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Hello fellow composers,

one problem has struck me hard the last couple of month. I've started to put emphasis on realistically orchestrating my music for actual musicians and have started to read books on the topic. I've started to gain knowledge on the ranges and tone colors of instruments, but I find it hard to make out what is playable for the musician. Basic facts such as: Is it possible to play chords? Can the instrument actually be this silent? Can the musician reach all of the notes at the same time? They give me a hard time.

Does anyone of you kno good lecture that discusses more than the range, color, usual use and notation for instruments? I'm looking for some lecture that discusses what's possible on the instrument, apart from the range or the structure and color of sound. I'd appreciate every but of help :)

(Sorry, but not sure if this is the right category to put this in)

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Study scores. Start with easy ones in the genre you like and get recordings of them. Follow the score line by line. Look up musical terms with which you aren't familiar and watch particularly for "articulation" signs/terms - i.e. the way the instrument should be played, like staccato, pizzicato, arco, cuivré, legato etc. I don't know if there's a book with recordings included so you hear the examples. A book is good for reference but isn't much good for what the examples tell you. But if you go for just a book try to get recordings of examples given.  

Good luck! 

My suggestion is forget one player playing chords for now. You've got more important things to worry about. Don't expect to start out with a major project. Maybe start with string orchestra. Then experiment adding other instruments. Just because some chart says a particular high or low note is within the range of the instrument, doesn't mean it's a good idea to use it in every case. Yes, you need to listen to recordings and follow scores. But a great way to get a feel for how instruments work together is to get yourself into some kind of group. 

Any good book on the subject of orchestration (paper or e-book) will give you the full playing compass of individual instruments but should also provide an indication of their 'normal' playing tessitura. On many wind instruments - particularly brass ones, the outer ranges are really quite difficult - the higher you go the harder it is on the player's embouchure and the more tiring. Specialist pieces like concerti are written to show off the full capability of both the instrument and the performer and require great skill....only the very best players will perform these live - as a general rule don't expect quite so much from orchestral players. Also some exhibition pieces require quite extraordinary abilities, for example on the horn playing one note whilst singing another can throw off a natural harmonic that in turn creates a full triad - nobody would ask for this to be done within an orchestral piece. For real detail about each instrument's capabilities you need to obtain a specialist book on each - for instance you will need to know what trills are/are not playable on woodwinds and what alternative fingerings are available to make difficult passages more playable (although the individual performer will make these decisions for him/herself).

Orchestration takes long and detailed study but so long as you work your way up from duets, via trios and quartets to larger groups of like and mixed groups of instruments you will develop an ear and an inner sense of what will sound effective and what won't. There are some individual bits of knowledge that come from close study that will enable you to orchestrate very effectively. One small example is that virtually all wind instruments overblow at the octave (i.e. play a low note but then purse the lips and blow harder you'll play the same note an octave higher - the clarinet is different and overblows at the twelfth (which is what gives it such a distinctive sound), so different harmonics are produced - this can and will affect the overall sound if say a flute and clarinet play together - this is an extreme example of some of the things you might like to consider depending on the level of expertise you're aiming at.

Effective and thoughtful reading accompanied by recorded sounds to demonstrate what's been written is definitely the way forward. It's a fascinating and (can be) a very enjoyable subject to study - good luck with it.

There are a lot of web sites available, almost always for free, that discuss the playing of individual instruments.  One advantage of these over books is that they often include sound or audio files or videos, so you can hear what various orchestration techniques sound like and even see the hands of the performer.  YouTube also has many videos like this.

Rather than give here  a long list of links which may not be relevant to everyone's interest, I'd suggest doing an internet search on phrases like "playing the clarinet" or "how to play the cello," and similar searches on YouTube.  The only problem will be sorting through the huge number of results to find what you want. 

An internet search on just "orchestration" will return more general sites on the subject, some of which may also be valuable. One basic but useful one is Instrument Studies for Eyes and Ears.  (Your browser needs to have the Flash Player installed for that link to work.)

Thanks a lot for the nice advice. I have already ordered several study scores of Beethoven and Brahms. So I will focus on working through those while listening. Thanks again. 

Have a nice day

Paul

Dane Aubrun said:

Study scores. Start with easy ones in the genre you like and get recordings of them. Follow the score line by line. Look up musical terms with which you aren't familiar and watch particularly for "articulation" signs/terms - i.e. the way the instrument should be played, like staccato, pizzicato, arco, cuivré, legato etc. I don't know if there's a book with recordings included so you hear the examples. A book is good for reference but isn't much good for what the examples tell you. But if you go for just a book try to get recordings of examples given.  

Good luck! 

Thanks for the advice. I will make sure to study scores and maybe get some advice from musicians as well. With a group you mean like an orchestra or a band? It'd actually be cool to participate in such a thing.

Bob Porter said:

My suggestion is forget one player playing chords for now. You've got more important things to worry about. Don't expect to start out with a major project. Maybe start with string orchestra. Then experiment adding other instruments. Just because some chart says a particular high or low note is within the range of the instrument, doesn't mean it's a good idea to use it in every case. Yes, you need to listen to recordings and follow scores. But a great way to get a feel for how instruments work together is to get yourself into some kind of group. 

That is some very useful advise. I haven't tried doing this yet. Also being able to see the playing techniques is going to help me a lot with deciding on what I can do. I will do my research right now. I'm intrigued. Thanks a lot.

Have a nice day Sir

Paul

Jon Corelis said:

There are a lot of web sites available, almost always for free, that discuss the playing of individual instruments.  One advantage of these over books is that they often include sound or audio files or videos, so you can hear what various orchestration techniques sound like and even see the hands of the performer.  YouTube also has many videos like this.

Rather than give here  a long list of links which may not be relevant to everyone's interest, I'd suggest doing an internet search on phrases like "playing the clarinet" or "how to play the cello," and similar searches on YouTube.  The only problem will be sorting through the huge number of results to find what you want. 

An internet search on just "orchestration" will return more general sites on the subject, some of which may also be valuable. One basic but useful one is Instrument Studies for Eyes and Ears.  (Your browser needs to have the Flash Player installed for that link to work.)

The way to go seems to be studying scores and learning by doing. I will definitely do both things. Also thank you for the very detailed answer, there were some things in there I didn't know yet, since I come from a Piano background and only now am starting to understand the topic of strings in its complexity.

Have a nice day and again thanks for the advise!

Paul

Stephen Lines said:

Any good book on the subject of orchestration (paper or e-book) will give you the full playing compass of individual instruments but should also provide an indication of their 'normal' playing tessitura. On many wind instruments - particularly brass ones, the outer ranges are really quite difficult - the higher you go the harder it is on the player's embouchure and the more tiring. Specialist pieces like concerti are written to show off the full capability of both the instrument and the performer and require great skill....only the very best players will perform these live - as a general rule don't expect quite so much from orchestral players. Also some exhibition pieces require quite extraordinary abilities, for example on the horn playing one note whilst singing another can throw off a natural harmonic that in turn creates a full triad - nobody would ask for this to be done within an orchestral piece. For real detail about each instrument's capabilities you need to obtain a specialist book on each - for instance you will need to know what trills are/are not playable on woodwinds and what alternative fingerings are available to make difficult passages more playable (although the individual performer will make these decisions for him/herself).

Orchestration takes long and detailed study but so long as you work your way up from duets, via trios and quartets to larger groups of like and mixed groups of instruments you will develop an ear and an inner sense of what will sound effective and what won't. There are some individual bits of knowledge that come from close study that will enable you to orchestrate very effectively. One small example is that virtually all wind instruments overblow at the octave (i.e. play a low note but then purse the lips and blow harder you'll play the same note an octave higher - the clarinet is different and overblows at the twelfth (which is what gives it such a distinctive sound), so different harmonics are produced - this can and will affect the overall sound if say a flute and clarinet play together - this is an extreme example of some of the things you might like to consider depending on the level of expertise you're aiming at.

Effective and thoughtful reading accompanied by recorded sounds to demonstrate what's been written is definitely the way forward. It's a fascinating and (can be) a very enjoyable subject to study - good luck with it.

The best book on the capabilities of instruments is probably Orchestration, by Cecil Forsyth.

This is a well-known "bible" of the playing characteristics of each instrument.

Cheers,
Jer

Has anyone mentioned just listening to a whole bunch of classical music? My method was to have the radio on at all times, so I was continually soaking in the sounds. Doing that and consulting good orchestration books, with a bit of score reading, is how I proceeded, as I recall. I agree on the Forsyth, if you can find it. I have a copy so old I have to be careful turning the pages. But perhaps it is available in newer editions? But my bible is Walter Piston's book. I also strongly recommend Rimksky-Korsakov's book. He wrote the book on orchestration in more than one sense. Listen to his music, as well as Ravel's and Mozart's. R-K's book has extended sections of his own music, so you can study his scores with reference to specific examples. Debussy's music also has much to offer. All the great composers were good orchestrators, but some better than others. Listen, listen, listen! It's  like writing poetry, or any kind of writing. You read other poets to see how they did it. As for ranges, look for charts that show both the practical range and the extended range. Avoid the extended range until you know what you're doing. Not that I do, but like the rest of us, I'm trying.

Another point: not everyone likes to study scores. Fortunately there is another way to gain insight into an instrument's range and sound: If you have a keyboard before you, either a piano or electronic one, you can use it to get a picture of where the notes are for that instrument, and how they sound. For example, the clarinet has three registers, or characteristic tonal qualities, namely the clarino (high), throat tones (medium) and chalameau (low). The sound of each is different. you can even check extreme low and high notes. Like, what is that low note in Mozart's Clarinet Concerto? You can find it on your keyboard and see exactly what note it is (keeping in mind that in this case the written note and actual note will be different, as the clarinet is a transposing instrument).  Or how about those high bassoon notes at the start of Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring? You can find them on your keyboard and see what notes they are, and the quality. A chart will tell you they are near the top of the bassoon's range. And so on. It helps of course if you can read music, but even if you can't, you have a way at least of correlating the sound you hear with the keys on your keyboard. And if you can't read music, doing this will put you on your way to learning it.

Another way is to get involved with a local orchestra. Nice if you can play an instrument but there's usually plenty of admin to do. You'd be surprised how much you learn about that - ordering scores and parts, getting licenses fixed, getting the rehearsal hall ready, getting venues booked; compiling a list of extra players to augment what you have for a concert. And with a keen ear you soon get to know what's possible orchestrally and not.....and a chance to compose for them. Perhaps even conduct. My town orchestra is always looking for locals to come up with 5 minute programme fillers, arrangements or originals.

If you want to use traditional resources it's worth a try. You can have all the text books you like but nothing substitutes for actual experience. The only caveat is be sure you know what you've composed. Know every detail of your score. 

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