A Composer's Adventures

Creating from the Muscle


A music lover who liked my orchestration for large ensembles asked how I do it: “Is there a way to combine instruments for particular effects?” Thinking it over, I realized my knowledge of orchestration is not intellectual and easily explained. It is stored in my muscles — my arms, shoulders, chest and viscera. That’s my trove of instrumental combinations that I absorbed in countless rehearsals and performances of orchestras and ensembles.

Music is a physical experience. I have not only heard, but physically lived just about every combination of instruments and instrumental groupings you can imagine when playing percussion for great conductors. After many years of sitting amidst works by great orchestrators like Debussy, Ravel, Berlioz, Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky, I think I can imagine nearly any combination of instruments and their emotional effect.
For me, that was the most effective way to learn orchestration. Learning to orchestrate as an intellectual exercise from books and theories seems like learning about sex from manuals. Of course, books on orchestration are needed to answer certain technical questions, since a completed score is also a complex intellectual exercise, but the core knowledge came to me directly through the muscle. Understanding and using instrumental combinations became intuitive.

I can easily recall the feeling of unusual combinations of instruments from works like Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta; brass combinations from Hindemith’s Mathis der Mahler; solo voice blending with orchestra from Schoenberg’s Erwartung; unusual textures of Elliot Carter’s Double Concerto; and the colors and power of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, all of which I feel are programmed into my body.

My vast playing experience also included jazz bands, where I heard the great variety of mutes for the brass—the straight mute, the cup, bucket, plunger, Harmon (with and without stem), and ways of combining them with other instruments. I’ve devised what I call “invisible doublings” where you can’t tell if a combination of instruments is coming from a whisper-muted trumpet or a soft flute, a bucket-muted trombone or French horn, a cello or English horn. Violas playing near the bridge (ponticello) alternating with ‘stopped’ horns intrigues me. I love instrumental similarities that make me wonder which instruments are playing.

Odd as it sounds, I feel I can tap into my body for any of these sounds. When you think about it, that’s how we learn to speak and write—by listening to others and reading. We unconsciously memorize combinations of words, not to mention vocal inflections and subtleties of verbal rhythms. I do much the same by adding elements to the instrumental textures of great composers. I find it inspiring to know that composers stand on each others’ shoulders. It makes orchestration and creativity itself an organic process and less mysterious.

Michael Colgrass


  1. That’s fantastic. What an interesting observation, and a great way to learn. I don’t have the option of tapping into that myself, so I have attempted to learn my orchestration by getting quick visual impressions of scores…not the pieces, but the way the whole thing looks in a glance, like a series of mountains from the air. Good orchestration actually looks different to me than adequate orchestration, at least to the extent that I can see it. Maybe in a sense I get my physical cues from the shapes of the pictures. Thank you for your insight, which helps me understand mine!

  2. Wow, beautifully said and a relief to hear. Will share this for it’s insights … this is what it feels like to be a player too, and your cogent way of describing makes me realize how profoundly I’ve felt these things too. Also makes me realize why I continue to crave new sonic experiences as a player and why I keep wanting to have new music written for me . Thank you!!

  3. How fortunate that you got to play all of those great works and learn orchestration viscerally. Of course, it isn’t fortune that got you there but a great deal of talent and work. Also all of the folks who played along with you did not become composers or orchestration experts.

    Having been possessed by jazz at an early age I have only rarely played in a symphonic environment and I think that I have missed exposure to a lot of great music and what would have been wonderful influences.

    I have written for orchestra a few times and my writing has been well accepted but, to me, quite pedestrian sonically. Friends of mine who have played in orchestras do a much better job of getting marvelous sounds.

    Funny, in thinking about it, even when I write for jazz bands I pay much more attention to the architecture of the music than to the colors. I rarely use mutes for example as I hate playing them. Even when I play EVI which can sound like any instrument, by the press of a button, I tend to use just one particular sound and concentrate almost exclusively on the content.

    Time to expand my palette! You’ve got me thinking Michael.

  4. I recall vividly the sound of the Columbia recording orchestra in the resonant ballroom of the St. George Hotel in Brooklyn when we rehearsed and recorded the Rite of Spring. Robert Craft took the piece apart and put it back together again in a variety of sections and I got to hear—and feel—all those sounds dissected and cross-section combined in strings, woodwinds and brasses. Then it was so exciting to listen to and feel the result under Stravinsky as he waved his arms in the house-painting fashion so special to him while we played cueing off each other, all the more exciting because we were playing it virtually without a conductor, waiting for what we all expected could easily have been a massive train wreck, since Stravinsky was ‘conducting’ under the influence of the soothing vapors of Chivas Regal scotch.

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