How to Build an Orchestra

Image of How to Build an Orchestra
Release Date: 
December 28, 2020
Crocodile Books
Reviewed by: 

“This is an inspired book that will motivate young readers to learn more about orchestral instruments and the wonder of the music an orchestra can make.”

When attending an orchestral concert, it’s easy to think that the orchestra always was—that it sprang, so to speak, fully formed from the head of Zeus. Of course, as readers learn in this remarkable book, building an orchestra is a complex creative process involving many talented people.

The process may be complex, but Mary Auld’s clear writing and Elisa Paganelli’s delightful illustrations make it all very clear. They teamed in collaboration with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), and the book includes downloadable sound tracks of different musical pieces performed by the orchestra; young readers can listen to the music referred to in the book so they can more fully understand what they’re reading.

For example, in a double page spread, the author explains that music can tell stories, make you cry or smile, make you dance, and it can express feelings you find hard—or impossible—to put into words. The illustrations show the LSO’s conductor Simon Rattle reacting to different music scores, while the sound tracts play pieces that reflects each mood. The text encourages young readers to decide which piece Simon is hearing in each of the five illustrations.

For the concert he is planning, Simon decides on two pieces of music. He begins to build his orchestra, calling for auditions. He’ll need 84 musicians, including first and second violins, violas, cellos and double bases in the string section, a flock of woodwinds, brass players, percussion instruments such as drums, cymbals, and a tam-tam (a large, hanging metal disk you hit with a padded beater), and a special section for a harp and celeste.

Simon begins with the heart of the orchestra, the strings. We learn that string instruments can be played two ways: by pulling the bow across them, or by plucking them, and that the smaller the stringed instrument, the higher the sound it makes.

The woodwinds are next—to add color to the music. The author explains, “Each woodwind instrument has its own special sound. They can play the melody or may add pretty trills and harmonies. In some orchestral pieces, they seem to talk to each other and to the strings, exchanging little phrases of music just like a conversation.”

Then it’s time to audition the brass instruments. “Simon is getting excited now. With the strings and woodwind, he can produce sweet melodies and exquisite harmonies. But now he wants to add drama—and a lot of noise.”

The percussion section features a wide range of instruments that make sound by being hit, shaken, or scraped. These bells, drums, tambourines, and others add a huge variety of sounds, and can heighten the drama of a piece or create additional atmosphere. In the sound track, the timpani begin the finale of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 with intense, pulsating drama. Other times a drum can sound a warning, indicating anger or danger.

Readers learn that “Timpani can be tuned to particular notes. These drums can play the melody, the harmony, and the rhythm.” And “To change the note on a drum, the timpanist uses a foot pedal to tighten or loosen its skin.”

Even the page explaining the familiar piano is rich with fascinating information for young readers. “There are 88 different keys attached to 88 different hammers to play 88 different pitches.”  Then there’s the celeste, another keyboard instrument that makes a tinkling bell-like notes similar to a glockenspiel. Even if you’ve never heard of a glockenspiel, the text makes it clear what it sounds like.

The auditions are finally over and the conductor and first violinist have selected their orchestra. Then begin the rehearsals. The author compares an orchestra practicing to the teamwork required by a football team. “In rehearsals, the orchestra [members] get to know the music, how each other plays, and they also get to know their boss—the conductor!”

The first piece they play is “Boléro” by Maurice Ravel. As the author explains, “It is a very intense piece, with very rigid timing, that builds and builds to a dramatic climax. It was written in 1928 for a ballerina. Imagine her dancing to the relentless rhythm.”

The trick in the rehearsals is the get the timing absolutely right. “The piece crescendos—gets louder and louder—as more instruments play. They must all come in at exactly the right time.” With that explanation, readers will be eager to hear the symphony’s performance of “Boléro” on the downloaded music track.

The opening night of the performance arrives at last. “The hall is packed and the audience watches excitedly as the orchestra comes on stage.”

They first perform “Boléro” followed by Beethoven’s “Pastoral Symphony.” “The listeners are carried away on a musical adventure. They hear music that tells a story, music that makes them smile, music that makes them dance, music that makes them jump, music that makes them cry and feel a sense of bliss.”

Geared to the 5–7-year-old audience, this is an inspired book that will motivate young readers to learn more about orchestral instruments and the wonder of the music an orchestra can make.