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So while practicing Chopin's Sonata no.2, I decided to study a bit of writing a Concerto. But there is this notation that always leaves me clueless, which is the "Tutti" and "Solo" notation. I searched the internet for answers, so I found it on Wikipedia. It said that "Tutti" is notated when the composer wants the whole orchestra to play with the soloist. And "Solo" is notated when the composer wants a section to stop playing except for the principal instruments (e.g. principal violinist).

So I watched a performance so I could understand more, but then I realized that when the Orchestra came to the part where it indicates "Solo", the whole section still played but the composer also notated "p" for the rest of the orchestra, except for the soloist. So the whole orchestra is playing quietly with the soloist even when it's notated "solo"? Or does it mean something else? Can anyone explain to me?

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In an orchestral context, solo indeed means that the section leader or principal should play on their own, and tutti instructs the rest of the section to start playing again.

If the composer has written 'solo' for one of the orchestral instruments, and at the same time has written a passage for the main soloist, then yes, they are supposed to play together. This is one way of varying the texture of the music in a concerto.

In some cases, you might see 'soli', which typically means that the entire section has an important tune (and hence that everyone else plays p, like in the concerto you mention). The fact that you say it is written 'solo' and not 'soli' might be down to the edition of the score used, performance preference, or artistic licence.

Indeed, there is some flexibility in how the terms are used, and often it's up to the conductor to interpret how solos should be played. There might also be discrepancies between different editions, as publishers might interpret markings differently. Maybe you could check different recordings or editions of the score, if they are available, in order to make comparisons.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that some composers might be clearer than others in their instructions: some might explicitly write out how parts should be divided. Take the famous cello quintet 'solo' at the start of Rossini's overture to William Tell (full cello solo at this link):

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Other composers might be a lot less clear in their instructions.

  • I found this page, it says "Soli" is a directive to perform the indicated passage of a composition with an entire section of an ensemble as opposed to the directive solo where only one member of the section performs. – Isaac Yang Hao Tung Nov 26 '16 at 11:28
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'Solo' can mean many things. It might mean you play completely alone. Or that the rest of (say) the Violin I section drop out or play something else. It might mean you play in a group of five ('William Tell' cello ensemble opening). It might merely mean 'You've got the tune!'

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While the word 'solo' means 'on your own', in an orchestral situation, most instruments which play only single note tunes (most instruments?) won't play unaccompanied for more than a bar or three. Piano and organ are different, in that they can accompany themselves far better. So, 'solo' often means that instrument takes the lead melody, whilst being accompanied, often more quietly, by the orchestra, section of orchestra, or band.

There are times in smaller groups and bands, where tutti stops and there is a bass or drum solo, where that one player continues alone, until the others come back in, or there's no audience left...

  • So does that mean when the composer indicates "Solo", the soloist still gets to play with the orchestra? – Isaac Yang Hao Tung Nov 26 '16 at 9:47
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    Yes,... or... no ! More often than not accompanied, but 'taking the lead tune'. – Tim Nov 26 '16 at 9:50
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Tutti & Solo notation

From the perspective of an amateur player: basson in amateur symphony orchestra.

As example, we recently played the Mozart A major Clarinetto Concerto. Here the music alternates between the solo clarinet and the orchestra. Every player has a carefully created part, my was bassoon 1 as there was a bassoon 2 as well. Only the director has a full score, showing all the instruments. You may look onto these parts on www.imslp.org.

In my part it says Solo in several places. This indiciets that the clarinet plays the main part. I then listen to the clarinet and support the phrasing and intonation of the solo part as best as I can. The clarinet is free to do tempo changes and play stronger or softer. The player may elect to interpret the written notes in order to create music. The purpose of the whole orchestra in these areas is to be a background to the solo, supporting. In my part, if I cannot hear the clarinet, I need to play softer. In effect the solo player leads the orchestra. If, not always, we have a director, he will follow the solist.

In some places it says Tutti. Here the orchestra plays the main part. The orchestra, including me, will play stronger. We, the orchestra, might add a bit more emotion, more vibrato, playing a bit more "look here". The leader of the orchestra will be the director or the first violin player, the concert master. I always try to position myself in order to see the concert master in order to be able to follow.

In a classical solo concerto, the lead changes between the soloist and the orchestra. In a symphony on the other hand, the lead changes between different instruments. If I find the notation solo in my part it will mean that I take the lead, this is "my" solo. It is very rare to see the notation tutti in a symphony.

In effect, the part I get is carefully prepared to help me play in the correct way.

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