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Orchestra Terminology


An orchestra has its own language and rituals, just like sports. Basically, everything is about coordinating up to a hundred people to all play together! It helps to get familiar with a few of the terms and procedures. Here are some important terms you'll hear:

Articulation
The way players attack a note. This is a big part of rehearsing. Common articulation terms are staccato (short), legato (smooth), and accent, but there are many more.
Cue
The conductor's signal -- usually with the left hand -- given to a musician to let them know that it is their turn to play.
Downbeat
One of the most important signals a conductor gives is drawing the baton straight down. That tells the musicians when a new measure of music begins. It takes students practice to follow the downbeat precisely.
Dynamics
The loudness of the music. Much of why music is exciting to hear is because it changes its loudness. But not always uniformly! Often we want one section of instruments to play louder than another, given a kind of three-dimensional quality to music. You'll hear Italian words spoken for dynamics: forte (loud), piano (soft), mezzo (medium), crescendo (get louder) and decrescendo (get softer).
Ictus
This is one of Russell's favorite words. It's that point in a conductor's stroke where the baton seems to bounce off of an invisible barrier, and it marks the exact start of a given beat in the measure, such as the upbeat or downbeat. The location of the other ictus strokes in a measure depends on the meter of the work.
Meter
The indication, given at the start of a work (or at any point of change during the course of the work), of the number of beats in each bar. Depending on the tempo, the conductor may indicate a different number of beats than you might guess from that marking, and he might say something like "I'm going to take this section in 2," so that you know to look for two conducting strokes in each measure.
Tempo
The speed of the music, given by the pace of the conductor's beats. Getting everyone to play at precisely the same speed is tricky and very important to practice with the orchestra. Some Italian words you may hear for tempo are: allegro (fast), adagio (slow), andante (medium walking speed), presto (very fast) and largo (very slow).
Upbeat
The final beat in a bar, where the conductor draws the baton up.
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