To become a master of orchestration for live performance and a master of samplestration for virtual MIDI mock-ups, one must first master fully the fundamentals of instrumentation. This is both the starting point of learning orchestration and the heart of it.

Instrumentation is not an art. Rather it’s the pro-active move to learn the mechanics of each instrument (articulations, dynamic capabilities and how they are performed), the tone colors across the range of each instrument, and, how those articulations sound within each of the instrument’s tone colors.

The goal of this pro-active move is to firmly plant these sounds in our musical imagination so that musical intuition can draw upon them at any time.

Such study is not for faint of heart because it takes years to develop.

But how is instrumentation learned?

The process often starts with a book that provides the range of each instrument, it’s articulations or bowings, and a selection of examples from The Literature. Sometimes the example is a single line, while with other authors, it’s a full page score in which you see/hear the instrumental line within the context of the score. Such an approach offers a double bonus – the learning of a compositional technique or two for that example. This functions as a prelude to doing full score analysis later.

The next step of the process comes through focused listening. This means buying recordings of each instrument used in a solo composition and listening as one drives to and from work, or eating lunch, or at home seated comfortably in a chair just listening.

It also means attending live concerts where you can also talk to musicians and ask questions.

Then there’s subscribing to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall or the Naxos Music Library.

Those who are in love with the craft often learn to play each instrument at a basic level which assures them that what’s been written can be performed.

There’s collecting manuals on how to play each instrument.

And finally, going through a score and singing each part to affix the sound in your musical imagination.

This, then, is instrumentation and how it’s been learned over the centuries.

When applied to sample libraries (which by comparison we’ve only had for a few decades), within a few minutes of playing any set of samples, you know what the samples will do and what they won’t do. You also understand the value of your purchase, or, of what you’re about to purchase.

If there is a law, it’s that one cannot learn instrumentation effectively from samples. Samples are digital musical pictures frozen in time which are assembled to create a musical statement. It’s your skill with a sequencer that determines how effective the sampled performance really is that you created.

Orchestration, then, is the application of instrumentation within the compositional process. For others, it’s an action that takes place after a work has been composed. But either way, it’s an inseparable part of the composition process.

The learning of orchestration is mentored by a written book. But as with instrumentation, orchestration is learned by the same focused listening as with instrumentation: live concerts, CDs, the Digital Concert Hall, the Naxos Music Library, and, what few wish to do, score study.

After that, like the rest of us, you learn as you write.

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