nd in front and 3rd & 4th behind. In Russian orchestras the horns can often be found on the other side close to the rest of the brass.

Trumpets, trombones and tuba can be in one row behind the woodwind, or with trumpets in front of trombones. This can often depend on the layout of an individual Hall rather than any particular national tradition.

Most orchestras will have a standard way of sitting and may be reluctant to change – unless you are very famous! Perhaps a little bit more innovation in how we approach this issue is worth thinking about, but constantly changing the layout does make things difficult from a practical perspective.

Brass Bands have a standard layout with very few variations. Having said that, they are often more creative than orchestras in adopting different formations for more popular entertainment-style events, even changing for specific pieces in a programme.

On the other hand, wind bands have almost unlimited possible layouts! This is due to a number of factors:

  • Unlike orchestras, wind bands didn’t develop a “standard” instrumentation until relatively recently – if in fact they have at all. Different layouts therefore developed.
  • In the early 20th century, military bands tended to play a lot of transcriptions of orchestral music. The clarinets tended to be viewed as the violins by the arrangers, and so they would often sit where the violins sit.
  • As more original repertoire was created, which was more symphonic in style, there was a trend towards laying out the wind band in a way that was as close to the wind and brass of the orchestra as possible.
  • Wind bands can range from around 30 players to 100. This in itself has a big impact on where everyone sits.

The best advice is to ask how they sit before you go – it could be anything!

Here’s an interview with Louise Brimicombe, the Hallé Orchestra’s librarian, where we discuss the role of an orchestral librarian and how that interacts with conductors. 

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