“How do I learn orchestration?” Such a recurring question. Traditionally, the orchestrator’s art has always had two basic components: instrumentation (how instruments or combinations of instruments sound) and notation (how to unmistakably communicate, on paper, which sounds you want produced, and when.) Of course, in opera (and now film and television, and even video games) there is the third craft of sound design, i.e. the reinforcement (and occasional outright creation) of a dramatic presentation through the use of instrumental color and effect.
Usually, the question refers to the first discipline, and invariably devolves into which books to read, which scores to study, even which movies to watch. Unfortunately, such discussions miss one very thorny but fundamental point: Like fine cooking, orchestration begins with an organic and intimate connection with one of your five senses, impossible to put in any book. No chef becomes worth his salt (pun intended) until he first and foremost knows, really knows, how thousands of things taste, either alone or in a limitless number of combinations and amounts. Substitute “sound” for “taste,” and your orchestration discussion snaps into the proper focus.
Even when “orchestrating” through midi, the principle still holds, as one still must deeply know how every sample will sound and interact, especially if one is trying to make them emulate the orchestra they are intended to replace. (“sigh!”)
This is why “rounding up the usual suspects” (venerated tomes by Berlioz, Piston, Kennon, Read, Rimsky-Korsakov, et al,) is putting the cart before the horse. Think about it: What does vanilla taste like? Can you describe it exactly with words? Can any book really get you to experience the taste of vanilla? And, once you’ve really savored it, are you likely to forget it? Substitute viola for vanilla and revisit the same discussion.
Orchestration books use contextual ensemble examples for which audio probably exists. But such experience is usually premature for most students of instrumentation because one only hears the finished “stew,” not its component ingredients. Until one instinctively knows how each one “tastes,” it’s largely a theoretical exercise, and one that is less likely to sink in. If you really know the sounds of a piccolo and bassoon in all their registers, then a discussion of how they interact several octaves apart will resonate with you in a way that you can assimilate and readily use.
Plus, by going first to the “how to” books, you are substituting other people’s determinations of what is delicious and exciting for what should be your own, a move which only delays the development of your own taste and style.
So, assuming you do want your search to be led by your ears and your heart instead of your eyes and your mind, and you aren’t fortunate to have spent years sitting in orchestras, what are some good ways to get these sounds into your head? Adopt the following listening priorities: Live beats recordings, rehearsals beat performances, and smaller ensembles beat larger ones, as your goals are isolation and clarity.
Rehearsals work because you often get to hear larger sonorities broken down into component ones, and then reassembled. If there is a college near you, find its music department and haunt some rehearsals (but be polite and ask beforehand.) Don’t sit front and center; listen from offstage or even behind the ensemble. You’ll hear things in the lopsided balance you won’t hear on a well-engineered recording. Bring the score, but spend most of your time with your eyes closed, trying to intuit what’s really happening in the sonic architecture, and then confirm it through the score.
Ideally, however, find a sympathetic player and get him/her to show you how their instrument works and how its component ranges and effects sound. Take notes or, better still, record the demonstrations (on some low-fi recorder for the player’s peace of mind.) Then buy him or her lunch; it’ll be among the best investments you’ll ever make.
If a live body simply isn’t available, fake it. As part of s symphonic player’s training, there have always been recordings on the market of significant orchestral excerpts performed by principal players and sections from great orchestras. They are usually superior exemplars of the player’s art in isolation and can be swapped for study purposes with other seekers in your circle (but not duplicated; that would be unethical and illegal.) Check eBay.
These are just a few avenues to investigate. Use your imagination for others, but always remember that sound is the element from which meaningful orchestration emanates.
Once you know how all the instruments “taste,” only then will the books, the scores, the notation, and the seminars and discussions actually mean something, as will everything you hear for the rest of your life.