Instrumentation: Learning and remarks

If you want to learn an instrument, borrow it somewhere and take a few lessons. Playing all the instruments a little is very helpfull for a composer. I found that Stephen and I share this experience. Where everybody else is thinking I am crazy, he understands the importance of being able to undersatnd what the musician is going through while playing your music. This is also what makes me a composer, rather than a musician, I don’t have this love for just one instrument, I like them all.


  • The bottom guy controls everything: tempo and pitch.
  • A bass is a long note, so the instrument would ideally be a double bass or a synth.
  • The PAD bass should be 1 and/or 2 octaves below the tuba’s. (As are the double basses in a symphonic orchestra doubling the cello’s 1 octave or 2 below. )
  • A tuba is not a bass, it’s a low instrument.
  • You can download Main Stage and the Storm Stage at the app-store to get the good sounds designed by Stephen for the PAD bass. (You have instructions ready)
  • Remember the overtone series and how the double octave redefines where the overtones sound and how they mix. Composing with an extra deep bass is different, as is with a contrabas trombone.
  • When writing for a choir or the entire orchestra: use the snowman. Heavy in the bottom, light in the head.
  • When writing for a choir, prescribe for the highest voice fewer players.

The organ and trombone-choir

  • Using the organ as a PAD bass should be very beautiful, will make the trombones shine.
  • You can do fast and high stuff above the trombones with the organ
  • Mak a window by having the organ play low and high and fill the middle with trombones.
  • Don’t make them play at the same height, it will make them sound messy.


  • Low D- difficult because of pinky.
  • Low D- Sounds bad on cheap study instruments
  • A slurred phrase of fast notes from D- upwards does work.
  • Lowest C doesn’t work in fast staccato, long notes are possible
  • This low range in staccato sounds better on trumpets.
  • From lowest F upwards all flutes sound nice.


  • Don’t let them play the lowest note a third, it’s difficult for them to tune. Also the overtone series does not work that well as with the trombones. Make them a seperate part that makes their instruments shine. Don’t copie the trombones.
  • German players are confused by the parts in Bflat.

Bariton sax

  • Avoid high passages. This mistake occurs when you copy paste from other parts. Check that every time you do that.


  • Write down in scales where are the difficult fingerings on the different sizes of instruments. It is difficult where all the fingers change at once. Even with correct fingering.
  • It is difficult to play when all the valves are open you loose a lot of air. You can hear that. You could also use that for an effect.
  • High spots: I found that assigning fewer clarinets to part 1 (snowman SATB) gives a better result (listen Sergeant Stubby). Prescribe the number of players, how you want that organized for the right effect.
  • Lower the clarinets one octave sounds more sophisticated, but it was not the effect I was looking for. So I think, let the Es-klarinet take care of the high note and make all instruments do what they do best.
  • Clarinets are very nice in the lower register, also the thrills there have a nice effect. But it’s done already so often. You have to add a surprising color to give it a new sound.
  • Clarinets have to breath also with fast notes, give parts 1,2,3 different moments for that by omitting a note at different moments for each part. (you write for strings now 😉 )


  • Avoid the high passages, it was not playable due to the quality of the instrument. Long deep notes add a beautiful sonority to the sound.

Double Bass

  • Often the double bass ends up as a prop on stage. There is no sound-room for the instrument in de composistion, the volume-level of the orchestra and the tuning of the orchestra.
  • As a player I find myself not respected by composer, conducters and players. That’s why I changed to tuba.
  • Within an untuned orchestra the double bass stands no chance. The waves interfere through the instrument, so you cannot play tuned and the bass will loose it’s sound.
  • A double bass tuned in fifths downwards of with 3 strings adds to the volume of the instrument, but does not solve the above mentioned problems.

Tempered tuned instruments

  • The piano has such a high range over overtones, it always draws attention to itself. It also sounds out of tune because it is tempered tuned.
  • Mallets: Sound less out of tune, also it seems that the vibraphone has a lot of deeper overtones through the pipes. These mix well with the bass clarinets. I prefer these instruments over electronical instruments or a piano.
  • The organ is also tempered tuned, so I will experience that problem while writing for organ and trombone choir.
  • It will be interesting to find it trombonechoir with mallets sounds better in tune than with piano.


  • Think of the percussionist as the ‘impactionist’ when you write climaxes.
  • Prescribe the set up of the percussion because this influences the 3D effect of how your music is percieved.
  • Do not let the conductor decide for you on set-up or prefered instruments, while you have this chance to be exact about what you want.
  • Provide parts for persons: perc. 1,2,3 are asigned to appointed people. This helps organising the percussion from the first moment on.
  • Write for adding one extra person at the time, so even with 1 percussionist the important instruments are played. Design the composition in a way that people can add one percussionst at the time. So they play along without having to change all the work of the firts percussionist.
  • Many percussionists are flewn in on the last moment and then everybody has to change their behavior again. I think as a composer, you can help people concentrate on their part and the conductor by organising the percussion ahead. Also parts can be send easily to percussionists for practise at home.
  • Choose the instruments almost every orchestra has for the 1st percussionist. So the conductor does not have to change your set up when instruments are lacking.
  • Organise percussion in pits to avoid walking. They looked happy with the new percussion set-up from Thaleia and there was no chaos at all. Everybody looking at the conducter or their mallet-instrument (who need the part in advance).
  • There are hardly ever more than 4 percussionists at a normal orchestra.
  • If you really need people walking around, try it yourself including taking the mallets and time how long this takes from one end of the stage to another.
  • The timpanist never walks, it’s not easy to leave the pit. I saw it, they were stuck with their clothes and shoes to handles and pedals. It made the changes between pieces from Stephen Melillo very stressfull.
  • You can give percussionists extra (unpitched) instruments to play combined with a mallet instrument.
  • Beware that instruments will sound when situated near the larger drums. (for example tambourine near timpani)
  • Prescribe the snare of the snaredrum to be loosened when not needed. It’s not a nice sound when you sit play near that spot with another instrument.
  • Beware that a different instrument or a different place on the same instrument might require different mallets.
  • Mallet parts have to be prepared, because they cannot read, play and see the conductor at the same time. So you have to give them the parts in advance.
  • Also 2 people on 1 malletinstrument is possible. Be clear with the set up if you want that.
  • Score and parts lay-out:
    • Join all bars together that are not played in, so the music will be easy to read. Now there are too many things going on on paper, that does not help them.
    • Write notes in parts of other instruments that percussionsts can hear well. So they know what to look for when they lost track. Just the name of the instrument and the rythm of their music will suffice.
    • When writing for the drumset: name the style (swing, rock, samba), notate the rythm of the bar, write ‘groove ad lib.’ for a nice fill. Let the percussionist make something up, don’t force something upon him/her.
  • Doubling piccolo with glockenspiel is not the best way to use the instruments, they can stand by themselves. A Vibraphone better doubles with the flutes for an enchanting sound.

By Anneloes Wolters


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