Orchestras : are they just large covers bands in suits?

When you hear a four-piece band play a version of ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Stairway to Heaven’, why is it perceived as any different to a fifty-seven piece playing a version of ‘Symphony No 4 in A’?

There must be a difference between the two, because everyone assumes that there is. But it’s a pretty subjective question.

Is it the number of performers? I’ve seen trios and quartets playing classical, and fifteen-piece bands playing funk, so it’s not a matter of scale.

Is it the presence of a conductor? Many so-called ‘big bands’ had conductors, and one of the most active and successful orchestras today (Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra) doesn’t. So it can’t be that either.

It’s certainly not the presence of posh frocks and tuxedos on either the performers or their audience.

Many bands, and many orchestras, play a wide range of musical genres as well, so it’s not down to that.

It’s vexing….

Now, I play in a covers band, and have seen loads – as well as having seen a fair number of original artists. And in many cases, I feel that seeing a good covers band in a small venue is often a better experience than seeing a ‘real’ group from the back of some soulless enormodome. Certainly when the original recording artists have died, split up or just decided that they have finally been on enough farewell tours, covers bands are a way for people to experience the music played live – even if not played by the people who first performed it.

One thing is for sure – I’d far rather see an honest covers band than a group who think they’re being original but are merely rehashing old clichés.

In that sense, orchestras (and in fact all classical musicians) are doing exactly the same thing: playing music created by other people. Bigger venues, maybe, with less sawdust on the floor and chickenwire strung in front of the stage, but fundamentally the same job.

But everyone assumes that there IS a difference. So what is it?
According to someone whose post I read somewhere on the internet, the difference is that “in the classical tradition, the composition and performance of the music are two separate processes, linked only by the score on paper, so there is no expectation that a classical performer is also a composer or improviser; whereas in pop, rock and jazz, most musicians can jam, improvise and contribute creatively to the music even if they don’t consider themselves composers or songwriters.”

But to be frank to this unknown contributor to my blog (and I appreciate there’s no way they can defend their position), that’s garbage.

None of the musicians in an orchestra lay any claim to be composers or songwriters. Neither is there the expectation that the members of a covers band can write songs (some cruel people suggest that this is why they are in covers bands in the first place). Many guitarists, keyboard players, drummers even, rely on tabs to play a song, just as the members of an orchestra have the sheet music. The covers band play music written and composed by someone they have almost certainly never met, and so does the orchestra. In fact, there’s no compulsion for the recording artist of the original song being the person who wrote the thing. Most bands throughout the past sixty years have employed songwriters or just plain bought the rights to perform the songs. So the link between the writer/composer, the performers, and the medium through which it is understood and delivered is the same for all.

So we’re back with the same question: Is an Orchestra simply a large-scale, well-dressed, and better paid covers band? I’d argue that yes, they are.

Let me know what you think……


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