Diary of an Orchestrator: Dealing With Client Feedback

Have a read over the following two paragraphs, and think about which one is easier to process emotionally and practically.

“Dear Hubert! Thanks so much for the first draft of my “Sonnet for a Dying Sparrow.” I feel so lucky to be working with such a talented and gifted musician as yourself, bringing my ideas to life with a real orchestra! I listened to the midi mockup, and I really liked some parts of it a lot. I had my girlfriend listen to it as well, and she was in ecstasy. I hate myself for being picky, but I had a few points that I wondered if we could possibly change. The bandoneon solo was a great idea, but I realise now it sounds too twee after the English Horn solo. Could we try something that sounds more like a real orchestral passage there? Also, pizzicato seems to make things too pointy past Figure E – it sounds like a bunch of banjos, no offence. Do we really need flutes doubling the first violins in finale? That’s sort of tried-and-true, isn’t it? Maybe we could make them play a little icing above there, and add some glock or triangle, to make it sound more Xmas-y? The horns sound too heroic there. This is a lament, not a mall opening, haha. (smiley face) I liked the cheesy muted trumpets, though. Anyway, nice try, those are just a few things I thought of changing after the first listening. I’m sure there will be a few more bits that occur to me, which I’ll let you know about as we shape up this draft to the masterpiece I know it will be eventually! Best, Arnold Blixenblox.”

From the office of Morton Wheeler, World Studios

re: Draft 3 of Cue 26.7, KDT project

To: H.J. Finkelsteen

Dear Mr. Finkelsteen,

Morty has passed on the following feedback after hearing Draft 3 of Cue 26.7.

Cut the trombones after 0:45:22

More energy from 0:47:10 – maybe more swashbuckling

Cut the Pirates of the Caribbean references, just go back to our original sea chantey idea

Flute solo at 0:48:53 interferes with dialogue

More brass, really dig in, and try to monkey the music to the sword fight

Can we have a splash on cymbals right when Jake spits in the captain’s eye? Not too obviously.

End of the scene is nearly there, even more winds if poss. Oboe? Was that the instrument? More!

Overall, this was a big improvement, thanks for pulling a couple late nights on this!

Best regards,

Cecil H.
cc. MW, JW, FTO

Above are two markedly different, if mutually typical feedback responses from imaginary clients. Which one did you feel more helpful, and gave you more to work with in terms of revisions?

Of course, many of us have received the first type of note from a client: chatty, over-friendly, and yet secretly disappointed in a way that things weren’t exactly the way they imagined them. This is a common response one might get from an amateur composer, independent filmmaker, or community artist – trying to keep things informal, while all the time digging themselves in deeper and deeper into more personal criticism. Even though this project means the world to them, they’ll try to kid around even while getting into insulting territory – because a part of them wants to call you names! You’re doing something to their precious baby, and it’s taking time to work it out emotionally.

The second note may seem emotionless and dictatorial on the surface. But how much more welcome it is than the first note if you’re working on a deadline! Yes, you’re being told exactly what to do by the court of last appeal. There’s little room for argument here. And yet it’s extremely clear what needs to be done, and you’ve got a checklist you can follow. If you can avoid being just like Arnold Blixenblox and sending back a long, passive-aggressive, falsely humorous note back to the director, then you’ve reached a professional level of maturity about things. After all, Morty Wheeler is a competent director, he’s responsible to the money men and the scriptwriter for getting this production in the can and out into the theatres on time, and making more than a ripple. His decisions have reasons behind them, and you can take issue with them a bit, but agreeing to work with him carries the connotation that you are part of his vision. Respecting that and learning to be brilliant within those limitations is yet another mark of being professional.

Notice – the second note has one small note of appreciation and compliment. It’s so much more powerful than the outpourings of praise in the first note. Fewer words say more, because they force you to focus on more direct meanings. Morty Wheeler had been around the block a few times, and he doesn’t care about anything except getting his job done and making a good picture. Arnold Blixenblox is a different story. He wants you to hold his hand, because the place you’re taking him to is scary.

So it doesn’t hurt to try to train your clients in a way, with a bit of preemptive advice on how to give feedback. I might write something like the following…

“[Don’t] worry about asking for changes here and there. If anything needs adjusting, simply send me a list and I’ll make the changes. I mention this because sometimes clients are afraid that they might sound unappreciative by asking for changes. Don’t worry, things often need tweaking. […] we have to assume that we’ll be making suggestions and requesting different things back and forth. So go ahead and let me know about how your music could sound better if possible.

“Keep in mind, though, that in the case of this project, time is enormously short. If many many changes are being requested constantly, it will definitely make the process go much longer. This is why I ask questions at the beginning, to make sure that I get it right the first time as much as possible.”

I might send a message like the above even to a more experienced client, if they haven’t worked with an orchestrator before. It just makes things faster to go down a simple list of changes rather than pages of chatty banter and veiled anxiety.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

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