Over in the Theatre Music Directors Facebook group, one of the most common questions being asked is along the lines of: “I’m doing Show X, which calls for 25 musicians, but our theatre only has a budget for six. Which ones should I use, and how can I reduce the orchestration for such a small group and still have it sound good?”

Answers invariably come flying in from all corners of the globe, as fellow MDs who have also done Show X come to the rescue with their indispensable trove of experience, but the problem is so universal that there’s always another MD waiting in the wings, facing the same problem with a different show.

To expand on the valuable advice of the Facebook community about specific shows, this new series will look in a general way at some tips and techniques you can use in a variety of situations to address this ubiquitous problem, which I’ve dubbed “The Great Reduction.” We’ll explore how to select which instruments you’ll use, what to keep in mind when using synths to cover the ones you don’t, and ways that the different sections—winds, brass, rhythm and strings—can work together to maximum effect. We’ll think about acoustics, color, and style, as well as practical considerations for the players. And finally, we’ll discuss how to avoid common pitfalls like Toy Orchestra Syndrome and the dreaded Piano Concerto effect.

One day, perhaps, the world will emerge from The Great Reduction and enter a utopian new realm where we can always play the full, glorious, thrilling, emotional, inventive and uplifting orchestrations that drew so many of us to the theatre in the first place. Until that day, however, the Internet will be here to help.

Part 1: Framing the issue

Of course, these days the reduced orchestra scenario is all to familiar to the MD community, and the truth is that even with six or eight players, an orchestra can still sound surprisingly full. But to do this well requires a substantial investment in time and, yes, money.

That’s an important fact that I’m not sure some producers realize, and all too often it is the lone MD who ends up having to expend both the time, already barely existent in the average rehearsal period, and the money, by not receiving compensation for those extra hours. Now, I’m not suggesting that producers should suddenly start paying us overtime to do reductions; that isn’t realistic, and it’s not how businesses are run. As MDs, we’re paid one fee to oversee the music department of a show, whomever it may consist of, and to get done whatever needs to happen by opening night. So it’s up to us at the outset, before even accepting the gig, to understand how much reduction work will be needed outside of rehearsal, to ensure that sufficient time is allotted to do it, and to decide whether the compensation offered is enough to cover the additional effort. Likewise, producers have the right to know from us what they can expect for their money, what help we might need to get it done, or if in fact the schedule and budget simply aren’t enough to accomplish what they’re asking for.

So, that having been settled, we can now turn our attention to making those six or eight instruments sounds at least something like the original 25. Naturally, the simplest approach is to choose your six players, hand them their parts, and leave the other 19 books in the box. This is also the cheapest solution, in that it consumes the fewest valuable hours. But I certainly don’t need to tell you that it’s also the least satisfactory solution.

At the other extreme, the most effective and costliest option is complete re-orchestration, because the best way to make a small group sound full is to write expressly for it (my favorite example being the lush 6-piece Jonathan Tunick/Michael Gibson orchestration of A Grand Night for Singing). A few of the major regional theatres do it this way, and even on Broadway many revivals are re-orchestrated as pit sizes continue to dwindle. But orchestration is time-consuming and expensive, and requires an orchestrator devoted solely to the task; those theatre companies that go this route realize both the cost and the artistic value of re-orchestration.

So where does that leave our humble MD in your average regional or stock theatre, who wants to put out a good sound but is faced with the reality of budget constraints? The typical reduction process will involve some combination of sorting through orchestra parts, cutting and pasting between different books, and perhaps a fair bit of re-copying. (And often, as we recently discussed here at TMD.org, no small amount of synth programming.) At the same time, there’s often somebody trying to steer our choice of instruments in certain directions: “Do we really have to pay for reed doubles?” “Shouldn’t we use more synths, since they can make more sounds at a time than a live player?” “Won’t another trumpet just make it too loud?” “But we’ve always done it this way!”

So to ensure that we have ready answers to these questions, and to keep from getting lost in the quicksand of parts and score pages we’ve now got scattered around our desk, it’s important to keep a few guiding principles in mind. I’ll get into much greater detail in the upcoming installments, but to get started, the questions below will help you decide how you can achieve a satisfying reduction:

  • Which instruments are best suited to the style, period and mood of the show?
  • How can I get the greatest variety of colors, timbres and registers?
  • How do I get the most mileage out of certain instruments without over-taxing the players?
  • Using synths is a convenient way to replicate a lot of sounds, but does the use of a keyboard to replace a particular instrument outweigh the loss of that player’s technique?
  • Does a keyboard-heavy pit actually sound as full as the acoustic presence of real instruments?

One last thing to keep in mind: although we’ll necessarily be discussing orchestration principles, they’re intended to be applied to reducing an existing orchestration, taking care to preserve the spirit and tone of the original work, rather than creating a new one. Orchestrating any work from scratch requires the blessing of the authors, and yet I don’t think it’s any secret to the licensing companies that theaters often cannot and do not present the full original orchestration they have rented (as desperately as they would love to) and so have to make certain modifications. Still, some licensing companies are more protective and insistent about certain shows and scores; be sure you and your producer understand and adhere to what’s expected of you in your presentation of the licensed material.

Okay, now that our derrières are properly covered, tune in next time for a topic hot off the Facebook feed: “To bass or not to bass?

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5 Responses to The Great Reduction: An MD’s guide to doing more with less

  1. tomcarradine says:

    Great idea for a series of articles. I look forward to reading the forthcoming articles.

  2. Harold Purvis says:

    Gets my vote too- great idea! Thanks

  3. Alan Lytle says:

    Nicely written set-up, Nathan. Looking forward to more! 

  4. Kat Sherrell says:

    Awesome overview, Nathan! Can’t wait for the rest!

  5. Paul Tame says:

    Thanks for you your thoughts. I am looking forward to next part!

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