Imagining Real Orchestration

Imagining Real Orchestration


As a Pianist turned Conductor, I can recommend nothing more strongly to the Advanced Pianist than learning how to conduct.  Even learning the basics of score-reading and baton technique is transformational.  And with a little effort you can learn to transcribe orchestral works into pianistic creations, one of the greatest ways to come to terms with the relationship between specific orchestral colors and their pianistic equivalents.  Transcribing also teaches you essential truths about what the piano is not.

Learn to use each instrument and instrumental combination as a filter.  There are countless possibilities: a Violin with unlimited range; a ‘Cello with unlimited range; a String Quartet/Quintet or String Orchestra; a Flute with unlimited range; a Wind Ensemble; a Brass ensemble; a Percussion Ensemble; a French Horn Ensemble with unlimited range; a String and Wind Orchestra; a Brass and Percussion Orchestra; various Chamber groups.  It’s often useful to give a face to your players.  I generally use Casals or Rostropovich on ‘Cello, Heifetz, Perlman on Thibaut on Violin, and so on.

You’ve just gained hundreds of new filters, each with something quite special to teach you about the Piano, your specific interpretation, and your relationship to both.  Treat orchestral transcription, even if only virtual, as a serious Art-form; it will add new dimensions to your pianistic language.

Each instrument demands a special technique at the keyboard.  As you perfect your inner ear’s perception of each instrumental sound, you will find it easier to imitate that sound on the keyboard.  If you want to get to know the Violin better, take out a Bach Violin Suite or Tschaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, for example, and play the Violin part either with one hand or both.  Try to capture the peculiar qualities of both the sound and the way the instrument encourages you to phrase and breathe, either because of technical considerations or sonic inspiration.  Take note of how you are technically achieving your pianistic transcription of the sound.

Work through each of the orchestral instruments and sections in this way.  Your results may be very personal, but the following guidelines from my own experience will be helpful:


All Strings, while employing active fingers capable of vibrato, are driven by the bow and bowings.  Pianistically, the bow refers to dropping and lifting the weight from the forearm and/or upper arm in and out of the keys.  One bow often contains several notes.  At first, don’t worry about up-bow and down-bow – simply play each phrase or gesture with one long, endless bow.  Never forget to move the bow against the strings; the moment the bow becomes inactive, the weight becomes dead, the fingers start to work too hard, and the String quality disappears.

Each of the individual String instruments has a sound all its own, and within each instrument, each of the four strings has a peculiar color.  These subtleties I leave to you to discover; the basic concept of sound production and sound transcription remains the same.  To gain a deeper understanding of bowing, study the nature of up-bow and down-bow and watch videos of the great string players, noticing how they use their bows.  Also, nothing compares with actually putting a string instrument in your own hands and experimenting.


Flute:  Use clear pointed fingers coated in metal to bring out its translucent, water-like quality.  Generally, play from the fingers, even in forte, although the hand can help for accents and certain heavier, sustained colors.

Piccolo:  Also played from the hand, but with even brighter fingertips.  It should have a pointed, super-clear, and sometimes even piercingly bright sound.

Clarinet:  Use expressive fingertips that connect to the forearm and sink in.  Don't play on the hard part of the fingertips, even in forte.  It should generally have a warm, felty, milky cantabile quality to it.

Oboe:  Like the Clarinet, but with more pointed, violinistic fingers.  Use slightly compressed, expressive forearms to imitate the effort and pressure that goes into the embouchure to produce the sound.

Bassoon:  Like the Oboe, but with more edge, in the fortes especially, and with more body to the sound and less compression in the forearms.


The entire Brass Section should be played from the forearm or upper arm.  The hand can help, but the fingers must be set, even in p and pp. What separates Brass from Voice is how the fingers are used.  When imitating Brass, abstain from using the fingers to obtain expressive effects.  Also, the illusion of legato is achieved through non legato.   Don't play legatissimo – that would involve finger-legato and create an unrealistic sound.  Brass parts can often be played quite effectively with all thumbs, for example; the fingering is not important.  Related to this, don't bow Brass instruments!

French Horn requires a slower attack and should use a softer mallet (the fleshy ball of the fingertips).

Trumpet requires a quicker attack and a harder, more pointed mallet, except in piano espressivo.

Trombone can be thought of as a cross between Trumpet and French Horn in terms of the general sound quality, but it requires more depth { the sound lies beneath the key-bed, a la Rachmaninoff}.

Tuba is like Trombone, but sometimes with more edge in the lower register, and is closer to the French Horn in the higher register.


Percussion generally requires pointed or slanted fingers used as mallets, played from the hand, forearm or upper arm.  It’s difficult to generalize about Percussion, however, because its instruments are so vast and varied.  Remember that the Percussionist’s goal is to transcend the percussive nature of his instruments, letting them sing and dance. 


I won't generalize about each vocal category here, but all voices combine the power of Brass (played from the arm) with the expressive attributes of Strings and Winds (espressivo in the fingers, especially fingertips).  If you accompany good singers, you’ll know that the Piano cannot compete with the carrying quality of the human voice.  It takes all you can muster to approach it with full chords, let alone single notes.  Any pianist but a Horowitz would have trouble filling a space like the MET in a satisfying way.

{For those of you who want to take your understanding of Orchestration to the next level, I recommend first and foremost acquainting yourself with the masterworks of the instrumental and orchestral repertoire, and learning to read and transcribe from orchestral scores.  Secondly, study Piston’s celebrated manual, Orchestration.  Thirdly, for the most die-hard among you, try your hand at transcribing, arranging and composing for Chamber Ensembles and Chamber Orchestra, even Full Orchestra.  Learn to become the Orchestra; the Piano will not be able to help but speak and sing as an Orchestra.  And of course again, I strongly recommend to any of you to gain at least a basic command of the Art of Conducting — see Part IV.}

Stylistically, the overall color of the Orchestra will vary tremendously, but the essential tonal qualities of each instrument or voice and how they’re reproduced on the Piano should be respected as much as is feasible.

With each interpretation, as you experiment with various orchestral filters, take note of what works particularly well and notate it into your score, just like orchestral reductions often include specifications about the actual instruments or instrumental combinations being represented.

The final step of Real Orchestration is to GIVE IT BACK TO THE PIANO.  Don’t let your imagination get the better of you!  Remember to take out excess energy and physical movement that produce no actual result on the Piano, such as vibrato (!).  Listen to the sounds you’re achieving with an open ear and with a pianist’s ear, and choose only what works pianistically.  Then use the technique that is most natural and efficient to realize your vision. 

When you perform, don’t imagine the Orchestra – imagine your pianistic representation of the Orchestra.  Only in this way will you be able to communicate your orchestral vision effectively to the listener.