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Topic: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

  1. #1

    String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    I've pretty much completed orchestrating my score for a musical. As soon as I'm sure that I don't want to make any more changes to the parts, I will do a bit of polishing (making sure that I am using the best virtual instrument, from each of the libraries that I own, per part, per number) and then, hopefully, begin trying to record the vocals.

    For the full score, I set the orchestra size at the current musician's uninon minimum for the largest Broadway house (18 players + a conductor, or 19 players with the conductor playing an instrument). In my case, that translated to 19 with the conductor playing the second keyboard.

    Since the story is set in the late 19th century, I didn't want it to sound like I was using any instruments that weren't available in the period. I didn't use electric guitar, bass or synth sounds. To make the small size of the pit work, I did orchestrate for two MIDI keyboards, however. They play piano, harpsichord, organ, harp, acoustic guitar and banjo, accordian and pitched percussion sounds. I also have a drummer, a percussionist (mostly timpani), a four piece brass section, and four reeds.

    Which brings me to the strings ... Everything I've read about orchestrating for the theater today says this is the most difficult area. Because a string section of 5 or 6 is so easily overpowered by the other instruments. I've tried to be clever about how I used them. In some numbers, I save the strings for quiet sections with just one of the keyboards (usually playing a harp or harpsichord patch) and bass accompaniment and a solo reed for the instrumental breaks. But there are times when I need more. Especially in the big tuttis, where it really should sound like a full orchestra is playing.

    I tried several different ways of scoring the strings, eventually settling on 3 violins, 2 violas and 1 cello (with the string bass sometimes added). This allows several ways to voice them, where more than one instrument is playing on each part, to make it sound fuller. But what the orchestrators who do this kind of thing professionally are telling me is that 3 violins don't sound noticably fuller than 1, 2 violas don't sound noticably fuller than 1, and a solo cello sounds weak unless it is doubled with another cello (or the violas, or the arco bass, if the ranges make sense.)

    [NOTE: I am not talking about simply being heard. Strings are amplified in the theater these days. Increasing the number of instruments on a part is done to make it sound fuller, rather than louder.]

    So, now I am contemplating doing what I tried to avoid: going with a string quartet (Violin I, Violin II, Viola, Cello), using this, with or without the string bass, in the quieter, more intimate sections. For the sections that need to be fuller, I'd use a third keyboard, playing a string section patch.

    So, my first question, to those who have orchestrated for the theater, or faced this problem eslewhere, is: Do you share the view that this is the better way to go? Secondly, in the sections where I use MIDI strings, should I add the live strings? And, if so, should I divide them (i.e. voice them so that the same chords are played by the quartet)? Or play the upper voice with the violins and viola, where possible, and the other voices on the keyboard strings? If you use both techniques, what is your criteria for deciding how to use the real strings with the sampled strings?

    Any input would be appreciated, as very little has been written about it. Thanks.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  2. #2

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    Oh boy this is a sad question. What about doing the right thing and hire more string players?

    If the union minimum would have been 15 + 1 players you would probably have been asking "how can I get a big orchestra sound with 3 live players". If it were 13 + 1 players you would ask "how can I get a string orchestra sound with 1 player?".

    Six players are six players no matter how you divide them. They can sound very nice but it is just not the sound of a big orchestra.

    Especially in the big tuttis, where it really should sound like a full orchestra is playing.
    Whoever demands that from you must cough up the budget for it consequently.
    All your strings belong to me!

  3. #3

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    It's simple economics in the theater today. (If you think it's bad on Broadway, don't even ask about regional.) You can say "just hire more musicians", but that isn't going to happen. If you're a big name, possibly. (And I mean BIG -- even Sondheim doesn't qualify -- because big means box office and not how important the work is.)

    In any case, I am hoping that someone will answer my questions, because this indeed seems to be the way that musicals are being done these days. And I want to understand how it's done. If any corners have to be cut, I'd rather have the first crack at it. (I've been down this road once before and seen my beautiful countermelodies and chord structure trashed by a more experienced orchestrator who wasn't very imaginative and didn't have that great of a personal stake in the outcome.)

    Take it as read that reducing a string section sucks. I want to learn how to make it suck as little as possible.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  4. #4

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    Quote Originally Posted by ejr View Post
    So, my first question, to those who have orchestrated for the theater, or faced this problem eslewhere, is: Do you share the view that this is the better way to go? Secondly, in the sections where I use MIDI strings, should I add the live strings? And, if so, should I divide them (i.e. voice them so that the same chords are played by the quartet)? Or play the upper voice with the violins and viola, where possible, and the other voices on the keyboard strings? If you use both techniques, what is your criteria for deciding how to use the real strings with the sampled strings?
    A tough question but I've been there (and continue to be). I frequently write for orchestra pit with two woodwind players and two brass players. The reeds usually double extensively. The brass use several mutes. The rhythm section is usually piano (synths), bass (acoustic - arco and pizz, sometimes electric), drums, guitar (mandolin/banjo), with drums doubling percussion toys, timp, etc. (MIDI and "real"). Four violins, a viola and a 'cello (411! (ha!), unbalanced, but that's just the way it is).

    First, unless I misunderstand, you didn't know the producer's budget restrictions before you started orchestrating - not insuperable but in the future that is consideration number one. Maybe I misunderstood, however (I'm writing this kinda fast).

    Second, when writing for small ensembles and making them seem fuller - write the outer voices for what ensemble you want it to sound like and fill harmonies with anything you've got. Example - Sax section - Alto and Bari on the outside voices, trumpet and trombone to fill in - with sensitive players this can approach a sax section sound.

    Third, I have written for live + synth strings. I recommend putting the live players on the lead parts and fill the section out with the synth (sampler - whatever). Again - outer voices will carry the basic ensemble sound desired to the audience.

    It ain't perfect but you can approximate different sections of the orchestra with very few players.

    Also - and it took me along time to learn this - don't underestimate the power and flexibility of unisons and octaves - especially with different instruments. Example - with a trombone lead and trumpet playing the same line in its lower octave one can get very close to a small 'bone section sound (all depending on range/tessitura etc).

    Hope this helps. Good luck!
    In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.

    http://reberclark.blogspot.com http://reberclark.bandcamp.com http://www.youtube.com/reberclark

  5. #5

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    ejr, this kind of dances around your questions, but maybe it will be useful and/or interesting.

    The size of theatre pits have of course become much smaller than they used to be. I'm not so sure that it's an unchangeable rule that the minimum size for Broadway houses is 18 or 19 musicians. There are big shows with bands smaller than that. They made arrangements with the union, one would suppose.

    But here's a document I put together awhile back, listing the break down of what the orchestras for several big hits consisted of. I also made note of how many songs were in the shows.

    Notice that "Wicked," which is a HUGE show only had 4 string players!--As is often done, that section was filled out substantially for the original cast CD.

    Notice that "Grey Gardens" had only 2 string players, one Violin, one Cello.

    "Piazza" had a large string section, and then the rest of the pit was stripped down. Note this show had no Violas.

    Bands/Orchestras with 10 or fewer musicians is pretty common.

    The numbers are the actual number of musicians used in each show. So when the list says "4 Cello"--that doesn't mean 4 musicians, it's one musician, just the 4th one on the given list:

    BROADWAY BANDS – current shows

    Urine Town” 18 songs including Overture and Reprises

    1 Piano
    2 Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Alto Sax, Soprano Sax
    3 Tenor Trombone, Euphonium
    4 Drums, Percussion
    5 Bass

    Grey Gardens” 22 songs including Reprises

    1 Violin
    2 Cello
    3 Flute
    4 Oboe
    5 Clarinet
    6 Trumpet, Flugelhorn
    7 Horn
    8 Bass
    9 Drums, percussion
    10 Piano

    Wicked” 19 songs

    1 Violin-Concertmaster
    2 Violin (5 more added for CD)
    3 Viola (1 more added for CD)
    4 Cello (1 more added for CD)
    5 Harp
    6 Trumpet lead
    7 Trumpet
    8 Trombone
    9 Trombone
    10 Flute
    12 Clarinet, Soprano Sax
    13 Bassoon, Baritone Sax, Clarinet
    14 French Horn
    15 French Horn
    16 Drums
    17 Bass
    18 Piano, Synthesizer
    19 Keyboards
    20 Keyboards
    21 Guitar
    22 Guitar
    23 Percussion

    The Light in the Piazza” 18 songs including Overture

    1-13 Violins
    14-18 Celli
    19 Harp
    20-21 Basses
    22 Clarinet/English Horn/Oboe
    23 Bassoon/Contrabassoon
    24-25 Percussion
    26 Guitar/Mandolin

    Randy B.

  6. #6

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    Thanks for your replies. And, yes, they are helpful -- even if it's just to confirm something that I've discovered myself.

    I'll try to clear up how I arrived at the size of the orchestra. I wrote this all on spec. So, I decided to do two scores: one for the smallest number of musicians possible (before I started orchestrating I could play the whole thing on the piano) and one for my dream orchestra. I quickly realized the potential to go overboard on the latter choice, so I decided to limit myself to what I believe is the largest that they would ever entrust to a writer/composer on his first show. That's why I went for the minimums for the largest Broadway house. Those were the constraints that I set for myself.

    I know, of course, if this is ever produced, it will first be heard in smaller theaters with smaller pits. Even if it goes to Broadway, it is more likely to run in a smaller house with a smaller pit. There is even a chance that there would be a budget for more strings. But it wouldn't be a LOT more strings. In any case, a professional orchestrator, would be brought in to clean up or re-do everything I've done. I'm fine with that. But what I want this guy to hear, before he starts to do anything, is the version that I orchestrated. That should be the starting point. That, I think, is the best way to keep the end result closest to my vision, while still allowing more experienced artists to contribute their best. I don't want them to be constrained by what I have done, but they should be guided by it somewhat. It doesn't necessarily have to be the same groups of instruments, or even the same arrangement, but it has to have the same feel. It should take the listener on the same emotional journey.

    Another reason for doing a full score is that school and community theater companies (who don't have to pay musicians) can sometimes have larger orchestras. And I'd rather have a carefully considered full score, than having everyone double up on every instrument.

    rbowser - With regard to the shows you mentioned, I am familiar with all of them. I saw Wicked on Broadway and have the breakdown of the orchestra from Playbill. I recorded Piazza when it was broadcast on PBS. I also corresponded with Bruce Coughlin, briefly, about URINETOWN, when I was thinking of using a euphonium in my score. If you want to compare show orchestras, check out the web sites of the rental houses (Tams Witmark, Music Theater International, etc.). I sometimes find that helpful. But bear in mind that the rental scores are taken from the road companies, so they are somewhat condensed with regard to instrumentation. Also, I suspect the rental houses condense them further so that the non-pro groups that rent them can have, as much as possible, the same orchestra play for every show. I hate this idea, but in some cases it's all we've got. Until just a few years ago, the Broadway charts weren't saved -- even by the orchestrators, incredible as that may seem. When they revived INTO THE WOODS, they had to start with the bus and truck score and hire someone to flesh it out.

    [One other note: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA used a huge string section and it sounded like a synth. Everything was amplified. I think the drummer was in a room four floors away. The sections were so isolated and artificially mixed (like in a recording studio) that it sounded very bland in the theater. LOUD and bland is my main recollection of that day. I had expected as much, but my niece wanted to see PHANTOM and I couldn't say no.]

    reberclark - Thanks for being specific.

    With regard to the strings - I was very tempted to go with one cello, one viola and three violins, myself. Now I'm thinking of three violins on the top voice, two cellos (or arco bass and cello on the bottom) with a string synth in the middle. I just wonder whether the violins will sound as full as the middle voices if I use the synth. If so, why bother with the synth. Two violas and a cello should do just as well.

    Re: Voicing, use of outer voices, etc. I have been noticing this as I work on the score. It's good to hear someone else say, though. I was begining to wonder if real instruments work that way, or whether it just seemed so when working with samples.

    I see a lot of shows on Broadway and off. (As an actor I get a lot of free tickets. Or, I do when I'm in the city, anyway.) The orchestrations are remarkably good most of the time - regardless of whethe the pit has 5 musiciands or 25. So, clearly, it's less a matter of how many instruments you have than what you do with them. Still, I wouldn't want to hear FIDDLER ON THE ROOF with just a rhythm section. The character of the piece dictates your choices. My show is set in Europe, in the late 1800s, where big orchestras were comman. I wanted to get the feel of that era (symphonic orchestras, brass bands, chamber orchestras, church music, peasant combos) as much as possible with a pit that was of a plausible size for the musical theater today. I still haven't made up my mind about the strings yet. But you have given me some things to think about.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  7. #7

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    When I was younger I worked as a concert master with several of such ensembles. We toured with operetta programs and palm court music. As strings we usually had 2 or 3 first violins (much better 3 than 2), 1 second violin, 1 viola, 1 cello, 1 bass. The rest was mostly 1 drums, 1 or 2 brass, 2 winds.

    It was fun and worked well ... however such an ensemble has a certain sound. If this sound is embraced and appreciated all is fine, and actually it has its merits for the singers that are not in danger of being overpowered all the time. However if it must sound big you are stuck. Overture and Finale are a bit critical.

    You really need one drummer and one percussionist? And four piece of brass? That is quite mighty. How much are they going to play?

    One system that has been used widely as far as I remember was the violino obligato. This is a third violin voice that is mandatory. Basically it doubles the first violins when they are the lead but also other voices now and then. That way something could be performed with

    2 violins: V1 and V2
    3 violins: V1, V2 and Violino obligato
    4 violins: 2 V1, V2, Violino obligato
    10 violins: 6 V1, 4 V2, no Violino obligato

    ... you get the idea. Hope this helps.

    One thing to consider is: Which section is going to carry the music through the evening? I mean, who is the red thread, the section that is always playing? If this is the rhythm group then a handful of strings is OK for the occasional colour. But if you want the strings to be the 'narrator' then bear in mind that not many people consider the sound of a string quartet to be pleasant for more than one hour. It is too stringent, too wiry (this is coming from a string quartet player). Give it at least three violins in the melody, this will be much more lovely. You can still throw in an occasional violin solo for a change.

    I should add that for me it was always agreable to play a solo voice or from three upwards. Two violins unisono for a whole evening is hell Whenever a composer writes a violin chair solo the result is a bit of an embarassing moment sound-and intonationwise, watch that in Mahler symphonies etc.. It is always an oops-moment.

    For the records, 2 violins are 3 dB louder than one violin, 3 violins are 1.8 dB louder than 2 violins. 10 violins are 10 dB louder than one violin, and 10 dB are only about double the perceived loudness. Mathematically. In reality the concert master is playing loudest and the others try to fit in, so the difference is smaller. However from three upwards it mixes to a new chorussy quality of sound.
    All your strings belong to me!

  8. #8

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    Quote Originally Posted by Hannes_F View Post
    When I was younger.....
    The Adagio of the "Old Man and His Violin"...... I love that.

    By the way, Mahler and Rachmaninov, both got away quite happy with the solo violin in their Symphonies/Orchestral Pieces.

    Raymond - another old dude

  9. #9

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    Now I'm confused.

    Three violins in unison sound better than two? I get that.

    I also get what you are saying about balance. If I reduce the wind instruments and percussion, a small string section will sound larger by comparison. But my point is that it might not sound all THAT much fuller. (Which is why more and more orchestrators are using a string quartet + synth/sampler reinforcement these days.)

    That is not to say that the quartet is always used as a traditional quartet. Most of the time it's doubling the synth. Or 2 violins + 1 viola in unison is being used as the top voice in a high chor. Or cello+viola is being used as the top voice in a low chord. (With the synth playing the other voices, in the latter two cases.)

    Strings are the dominent section in my score. But I don't want it to sound like one number is basically strings and brass, the next is strings and reeds, the next is strings and percussion, etc. Or that it's all strings with various solo instruments highlighted in each numbers. The effect I wanted is that on balance the strings play more than the other sections, the reeds slightly less than the strings, the brass slightly less than the reeds, and the rhythm section plays where it makes sense.

    I think I have a lot of variety in how I use the strings:

    - I use the string quartet in a couple of numbers, where all string instruments are playing different melodic lines (rather than chords).

    - When I want a fuller sound (say, when I use string chords in the verses and want to reed chords in the choruses, for contrast) I voice 3 violins over 2 violas and 1 cello (3 part harmony) adding bass on some numbers where this arrangement would go too high and need a bottom voice for support.

    - Where a number is mostly strings, I use violins-violas-cello in the fuller or louder sections, alternating with three violins divisi for the lighter or softer sections.

    - I also have a very rhythmic staccatto section of a number where the chords have a lot of voices. In this case, I use the flute on the top line, over violins divisi, and 1 viola on the bottom. (A bass clarinet + pizz string bass play rhythm under all this.)

    - When a lot of other instruments are playing and I need to add strings to fill out the chord, I sometimes use a 2-way divisi with violins over violas+cello in unison (in the middle) or violins+violas over cello+bass (with the higher strings as the top voice and the lower as the bottom in the ensemble). The other voices are assigned to wind instruments.

    - Sometimes, in the tuttis, I will double the violins with a flute or piccolo. Or I will double one of the low reeds with the cello or alternate between them.

    My question is, at the times when I need the strings to be full, except when doubling violins with a reed instrument, will they sound full enough, if I have the other sections playing (assuming that the relative volumes are adjusted by the players or with amplification of the strings). Is 3 violins + 2 violas enough for the top voice in a chord that may have 2 or more reeds under it? And if so, what do I do with the bottom voice? (Cello+bass in unison? Or octaves? Or doubled with reeds?) Or would I be better off relying on synth strings with the top voice being 2 violins + 1 viola? Or the synth playing the whole chord and the string quartet doubling it?

    The question is, do I need synth strings (to keep the orchestration from sounding underwhelming in the big tuttis, where it should sound very full)? I'm still not sure. I'm happy with how my orchestration sounds when I listen to what I have done with sampled instruments. But I see what pro orchestrators are doing in the theater today and assume that there must be a reason. Surely, some of them must have tried to do what I did and decided against it.

    Allegro Data Solutions

  10. #10

    Re: String Section in Theater Pit (Again!)

    Quote Originally Posted by Raymond62 View Post
    The Adagio of the "Old Man and His Violin"...... I love that.
    Haha, I was young and needed the money.

    By the way, Mahler and Rachmaninov, both got away quite happy with the solo violin in their Symphonies/Orchestral Pieces.

    Raymond - another old dude
    I am not sure it came over what I meant. I did not mean violin solos but first chair solos (I am not sure I say this correctly in english but what I mean are two first violins playing at the same time). Whenever this occurs watch how you think for a moment "oops ... something went wrong?"
    All your strings belong to me!

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