I remember at college, attending a regular orchestral training class with a well known leader of orchestras. He told us that often when playing in a professional string section he would make a sound he would never have made whilst playing a solo. When the whole section was required to play a velvety pianissimo they would literally tickle the string, individually producing a hazy, nondescript sound. Such a sound would have no place in any other situation; be it playing a string quartet, concerto, or even folk fiddle or jazz. And yet when 16 players all lightly touched their strings with the same almost imperceptible sound, the effect was of a truly special pianissimo. You see, if all 16 players individually played the type of pianissimo they would play at home, the overall effect would be way too loud with way too much substance of sound.
The same is also true in a recording session. Even though the circumstance is different, the means of achieving the right sound is the same. One danger here is that in a dry booth, the lightness required for a true orchestral pianissimo may sound horrible under the player’s ear. He or she must trust that when all the players deliver the same sound, then the misty, veiled pianissimo will come across – and once a little reverb is added the end result will be magical!
This is one of the most important orchestral techniques a player can develop (as well as being one of the most difficult to grasp), as it requires a unanimity of purpose from every single member of a section. It is something which student and amateur orchestras frequently struggle with. It’s also an area where the conductor can make a difference: for only by insisting on a true piano and pianissimo can the whole section be persuaded to think, feel and play as one.