Questions about orchestration

What DO you do, exactly?

I am an orchestrator and arranger. I take someone else's music and give it color, texture and musical shape.

Other questions:

What is the difference between an orchestrator and an arranger?

In theory, there IS a difference between the two roles. In practice, however, the jobs almost always overlap and the terms get used interchangeably.

ARRANGING has to do with the STRUCTURE of the music. It could involve:

  • new intros, transitions, and endings;
  • new accompaniment figures to the melody (that is, completely different from what the songwriter or composer originally wrote);
  • new structural arrangement of the musical material;
  • complete change in musical "feel" of a piece of music (for example, doing a Schubert song in the style of NY house music (!)); and
  • various other quasi-compositional tasks.

A dance arranger is a clear-cut example. He composes the dance music on piano (often using thematic elements from songs in the show), but has nothing to do with the final orchestration.

The orchestrator's role is a bit different. The orchestrator is concerned with color and texture. Technically, an orchestrator would not do any re-writing of the musical material except to add pads or an occasional countermelody and fill, or to change a figure which is suited to one musical instrument or group and re-think it so that it is better suited to the current instrumental configuration (a keyboard figure scored for orchestra, for example).

An example of a purely orchestrational task (that is, no arranging involved) would be to take a piece originally scored for 30 instruments and orchestrate it for 20, trying to make it sound as much like the original as possible. In the real world, however, an orchestrator is almost always an arranger as well. He is always ready, willing and able to dig in and re-write, add, or change the material as needed to make the music a commercial and artistic success.

I don't understand why they need an orchestrator for a revival of a Broadway show. Wasn't it orchestrated once already?

Revivals are a special case and the task actually varies from revival to revival. The important decision on a revival is: how different do we want the new orchestration to be from the original? It is an important question and one which is often decided by the musical director and director of the show before the orchestrator is even hired.

The choices boil down to these:

  • Retain the sound of the original but score it for a smaller size orchestra;
  • Retain the basic sound of the original but change it a bit: make it more modern, more authentic, more ethnic, whatever.
  • Completely change the sound of the original because no one is happy with the original or because the original is not in keeping with the new 'concept' of the current revival production.

The first choice is the least interesting and generally becomes a straight-forward orchestration task, without any arranging involved. It is a choice most often made by producers to save money on weekly running costs. Many of the old shows used 25 or 26 players or more. Today shows rarely get above 21 musicians and quite often use 9, 10 or 15. Most of The King and I was orchestration of this type. About 20% of the show was all new material (scene changes, dances, etc), but the other 80% was meant to sound like the original, but scored for an orchestra about 3/4 the size of the original.

The Sound of Music ended up falling into the second category. In starting production, the musical team was interested in keeping the sound of the original (but scored for a smaller orchestra) and, at the same time, in adding elements of traditional folk music.

When I looked at the original, however, I was concerned because the orchestration was VERY 'meat and potatoes'... that is, very straightforward, almost nothing in the way of countermelodies or texture. Basically the original orchestration doubled the melody A LOT and left the rest of the orchestra to do "oom pah pah" accompaniment figures. It was a style that, with a million strings, would sound simple but very lush, but in our orchestra (of 7 strings on opening, cut down to a string quartet as the production went along) would not be very interesting AT ALL. So I asked (and received) permission to do whatever I wanted, so long as it still sounded like The Sound of Music to an audience member.

I think the result was quite successful in that it's often very, very different from the original (LOTS of countermelodies, lots of moving horn lines, etc), yet not stylistically jarring in any way. And by using recorders, handbells, tuba, a zither and other folk instruments, I was able to capture the authentic Austrian folk music quality the director was after.

The third orchestration choice in a revival is the most fun because it's the option which is most like doing a brand new show. When the director and musical director say: "Let's do anything we want. We have a new concept, don't worry about the original." On the Town and Annie Get Your Gun both fall into this category. On On the Town (the 1997 revival directed by George C. Wolfe) the director wanted a completely new sound, using the sound of a big band, without strings. In other words, he wanted to retain the nature of the original music, but make it jazzier, less symphonic in its orchestration.

There might actually be a fourth type of revival (now that I've reach a certain age), and that's when you do a new version of a show years later that you orchestrated originally! For me that would be the case with Urinetown (and also with two operas I recently orchestrated with the composer Ricky Ian Gordon: The Grapes of Wrath and Morning Star). Both of those operas had later performances with a reduced orchestration that I created.

Off-Broadway Urinetown had a band of four players. When we moved to Broadway I thought: "Great. We can finally get the band I really wanted which would be similar to the Kurt Weill Threepenny Opera orchestration (2 trumpets, trombone, 2 reeds, banjo/guitar, perc/drums, piano (harmonium and celesta), bass. Maybe accordion. Something like that. But the producers said "No, you can only add one instrument." Knowing it had to be small I begged for just two additional players (trumpet and bass), but they were adamant that it had to be only one additional player, so I added bass. At the time I thought: "I can't have a Broadway show with no bass, that's ridiculous." Sitting in the house on Broadway I wasn't sure I had made the right choice (bass volume can vary drastically from seat to seat in a theater), but it was what it was. Only the TONY Awards number from 2001 had the sort of 10-piece band I originally had dreamed of (and included a tuba!).

But in any case the London "revival" done in 2014 at the St James Theatre (now called The Other Palace) gave me the opportunity to do the small six-piece orchesration I really wanted for our transfer to Broadway in 2001 (1 reed, 1 trumpet, 1 trombone/euphonium, 1 piano, 1 perc/drums, acoustic bass). I basically took the NYC orchestration of 5 players and added 1 trumpet for the London production, rewriting all the winds in the process. It worked like gangbusters and subsequently transfered to the West End. I WISH that that would become the rental version, though for the moment the five-piece Broadway version is the only version available for licensing. (Cue sad music here).

I saw a show recently that clearly needed a bigger orchestra. Why didn't they use more musicians?

The thing most people don't realize is that the orchestrator has very little to say about the size of the orchestra. The number of musicians in a pit is usually determined by the producers and general manager of a show long before the orchestrator is hired. This number has to do with weekly running costs and what the producers feel they can spend per week on a show and still expect to make a profit over the long haul. Once hired, an orchestrator can say: "Look, you asked me to orchestrate for 12 but I really can't deliver the sound you want without 18." About half the time, if you're really, really persuasive, you can get a few additional players, but the other half of the time the powers-that-be will tell you that that's all the production can afford and that you must make it work with that number.

Living with that smaller number can be difficult, but sometimes you have no choice but to give in (for lots of reasons). It would be nice if you could also include a personal note to the NY TIMES in the production's program which said something like: "IT'S NOT MY FAULT! I REALLY DO KNOW BETTER!" But unfortunately you can't........!


Many people ask what music influenced my orchestrating style. Not sure of that, the question got me to thinking what the most important recordings were for me growing up. Here's a brief list. I wore them all out.


Berio, Folk Songs (original chamber music version, Cathy Berberian)
Stravinsky, Renard (I grew up with the now-out-of-print Boulez recording, though the Esa-Pekka Salonen is quite good).
Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time (Tashi)
Berio, Sinfonia (the original out-of-print NY Phil recording)
Berio, Recital I (for Cathy)
Berio, Laborintus II
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (Boulez)
Ravel, Daphnis and Chloe (Dutoit)
Weill, The Seven Deadly Sins (Gisela May)
Weill, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny
Bernstein, Mass
Berg, Wozzeck

Pop / Jazz:

Beatles, The White Album
Beatles, Abbey Road
Bjork, Post
Talking Heads (pretty much anything)
Cream, Wheels of Fire
Tori Amos, From the Choir Girl Hotel
The Doors, Strange Days
Nirvana, Nevermind
Parton, Harris, Ronstadt: Trio
Coltrane, My Favorite Things
Oliver Nelson, Blues and the Abstract Truth
The Dirty Dozen Band, Voodoo
Lenny Pickett with the Borneo Horns


West Side Story
Pacific Overtures

I tend to listen to a lot of music, mostly indie/alternative pop at home. A lot of it is stuff I listen to briefly and move on, but here are few from the past years (decades?) that got endless play:

Mumford and Sons, No Doubt, Beck, Scissor Sisters, Lana Del Rey, Weezer, Beirut, Sufjan Stevens, The Killers, Bjork, Tori Amos, Green Day, Rufus Wainwright, Vampire Weekend.