No Orchestra? No Problem!

(Nah, just kidding. Just some thoughts on how to write orchestral music even if you don’t have a live orchestra to practice on, on a daily basis)

Ten years as an orchestrator (my first professional orchestration job was in 2002 for the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra), and the huge, blank orchestration music sheet still has the power to terrify me.  I know by now that writing does not necessarily get easier as I grow older in the craft.  Yes, there are plenty of things I can do much better and much faster than before, but there is still so much to discover, and there’s still so much more I want to accomplish.



(Currently orchestrating a teleserye – i.e. a primetime soap – music theme for the ABS CBN Philharmonic)

Here in the Philippines, I do not know anyone who is solely a full-time orchestrator, one who does not do any other kind of arranging.  My stint with Ambientmedia allowed me to do that on a daily basis for six whole years, as I worked as an in-house arranger for FILharmoniKA.  But even then, I had to take on other kinds of work because there’s just not a whole lot of orchestra stuff going on in the country.  
Now, working as an independent arranger, I find that when I get orchestration gigs, the deadlines are usually very tight.  It has been that way ever since I remember, but now the disadvantage is that I don’t have the benefit of being in an orchestral environment every day.  It’s like being a piano player and not having daily access to a good piano to practice on. 
To remedy this, I have found that it helps if I:

1) Read scores daily.  Whether jazz, classical (thank you IMSLP), big band or chamber music, I try to schedule quality reading sessions within my day regardless of how busy or hectic it is.  And thanks to technology, I can even do this in public nowadays without looking (too) dorky.  I’ve hoarded a lot of scores in my iPad, thanks to Forscore.  It helps me sneak in some quality score reading time while hanging out with my hubby in coffee shops, waiting in airports, or waiting backstage during gigs.  My favorite scores have their corresponding mp3’s loaded into the device as well.  Whenever there are passages that move me in some way, or passages that I feel will be useful for my current projects, I replay and replay and reread.  
Play orchestral music in the car.  For those hours spent in horrendous traffic
Play in orchestras.  Fortunately, I still get hired as pianist/keyboardist in shows with orchestras, even though I have to admit that my sight reading still leaves much to be desired (I’m still working on it).  Blame it on the hours spent sequencing or writing notation instead of practicing my sight-reading.
Attend concerts or rehearsals whenever I can.  Whether it’s a student orchestra or the best group in the country, listening and watching is always useful.  
Write on a daily basis, deadlines or no deadlines.  In 2010, I started working on a personal project, a composition for the AMP Big Band.  Guess what?  It’s still only 2/3 done.  But always having that project to work on, even when there are no orchestration gigs forthcoming, allows me to consistently “train” that part of my brain that thinks up sounds in a large ensemble context.