Orchestration for BRASS

Hope this is the right subforum to write/ask about this ...

The only time I tried to write for woodwinds and brass together I was about 13 years old and nobody told me how to write to sound the best-the result was that it sounded terrible, especially saxophones were too loud and ever since I have been fearing to write for such an ensamble. This time I don't have a choice, since my friend asked me to write few pieces for brass and I would be most happy to get some tips and tricks that sound the best on brass.

The ensable I have to write for consists of: 2 B-trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, alto sax. and tenor saxophone.

I imagine that TUBA plays bass line, TROMBONES sound soft so they are good for accompaniment??, since SAXophones are quite loud should I use them as fillings and for melody support??, what should I do with TRUMPETS. I'm really lost here so any help would be most welcome!!

I have to write an arrangement for this song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMrpd3C5ZTM

If it helps I can post sheet music of what I have done so far ...

I would really like to write this piece good and learn from it and I feel so weak not knowing exactly how to arrange instruments and what "sounds" to expect ...

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  • Dear Ursula,

    there is an excellent orchestration book I can recommend to you, available at my University Library, but I forget its name. I you wish I can find the name and tell you, but it will take me a week to do so - so flat out. Surprisingly, within this grouping the trombones can become the real 'blending instrument', not nearly so good as French Horns - but still capable of soft, smooth tones in the hands of experts players. But they can also blaze it right up there with the trumpets - so that is handy where you need it. Of course the Tuba, depending upon the kind, goes in the bass. But even the tuba, in the right hands, can play reasonably legato and fairly soft - but only in experts hands. To be safe, assume that it will punch out a bass live, staccato or not.

    I am not a real expert, but I think you are way over-estimating the volume levels of the saxophones. They do not actually compete well in a symphony orchestra setting, and have to be handled delicately, in fact. If they are going to have the focal lines anywhere, you're best to remove the trumpets, and get the trombones to play a smooth harmony in a lower registration. You could use the trumpets to just punch in staccato motives or chords across the saxophone lines, but do not, I say do not get the saxophones into any competition with the trumpets - they will be lost in any polyphonic contest/interplay. All instruments tend to 'punch through' higher up in their registers, and you might especially apply this to the saxes. However, tenor sax can sound so beautiful down low, (if it is not played by a breathless drug addict), and could be a real feature if everything else is pared down - just jabs on the other instruments, or just a soft trombone/tuba stabs. Trumpets, in good hands, should be able to blaze up really high - high C and above. 

    Have a listen to James Morrison 'Snappy Too' on youtube. He is playing all of these instruments, plus more, and he is the best instrumentalist in the world - who teaches every year here in South Australia. 

    Hope this helps, but you'll have to study orchestration a lot - if you want to be able to score things well.

    Mark Nicol.

  • Hey Mark!

    I would really appreciate it if you could recommend me the name of that book! :) When you do, please tell me.

    Thank you so much for these guidelines. And I agree, I should study orchestration a lot-any recommendations how etc., because in 2 years that we had orchestration we didn't do much-one professor told us like 5 trick that he repeated through all year, otherwise he didn't want to share much with us, the other got us to listen to few tapes and wanted us to write lines from individual instrument from it, and that was it, so honestly, I don't know much about orhestration-all I know is from what I have listened to and anylised, so I would love to hear some guidelines how to start. Any sites that have exampes for certain ensambles etc??

  • Hi Ursula,

    I really suggest you listen to James Morrison 'Snappy Too' on youtube. First up you need to hear brass playing at its very best, and then you can 'visualise' peak potentials. I will find that orchestration book for you, as I will be working on the other 3 movements to my Symphony in Indigo next year, and I really will need the detailed information handy. The teacher I had in Adelaide, Graeme Koehne, is actually a very astute orchestrator, but I had to prise information out of him too. The best thing is to read a book like the one I suggest, which should about do it all - but read others as well. Then, get a score in your hands, and see what the best orchestrators/composers do.

    For the brass, you could look at arrangements like James Morrison's that I have listed. Look at the great Big Band jazz arrangements from the 40s era, Frank Sinatra recordings, the 'Frank' recording by Michael Feinstein - (really great brass playing on that one). If you can't get a score, just listen and listen, and identify the instruments - where they are playing, what they are playing, whether they are 'cutting through', 'filling in', 'blending' etc. 

    But beyond the jazz usage of brass, look to the really great classical composers - just from the last 120 years, wherein the brass have become a lot more prominent and play a lot more elaborate lines. For French Horns - look at Mr. Richard Strauss ( he is, like a great wine-maker, the master of smooth, smooth blending - his daddy played the horn), and Debussy, and Mahler. For the whole brass ensemble look at Mahler, Shostakovich, even Tchaikovsky. Hey, you can even listen through my work Ulysses, which is primarily a string adagio, but which contains much use of the Horns for blending as well as for solo work, has a nice dual/solo section for trombones, but which purposefully has no trumpets - precisely because they would not suit the aesthetic at hand. 

    Orchestration is a very, very complex matter. There are all sorts of balance and mixing problems to consider, and one has to know who can do what, and not, and for how long, etc. Take for instance the clarinet - three different timbre registers, can't cut through down low, almost can't but cut through up high. (Another, great, great blending instrument by the by, and in agility only matched by the viols). Its best to analyse 'transparent scores' first, not complex ones. Prokofiev is often as such, of course Debussy in the transparent passage work. Many composers acknowledge Ravel as the absolute master of orchestration. He was so confident of his abilities, in this respect, that he literally said that performers need only take note of and perform the dynamics written in his scores, and all would be perfectly fine. And, of course, he referred to his famous Bolero as 'orchestration without music' - it was an exercise in what he could achieve in sustaining interest via colour alone, where he acknowledged that the actual musical substance was absolutely minimal. Moreover, study this piece, as it shows the real differnce between the style of Ravel, a master orchestrator, and Debussy, another master orchestrator. Debussy likes pure sounds, polyphonic lines - just one instrument playing the line. Ravel likes to blend, to produce novel composite sounds - look, and listen through the Bolero - some weird combinations, (as I recall) - like trumpet and flute.

    Rimsky-Korsakov virtually wrote the first handbook on orchestration, the whole Russian and French schools were highly indebted to him. And Rimsky's work fed into Stravinsky's incredible orchestration adventures - listen and look through Petrushka and Rite. Just the opening passage of the Rite, on woodwinds, with the bassoons playing way up high - shows incredible knowledge and an ear for visionary expressive potentials. Hey, you could even listen through my little ballet - Danses de la Flamme, where the scoring is very transparent. There are some neat tricks, especially in the 1st. movement, Danse des Etincelles - you'll find it on marknicol7 on youtube. It was performed last year, and we only had to make minor orchestration changes - for some rather poor players. 

    Lowell Liebermann is by far the best composer you have in America today, in actual fact the best composer that America has produced thus far. Have a listen to his flute concerto - fantastic orchestration. Beg him for lessons.

    Best wishes,

    Mark Nicol.

  • Mark! - You don't know how honoured I am by your reply! Thank you a thousand times-I will most definately listen to the examples you recommended and try to read as much books I can find (including the one you'll tell me the title of!), check out the composers you mentioned in this reply ... Now I know where to start and see a bit of how to learn it and study it-this means a lot to me, especially you really took time to answer me here, so thank you again.

    And I will listen to your works as well-are they all on this site (except for the one you told me I can find on youtube)?

    All the best,

    Ursula :)

  • There are some great pieces of advice already on here. So, all I will add is a little bit of trivia. Did you know the trombone is the loudest unamplified instrument? That doesn't mean they can't play pianissimo, but it's great trivia when you just want to add the extra f or two to your forte :)

  • No, I did not know that. Thx! :)

    Roger Garcia said:

    There are some great pieces of advice already on here. So, all I will add is a little bit of trivia. Did you know the trombone is the loudest unamplified instrument? That doesn't mean they can't play pianissimo, but it's great trivia when you just want to add the extra f or two to your forte :)

    Orchestration for BRASS
    Hope this is the right subforum to write/ask about this ... The only time I tried to write for woodwinds and brass together I was about 13 years old…
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