Get the Instrument to Your Face

I’ve become more and more of an active member of the Online Orchestration group on Facebook over the past few months.  I love reading the questions and queries that the group poses.  However, I’ve noticed one thing, and that’s the fact that many people are in the dark about how wind instruments work.  Most of the composers/orchestrators know the basics of the general winds, but only a few specialists know the ins-and-outs of the individual instruments.  This is, of course, to be expected.  Only a trained professional can know all the minutiae of any instrument.  But, here’s where I see some failure, many have never touched the instruments that they are writing for.  In this, I’ve always taken the approach of Paul Hindemith and Percy Grainger – play as many instruments as you can so you know how to write for them better.

In other words – GET THE HORN TO YOUR FACE.

This has several benefits.  By just picking up the instrument, the composer can know the weight and how long a player might be expected to hold the instrument.  A B-flat Clarinet can be played for far longer than can a Bass Saxophone.  These instruments have a physicality to them.  If you need a player to double on two instruments, it’s a good idea to know how those instruments can move.

Know the keywork.  I have an understanding of how most of the keywork and valve systems work for all the wind instruments.  It’s taken years and lots of study, but I can pick up most instrument and be able to play a decent chromatic scale.  This is invaluable.  I know where and how the notes lie on the various instruments.  I’m not an expert, but I’ve got a sense as to where to begin.  As I write passages for different instruments, I find myself fingering along to the part on the instrument I wrote for.

Will it be possible to play every instrument? Of course not.  Of the common instruments, I’ve never tried my hand at a Piccolo.  This isn’t for any particular reason, I’ve just never had the opportunity presented where I can play a Piccolo.

A brief list of the instruments I’ve played in the name of orchestrations:

Flute, Alto Flute

Piccolo Oboe, Oboe, Oboe d’Amore, English Horn, Bass Oboe

E-flat Clarinet, C Clarinet, B-flat Clarinet, Alto Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Contrabass Clarinet

Sopranino Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Alto Saxophone, C Tenor Saxophone, B-flat Tenor Saxophone, Baritone Saxophone, Bass Saxophone

Tenor Bassoon, Bassoon, Contrabassoon, Contrabass Sarrusophone

Horn, Cornet, Alto Horn, Baritone Horn, B-flat Trumpet, Tenor Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba

Could I perform on a concert on all these instrument? No.  Only a small handful of these (all the bassoons, sarrusophone, saxophones, some oboe and some clarinets).  My brass technique is awful and I’m terrible at flute, but I’ve at least tried them.

Where to get your hands on the instruments? Find a friend.  If you promise to be nice, a lot of musicians will let you try their horn.  Rent one.  You can rent instruments from music stores on a monthly basis.  Borrow it.  Schools often have spare instruments that aren’t being used.  EBay.  I spent way too much money on this route…