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The Orchestrator

Orchestration is a specialized skill. An orchestrator for a film score may have difficulty explaining their job. They don’t necessarily create an original melody nor do they write lyrics. However, both melodic composition and arranging are essential skills of an orchestrator.

Composers like Beethoven, Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Mahler all were orchestrators. They created both original music and arrangements for the developing orchestra. The line between composer and orchestrator is not clearly definable.

While concerts at symphony halls continue to sell tickets worldwide, the advent of blockbuster film scores has given orchestras a wider audience.  Through skillful use of the myriad of colors available in an orchestra, composer-conductors like John Williams and Howard Shore have created masterworks that enhance the film experience. Music is able reflect and support what the moviegoer is seeing on screen. It is a very powerful tool when used properly. These same skills can be used in worship to reinforce the text of the songs we sing.

Many orchestrators are also arrangers.  When creating an arrangement, a writer envisions the overarching form of the piece, the musical style (which can be radically different from the original source), the harmonies, and instrumentation (what instruments are used). The arranger also determines the form of the piece (the overall structure of the piece, i.e. when a verse or chorus is sung and when a piece might change keys). The arranger may choose to employ new harmonic progressions to the music to add greater interest to the piece, or take some liberties with the melody.  A simple melody can be made significantly more complex through the process of arranging.  Beethoven was a master at this, able to take a simple 4-note pattern and compose an entire symphony!

Orchestrators also create new musical material in their work. If every instrument in the orchestra was relegated to only play the melody, the music would quickly become mundane and much of the beauty of the orchestra would be lost.  Instead, writers often create countermelodies, sustained chords (padding), or repeated patterns (ostinato) to create musical interest and direction to a piece.

To orchestrate effectively, a person must understand the each instrument in the orchestra. They must understand not only what notes each instrument is capable of producing (the range), but the unique timbre (color) of each instrument, and decide when to use each instrument. Some instruments may be more agile than others. An orchestrator would likely not write many rapid notes for a tuba, knowing it is not as agile as a flute or violin. In the same way, an orchestrator would be careful to understand what range each instrument functions best in at different dynamics. Voicing the brass in their upper registers and then expecting them to play softly is not appropriate in most contexts, and will most likely backfire on the composer. In the same manner, a flute player may never be heard over other instruments when playing its lowest notes.

The subsequent pages are an introduction to writing for orchestral instruments.  You will find information on individual instruments and each family (woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion).  This is not an orchestration textbook.  I will not cover extended techniques outside what a typical church orchestra musician would encounter.  Ranges are indicative for a church musician, not the professional.

It is my hope that these pages will be helpful reference for aspiring writers

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