The word orchestra is greek in origin and refers to the area in front of a theatre stage, where the chorus would be standing to perform. This definition is extremely fitting, as most commonly, nowadays, one would see an orchestra accompanying Operas, Ballets and Musical Theatre productions.
An orchestra is a large group of musicians which play together in what is known as an instrumental ensemble. It usually consists of instruments from the different instrument families e.g. Violin, Cello – from the String family; Oboe, Flute – from the Woodwind family and the French horn from the Brass family. Percussion instruments such as drums can also be found in an orchestra, with them being grouped together in different sections.
Within the orchestra there is an accepted hierarchy which is followed, in both the orchestra itself and within each instrument group. The leader of an orchestra is known as a conductor. He/she stands at the front, facing the orchestra, and is responsible for giving all the musicians instructions throughout the performance. In each group their is a musician known as a principal which is responsible for leading the group or playing solos. In the violins section, the principal is known as ‘the leader’; he/she is not only the leader of the strings section in general but is also considered to be the second in command of the entire orchestra. This musician can always be found on the lefthand side of the conductor.
As centuries went by and music evolved into different periods, so did the orchestra. Orchestras vary in size depending on what period the music is from e.g. orchestras from the Baroque or Classical period are smaller than those from the Romantic onwards. The size can vary, with the largest known orchestra to have 120 members.