As a professional musician, I have what some may call a weird cross-section of interests as I love the NFL and classical music, among other things. While it may seem like an odd combination, the NFL and a symphony orchestra actually have a lot in common. Both institutions require intense audition procedures for the performers to earn a contract. Both institutions feature high pressure, live performance-based activities. When a performer can no longer perform at a high level they either retire, or they are replaced (usually by younger, cheaper options). The performers dedicate hours and hours honing their craft for much of their life, and continue to practice and maintain their abilities throughout their careers. In fact, some NFL players have even participated in some classical music events. Not too long ago Larry Fitzgerald tried his hand at conducting. Former Colts receiver Ben Utecht sang with the Colorado symphony. When Baltimore won the AFC Championship last season and made their way to the Super Bowl, some members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra took it upon themselves to compose a new “fight song” to encourage the members of the team. Classical music and sports have been paired before, as anyone who has heard the famous piece Casey at the Bat (as narrated by Darth Vader!) can attest. And in the most direct combination of the NFL and classical music, believe it or not, but there is an NFL Players Choir featuring current and former NFL Players, which is more of a gospel choir, but has collaborated with symphony orchestras before. So, the NFL and the symphony orchestra is not as strange a pairing as one might first assume.
In a recent open thread on a Vikings blog I frequent there was a discussion of film composer John Williams, and the joke came up that the trombone was the “Packers” of the orchestra and that the oboe was the “Vikings” of the orchestra. As a Vikings (and NFL in general) fan and a current member of two regional symphonies I felt inspired to take this joke all the way to its logical conclusion. Yes, I am going to assign every instrument of the orchestra to an NFL team, until all 32 teams are represented by their most appropriate symphonic instrument. I must point out though, I disagree with the idea that the Packers are deserving of the trombone, and there is just no way that the Vikings are the oboe of the orchestra, as I’ll explain below.
As many know there are five distinct “families” in the orchestra: Woodwinds, Brass, Keyboard, Percussion and Strings. It just so happens that we can group those families together to create a “Wind” conference to represent the NFC teams (Woodwinds and Brass) and a “Percussive” conference (Percussion, Keyboard and Strings) to represent the AFC teams. While this is sort of an arbitrary assignment, it just so happens that there are 16 instruments in each conference if it’s divided this way. Because of the length of this article I have split it into two parts, so this first one will focus on the NFC Teams and the Woodwind and Brass instruments. So, in all seriousness I present to you the NFL Symphony Orchestra, in score order.
NFC Teams -Woodwinds and Brass
Piccolo – New Orleans Saints
This instrument is one of the smallest of the orchestra, but is without a doubt the highest and most ear-piercing of them all. The piccolo was first introduced in the Romantic era (mid-19th century), but is probably most known for their solo in John Philip Sousa’s famous band march The Stars and Stripes Forever. I’ve never met a 100% sane piccolo player. And therefore, the New Orleans Saints are appropriate, not only for their existence as an expansion team in the 1960s which were added to the NFL later than many franchises, but also because of their recent time in the limelight with a Super Bowl win and several playoff appearances. This is perhaps a bit of personal bias, but I find the piccolo and the Saints to be equally annoying.
Flute – Arizona Cardinals
One of the first instruments of the orchestra, this instrument developed from the recorder (which many people that have had elementary school music may be familiar with). The flute is a little larger and a bit lower sounding that the piccolo, and is one of the most easily recognizable instruments of the symphony. It is almost always gets the melody in a piece of music, however due to its lack of volume output; flutes are easily drowned out by larger and louder instruments. The Cardinals were formed in 1898, and were one of two founding members of the NFL! They were originally from Chicago, before they moved to St. Louis in the 1960s, and then to Phoenix in the 1980s. They’ve won the Super Bowl twice, and it’s fitting to be associated with such a prominent orchestral instrument as the flute, especially considering that their mascot can whistle a high pitched tune or two as well. But lately, they’ve been drowned out by the bigger and better NFL teams.
Oboe – Detroit Lions
Like the flute, the oboe is a founding member of the symphony orchestra. It too gets the glory of having the melody frequently, but is a fickle instrument and is very difficult to make sound good. Any good oboe player is also a master of reed making, which makes or breaks this instrument. The Lions are a franchise that hasn’t been very good since the merger. But initially they were a force to be reckoned with, especially in the 1950s. But, just like any good oboe needs a good reed maker guiding the instrument, the Lions haven’t had a decent GM/Owner guiding their franchise since Ralph Wilson left in 1959.
English Horn – Saint Louis Rams
The English Horn is like a larger and lower version of the oboe and was added to the orchestra shortly after the Oboe in the late 1700s at the tail end of the Classical area. It primarily plays more in a supporting role, but does occasionally get to shine as a melody/solo instrument. The Rams were an early franchise created in the 1930s. They’ve found a bit of success with three Super Bowl wins, but since the merger have only 1 championship. Like the English Horn as a support instrument, they serve the NFL mostly as a punching bag for other teams to ascend to the playoffs.
Clarinet – Green Bay Packers
Like the flute and oboe, it was a pioneering member of the orchestra and is frequently featured as a melody instrument. Like all woodwind instruments the clarinet can play extremely fast notes, and can wow audiences with its capacity for soft, subtle dynamics. But it can easily be overshadowed by louder instruments. The Packers have been a great team recently thanks to the wowing and subtly superb performances of quarterbacks like Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, and have even won a few recent Super Bowls as a result. But they’ve also been the victim of being overshadowed by more dominant franchises with disappointing playoff losses to superior teams. Just as the clarinet is one of the most impressive and dominant instruments of the woodwind section and a popular orchestral instrument, the Packers happen to own the most league championships and are one of the more popular NFL teams as well.
Bass Clarinet – Seattle Seahawks
The Bass Clarinet is like a bigger, lower version of the clarinet and was added to the orchestra in the late Romantic era, but wasn’t featured prominently until the 20th century. It is rarely used in a soloist or melodic role, and its dark tone color is typically used to fill out harmonies and provide bottom support to the other woodwind instruments. The Seahawks were also a later addition to the NFL, created in 1976 as an expansion team. It is particularly fitting for them to be associated with an instrument that rarely is featured or gets the limelight, because they similarly have not won any league championships. They have had numerous playoff appearances however.
Bassoon – Philadelphia Eagles
The cousin of the oboe, it too is a double-reed instrument and is difficult to play in tune and with a good sound. It takes a good reed maker to master the bassoon. It looks like a bazooka and sounds like a duck, but it was the founding member of the low end of the woodwind section. The Eagles are a franchise that found early success with three Pre-merger league championships. They have made countless playoff appearances, but haven’t won the League Championship since 1960. Just like the bassoon needs a good reed maker, it takes a skilled head coach to lead a team to the Promised Land, and the Eagles are trying out a new one after Andy Reid failed to deliver.
Contra Bassoon – Minnesota Vikings
This huge instrument is like an oversized bassoon and is capable of playing in the extreme low registers, and wasn’t added to the orchestra until the Romantic era when composers were actively trying to expand the orchestra. I’ve never once heard a contra bassoon melody, but they can crank out a squawking bass line with the best of them. Like the Contra Bassoon, the Vikings were an expansion team of the 1960s, and enjoyed limited success with Coach Bud Grant. But they have never won the big one. They have always fielded a competitive team and can hang with the best teams, even consistently making the playoffs in every era (27 playoffs in 52 years). But like the Contra Bassoon, they rarely get the full glory. Lastly, as the Contra Bassoon hangs out in the extreme low registers, the Vikings play in a climate featuring extreme low temperatures, so the connection is apt.
Saxophone – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The saxophone is the bastard of the woodwind family. It’s actually made of brass, but has a single reed like a clarinet, and the finger combinations are nearly identical to the clarinet. It doesn’t really have much of a role in the symphony, outside of a few token pieces, like Ravel’s annoying Bolero. I hate the saxophone and it’s only included because I needed another instrument to get to an even 32. I don’t necessarily hate the Tampa Bay Buccaneers like I do the Saxophone, but aside from one token Super Bowl win in 2002, what have the Bucs achieved really…a few playoffs appearances? So as one of the newer teams in the NFC, added in 1976, they are just like the Saxophone as a newer instrument of the orchestra.
Horn – Chicago Bears
The horn is one of the founding members of the orchestra, known for its outdoor pastoral connections to the hunt. A versatile instrument, the horn is able to play high, low, loud, soft and gets the melody and accompaniment with equal frequency. However, like the oboe, it’s a fickle instrument that is difficult to play. The horn frequently chips notes at the most inopportune moments and takes a highly skilled musician to play well. The Bears were the other founding member of the NFL, and have 9 championships to their name and like the Horn, they are well acquainted with glory. However, they also have recently taken to choking at key moments, either missing the playoffs on tiebreakers, or attempting to win the Super Bowl with Rex Grossman at QB. Also, since the horn is associated with outdoor and pastoral settings, it’s only fitting that one of the few teams with an outdoor stadium be associated with the Horn (and I won’t even mention going on a bear hunt with a hunting horn…oh wait, I just did). And lastly, as such a versatile and well-known instrument it’s only fitting that the Bears, with their 2nd most league championships be associated with the horn.
Trumpet – Washington Redskins
Another founding member of the orchestra, the trumpet is the most regal and sometimes pompous instrument in the orchestra. The trumpet can be played higher and louder than most other instruments, and looks to lay waste to the woodwinds that always sit in front of their bells. A fanfare instrument initially, the trumpet has taken on more of a melodic and soloist role as the evolution of the orchestra has unfolded. With the Redskins situated in our Nation’s capital, it’s more than appropriate for a fanfare instrument with pompous connotations to be associated with a city filled with politicians. The Redskins also have won three Super Bowls, and two more league championships, although they have only made three playoff appearances in the last 13 years.
Cornet – Dallas Cowboys
The cornet was a later addition to the orchestra with the invention of the valve in the 19th century. It tried to overtake the trumpet as the dominant, soloist instrument, but due to its darker, muted tone, it couldn’t compete. Its smaller size makes it well suited to children who want to learn the trumpet these days. And how fitting for the Cowboys to be in the same division as the Redskins, since the cornet and trumpet are so much alike? As an expansion team in the 1960s, the Cowboys resemble the cornet as an instrument that was also later added to the orchestra. The Cornet has many pieces that feature them like the trumpet, and like the Redskins the Cowboys also have 5 league championships to their name. The cornet is a bit of an overrated instrument, and it seems fitting for the Cowboys to be associated with it.
Trombone – New York Giants
The trombone was added to the orchestra in the late classical era by Beethoven himself, and frequently conjures up images of the sacred and supernatural. Its tenor voicing makes it a versatile instrument able to cover the melody and support the harmony. It is maybe the loudest instrument in the entire Wind conference, and has a very distinctive sound. The Giants are tied for 3rd place in most league championships and are deserving of such a distinctive instrumental association as the trombone. The Giants were a slightly later addition to the NFL in 1925, but still one of the first much like the trombone. The Giants biggest rival is the Eagles, and much like the Trombone and Bassoon compete for register space in the lower tenor range, the Giants and Eagles battle it out for dominance of the NFC East.
Bass Trombone – Atlanta Falcons
The lower and larger version of the trombone, the Bass Trombone lives in the extreme low register. Very rarely does the Bass Bone (as players like to call it) get the melody, but it takes a skilled musician to control the low register and play in tune. As the Bass Trombone rarely gets any glory or melody lines, it seems appropriate to assign them to the Falcons, who also have yet to win a league championship. Also, as a relative newcomer to the NFL as an expansion team in the 1960s, it further resembles the Bass Trombone as a newcomer to the orchestra in the Romantic era.
Euphonium – Carolina Panthers
Like the saxophone, the Euphonium doesn’t have a permanent home in the orchestra. It’s like a mini version of the tuba and occupies the same musical space as the trombone. There are only a few select pieces, primarily from the late Romantic era, that feature the Euphonium prominently. Typically they are relegated to playing in concert bands. The perfect fit for one of the newest instruments of the orchestra happens to be the newest franchise in the NFC, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Their team is in pretty bad shape right now. Just like the Euphonium has yet to become much of an orchestral instrument, the Jaguars have a long way to go to be respected as an NFL franchise.
Tuba – San Francisco 49ers
The lowest of the brass instruments, the Tuba was added to the orchestra in the Romantic era along with the cornet when the valve was invented. The tuba can play quite loudly and there are a few moments where the Tuba is allowed to shine, even though most of the time they are confined to the bass lines and low notes of the chord. The San Francisco 49ers team was formed in 1946 and wasn’t added to the NFL until 1950. They’ve won their fair share of league championships, but haven’t been relevant since Joe Montana in the 1980s, until recently. The 49ers mascot is associated with the gold rush, and how fitting for them to be associated with the largest brass instrument that shines with the most gold color?
Stayed tuned for Part 2 – The AFC: Percussion, Keyboard and Strings!