Where the composer leaves off, the orchestrator picks up; this person takes a piece of music and scores it for a band, choral group, or individual musician or vocalist. An orchestrator is also called up to transpose a song from one instrument or voice to another. This role is similar to that of an arranger, but rather than reinventing the original composition, the orchestrator is concerned with maintaining the writer’s creative vision by making as few drastic changes as possible.
When working with a composer on a new piece of music, the orchestrator’s role can vary widely from glorified copyist to ghostwriter; it is entirely dependent on the habits of the composer. Some might write a short score, properly assigning the instrumental parts; it is then the orchestrator’s job to expand the short score into full orchestration pages. In other cases the composer may only provide a written melody as a starting point; in this instance the creation of the composition is a more collaborative effort. The orchestrator will support the existing melody by adding chords, harmonies, rhythm; the role is then more like that of an arranger. It is common for a composer to play his or her music into computer sequencer software like Apple’s Logic Pro and ask the orchestrator to transform the MIDI file into paper notation for the full orchestration.
When an orchestrator is asked to transpose an existing score to a different instrument, he or she is transferring the musical parts without affecting the tempo, style, rhythm, or harmony. Similarly, the orchestrator may be asked to transpose a vocal part from soprano to alto or bass to baritone. In this scenario, the orchestrator is not changing the style of the song as an arranger would, but simply changing the key or octave.
Skills & Education
An orchestrator must have extensive training in music theory and musicianship; this can be obtained at a conservatory, university, or through private study. This person must be able to sight-read music, write musical notation, and transpose a piece of orchestration from one instrument or voice to another. The ability to play one or more instruments (especially piano) is indispensible. The use of MIDI software is becoming more prevalent; an orchestrator must be familiar with the popular software and its use. Work in this field is highly collaborative and requires someone who is an effective communicator, patient, and highly creative.
What to Expect
This is predominantly a freelance role, though there are opportunities to work on staff for opera companies, theaters, and symphony orchestras, for a music publisher, or for a well-established composer. An orchestrator also has the freedom to pursue film and TV projects, work with recording artists, or work for video game developers. Roles as a studio musician or rehearsal pianist for a theater and similar gigs can lead to work as an orchestrator. Take any offer you can find: Most often the big break onto the project of your dreams is a phone call from someone you worked with in the past. Orchestrators with an established résumé can continue to move up on more high-profile projects, or else transition into work as a composer or musical director.
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