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Orchestration Tips

There are several really good books on orchestration. Samuel Adler's book sits next to my workstation and I refer to it often as a reference. But for me, the best instruction comes from the study of how composers orchestrate their own music. Maurice Ravel, who is celebrated as an orchestrator, wrote several pieces first for piano before realizing them for orchestra. One can see how certain pianistic effects are translated into orchestral texture and can also learn how music which appears difficult in piano form is actually a simpler harmonic idea written with energy for the piano (tremolos for example). Ravel also orchestrated the music of others and a study of his problem-solving techniques

Musical thievery and 12 steps

After Bach, the composer I’ve spent the most time with is Claude Debussy. In fact, the first two arrangements I made for large brass ensemble in the 80’s were Fugue in g minor (Bach) and Girl with the Flaxen Hair (Debussy). I’ve revisited the Debussy a number of times, partly to just tweak the instrumentation, but also because I used to be a chronic reviser (thanks, Finale). The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, right? Girl with the Flaxen Hair was low hanging fruit as far as the music of Debussy is concerned – there must be several hundred adaptations for various instrumentations. Why not? It’s a gorgeous piece of music. But I developed an appetite for his music – not

Tuba, or not tuba

Tortured play on words - sorry. I've had the luxury of writing for some fantastic musicians who happened to play the euphonium. John Daley was principal trombone of the Denver / Colorado Symphony for close to 40 years, He was also one of my teachers for a brief, but glorious period in the mid 80's. After John, Gerard Morris played with us for a several years. Gerard, who is now the director of bands at the University of Puget Sound, is a former member of the United States Marine Band stationed in Hawaii. Aaron Tindall is assistant professor of tuba and euphonium at the Frost School of Music, University of Miami, and played with us briefly during the years he was working on his doctorate at C

Willow, Willow

Many years ago, I was walking past Bill Stanley’s trombone studio at CU Boulder and heard a most remarkable thing. I stuck my head in the partially open door and discovered he was listening to a piece from Offroad, a new solo CD by then associate principal trombone of the New York Philharmonic, James Markey. If you have not heard this remarkable recording, it will be a worthwhile addition to your library. Click here (will take you to the Hickey’s Music Store site) The music was a Grainger song setting of an old English folk tune called Willow, Willow. I’m a little bit of a Grainger nut, but this was a piece with which I was not familiar. The copyright date is 1912, but John Bird’s fantastic

Huzzah! to the Queen's Chapel

Renaissance keyboard music is really fun to arrange. The simplicity of the music (well, at least some of it) lends itself to crafty solutions to make the music, dare I say it, more interesting than its original form. I've orchestrated quite a few of these pieces now for our instrumentation - music by William Byrd, Giles Farnaby, and Sir John Bull. These composers all shared at least one thing in common; they were court composers to Queen Elizabeth. It was considered a great honor to be included in the Chapel Royal and there is a long rich history of great English composers who, at one time or another during their career, performed service to the Chapel. Later, composers such as Henry Purcell

My best chord

There's nothing quite like a well voiced, well spaced, well balanced chord written for brass when played in tune. Great brass players produce a resonant sound that is full of fundamental and overtones. When all of that lines up, giddy audience satisfaction is guaranteed. This is the original organ introduction to Henry Purcell's choral anthem on "Rejoice in the Lord, Always" also known as the Bell Symphony: I used this as a contrasting movement in a suite of music by Purcell and Jeremiah Clarke called Music from Chapel Royal which includes 3 famous trumpet voluntaries, a short fanfare (Intrada from the Indian Queen), and Purcell's Rondeau from Abdelezar (that Britten made famous as the theme

Euphonic Sounds

The temptation when making a brass arrangement of late 19th & early 20th century marches is to take the road more traveled - to "arrange" these musical gems from the original band parts by simply eliminating the woodwind voices. The result often still sounds 'band-like' and not in the good way. The arrangement will be too thick, too loud, too harsh, too many pointless doublings, and offer very little contrast; musical, tonal, dynamic, or otherwise. Likewise, ragtime seems pretty straightforward - tuba plays the bass line (maybe doubled with bass trombone or euphonium), trombones and/or horns play the off beats, and the trumpets play the melody. Yawn. These seemingly simple tunes are an orche

Arranging with intent

Many years ago, my friend and colleague Bill Stanley (professor of trombone, University of Colorado at Boulder) pointed me towards an article that profoundly influenced my approach to playing, teaching, and even arranging. The Doctrine of Intent, written by Nashville Symphony principal trombonist Lawrence Borden, was a game changer for me. Arranging with intent is critical to the quality of your chart. When you commit notes to paper, there can (and will) be mistakes. But there should be very few unintended consequences if you write with intent. This demands something deeper from the arranger than just assigning parts. It requires a sense of what each component of the music is going to sound

Writer's block

I wrote recently about starting with the bass line when beginning work on an arrangement. That is generally a true statement. However, there is another technique which can be useful when mapping out your arrangement. Work from the obvious. That is to say, once you have all the correct notes roughly entered into your arrangement, go through and place a few (or many) phrases into the obvious voices. You're not stuck with those choices - changes can be made later. However, a bass clef melodic idea below the staff, or one that hovers near the top of the treble clef staff (for example) have only a few viable basic arranging solutions (excluding for a moment the ways you can color those solutions,

Thorny textures

For those that aren't familiar, Grainger frequently reworked his own compositions for instrumentations other than the original. Handel in the Strand was originally composed in 1912 as a piano trio (piano, violin & cello with optional viola). It was later reworked in 1930 for piano solo, for orchestra and piano in 1932, and then again in 1947 for 2 pianos 4 hands. The military band version(s) with which many are most familiar was not made by Grainger, but rather either by Goldman or Sousa. There is also a different orchestral version that Grainger may have made for a recording he made with Leopold Stokowski for which he played piano. I could go on - there is a long list of versions of this pi

Voice leading - an introduction

It is cool and damp here in Colorado this morning - it feels like fall. The sound of (gulp) drum lines fills the air. My high school band director is widely regarded as one of the best to have ever walked the face of the planet. Larry Wallace had a Symphonic Band, a Symphony Winds, an Orchestra and a couple of jazz bands in his program. We did have a marching band, but the band learned its show during a relatively short camp in the days prior to the start of class - we spent zero time on marching band once classes started other than to (grudgingly) show up at football games. Once the school year began, curriculum took over and the bands sat down and started rehearsing the first concerts of t

A quick word about MIDI

MIDI has come a long way in 30 years and there are some really good MIDI sampled sounds. But music that sounds right coming out of your computer still might disappoint you on the band stand. Balance, tone color, voicing, and voice leading are all critically important to the quality of a chart and, unless you have a ton of time on your hands to tweak every element of the MIDI output from your score, MIDI will lull you into a false sense of security on these elements. Balance, color, and voicing can best be learned through study, experimentation, and experience. Music that you really like to listen to is likely spot on, so grab a score and try to figure out why it sounds good. Conversely, if s

Four Dimensional Texture

This blog is a way to collect my thoughts and 'ship em.' This is modeled after the blogging philosophy of Seth Godin (one of my daily affirmations) who sometimes publishes books which are a collection of his blog entries. That also means that I'm creating a structure on which I'll develop more substance as this evolves. It's also how I arrange - kind of. None of what I'm writing is etched in stone and it certainly isn't the definitive end all of arranging. On occasion, I'll find a piece that just screams some particular way to exploit the brass ensemble that is in conflict with the SATB approach I've already discussed. And I'll scurry to the computer and enter the concept before I can forge

Damned by faint praise

In about 1843, Hector Berlioz wrote in his famous Treatise on Instrumentation "The bass tuba possesses an immense advantage over all other low wind instruments. Its quality of tone, incomparably more noble than that of ophicleide, bombardons, and serpents, has something of the vibration of the timbre of trombones. It has less agility than the ophicleides; but it's sonority is more powerful than theirs, and its low compass is the largest existing in the orchestra." Berlioz wrote almost exclusively for ophicleide, as this was the primary bass voice instrument of the brass family in France at that time. The tuba had only existed for about 8 years (the Wieprecht/Moritz patent was filed in 1835)

Opportunities to write for the alto trombone

I know some trombonists who just felt a disturbance in the force. My brass ensemble has 6 treble instruments and 5 bass instruments, which can be assigned as 3 soprano instruments (or 1 soprano and 2 mezzo soprano), 3 alto instruments, 3 tenor instruments (or 2 tenor and one baritone) and 2 bass instruments. This information is really only useful as a preliminary way of getting my work organized. After, I look for ways to 'violate' these registrations that will add interest to an orchestration. These rough classifications used as a baseline, can serve to understand some scoring exceptions that add spice to your orchestration: extremes of the trumpet range horn in the soprano or bass register

What mouthpiece do you play?

Most of the trumpet players I play with usually play C trumpet in public, so I used to write only C trumpet parts. But there was some push back when I first started publishing, and many requests for B flat parts. Because everything I published back then was copied by hand, this was a real pain in the ass. It occurred to me that pretty much every trumpet player on the face of the planet has a B flat trumpet. In my experience, many pros even warm up on their B flat before switching to C for the day because it feels like 'home.' So I went back to writing B flat trumpet parts with the thinking that most trumpet players that owned a C and preferred to play everything on their C were pretty good a

With tinny blasts on tiny trumpets

The title of this entry is a portion of one of my favorite quotes (see below) by cartoonist Walt Kelly. Of course, this is not at all how I think of the trumpet, but it got you to read this far. Mission accomplished. There are a few basic ways I view the trumpet in the brass ensemble: treble clef workhorse, brilliance, and color. I think the workhorse and brilliance comments may speak for themselves. Other than mutes and the expected glorious trumpet sound, color variation in the trumpet section is primarily derived through use of the piccolo trumpet or the flugelhorn. I enter the soprano line in the Trumpet 2 stave of my template. And then I'll start moving things around - this is the fun p

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