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Topic: Need advice on reducing string section

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  1. #1

    Need advice on reducing string section

    Still working on orchestrating the score for my musical. Actually, what I am doing now is condensing everything to the fewest possible parts (i.e. musicians). This is a medium-sized show, so I can have a real orchestra ... but it's not a huge show, so I don't want the pit for Les Miz or Phantom of the Opera, either.

    After a lot of soul searching (and some advice from people who have actually orchestrated shows on and off Broadway) I have reduced my string section from 3 violins, 2 violas, 1 cello (and 1 string bass - sometimes working with the string section, sometimes playing with the rhythm section). The consensus of opinion was that it could be reduced to 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello (+ string bass when needed). The extra violin + viola don't add enough to make them worthwhile.

    Everything will be amplified, so volume isn't an issue. The period of the piece is turn of the (19th) century. So there are a lot of marches, waltzes, etc. (a la Leher, G&S, etc.) It's best to think of it as a pared down operetta. I tired to use the strings only on the quieter sections (accompanying soloists, underscoring dialog, etc) when the string quartet idea would work well. But I do have some big numbers where I really need to add the strings too or it doesn't sound right. A synth fattening the strings (or used in place of them) doesn't sound right to me either (I've tried all my synth libraries with my niece playing her violin and it just doesn't work for me with this style of music.) When the strings play with the wind instruments, I have them in a different octave, playing a dramatically different rhythm to make them stand out (I have also adjusted the relative volume markings).

    But here's where I run into problems:

    (1) With my earlier instrumentation, I was able to put the three violins in the highest register (alone or in unison with one of the reeds). All my orchestration books say to go with one violin or three, never two (unless they are playing tremolo.) I'm assuming that 2 violins and a flute in unison will sound much the same as three violins and a flute, correct? If not - or if I just want a pure string sound - what do I do? Will it work to have the two violins and one viola playing in unison? What ranges are acceptable? It seems to me that the viola will be playing near the top of its comfortable range, if the part lies at the top or just above the treble staff, and the violin will be playing very low if I go much below the staff.

    (2) Regarding other doublings, will the viola & the cello blend well in unison (assuming the dynamic markings and amplification compensate for the differences in volume)? Or should I always give the cello its own part? I'd like to have as many different ways to divide the strings as possible, just for the sake of variety -- but, of course, I don't want to make changes to the voicing that aren't going to be heard. (And, again, to re-iterate, I'm concerned only with the parts of my score where the strings are playing with one or more other SECTIONS, not when it's strings and piano or a solo reed.)

    I hope this all makes sense. Thanks.

  2. #2
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Re: Need advice on reducing string section

    Hi EJR,

    What is the rest of your reduced pit?

    This is important to know since we don't know what your reduced string section is trying to integrate/"compete" with on the fuller ensembles.

    Regards,

    Frank

  3. #3

    Re: Need advice on reducing string section

    My reduced orchestra is as follows:

    Reed I: flute, piccolo; Reed II: flute, clarinet, sop sax; Reed III: clarinet, Eb clarinet, oboe, English Horn; Reed IV: bassoon, bass clarinet, Bb clarinet; French Horn; Trumpet I; Trumpet II / doubles on flugelhorn; Bass Trombone with optional doubling on Tenor - or - Tenor with trigger; Drums; Percussion; 2 MIDI keyboards; String bass.

    I am currently experimenting with a string section of 3 violins and 1 cello. This allows me to put the violins on a high note and doubling with a reed in unison or at the octave (reed bellow violins) in the tuttis. For softer passages I can put the violins in unison over the cello; or over the cello and bass in unison or in octaves with reeds playing the other parts. Or, for the really soft passages (strings only, or strings with a MIDI piano, guitar or harp) I can divide the violins into three parts over the cello and/or bass.

    This seems to solve the problem that I was having trying to score it for 2 violins, 1 viola, 1 cello and 1 string bass. But I am still interested to know, for future reference, when and how you would score two violins in unison with 1 viola (if ever), unless you are just putting both violins, the viola and cello on the same note in the middle of the grand staff - which I have tried and didn't care for much. Three violins and a cello in unison in that range sounds better to me - at least as far as I can tell using sample libraries.

  4. #4
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Re: Need advice on reducing string section

    Hi again ...

    I was going to suggest exactly what you happened upon: If you don't absolutely need the "string quartet sound", the 3 violins + cello seems would be a better fit for your pit.

    The single cello is powerful and doesn't need the viola to add weight, especially when you have horn, bassoon, or bass clarinet in the ensemble. The three violins should give you a bit more latitude in the mid-upper range ... they will still sound thin if you go too high, but will certainly give more weight than just the two. Plus, the viola tone becomes strident if it has to go too high for unisons w/violins.

    Another factor if your show plays in a less populated area than NYC is that it's easier to find good violinists and cellists than violists.

    Overall, I've seen more pits (and smaller recording orchestras) fore go the viola altogether in favor of more violins and celli. Especially if you have singers in the middle.

    Good luck ... the rest of your pit sounds like you will be able to get lots of beautiful colors.

    Frank

  5. #5
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    Re: Need advice on reducing string section

    My experience is that 2 violins 1 viola and 1 cello would be fine. 3 violins and 1 cello is also works well.
    When I write in the similar instrumentation that you have, I usually don't give 3 violins (or 2) their highest range in unison. I found that it a lot better to give it as "solo" and give 2nd violin the line octave lower, if it needs.

    If the melody is playing range of the 1st postilion of the violin, (that would be the G below middle C to B below high C), I might give the line to all 3 violins. If the arrangement is 2 violin and 1 viola, I might give all 3 the melody if the range were from G below middle C to E below high C).

    Cello and viola section will go well in unison with cello leading the primary character of the sound. But as Frank wrote, solo cello doesn't need for solo viola. Viola will probably gets in the way of solo cello.

    If the players are great, two violins in unison are not THAT bad, by the way. Recordings of Baroque music are full of those example.
    Kentaro Sato (Ken-P)
    Composer/Conductor/Orchestrator
    www.wisemanproject.com

  6. #6
    Senior Member Frank D's Avatar
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    Re: Need advice on reducing string section

    Hi Ken,

    Thanks so much for sharing your vast orchestration knowledge with us!
    (Your Peter Pan music on your site is unbelievable ... absolutely gorgeous and emotional.)

    The small string ensemble range info you provided is much appreciated.

    Regards,

    Frank

  7. #7

    Re: Need advice on reducing string section

    Thanks for all the feedback. Still experimenting and trying to take all this in. I think the 3 violins + 1 cello makes the most sense for this score. But, for future reference, this is good to know.

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