Harder to play music in a group than alone

I’ve decided to make special efforts to improving my music-making as part of a group.

Friday evening, I joined four other recorder enthusiasts to sight read some ensemble music as a quintet. This is the third time I’ve played with this group of people (the first time as a quartet when I was filling in for someone who couldn’t make it but has been present the last two times I went).

Usually I mostly play alto, and secondarily soprano (and I started learning bass recently), but on Friday I tried to mostly play the fourth of five parts, on a tenor recorder.

There are several reasons I found playing the tenor quite challenging.

My usual practice focus

My usual focus when practicing at home is on improving my solo technique, in particular on the alto. A lot of what I work on is technical exercises rather than real musical pieces. And when I do work on real music, it always involves the alto playing a clear, uninterrupted melodic line. And almost always, I read the music as a solo part or at worst, the top line of a full score that has one accompanying line.


The alto is in F, while the tenor is in C. There is still a noticeable delay in the response of my fingers to reading notes on the page when I am playing a C instrument. Going faster than I am comfortable results in my mind blanking out, getting confused, and playing wrong notes.

Still, I have been working on having my facility with the soprano in C catch up more with my facility with the alto in F, so I was surprised by why I am currently so poor on tenor.


I did an experiment at home just playing the same music using the tenor in C rather than using the soprano in C, since their fingerings are identical (to produce pitches an octave apart). I was a bit slower, of course. The tenor is bigger. In particular, my Yamaha tenor has always been uncomfortably big. I only have the one key pair for the right pinkie, not other helpful keys like some other tenors have, so the finger stretches are not comfortable and I am slowed down.

But interestingly, the physical size and weight are not the real problem. There is also a mental aspect to my confusion. Because I have started playing bass, I sometimes experience a particular confusion playing the tenor that I don’t experience when playing the soprano. All of a sudden I will suddenly blank out and start playing the tenor line as though I were playing a bass reading bass clef, rather than playing the tenor reading treble clef. It’s crazy, but the size association (“I’m playing a big instrument”) sometimes pushes me toward interpretation of printed notes as being on a bass clef!

Full score

Much of the ensemble music we play come as full scores, rather than separate parts. This causes me some difficulty no matter which of the four recorders I play. The very fact of seeing four or five staves and having to skip far down with my eyes to the next system of staves, and to the correct staff for my part, is exhausting when sight reading unfamiliar music.

For one thing, it’s not so easy to jump from the fourth staff of one system to the beginning of the fourth staff of the next system. Sometimes I might mistakenly jump to the third staff, or something like that. This is a problem when playing the fourth voice on tenor. It is not as much of a problem when playing the top two voices or the bottom voice.

But even when playing, say, the top voice, I often lose context and don’t look far enough ahead in time to get the right note on the next system. There could be a leap that I miss.

Musical period

On Friday, we were sight reading from “Music for the Duke of Lerma” from the 16th century (“Canciones and Motets of Four, Five, and Six Voices”, transcribed by Douglas Kirk). As I’ve mentioned, I mostly practice 18th century solo Baroque music, which is quite different in style and intent. It’s another world. I need to familiarize myself more with older music. After all, part of what has been very positive about getting into playing the recorder is access to a large amount of older music that most of my life I have not listened to or played, and enjoying the unfamiliar.

The nature of ensemble music

Another problem is that if I’m mostly practicing solo material at home, I don’t practice counting rests so that I come back in at the right time.

Also, something I have learned upon tackling the inner voices of ensemble music: this task is very different from what I’m used to playing alone.

When I was on tenor, I was not carrying the melody, such as it existed at all, but playing halting, syncopated lines that were completely different from everyone else’s. It’s a fascinating, important, and satisfying role, but not one I’m used to. Wanting to be a complete musician, of course I want to get better at it. The top voices are depending on me to do my part to provide the harmonic foundation for their more melodic play on top of it!

Notation, meter

The notation takes getting used to. There’s a lot of 64, 32, 22, and other such notation that use large notes such as whole notes and half notes instead of what I usually practice at home, which is mostly quarter notes down to sixteenth notes. With time I’ll get used to such notation, but it just isn’t something I practice reading a lot.


I’ve offered some observations on why I’m finding ensemble recorder playing quite challenging, with the plan of addressing each of the problem spots so that I can be more effective as an ensemble musician. If you are a musician and have had similar experiences, I welcome suggestions for my improvement!

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