As another Super Bowl approaches, I am reminded that making music is also a team sport. While there is an obvious connection between football and marching bands and some bands are very competitive, I think it is helpful to remember what a team really is. A team is a group of people that work together to achieve a common goal. In sports, the objective is to score more points and defeat your opponent. In music, the goal is to interpret the score and produce a beautiful performance. It’s fun to think about all of the other ways musicians and athletes are similar. In this instance, we’ll use football (American), but you can extend the analogy to other team sports.
Coaches often talk about the fact that on a good team, everyone has a role to play. You have the stars who score points and may get a lot of the glory, and others, including “bench” players, who support the stars, but are just as important to the team’s overall success. In a good musical ensemble, the first chair players do get to play the solos, but imagine how thin a band or orchestra would sound without the other musicians playing supportive harmonies and counterpoint. And like a coach calling the plays, a band or orchestra has a conductor instructing the musicians on how to play the piece at hand. If the coach/conductor doesn’t have the respect of his or her “players,” the result is usually not very successful.
Musicians practice their individual skills with scales and etudes. Football players practice their passing, catching, blocking, and tackling. Both groups then practice together, almost daily, and both usually perform on weekends in front of an audience. And within the larger group there are sub groups – defense, offense and special teams for football and in music we have brass, woodwinds and percussion with strings, of course, in the case of an orchestra. And even those groups have sub groups. Think of an offensive line that has a center, two guards and two tackles. A woodwind section contains flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Horns, trumpets, trombones, and tubas make up the brass section and strings are comprised of violins, violas, celli and basses.
A band or orchestra usually has a prescribed dress code and football teams all wear the same “gear” as well. Concert dress like black tuxedos remains fairly traditional, although it would be interesting if the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the New York Philharmonic chose to wear different colors like their football playing colleagues. Both groups even take a long break in the middle of their activity, in the form of halftime and intermission.
The fact is, most of us don’t have the size, speed, or physical gifts to perform as a football player. But playing in a band or orchestra, at any level, is a wonderful way to understand how groups of people can achieve great things when they work together while appreciating the different skills that are necessary to make it all happen. And after a good concert, the whole audience gets to go home happy because no one had to see their team lose!