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Wind ensemble conducting for orchestral conductors

Michael Votta is the Director of Bands at the University of Maryland, School of Music and the Vice-President of the College Band Directors National Association. You can learn more and reach him at

An Orchestral Conductor’s Guide to working with a Wind Ensemble

So, you want to conduct a wind ensemble? Why would you, a rising star of the orchestral podium, want to do such a crazy thing?

Well, conductors from Sir Simon Rattle, MTT, and Marin Alsop - to leaders of regional and community orchestras - have discovered that works for winds without strings can do great things for an orchestra:

  1. They add variety in programming and a chance to present fresh repertoire.

  2. They provide a way to attract new audience members. Why not partner with school bands in your area to bring young wind players in for a concert featuring a piece they might play?

  3. They are a great way to demonstrate wind instruments at an education concert.

  4. They give your winds an opportunity to intensely focus on ensemble.

  5. They reduce the workload of the string section and can allow string sectional time while winds rehearse a work that will help fill out a full concert program. This is very useful for tackling works with demanding string parts.

  6. They provide an opportunity to present great music that just happens to have been written for ensembles without strings.

Sometimes you will be able to shape this experience for yourself and your orchestra, but if you’re an assistant conductor, you may be assigned unfamiliar works on short notice. In whatever way you come to wind music, here are a few thoughts to make your journey more musically enjoyable.

One of your first tasks will be to select repertoire. The most obvious wind works to put on orchestral programs: the serenades by Mozart, Strauss, and Dvorak; brass fanfares; the wind music of Stravinsky, Messiaen, and other similar pieces are, essentially, orchestral works without strings. As such, they are well within the scope of experiences and skills you already possess.

But works for larger wind ensembles, like Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy that Maestro Rattle recorded with the CBSO, present some challenges to conductors who have only dealt with the standard orchestral repertoire. And before you say, “I’ll never conduct a band piece,” I have to ask you: Did you ever think you would be dressing up in a Robin Hood costume to conduct a Family Concert?

Who plays? And how many?

The fundamental divide in wind repertoire is between 'band music' (works for a large group of winds with multiple players per part) and 'wind ensemble' music (works that are based on orchestral wind sections and would normally be played with only one player per part).

In any case, this basic question arises for almost any wind piece: How many of each kind of instrument (and part) should there be?

It might seem obvious at first. The score calls for Flute 1, Flute 2 and Piccolo. Great! We only need three flute players.

Hold on there, maestro. Look over on page four. That’s where the Flute 1 part calls for three-part divisi. (And you thought you were leaving divisi headaches to your assistant running the string sectional…)

The bad news: it’s not uncommon for flute, Bb clarinet and trumpet/cornet parts in older band pieces to call for two-, three- or even four-part divisi. This is a relic of the era when bands traditionally had multiple players on these parts.

The good news: Often, you don’t need all of the extra players since there may be superfluous doublings that can easily be omitted. Also, an extra player (or two) in each section can cover divisi in multiple parts (play Clarinet 1 divisi here, play Clarinet 2 divisi there). In any case, you’ll want to examine divisi carefully to see if they are doubled elsewhere.

In most modern wind ensembles, there is normally one player per part. The only section where the 'one per part rule' does not apply is the Bb clarinets—most band pieces will need at least two players on each Bb clarinet part to sound good. The rule of thumb is to have about twice as many clarinets as trumpets and the same number of flutes as trumpets.

And yes, there really is such a thing as an alto clarinet, as well as other instruments rarely found in orchestras. Sometimes these instruments have important musical lines, but often they were included in older band pieces because it was traditional to have a part for every possible instrument (even if there was no musical reason for it). Before using Eb clarinet, alto clarinet, contra alto clarinet, contrabass clarinet, and bass saxophone, check to be sure that the parts supply musical content that isn’t doubled elsewhere. Very often these were 'add on' instruments and can be omitted.

On the other hand, alto flute, English horn, soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone and euphonium almost always supply crucial colors and textures when they are used.

Band Scores

Band scores take some getting used to. They follow orchestral score order (with additional instruments), but with the trumpets/cornets above the horns. At least once, you will have the experience of looking at the top of the brass section, seeing the designation 'Cor.' and wondering why the horns aren’t ready to play—just as the cornet section enters.

Here’s the most common band score order with some comments:


Flute 1

Flute 2

One per part is good unless there are divisi. Alto flute is used fairly often in modern works; bass flute is rare; however, both are important if called for.

In band music composed before the 1930s you may find one 'flute/piccolo' part that would have been played by multiple flutes and which the piccolo played constantly. There likely will be passages when the piccolo can rest, and/or only one flute might play.

Oboe 1

Oboe 2

English horn (F)

Oboe parts are rarely doubled.

Eb clarinet

Clarinet 1 (always in Bb in band pieces)

Clarinet 2

Clarinet 3

Alto clarinet (Eb)

Bass clarinet (always in Bb in band pieces)

Contra-alto clarinet (also called 'Eb contrabass')

Contra-bass clarinet (Bb)

Eb clarinet and alto clarinet can be important solo voices—or they may just double other parts (and add intonation problems). If they don’t have an important musical role, leave them out. Use your judgment to edit out 'mechanical' doublings (i.e. those that lack a discernible musical purpose).

Clarinets in band music are always Bb clarinets. If you see parts for A or C clarinets you have an orchestra wind section piece (and you obviously won’t double the parts). In band pieces there will normally be two or three players per part (a total of six to nine Bb clarinets).

Bass clarinet is a vital part of the clarinet section, and contrabass clarinet (in Bb) is a valuable color.

Bassoon 1

Bassoon 2


Like oboes, bassoon parts are rarely doubled.

Soprano saxophone (Bb)

Alto saxophone (Eb)

Tenor saxophone (Bb)

Baritone saxophone (Eb)

Bass saxophone (Bb)

Saxophones are normally in four parts. In works after the mid-1990s, the typical section is soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone; in earlier works, it’s alto 1, alto 2, tenor, baritone. Bass saxophone is sometimes used as an additional color instrument—it’s rarely indispensable.

Cornet 1 (Bb)

Cornet 2

Cornet 3

Trumpet 1 (Bb)

Trumpet 2

Once upon a time, there were actually dedicated cornet players in bands—often two players on each of the three parts, and two dedicated trumpet players (one per part)—and the cornet parts were more idiomatic for cornets and the trumpet parts were 'trumpety.' As trumpeters became more well-rounded and able to play with a wider range of sounds on the trumpet this distinction faded to the point where nowadays all parts are normally played on trumpets.

The first cornet part is sometimes designated 'solo cornet.' This does not mean it was intended for one player—it’s a holdover from British brass band terminology.

Check the score carefully to see where the lead voice of the section lies (cornet 1? trumpet 1?) when deciding where your principal player should be. You may also find internal doubling between trumpet and cornet parts (unison cornet 2 and trumpet 2, for example) that can be omitted, especially with smaller ensembles.

You should also try to discern if the cornet parts were written for cornets. 'Cornet' may imply a warmer approach to tone and articulation, and the players will appreciate some guidance. (“Could you make that sound more like cornets?” Or…”that could be more trumpet-like”)

Horn 1

Horn 2

Horn 3

Horn 4

Horns will either be in F or Eb, usually in four parts. There is no tradition of high-low pairing between 1-2 and 3-4, so if you have high and low horn players you’ll have to let them know what the low parts are—sometimes it’s 2 and 4, sometimes 3 and 4.

Trombone 1

Trombone 2

(occasionally trombone 3)

Bass trombone

Trombones operate just like in orchestral music.


The 'modern' instrument is a euphonium, which is a tenor member of the tuba family and is the same instrument that’s typically used in Holst’s Planets. Euphonium parts are written in bass clef and its range is similar to the tenor trombone. A 'baritone' is a large member of the cornet family as was used in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60s. Baritone parts are often written in Bb treble clef, transposing down a major 9th (like bass clarinet and tenor saxophone).

There are often important solos or countermelodies in euphonium parts and it’s not uncommon that trombone players have some ability to double on it.


Band parts are just like orchestral tuba parts—except that they have many more notes and many fewer rests. If you play a band piece, your tuba player will be thrilled. It’s often helpful to have a second player to ease breathing in long passages and to give the option to double big chords with an added lower octave.

'String bass,' Piano, Harp, Percussion

Outside of the fact that in bands a contrabass is called 'string bass,' these parts are just like orchestral writing.

Suggestions for rehearsal

For the most part, conducting and rehearsing wind ensembles is the same as orchestras: conduct expressively, have good ears, and make good musical decisions. However, when dealing with large wind ensembles it’s helpful to be aware of a few additional things.

Beyond the raw numbers of players, there is a fundamental difference between orchestral wind writing and writing for bands. Orchestral winds are used as pure and diverse colors with an emphasis on soloistic writing and colorful combinations of timbres. Bands, on the other hand, work more like choirs in which blending sounds is crucial, and key issues are articulation and clarity (diction).

If you want a beautiful chorale sound, you have to achieve balance, blend and intonation. These three elements of wind playing work in concert but are listed in order with balance being the most important.

The usual band concept is 'the pyramid of balance,' in which the lowest sounds are strongest, then the middle voices a bit less, and the highest voices (like the cherry on a sundae) sit on top. This makes the warmest, best wind ensemble sound. Keep the pyramid of balance in mind when making choices about instrumentation. If the band is too 'top heavy' instrumentally, it will be very difficult to make it sound warm and resonant. Most big chords will be scored with upper instruments doubling the overtones of the bass note—the bass notes need to be clearly audible and resonant.

Crescendos should happen from the bottom up—lower voices crescendo first and the others follow. Conversely, diminuendos happen from the top down. If you want a very warm, gentle release, especially in soft dynamics, have the low voices hold on just a fraction of a second longer than the upper voices—the sound will begin to mimic the warmth of a good string release.

With all of this blending, how do we get color in the sound?

There are some subtle but important things a conductor can do to color the sound of wind ensembles. Strings make overtone-rich, complex sounds, but all strings create similar overtone patterns. This gives a beautiful, interesting sound with built-in blending.

Wind instruments do not do this automatically. They are very individual in terms of overtone pattern, timbre, and articulation. Good wind playing consists of creating the blend of a good string section with instruments that are much more sonically diverse—hence the need for the 'pyramid of balance' described above.

Since we’re building the sound from the bottom up, be aware of timbral variety in the bass line. Creating a strong bass with just the tuba sound will make everything sound the same, regardless of the color of the instruments on upper parts. Balancing the tuba sound with bass/contrabass clarinet, baritone/bass saxophone, 'string bass,' and bassoon/contrabassoon, on the other hand, will make the ensemble sound much more sophisticated and colorful.

Be aware of the difference between conical and cylindrical brass. The articulation and brightness of trumpets and trombones compared to horns, euphoniums, tubas provides nuance and contrast to the band sound.

It’s also important to realize that some ensemble problems with bands stem from differences in articulation. Cylindrical brass and double reeds produce articulate sounds that conical brass and single reeds cannot match. If there are ensemble problems, have the more articulate instruments 'warm up' their sounds to give the conical/single reed instruments a chance to match. In orchestras, the single winds keep these issues more manageable. In larger wind ensembles the conductor has to do more to help unify the sound of the ensemble—just as with orchestral strings.

Speaking of brass players: Bands are LOUD (and the sound comes a lot more quickly than with strings). To make sophisticated music, you want to live in the world of addition by subtraction. As Michelangelo said: “I start with a block of marble and remove what is not necessary.” The default mode of balance should be “less of…” If you find yourself asking for “more” frequently, you need to explore soft dynamics in greater detail.

Finally, you should know that the overtones of the saxophones fit with brass sounds and with woodwind sounds. As a consequence, they are important in knitting the full band sound into a cohesive whole. Don’t overlook the saxophones when thinking of balance, blend and color.

I hope this brief essay will encourage you to play a piece or two featuring your wind section. If you do, perhaps the next time you do Mahler, Strauss or Bruckner, you may find that you talk to your wind section with a deeper understanding of how they make sound and how you, and they, can achieve superb artistic results.


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