A recent thread in Film Music Magazine’s orchestration forum involved a question on the best way to approach orchestrating a piano piece. The conventional advice usually involves trying to accommodate and emulate all the “pianistic” elements by other instruments. Essentially, that’s re-copying, however inspired the effort. True, inspired orchestration, however, must dig far deeper. Unless the piece from which you are working was written to either showcase actual piano technique or to make a musical statement achievable only by a single performer, recognize that even this piano version was a compromise over some ensemble piece that never was. Let’s be real: for all its vaunted color and expressive range, the piano is still only a single percussion instrument, no match for a non-consort ensemble of performers.
So, step uno in a true adaptive process is to recognize that music exists independently of the clothes that it’s wearing at the moment. Technically, all music is orchestrated, even if it’s for an “ensemble” of just one piano. As such, any “further” adaptation is really just a tailoring of a new costume for the true underlying musical entity to wear when it takes the stage.
Given that, when you first undertake to “re”-orchestrate a piano piece, try to avoid the temptation to pour all the notes (probably doubling most of them) into some “A-list”-sized orchestral palette, as you won’t learn the important analytical and philosophical processes that separate creative orchestration from mere re-copying. Initially, you should aim far smaller, both to more easily get a for-real reading by live players (which will teach you far more, as samples don’t complain or applaud) and, more importantly, the necessary distillation process will force you to thoroughly analyze and understand the musical essence underlying the piano performance. To an orchestration newbie, a woodwind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn, and bassoon) is a great starting vehicle. It’s small, every school has at least one, and every woodwind player either plays in or knows of one. It has greater agility, a wider performable pitch range, a more stable tuning environment, and a larger palette of usable colors (especially with conceivable doubles of piccolo, English horn, and bass clarinet) than either the ubiquitous string quartet or brass quintet.
Begin by laying out your blank quintet score, but add the two piano staves at the bottom, plus three or four blank staves below them to be a workspace, and you’re all set. Input the entire piano part on the piano staves and leave it sacrosanct for reference. The blank staves below are for exploding chords, etc.
The basic process, then, is to work backwards from the existing notes and your perception of the effect of the piano performance and, using the new instrumental colors and capabilities, try to achieve what you intuit the composer was thinking before he compromised by orchestrating it for the piano (subject to the caveats above). Better still, if you can hear something all your own, emulate that. If the piano version at times uses forces unmatched to the quintet, don’t fret. Almost every chord or voicing can be boiled down to a simpler stack of notes that still carries the harmonic impact. Ask any jazz pianist or guitarist; they’ve been emulating complex chordal structures with one hand or 5 or 6 strings for their whole careers. Like a fine brewer, you just have to boil down something complex into something simpler that still conveys the effect.
Don’t be afraid to adjust octaves or add or delete notes to maintain the effect. The process can be an amazing and satisfying learning experience, as well as a lot of fun. Of course, individual live players have their own limitations and liabilities which you can ignore at your peril: Range (obvious), breathing (more subtle, but still important), rests (don’t burn your players out physically or mentally), doubling just for the sake of doubling (with small groups, avoid without a compelling reason), and instrument capabilities (at first, don’t rewrite the rule book; it evolved for a reason…).
When you get comfortable with this analyze-dismantle-distill-rebuild process, and you grow trusting of your own taste and skill, then foray in the other direction and work both with progressively larger concepts and ensembles and more closely following your own dramatic and musical inspirations. The more complicated the group, the more geometrically complex will become the matrix of options and responsibilities with which you must grapple. But never lose your connection with the “beast within” the music you are orchestrating. He’s the boss.