Orchestration

Appendix: Some Pedagogical Ideas

 

EXAMPLES FROM A CHARACTER GLOSSARY
 

It will be obvious by now that artistic orchestration expresses and enhances musical form and character.  To help the student think about musical character, it can be useful to compile a “character glossary”. The idea is to list every orchestral resource which can contribute to creating a given character. While no individual passage will use all of them, this method encourages thinking about musical character when making orchestral choices.
 
Here is an example of such a glossary.

 

OUTLINE SKETCHES AS A TEACHING TOOL
 

A problem in teaching orchestration is that transcription of existing music never gives the student the opportunity of creating a complete orchestral texture on his own. A useful solution, as an intermediate step between transcription and composition, is to use outline sketches (“skeletons”), which the student must elaborate, often in more than one way. A skeleton consists of a melodic phrase or two and a figured bass line. The student has to decide on the character, tempo, dynamics, where to place the melody, how to fill in the harmony, what sort of accompaniment to add, etc.

 

LEARNING ORCHESTRATION FROM THE REPERTOIRE
 

In studying the orchestral repertoire, the student needs well graduated models to start with. Composers like Mahler and Ravel, wonderful orchestrators though they are, are not suitable for beginners since their textures are often very rich and complex.
 
An excellent starting point is Mendelssohn: His orchestration is classical in spirit, economical, simple, and always effective. Mendelssohn’s part-writing is straightforward, his orchestration perfectly balanced, and his figuration imaginative without being overly elaborate.
 
Tchaikovsky is a logical next step, similar in technique to Mendelssohn, but with a larger orchestra. Again, his orchestration is effective, clear, and easily understood.
 
Bizet’s Carmen is a basic text for orchestration with voices.
 
Mozart, although he uses an orchestra smaller than Mendelssohn’s, has more complex and refined methods of part-writing, and therefore should follow, rather than precede the latter. Beethoven introduces many novel orchestral ideas, and, properly understood, his approach to the orchestra will greatly increase the student’s sophistication.
 
More advanced orchestration begins with Wagner, in particular the richness of his orchestral polyphony as a norm, and the way he uses the enlarged orchestral families.
 
After these models have been assimilated, the student will be prepared for the more complex orchestration of Ravel, Mahler, Strauss, etc. Twentieth century extended instrumental techniques can be useful, but their use still follows the principles enumerated here.

 

SCALES OF CONTRAST
 

An important pedagogical tool in teaching all musical disciplines is the use of graduated, aural “scales”. By this, we mean encouraging the student to rate the effects of various musical effects, in order of intensity. This encourages fine distinctions and  refined hearing. For example, instead of just saying that a particular timbre is “too dramatic a change”, compare it to other possibilities and try to grade them all on a scale of timbral contrast. Even a scale with only four or five levels can be very useful. Try to determine which elements determine the force of the effect; this also helps in making aural distinctions which are useful beyond one particular style.

 

ORCHESTRAL SIMULATION
 

Recent advances in computer technology have made possible fairly realistic simulation of the orchestra. Such simulation is very common in film music, and can be a valuable pedagogical tool, since students rarely have sufficient access to real ensembles. Also, simulation permits learning from mistakes more easily than with a real ensemble, where the sheer work of regenerating and printing corrected parts makes the immediate tryout of alternative versions impossible.
 
However, there are several provisos:
 

  • Simulation is not a substitute for listening to real orchestras. Indeed, without a great deal of knowledge and experience of real ensembles, good simulation is impossible. In particular, balance among electronic sources does not resemble real ensembles at all, and must be adjusted appropriately.
  • Simulation will not remedy poor musicianship. In fact, the first requirement for good simulation is to play in each part, in real time, in a musical, phrased manner. Good keyboard skills are essential. This is the only way to get a natural sounding result.
  • Orchestral simulation is easier than chamber or solo simulation, since the individual instruments are heard less often alone, and defects in the sounds are less noticeable.
  • Where budget permits, simulation can be much improved by recording a few of the main parts with real instruments, and using synthetic sounds to fill in the rest.
  • Vocal simulation is not currently satisfactory.

 
My own experience is that while a good orchestra is always more exciting than a good simulation, a good simulation often sounds better than a poor orchestra.
 
While there is no point in recommending specific machines for simulation here (they still are changing too rapidly), some advice on getting realistic results with each orchestral family may be of use.
 

  • Strings: Use different sounds for each section, and not just a generic string patch. For each section, at a minimum there is a need for one patch with a fast attack, and another with a slower attack. Since strings playing legato are never absolutely synchronized, the notes should be slightly overlapped. Chords should be slightly arpeggiated. Long notes should usually have some dynamic evolution (often realized with midi controller #7).
  • Woodwinds: Solo winds need especially expressive playing. Make sure that the dynamics and articulations chosen fit the instrument.
  • Brass: This is the hardest group to simulate, since the timbre of brass changes more over their (large) dynamic range than other sounds do. It is essential to have different samples at various dynamic levels, and also some way of creating natural crescendi and diminuendi. To some extent this can be approximated by taking a loud brass sound and programming a filter to open, following a midi controller as needed. Also the resonance created between brass instruments in a real ensemble (the metal of each instrument vibrates slightly in sympathy with the others playing around it) is very prominent and creates strong beating effects that enrich the sound considerably. To simulate this effect, some discrete chorus can be applied to brass group sounds.

 
Finally, simulation is always made more realistic by a panning setup which imitates the normal geography of the orchestra.

Contents

Presentation
 
Introduction: Why this book?
 
Preliminary considerations

  • Remarks on instruments
  • What is poor orchestration?

 
Basic notions, part 1

  • Orchestration and form
  • Rate of orchestral change
  • Degree of continuity/contrast
  • Interpreting the phrasing
  • Orchestration and dynamics
  • Register
  • Color
  • Sustained vs. dry sound
  • Fat vs. thin sound; unison doubling
  • Balance: simultaneous and successive

 
Basic notions, Part 2

  • Musical lines vs. instrumental parts
  • Planes of tone
  • Contrapuntal orchestration
  • The tutti

 
Orchestral accompaniment
 
Summary: What is good orchestration?
 
Appendix: some pedagogical ideas

  • Examples from a character glossary
  • Outline sketches as a teaching tool
  • Learning orchestration from the repertoire
  • Scales of contrast
  • Orchestral simulation

 
Conclusion, acknowledgements, bibliography
 
Character glossary