Orchestration: Finding Your Own Voice

By • June 25, 2008

There are two curious but fundamental challenges facing every emerging orchestrator: (1) How to sound like everyone else in order to get work, and (2) how not to sound like everyone else in order to keep it (by helping your clients develop signature qualities.) Crazy isn’t it? Is it possible to do both simultaneously?

Physics tells us that the best absorbers make the best emitters, and it’s true up to a point for musicians. I understand that the natural impulse, at the beginning of any “art trek,” is to devour scores from well-known composers or films in an attempt to learn all the tricks of the trade, but pause for a moment and consider the other learning opportunities you risk delaying or squandering altogether. While a musician who develops in a vacuum will emit very little, many orchestration students, in their headlong pursuit of sounding like some famous guy (because he’s famous,) will binge on “absorbing” his written scores (if they can get them.) Alternatively, some will go to a different extreme of indifferently gathering printed scores from any source, and possibly even analyzing a few. In either case, they become so led by the pursuit of either superstar or notation that they completely overlook the process of discovering those sounds and moments which strongly resonate with them, and letting those direct the investigation and assimilation process. The former leads to learning a mishmosh of other voices; the latter leads to finding your own, as it’s built on a foundation of what moves you. The discovery process isn’t complicated, but it can be ever-so-elusive, as your “voice” is merely another way of describing your personal treasure trove of what turns you on the most (often overlooked or self-dismissed as too pedestrian or too unknown or too something.)

Tricks of the trade (in an of themselves) are left-brain, and lead to item 1 in the opening paragraph.. Connecting with meaningful ones is right-brain, and leads to item 2.

Here’s the process: (1) Be constantly aware of what excites and satisfies your ears, not just everyone else’s. (If it does both, great; but the former is paramount. (2) Aurally dissect it; take it apart and find out what makes it tick as well as you possibly can without the score. (3) If necessary, then open the score to confirm what your ears have figured out and (4) put it to use in some practical context. Do all four, and you will have made this discovery truly yours. Go forth and wonder no more. Note carefully that strategic order. Shortchanging step two, or skipping it entirely by jumping first to the printed page, robs you of the right-brain experience that makes that sound part of you. It’s the equivalent of “ready, fire, aim!” Forgive me, Dick & Oscar, but no one ever sang, “The hills are alive with the pictures of music.” It’s the sound that matters, and your personal definition of “sound that matters” that matters. (If you can follow this one, you’re good!)

Remember how producer/director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider’s character in “All That Jazz”) looked at a rose and wanted to ask, “God! How in (blankety-blank) did you do that? And why can’t I do that?” Finding your own voice is simply a hunt for your own personal musical “roses” and digging, digging, digging into those two questions ad infinitum.

In an earlier column, we already looked at the systematic, aural dissection of music audio. In short, when you have it available under conditions which allow you to isolate and play the memorable snippet repeatedly, with each hearing you can begin aurally and mentally “peeling away” the instrumental layers to get at the goodies. It would appear to be drudge work but, as you will eventually need to develop your powers of analytical and critical listening (as a conductor, composer, orchestrator, proofreader, score supervisor, or what-have-you,) why not start now and kill two birds with one effort?

If certain orchestral pieces which already float your boat are going to be performed somewhere, don’t just go to a performance; go to the rehearsals. Where else can you hear the surgery, the orchestrational slice-and-dice on musical moments to which you’ve already bonded? As I’ve said many times, I’ve learned much of what I know about orchestration from years of counting lots and lots of rests with my ears open as a trombonist in symphony orchestras. Also, as software now makes it so easy to manipulate audio (perhaps to eliminate half of the stereo mix and pan the rest dead center, or change its pitch or tempo,) you can change your perception of almost any recording, and thus enrich your aural analysis and discovery.

When you have a passion for something, you are infinitely more likely to investigate, tinker with, and comprehend, retain and use it than if you merely do so because forces outside yourself have deemed something “worthy.”

“How To” books and scores can give you a leg up on understanding, and maybe even appreciating, someone else’s voice. The never-ending search for yours lies in writing your own “book.” No one can do it for you.


By John King on June 25th, 2008 at 12:58 pm

Ron, I have been reading your articles for a while now, and I’ve always found them to be really practical and helpful. This article, however, really hit home for me and comes at the best time. As a relatively new orchestral composer, I struggle every day with finding my own voice versus trying to sound like everyone else, and your eloquent reminder to follow and absorb the music that really moves me is sage advice. There’s a reason we “play” music!

Much Metta,


By Vince on June 25th, 2008 at 2:39 pm

Ron, your comment about being a trombonist is absolutely spot on. I learned more about orchestration being a clarinetist playing in pit bands and orchestras than I ever did by looking at range charts and isolated score samples.

The direct experience inside the orchestra, for me, is the real stuff. The stuff that you internalize – so that even if you play a note on the piano, your aural memory will tell you if a trumpet may sound strained at that pitch or if a clarinet may sound too strident or whether the line is too nimble for a tuba.

Best advice – go to an orchestral performance, or as you said, a rehearsal – listen to the instruments warm up, or practice, you can get a sense of what they’re comfortable playing – or better yet, play in an orchestra.

So much better than range charts and theory alone.

By Anne on July 11th, 2008 at 7:20 am

I’ve never had the pleasure of being part of an orchestra but your advice about listening is something I will be taking to heart. I’ve always been more of a visual person with respect to music but that is changing somewhat for me. Your suggestions, I think, will take me into a whole new dimension if I try them and work at them. Even though I prefer listening to orchestral/instrumental music and have wanted to compose this type of music, I have been unable to write music having my own voice unless I have words to work with (preferably my own) which is why I suppose that I have ended out writing music for choir. So, I don’t know if that will change how I write music and compose but improving one’s listening abilities can only be a good thing all the way around. Thanks so much for your insight!

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