The Ancia Saxophone Quartet: Advice on Playing as an Ensemble

David Milne on listening

At the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, I direct the RADD Jazz Series, UWRF Jazz Ensemble and UWRF Saxophone Ensembles. I believe that in all genres of music, from classical chamber music to big band jazz, the single most important skill to emphasize with students is listening. Listening is critical to the success of any ensemble’s rhythm, phrasing, blend, balance, intonation, creative process – you name it! It is important for a student musician to be an “active listener” by focusing on specific instruments within an ensemble.

"Listening in a different form (i.e. listening to professional live concert performances and high-quality recordings) plays an equally important role in learning the specific performance practice, musical language, and stylistic characteristics of each genre of music." - David Milne

Angela Wyatt on rhythm:

I teach both beginning band students and college saxophone students. No matter the age, everyone needs to count! I teach all my students how to count in their heads and how to write in the counting. I never take it for granted that an older student already has these skills. Young students are encouraged to use a metronome to establish an internal beat. I expect my older students to practice all materials with a metronome so they are playing steadily. Consistent use of a metronome will also help uncover rhythmic errors if the student is alert to that.

Ensembles are expected to determine tempi goals for all movements and ensemble members are expected to work up to these tempi in their individual practice sessions. Practicing with a metronome will greatly increase your ability to play accurately and at the correct speed. When all members of the ensemble practice individually at the agreed upon tempi they are more likely to hit the desired tempo during performances.

"For rhythmically challenging spots I ask part of the ensemble to count out loud while the others play, then switch. Ensembles occasionally practice with a metronome to work out sections that suffer from unintended tempo changes. The ensemble may need to play pianissimo while working with the metronome. The ensemble can then play the written dynamics once they are playing together." - Angela Wyatt

Joan Hutton on student groups:

When working with student ensembles, something I really stress is the importance of knowing your music before rehearsal. Rehearsal time for any ensemble should be about turning the notes into an expressive musical performance, not a time for students to learn their parts! When preparing for rehearsals in our ensemble, we all try to get the notes and rhythms under our fingers before we even start working on a piece. Then we can focus our attention on making decisions together about dynamics, articulation style, phrasing, tempo, etc.

For student chamber groups in particular, I also think it’s important to spend some time working on effectively directing one’s own ensemble. This can be challenging for students who have played primarily in situations with a conductor. Having each member of the group practice cuing entrances, cut-offs and tempo changes is a great exercise. This should not be seen as one leader’s responsibility but something everyone plays a part in. It is also important to work on eye contact so that members are able to respond effectively to cues. The communication involved is one of the things that makes chamber music so challenging but also part of why it is so enjoyable and satisfying to rehearse and perform.

"When preparing for rehearsals in our ensemble, we all try to get the notes and rhythms under our fingers before we even start working on a piece. Then we can focus our attention on making decisions together about dynamics, articulation style, phrasing, tempo, etc." - Joan Hutton

Matt Sintchak on chamber ensembles:

Besides the basics of tuning, rhythm, and notes, the most important thing I try to stress with students in chamber music is the importance of understanding your role within a musical context. No one leads all of the time and no one follows all of time! Music making, whether performing or just rehearsing, should be democratic in nature: everyone has equal input regardless of the part they are playing. While this can be much more time consuming in rehearsals than one person directing, it is more satisfying and much more musical since each player’s personality can be heard.

"No one leads all of the time and no one follows all of time! Music making, whether performing or just rehearsing, should be democratic in nature: everyone has equal input regardless of the part they are playing." - Matt Sitchak

The members of ANCIA are active solo performers and educators and hold music degrees from the Eastman School of Music, Northwestern University, Indiana University, the New England Conservatory of Music, St. Olaf College, and Ithaca College. Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the ANCIA Saxophone Quartet is an Artist-Clinician Ensemble for the Conn-Selmer and Vandoren companies. For more on the Ancia Saxophone Quartet, visit their website here.

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