Late last night, or really, early this morning (June 1, 2012), my wife Caroline posted the 29th and 30th video lectures of Writing For Strings, marking the end of nearly a year’s worth of writing and production beyond the 28 PDF lessons. One thing I discovered is that writing and producing video lectures can take almost the same amount of time as writing a book.

And you’re teaching on a different plane as well. Trying to teach broad concepts on a tiny screen that will work in everyone’s iDevice so they can study anywhere and not feel chained to a computer terminal is daunting. If you’re just teaching facts, it’s a little easier. But when you’re trying to teach a skill like orchestration, it’s a more challenging assignment, because your true teaching goal is trying to communicate to the learner how to teach themselves, so that they can then leave the video classroom and learn through the experience of doing, how to think the material.

And by the way, this is also true for the live classroom.

In the few hours allotted to what can be a 2-credit hour class in the college classroom, for the student’s sake, the prime teaching goal must be to teach them how to teach themselves. This is the success skill for all occupations. To a teach a student this skill is for both teacher, and more importantly the student, to discover if they really have the fire in the belly required to take themselves to the next step in pursuing their life goal. Or, are they just looking for a grade.

When I was in college, I worried about grades and grade point averages. When I got to Los Angeles, I discovered no one cared what my grades were. They only wanted to know if I could do it or not – on time or faster. Oh yes, and accurately, too.

I also discovered something in Los Angeles they don’t talk to you about in college – competition. Competition in Hollywood with other composers is as fierce as competition in politics. What Harry Truman advised politicians is also good advice for composers. “If you want a friend this life,” he said, “get a dog.”

Hollywood is also highly competitive for composers because of the concentration of musical craft located there. Working in the composing community, aside from the competitiveness, is like being a civilian Marine. It is disciplined and no-nonsense with very high expectations.

For example, when I explain to college students that they must be able to write, on average, at least two minutes per day of fully orchestrated music, and sometimes up to 8 minutes per day as Howard Shore did with Lord of The Rings, I practically have to call a rescue squad to resuscitate them.

“I can do two minutes a month,” they exclaim, “but a day!”

Well, the two-minute per day standard was set by Joseph Haydn. To write a symphony in 2 weeks as he did, meant on average, 2 minutes per day of finished orchestral music. And that was accomplished after his day job of being Top Chef for Prince Esterhazy, his employer.

And Handel, if he was really in a time pinch, would go from musical imagination directly to parts, and later would compile the score.

Many Hollywood professionals know this aspect of music history because they’ve encountered it themselves live on the job. Consequently, composers who squawk about extreme time deadlines are considered whiners and don’t work too much – at least not in Hollywood.

So learning how to think this material is critical for professional success.

One of the orchestration quotes from Rimsky-Korsakov that illustrates the need to be able to think the material is, “orchestration is composition.”

What he means by that is when you’re composing, eventually you get to the point where you’re hearing the composition orchestrated in your head, or more artistically expressed, your musical imagination. And within that process, the mind creates its own set of variations that on paper become sketches. The composer takes the sketches and replays them within his musical imagination to see which one works best.

So not only is orchestration composition, it is also decision making.  But we’re not often taught that.

But now we have music technology. And so Mr. Rimsky-Korsakov must be updated to reflect the current trends as many composers today must also have some fluency in recording. So the new observation, if you will, is:

Orchestration is composition and mixing.

This will no doubt come as a shock to some and a heresy to others.

But when you are composing in your musical imagination, you are hearing the composition, the orchestration of the composition in the players seated, position and the dynamics, in other words, volume change.

This is why I’m now teaching mixing from an orchestration perspective.

For example, to understand orchestral seating arrangements is to grasp what spatial placement is all about! The players sit left to right, front to back. That’s spatial placement.

Dynamic markings reflect volume change which is also an act of mixing. Consequently, dynamics guide volume change when mixing whether it’s by way of CC7, CC11, or using the Mod Wheel (CC1) to effect volume change. Thus, a well marked score is your mixing guide.

MIDI editing is the implementation of note length, attack, phrasing and bow markings. How does the library and its virtual instrument player enable the composer to execute phrasing and bowing? Velocity? The use of expression? And how is that implemented? But then, the composer must determine not only how the virtual instrument player enables this, but also the role of the sequencing program, too.

When a composer looks at MIDI editing and mixing from this position, it’s much less daunting. But because developers offer little to poor training on their libraries, the composer must take these principles and looking firmly at the product features of libraries and sequencers,  work out his or her own individual training program.

This lack of training factor alone discourages purchasing while for others it delays a new purchase. Having a company that has been redocumenting hardware and software products since the DX7 has taught me a few practical lessons that many developers and manufacturers prefer to ignore. Having even a basic training program of music translated to music technology implementation isn’t just good customer service, it’s also good brain science, too.

The prevailing thinking is that those who do music are also good in math and computer logic. But this isn’t true. Dr. Caroline Leaf, a brain scientist, has discovered what she calls the 7 Pillars of Thought which is the process of how each individual thinks (see her book The Gift In You. Dr. Leaf cites seven components the order of which is different for each individual. This affects how you learn and process information.  Dr. Leaf describes each component as a type of intelligence. The seven are intrapersonal intelligence, interpersonal intelligence, linguistic intelligence, logical/mathematical intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence, musical intelligence and visual/spatial intelligence.

Musical intelligence is more for the musician. But the composer, as I found for myself, has more linguistic intelligence. Dr. Leaf writes, “If your Linguistic type of thinking is dominant, you build memory through words – spoken and written.”

Isn’t this exactly what happens with composing and orchestrating? We build memory, musical imagination, through the pitches on the written page matched to the musical combinations we store from hearing them live (or recorded) so that orchestration can become composition?

In my reading, I discovered that the great French teachers of orchestration, composition, and harmony not only understood this, but also they taught by communicating musical concepts in linguistic terms.

Scientifically I can say that we appear to have a match. But as a publisher I can go a step further by citing the kinds of comments from readers I get back on my product reviews, which I always try to write from this musical/linguistic perspective. The comment below came from my Professional Orchestration review of Spitfire Audio’s Albion at Film Music Magazine:

Excellent strings. Worth the price. This article actually helped me understand what I had already purchased. They are about to release Albion II which is a separate full use package.

There are certainly those on the various music tech forums who criticize composers who can write excellent compositions but submit poor MIDI mock-ups.

Is part of the reason composers often have poor MIDI mock-ups because as an industry we don’t express MIDI editing and mixing issues in a more linguistic manner?  In our teaching, I’m finding that when you do teach MIDI editing and mixing from a scoring perspective,  the learner better knows what to do and why, and feels less intimidated in the process.

It is easy for some to dis composers because they forget that learning to become a competent composer is its own demanding mistress. But when you add in mixing, EQ’ing, and learning to “verb” effectively, the learning curve leaps exponentially. And so the material for learning MIDI editing and mixing must be ordered in a way the composer can learn quickly and get on with it

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the composer who knows the fundamentals, including orchestral seating, knows more about mixing then they realize. The trick is to have the “lingustic” training needed to know how to apply that knowledge with electronic realizations.

I endeavored, through semi-light treading, to encourage some of this professional way of thinking. And I did so for another reason.

Over the past year, I translated and read orchestration works by one of the great orchestration teachers of all time, Francois Auguste Gevaert, along with already translated material by the Father of Orchestration Instruction, Jean Georges Kastner, followed by Hector Berlioz, and of course, Rimsky-Korsakov.

All of these men produced works that mentored in print.

Many taught at the college level. And yet when you read their works, you discover they didn’t think it beneath themselves to do what some today call commercial work. They knew no such distinction.

Writing For Strings, with no apologies to either academia or the artsy crowd,  focuses on both writing for live ensembles and doing MIDI mock-ups. That’s because mastering MIDI mock-ups can create work and income. Does it really matter if the work is for a radio commercial or a string quartet or a game or a short ballet? They wouldn’t think so. And I don’t either.

MIDI mock-ups offer a huge learning advantage by letting the student recreate sections of a score, or even a whole score, and hear things the recording might have missed. So with a simple mock-up, the student learns orchestration, composition and mixing.

And by the way, this is also an historical observation as well. Way back when, Walter Piston in his book Orchestration warned learners of the dangers of trying to learn orchestration alone through recorded performances (records!) and radio broadcasts. He advised that to really learn orchestration, one must go to live concerts. That advice is totally valid today. But now we have a MIDI mock-up through which the learner can add to their learning experience by taking apart and recreating parts of a score to better understand how the music was constructed.

You can’t learn orchestration by listening to MIDI mock-ups, but with them you can build vocabulary to better understand a scoring devices impact within the composition.

But now the caveat.

All of us who’ve done this for a while know that the principles of writing for live players and samples are similar, but also different. And as we progress through the course, I bring out these differences as a series of principles to be applied to string sample libraries, but with this caveat.

How you apply the concepts of writing for live strings varies with each string sample library, its player, and how it applies velocity (for phrase shaping), volume change, and yes, legato, too.

This observation helps explain why learning how to do orchestral MIDI mock-ups is not a short season.

Each virtual instrument player works differently. Each virtual instrument player has a different design. Each has its own learning curve.

To illustrate this, I gave an example from the opening of Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, The Pastoral. I focused on a one bar example, a similar rhythm of which was used by John Williams in Duel of The Fates. It was written with a mix of legato and staccato (or it could be performed as a mix of legato and spiccato).

Here the student assignment is to attempt to produce this one bar example with whatever library (or libraries) they own. Now when I did this on my own, I only found one library where I could execute the line on a single track. All the others needed two tracks.

Writing a line with mixed legato and shorts isn’t exactly orchestral rocket science!

But since not all libraries have their articulations so ordered that it’s easy to move back and forth between legato and a “short” bowing within the melodic line, our template track count moves up. By default. And so what’s simple in live performance, becomes, in my view, unnecessarily time consuming when doing MIDI mock-ups, especially since with just a little programming, it can be made much easier.

And this does affect how and what you write when using sample libraries.

This is why in Writing For Strings I tried to push beyond the consumeristic question, “Which one library is the best?”

Of course, the answer from each developer is, “Mine!”

But the practical reality is that no one string library can do the job which is why professionals need two or more. And more is better.

But the key for the modern composer is in understanding how to work the individual virtual instrument players for volume changes and MIDI editing the melodic line with with effective selection and placement of bowing choices (aka articulations).

This is why I advise learners to get one library and learn it well. Learn what it does and doesn’t do well. Put that into practice with your writing to learn by experience how far an individual library will take you with your career goals.

When that’s been observed and noted, then add the next string library based on what additional bowings are offered that will expand your vocabulary.

And here’s why this is such a big deal: depending on which libraries you have, you’re now the virtual concertmaster of your work, along with its conductor. So now a composer can make similar artistic decisions, albeit electronically, as a “live” concertmaster and conductor.

It can be more time consuming, but you do have the choice.

And this is important, because today the MIDI mock-up is becoming its own art form. You can create an electronic realization as it might be played live, or forget live performance and paint with sounds as an artist paints with colors. Either way, you have the option of creating income from licensing and audio sales, not to mention getting commissions and other types of writing gigs.

While you can go that way, generally composers often find that when you write for sampled strings with the same principles as you do for live strings, the results are often better than you imagined.

And that alone can be its own fulfillment.

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