Horns – No Key Signatures, Please!

Despite what several modern orchestration texts may claim, horn and trumpet players prefer not to have key signatures. I picked up the Alfredo Casella orchestration text in an English translation a while back. Some of the presentation of principles is truly original, and I can recommend it as a supplement to a more thorough book …

Timpani – Marking Tuning

When composing for timpani, mark the required tuning at the start of your piece, and indicate changes in the score. Some composers will even make a little chart of the actual pitches in headless mini-notes – but I’ve found that it’s easiest just to write them out as technique text above the staff, in ascending …

Parts – Ideal Cue Material

When choosing a cue, select material from a player in close proximity to where your musician is seated. Of course, the cue should be composed of a thematic gesture first of all, and if there isn’t a good snatch of melody, then an obvious bit of chord or high note. The following example is excerpted …

Parts – Assigning Cues

When extracting parts, assign cues sparingly to a pro or semi-pro level work. Best cues are after: a. long stretches of over 30 bars b. extended passages of metric complexity, and/or changes of meter and tempo c. a very long cadenza. It’s not necessary to pepper your score with cues after every tacet. Pro orchestra …

Scores – Proofing by Instrumental Section

When finalizing an extended orchestral project, proof each instrumental section for careless errors. With Sibelius, you can do this very easily with Focus on Staves, and isolate your screen view to a subset of the available instruments. I’m always on the lookout for missing slurs and dynamics, incomplete technique directions (forgetting to end a passage …

Scores – Rehearsal Mark Placement

Use rehearsal marks foremost in places where the conductor will need to fix things – not necessarily always at the beginnings of sections. My rule of thumb is trouble spots/intricate textures first; changes of tempo, key, and meter second; and beginnings of sections last (these criteria often overlap, with two or even all three satisfied …

Scores – Layout Traps

Two last warnings about score layouts, traps into which composers may easily fall. In the top example, Percussion 1 is changing from a triangle to a snare. Sibelius will blithely omit the blank staves and play back the correct instruments – but the conductor’s eye may glance across the page and think that the triangle …

Scores – Shedding Blank Staves

Following on from yesterday’s advice about leaving in blank staves leading up to, or between instruments being used. Here is the other side of that equation – always reduce systems where instruments are dormant for long stretches. Shedding the blank staves helps the conductor’s eye to define the relationships between instruments and groups. It’s a …

Scores – Blank Staves

Sometimes, when a page of score can’t be reduced into divided systems, it’s good to leave some blank staves alerting the conductor to instruments about to make an entrance. Also, leave blank staves on a page if the instruments are going in and out of being used every 2 to 3 pages. This way, the …

Strings – Mute Changes

Always make sure that that your string players have plenty of time to put on and take off their mutes. Yes, this is a standard caution of orchestration manuals, but there’s more to it: you also have to provide some cover for the minuscule bustle as the players go about the process. Most players have …