one of my earliest orchestration tips

When I was in junior college I was quite the precious kid…only 17 at the time and already writing arrangements for the “stage band”. One of the professors was a guy named Claire Johnson.

Turns out Claire was a giant in the world of concert band arrangers. I never knew it because I was a piano player. He had gone to USC and had many offers to work in Hollywood but chose a small town life for himself instead. In retrospect I think he may have made a good choice…Hollywood is a tough town. His focus(and expertise) was to write for specific “grade” levels of ability. As a result he had a very successful career becoming the most prolific junior and senior high arranger in the country.

He said something to me in passing that stuck with me to this day. “Know how every note you write will be performed”. This little tidbit of information has proved immensely valuable through the years. What he was referring to is this: If you know how something is fingered (on a wind instrument) or bowed or struck you could determine how difficult it was to play.

Why is this important?

As a writer you live and die based upon how well a piece is performed. If you write something that may be great but nobody can play then you are toast…you won’t work again…nor, as importantly, the musicians will lose respect for you and will not go the extra mile to try to make your music sound good. It’s that human factor that makes all the difference whether or not you are a singer or an instrumentalist.

So, I took a class designed for music education that required me to learn an instrument from each musical family each quarter. I had a ball…it was a lot of fun. Everybody else thought I was nuts.

By the time I reached Hollywood I could tell you how most instruments were played, what to avoid, and what was easy. This had an enormous impact on my career. Because I had put in the time the musicians gave me a lot of support right off the bat. As a result even if what I had written was less than great…they did the best they could to make it sound great…give it that extra little something…the human touch.

Taking that idea a step further, when I began working with Billy we mostly dealt with woodwind doublers…guys who could play all the woodwind instruments. Billy ALWAYS wanted to know who the players were. He would never give a difficult part to a guy who he knew wasn’t up to the task. There is no value in embarrassing anyone…and the performances always sound better.

Why is this relevant in today’s world?

Well, maybe not so much but there are a couple things to take away here.

1-the orchestra is NOT an extension of a great sample.

2-if you approach using a sequencer/samples/synths from the point of view of “how would a live player play this” your choice of notes, articulations, the way sounds relate to one another will change. Not only will it have a different feel it most likely will sound more natural.

3- if you are lucky enough to get your music played by live musicians you will be amazed at the experience. Making the player’s life easier brings great rewards both for the music you write and the reception you receive from the band or orchestra.


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