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1253Outline from Orchestration Class

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  • Christopher Mortika
    Apr 12, 2009
      Last weekend, at the Bellwode event, I presented a lecture on
      "Orchestration under Fire". The first half hour described a
      hypothetical group of musicians who answer a call to be a local music
      group, as a basis for a discussion of various facets of local music
      group dynamics. The second half hour addressed organizing musicians
      at events.

      I had many more people sitting in on the lecture than I had prepared
      handouts, and some people asked me to post the outline here. With
      some emendation and explanation, here's what I talked about:

      The hypothetical performers in question are an autoharp player, a
      'cellist, her 15-year-old sister who plays viola, three people with
      soprano recorders --one of whom is a novice, another of whom really
      loves Celtic music-- and a trombone player. (Honestly, when I first
      started a music group in the SCA, the collection of people who
      gathered were just about as motley!)

      The goal of the discussion is to provide guidance in how to run a
      standing musical ensemble in a volunteer organization.

      Our first question: Who’s allowed in?

      1) My experience has directed me to allowing people to join a group
      whether or not they have appropriate or period instruments. If
      someone can play a saxophone or beat out chord-riffs on a guitar,
      welcome them and let them know that there are Renaissance analogues
      for their instruments. But first, find something that they can do, to
      their satisfaction.

      In particular, I think it's silly for me to shake my Yamaha plastic
      Baroque recorder at somebody else and say that their instrument isn't

      A more serious issue might be instruments that are beyond your skill
      at orchestration. For example, in our hypothetical ensemble, the
      autoharp player is going to need somebody to write out chords; the
      violist is probably going to need music written in that bizarre "alto
      clef" notation, and the trombone is likely to be louder than all the
      rest of the ensemble combined. Consider this your opportunity to
      learn about chord theory, alto clef, and mutes for brass instruments.
      Don't let this overwhelm you. One good resource is "The Essential
      Dictionary of Orchestration", ISBN 0-7390-0053-5, published by Alfred
      Publishing Co. It's designed to help composers write for different
      instruments, but it's great for arrangers, too, and that's essentially
      what you've become. Another good resource is the other members of
      your ensemble. We'll discuss this later under the subject of
      leadership, but for now, just bear in mind that the group needs to
      figure out how to work all these instruments into a coherent ensemble;
      you don't have to do it alone.

      2) I've also been happy to include people who have, initially, limited
      musical skills. We've all be beginners, and there's a lot of music,
      authentic to our period, interesting to play, attainable by people
      with modest skills, and commercially available. I like the advice,
      "If you think you can judge someone else's level of ability, then you
      bear responsibility for finding them something within that level that
      they can do to be successful."

      A good source for playable, simple music is a music education company,
      Sweet Pipes. I recommend their titles "Songs and Dances of Olde
      England", "Renaissance Time", and "Piper's Fancy". I'll also point to
      the SCA dance arrangements by Lady Phaedria d'Aurillac (Kristina
      Pereyra) http://sca.uwaterloo.ca/~praetzel/phaedria.html and Mistress
      Arianna of Wynnthrope (Karen Kasper) http://sca.uwaterloo.ca/Arianna/.
      Most of their arrangements have a very simple 2nd-soprano line,
      intended to be practical for beginners.

      Limited musical skills can also be addressed by giving people a chance
      to practice music before rehearsals. This is a judgement call; some
      people think that an ability to sight-read music is an essential skill
      for an SCA musician, and require it of anyone who joins their group.
      That's not my position: if a new musician needs to take music home and
      "woodshed" it for a week before he's comfortable playing the pieces in
      a group, then I think it's my job to allow for that.

      One other note: I've found it useful to implement the following
      custom, which some people have taken to calling "Christian's Rule": if
      you're trying your best, you aren't allowed to apologize. Everybody
      flubs notes and rhythms; sometimes this stuff is hard. Do your best,
      and don't apologize for it. (On the other hand, if you haven't
      practiced, and you're not as familiar with the pieces as you should
      be, then perhaps an apology would be in order. But only one.)

      3) On the other hand, I *have* refused to seat people in a local music
      group, based on their levels of maturity (or professionalism, if you
      like) . The group I founded in the Twin cities, named the "Warwick
      Consort," was built on an expectation that everybody would actually
      practice and improve from one rehearsal to the next. If someone asked
      to join, but was interested in just treating the rehearsals as a
      recreational activity, we recommended other performance opportunities
      that were closer to that expectation. (For example, we made sure to
      come to weekly Baronial meetings and toodle in a corner, welcoming any
      who would join us.)

      I think this extends to other personality issues. The Warwick Consort
      gelled as a group of friends who trust one another, and there have
      been people who insisted on joining but whom we felt would bring
      unwanted drama or a lower level of trust to the group. So we
      declined. (But we had a certain freedom in doing this. See the
      discussion on "Naming the Group" below.)

      Second question: What are the ensemble’s goals?

      1) It helps to start an ensemble with an expected performance with a
      due date. "We're going to enter Kingdom A&S". "We're going to play
      background music at feast for the upcoming Coeur d'Ennui event."
      "We're going to sing two madrigals before court at Coronation." It
      helps focus people's attention. At least for me, I don't want to have
      a rehearsal that's mostly people just chatting or filling each other
      in on current events. A looming deadline is an excellent means to
      focus the mind.

      What kind of performance venues are available in the SCA? Honestly, I
      would avoid spotlight performances at feasts. People are there to eat
      and talk with their friends, and asking everybody to shut up and
      listen to a performance is an imposition on a captive audience.
      (There are ways of minimizing the imposition, and if you're smokin'
      hot, people will consider it worthwhile, but it's a risky sell for an
      up-and-coming ensemble, and if people near you *don't* shut up, the
      rest of the hall won't be able to hear you anyways.)

      Instead, there's ambient background entertainment: during the day,
      before court, during feast. There's playing a processional or
      recessional for court. (Check with Their Majesties' chancellor and a
      court herald first, of course.) There's the music pit for dance
      balls. The Warwick Consort decided to work with some event stewards
      and have small "house concerts" in quiet areas of events.

      What do you do with members who can’t make the performance? Well, you
      want to keep them coming to rehearsals; if you tell them, "See you in
      six weeks," you probably won't. So, put them to work providing
      solidity for weak parts, or listening to a run-through to check for
      things like balance and coordinated articulations.

      Eventually, you'll end up with a series of cascading short-term goals.
      You'll have a ball coming up in a month, and something fancy at a
      court two weeks later, and a competition a month after that. That's
      terrific; if an ensemble member can't make one performance, they're
      still involved because they might be able to make another.

      Remember the hypothetical recorder player with a passion for Celtic
      music? How do you accommodate that interest into your group's
      short-term goals?

      2) You should have at least one long-term goal: developing a healthy
      group. By this, I mean an ensemble with a good group dynamic:
      everybody feels welcome, they have an interior motivation for
      practicing and performing at their best, they all trust one another.

      Part of this might be an extended effort at recruiting. Some
      ensembles, for example the DragonLion Consort in Ansteorra, or the
      Lion & Lily team in Atlantia, are really not looking for new members.
      Other ensembles are. It's not a cut-and-dried issue. Any new members,
      even those ho get along great with the current roster, will change a
      group’s social dynamics, and might require a change in orchestration
      or repertoire. This might be a good thing, but it shouldn't be a
      *surprising* thing.

      (Being open to recruiting new members is sometimes a good barometer of
      the pressures the group has on the local SCA environs. If there are
      musicians in the local chapter who don't want to have anything to do
      with your group, there's something going on that you might want to
      address. This might be a canary in a mine shaft.

      One problem with recruiting new members into an established group is
      that, with any luck, you've all gotten better as the ensemble has
      practiced and rehearsed. If everybody's ready to tackle Byrd's
      Fantasia a 6 #2, or a crazy Spanish ensalada, what do you do when
      somebody wants to join ho is just learning her instrument? The Mighty
      Jararvellir Music Guild is the ensemble out of the barony in Madison,
      Wisconsin, and their solution was to require everybody to play out of
      their comfort zones during the first hour of the rehearsals. So,
      veteran players would be learning alto fingering, or bass clef, or new
      instruments, or such, during the first hour. New members felt right
      at home. And then they brought out the heavy-lifting pieces during
      the second hour.

      Eventually, your ensemble will develop a group identity. You'll want
      to come up with a name. If your ensemble takes it's identity from the
      local SCA chapter, say, "The Ivory Keep Singers" or something, what
      does that suggest about “Who’s allowed in?”

      One more thing: try not to apologize when naming your group. If you
      feel you want to name yourself something that boils down to "Don't
      expect too much of us; we kind of suck", then I'd recommend you go hit
      the rehearsals some more and come back when you're ready to ask people
      to pay attention to you, without apologies.

      Third question: What does an effective leader do?

      I'm a big fan of Max DuPree, the author of "Leadership is an Art."
      His thesis in that book is: “The first responsibility of a leader is
      to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two,
      the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the
      progress of an artful leader.”

      Essentially, the job of leading an ensemble is team-building. (a)
      Identify your members' strengths. Who's the best at keeping a
      consistent tempo? At counting long rests? At coming in with a clear
      voice and rock-solid pitch? At knowing music theory? At knowing
      music history? At keeping the atmosphere light when it needs to be?
      At congratulating other musicians at their personal triumphs and

      Then (b) revise your goals based on those strengths, as well as the
      members' individual goals. (Remember that Celtic-music enthusiast?)
      Every member of the ensemble should feel like he or she is
      contributing his or her A Game, both musically and socially. And
      everybody should feel like he or she is getting something important
      out of the group.

      There are other, important aspects to team-building. How will you
      decide to celebrate your group's achievements? Why does the Grimfells
      music group have potlucks?

      I've had success with teen-agers who've wanted to sing in the choirs
      or play in the ensembles I've run, but there have been unexpected
      aspects. Acting mature is usually not an issue, but expect crises.
      Reliability is an issue because a teen's life is outside his or her
      control; even if she swears that she will certainly be at next week's
      rehearsal and the performance on Saturday, she might get grounded, or
      her family might decide to keep her home for a grandparent's birthday
      or something. In general, it's useful to get the parents / guardian
      "on the team" for the ensemble as well as the teenager. One other
      note: general life experience will be an occasional issue that needs
      addressing. There are "common sense" matters that a 16-year-old, no
      matter how mature he is, has yet to deal with, and about which he'll
      be ignorant.

      What musical considerations will an ensemble have to address?

      1) Voicing. Much of the ensemble music repertoire from the
      Renaissance is not specified as being for one type of instrument or
      another. Praetorius didn't write string quartets or recorder
      quartets; he wrote quartets, and let the musicians determine what that
      meant. If you have a vocal piece, you could decide to sing all the
      parts, play all the parts on instruments, double some lines with voice
      and instrument, or mix-and-match however you please. Will you add
      percussion? Will you change the arrangement as the piece progresses,
      so that it changes texture?

      2) Range. Clearly, if all you have are soprano recorders, you don't
      want to be picking pieces that require a fuller range between parts.
      This can be tricky with some sheet music, where the arranger thought
      it simple to write the soprano and tenor lines as if they were in the
      same range, instead of an octave apart. Squishing lines like that is
      a simple way to foul up good music.

      Here's a tricky question: the viola plays in the same range as which
      recorder? Answer: the bass. (I refer you again to the Alfred book on
      orchestration, which details every instruments concert-pitch range.)
      One observation: if you have recorders and bowed strings playing
      together, recorders get softer at the bottom of their ranges, but
      strings don't. So where your piece moves into its higher registers,
      the recorders will be more present, and where the music is near the
      bottom of its range, your sound will be more "stringy". Make sure you
      use this as a "feature" of your sound, rather than suffer it as a

      Is there a problem using a 'cello in an ensemble with recorders? Not
      usually. The 'cello doubles the bass line an octave lower. This
      extends the range, which should likely sound fine. But be careful of
      putting violins on the melody/soprano line, where they'll sound below
      the alto recorders, that's part of the "squishing" (or part-crossing)
      that you'll want to avoid.

      3) What to do with that autoharp, or any other chording instrument.
      Medieval music (for my purposes, pre-1470's compositions) doesn't use
      chords the way modern music understands them, and it's likely that
      chording instruments won't work right. 16th Century composers don't
      talk about chords in the same way we do, but Renaissance music
      certainly seems to have a clear chordal harmonization. Chording
      instruments are great for filling in staid middle parts, and provide a
      nice pitch stability for choirs.

      4) In addition, there's all the normal aspects of musicality: making
      sure everybody comes in together, articulates a passage the same way,
      keeps the same tempo, stays in tune, and so on.

      5) Finally, you get to address the question: “Is [the piece / the
      instrument / the technique / etc] period?” For my money, if I'm going
      to expend the energy to master a piece, I think it ought to be
      appropriate to the SCA, which usually means composed in the Middle
      Ages or Renaissance. Your mileage may vary. As I said up above, I'm
      pretty flexible when it comes to the authenticity of instruments:
      authenticity is a journey, not a destination, and I try not to tell
      other people where they should be on their journey. As for
      techniques, I try to research and encourage period techniques. Why
      exert the effort to sound good, if through that effort you sound like
      a modern jazz ensemble or folk-music group?

      That was the first half of the course. The second half dealt with
      Very Short Term music groups, assembled at events.

      For example, people getting together to play music and deciding, after
      a half-hour, that it would be fun to continue noodling in public or
      maybe to work up a couple of pieces for some simple performance later
      in the day. Mistress Gwyneth’s “Wavering Consort” is a good example of
      this; she carries music to events in case people want to gather and

      In brief, almost all the issues that the first half of the class
      addressed, are also dealt with for such an ad hoc group, in miniature.
      You still need to decide on repertoire, you still need to make all
      the musical decisions, and somebody has to "define reality" and lead
      the ensemble. (And at the end, that person should still remember to
      say "Thank you.")

      Here are my sources and resources:

      1) The Choral Public Domain Library
      http://www.cpdl.org/wiki/index.php/Main_Page has thousands of
      arrangements of period pieces, usually a couple of slightly different
      versions of popular pieces.

      2) The IMSLP / Petrucci Music Library for instrumental works
      http://imslp.org/wiki/Main_Page does the same thing for instrumental
      works, albeit with a smaller collection.

      3) Sheet Music Plus http://www.sheetmusicplus.com/ is a commercial
      site with previews of the pieces. It's a large collection that allows
      you to buy PDFs and download them immediately.

      4) For mail-order, I can recommend Honeysuckle Music.
      http://www.honeysucklemusic.com/ Jean Allison-Olson runs the company
      out of her house. She has an enormous collection of great music,
      concentrating on the Renaissance, and she's wonderful to deal with.

      5) One of the publishers Honeysuckle carries is London Pro Musica
      http://www.londonpromusica.com/ hich is mostly just one guy: Bernard
      Thomas. But Dr. Thomas is prolific in his arrangements of period
      pieces, judicious in his choices as to which pieces to arrange (very
      little of his work is spent polishing turds), helpful in his editorial
      comments, and downright gifted in making his arrangements sparkle with
      the intent and sensibility of the original composers. (His duFay
      arrangements sound like duFay, rather than like Bernard Thomas.)

      5) If you're going to be working with recorders, you really need The
      Recorder Book by Kenneth Wollitz (see
      It's bounced around among a couple of publishers, and I undestand he's
      at work revising the book. But it has *everything* you'd want to
      know: how to play the recorder (he assumes his reader is an adult,
      playing an alto recorder), how to practice, how to arrange a concert,
      how to ornament a piece in different traditions, how to play outside,
      et cetera.

      6) Medieval and Renaissance Music, a Performer’s Guide by Timothy
      McGee (See http://www.librarything.com/work/211430) Unlike the rest
      of the theory books here, this is written by one person. It's a great
      book, moving in and out of print from the University of Toronto,
      providing historical backgrounds and contexts for period musical
      developments. How would a Renaissance musician have placed a
      Krummhorn into an ensemble: McGee explains how and why.

      A Performer's Guide to Renaissance Music, edited by Jeffery
      Kite-Powell (see
      I didn't realize this book was in print again. It's a collection of
      chapters by professional performers about orchestration of their
      particular instruments. So a harpist will talk about how to use a
      harp in Renaissance music, a percussionist will talk about period
      drumming practices, and so on.

      A Performer's Guide to Medieval Music edited by Ross Duffin. (See
      This is yet another collection of essays, written by scholars and
      performers, for performers. It specializes in Medieval, as opposed to
      Renaissance performing practices.

      A Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music, edited by Tess
      Knighton. (See
      This is a great book, again a collection of different scholarly
      essays. The writing style is down-to-earth and engaging. You can
      read each of these essays in a half-hour and just feel *smarter* and
      better informed about what we're trying to do.

      Christian d’Hiver
      Companion of the Calon Lily, Companion of the Saltire
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