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In 2019, I joined the American Society of Music Arrangers & Composers, (ASMAC). This is an amazing group of people from many areas of the film and orchestra community in L.A. and beyond. In December of last year, Paramount Studios and ASMAC sponsored a private screening of the film “Playing With Fire." ASMAC member Nathan Wang scored the film. This event was so cool. Mr. Wang spoke after the show and introduced many of those involved: musicians, editors, engineers, arrangers and orchestrators. Milton Nelson was introduced as the orchestrator. I was astounded by the depths of his talents. The score was fantastic! It occurred to me that many people don't realize the vital role that orchestrators play. So, I asked Milton if he would share his knowledge.
I hope you find this peek into Milton’s world enlightening.
- Douglas Morton / Q Up Arts
DM: Are there variances in how involved you are with arranging and orchestrating a score based on the skills of the composer? In other words, do some scores arrive to you fairly done and some needing more attention than others?
MN: Yes, there are variances when orchestrating. Usually the issue is a tight deadline and not the skill of the composer. The time for delivering a score can be very tight especially with the approval process. The composer may not have time to fill in all the details and will leave that up to the person producing the midi mockups as well as the orchestrator. It can vary from a melody with chords, a piano sketch to a detailed midi mockup. Sometimes there is harmonic clean up involved that can be a challenge and I will end up with some cleaning up to do. It could be a suspended 4th in a counter line and major 3rds going on in the rhythm parts at the same time. Some wrong notes can be buried in midi but will be a glaring error with real instruments. The most difficult is when a composer works without a click when composing within their digital audio workstation (DAW) free time. Then it is up to the orchestrator to find a way for the orchestra to match the timing.
DM: What originally drew you into orchestration?
MN: At a young age, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to live orchestra performances. I wanted to be a composer for the orchestra early on but did not know the difference between a composer and orchestrator. All the great classical composers were also orchestrators. I was drawn to the orchestra and wanted to use it as my instrument of expression.
DM: What’s your educational background?
MN: I was fortunate to have some great music teachers when growing up who were also professional musicians. This included instructors in the school system and private teachers. I played piano in jazz band, oboe and English horn in the concert bands and local youth orchestras. I also played in the pit band for the local theater group and played some piano gigs.
After high school, I moved from my hometown of Albuquerque New Mexico to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. The Universities at the time were not offering much for film composing or music arranging. Instead of going on to college I attended The Dick Grove Music Workshop for 2 years. Dick Grove provided a school dedicated to the study of commercial music with instructors who were working in the music business. After two years, I went to work but continued with ongoing private study and some university extension courses in film composing.
DM: How did you get started in orchestration?
MN: One of my first orchestration and arranging gigs was at 20 years old after my 2 years at Dick Grove’s. It was working as a keyboardist and arranger for a 50s spin-off group called The Five Platters. The highlights included arranging for the Atlanta Pops Orchestra and the house big bands for the Fairmont Hotels. I was on the road and have no idea where I even found the score paper or the time to do it with all the shows and road travel. After that, I did some arranging for singers on cruise ships then some orchestral accompaniment for corporate advertising songs. Film orchestration work slowly started coming in while in my 30s then ramped up in my 40s with work on TV talk shows and for composer Nathan Wang.
DM: What are the roles of an orchestrator?
MN: The technical role of an orchestrator is creating a printable full score from a finished arrangement and making it work for the ensemble on hand. Very often the orchestrator is also arranging by adding some counter lines, making instrumentation choices and filling in the harmony. In the end, the orchestrator must make sure everything is clearly written on the page for the specific instrumentation of the orchestra being used. The orchestrator also flushes out any note conflicts that may not be obvious in a synth mockup. An orchestrator will often help determine the instrumentation of the orchestra and assist with the logistics of the recording session.
DM: Do you use your ears or are you coming from more of a technical position?
MN: Ears and technical knowledge are both essential for orchestration. Sometimes transcription is required as the midi note data does not always reflect what is heard. It can be as simple as a cymbal swell might show up as a quarter note that triggers a sample, but nothing is heard for a few beats and then there is a 2-measure cymbal swell. Other times it is more complex. A one note sample trigger could have an entire orchestral phrase, instrument phrase with pitch bends or percussion loop. The starting point for an arrangement and orchestration often starts with an mp3 from a singer-songwriter with a vocal and guitar or piano. That has to be transcribed, then arranged followed by orchestration. Those are technically 3 different jobs but will often be part of an orchestration gig. There is a lot of technical aspects of orchestration as well. Working with notation programs and knowing how to work with midi and audio files in a DAW. Technical knowledge of the instruments in the orchestra is essential as well as techniques for utilizing the instruments.
DM: Do you work off midi files, audio or ?
MN: For film orchestration, I usually work with a combination of midi files with an audio demo which is the standard for film orchestration. Frequently I will have a video file so I can have an idea of what is going on during the scene that is being scored. A video is helpful for determining dynamics, the weight and texture of the orchestration. The orchestration can have a significant impact on the drama, so it is important for the orchestrator to understand the scene that is being scored.
DM: Do you choose the sounds/instruments or does the composer make those choices?
MN: It varies with different composers and varies within a project. Some film cues have all the details including the instrument choices. Other film cues could be a piano sketch that needs to be blown up to a full orchestra. A lot has to do with tight deadlines. Some composers give the flexibility to add and make instrumental choices possibly take liberty with the arrangement. Other times the composer will require that everything is exactly like the midi demo. However, there may be holes in the midi demo. For example, there could be one woodwind part in the midi demo and 12 woodwinds in the orchestra. The challenge is to utilize the available players without overdoing it. Sometimes it is better to leave the extra players out but other times they can add color without changing the mood or weight of the music.
DM: I assume it’s helpful to be an instrumentalist to do this work? If so, which instrument lends itself best?
MN: It is extremely helpful to be an instrumentalist. Understanding how players think and what the challenges of playing will influence an orchestrator. As a professional piano/keyboard player, I was able to learn a lot about different styles of music as well as observe the other players in the ensemble. I currently play in big bands and have the opportunity to listen to music from the great music arrangers and can study their writing in real time. In high school I played oboe, English horn and other woodwinds. Even though I did not play woodwinds professionally, I learned about the importance of breathing, intonation and how woodwinds work with the other instruments in the orchestra. Also learned how terrible oboes in unison can sound. The more experience with different instruments and ensembles the better.
DM: Can you recommend books or courses for folks wanting to learn more about becoming an orchestrator?
MN: A great way to study for orchestration is by following scores while listening to a recording. YouTube is loaded with scores synced to audio. Here are a couple score links to start with:Adagio for Strings, Daphnis et Chloe, The Rite of Spring
Understanding music notation rules is critical to orchestration. If you want to write books, it is probably a good idea to understand how to spell the words, construct sentences and then paragraphs. Finally, the layout of chapters and a readable layout of the book. The same applies to orchestration. Writing notes and rhythms properly as well as laying out the music are critical to successful orchestration. The goal is to make the music as clear and clean as possible, so the conductor and players are focusing on providing a great performance and not focused on interpreting poorly written music. Back in the studio days an orchestrator could start off in the music preparation office proof reading and copying music. They could learn the standard practices of notation and orchestration before becoming an orchestrator. Very often a virtual orchestration is created then without any knowledge of notation and orchestration, scores and parts are created that are difficult for real musicians to play.
To start with I recommend a book or 2 focused on basic notation. The Art of Music Notationis fantastic. It is older and does not account for computer notation but covers a lot of critical notation best practices for studio recording. Behind Bars is the bible for writing notation, it is a very detailed reference book. A great reference book that will last for a lifetime of orchestration is Range, Transposition and Tuning: A Guide for Over 500 Musical Instruments by Bob Borstien
I started out with The Contemporary Arranger by Don Sebesky. It covered the basics in and is an easy reference. Good for big band and small studio orchestra. My mentor, Jack Smalley has a number ofgreat books at www.jacksmalley.com on various music creation topics. Jack was a fan of the Berlioz book:Berlioz’s Grand Traité d’Instrumentation et d’Orchestration Modernes
ThinkSpace Education offers courses in orchestration that can be studied anywhere in the world. Finding a great private teacher is a great thing that I highly recommend.
Milton Nelson - Credits
Arranging, orchestration credits include Playing With Fire, 2016 Tony Awards opening production number, Fast and Furious Hobbs and Shaw, The Game Plan, Pokémon movies and TV series, She’s the Man, You Again, Splinter Cell, Chinese Zodiac and several other Jackie Chan Films, Christmas with Holly, Nim’sIsland II, Live from Daryl’s House, From the Rough, Hellcats, Santa’s Apprentice, Scrubs, Haunting in Connecticut, High School Musical, The Final Season, Danger Rangers, The Myth, Reefer Madness The Musical, The Wayne Brady Show, The Wayne Brady Variety Show, A Guy Thing, 53rd Emmy Awards, ALMA Awards, My Louisiana Sky, My Dog Skip, Martin Short Show, Shanghai Philharmonic, Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Atlanta Pops Orchestra. Keyboardist for countless events, shows and artists including Martin Short Show house band, Ann-Margret, Thelma Houston, Bobby Vinton, The Five Platters.