Welcome to my new series of tutorials for composers, arrangers and anyone else who may need to write for strings, whether it’s a full orchestral film score, or a string quartet for a singer song writer. Here I will share some of the knowledge that has helped me both as a composer and arranger myself, but also as a professional orchestral player and lastly some of the techniques I rely on everyday when I write and record strings for people around the world. I plan to not only cover how the string instruments are played and what that means for writing idiomatic phrases that feels natural to the players while serving your musical intention, but also production techniques, how to get a good sounding recording, mic placement, mixing and so on. I hope you will follow along, and I hope that what I do here will be useful to you, whether you are a full time film composer or a singer song writers who would like to write some string quartet arrangements for your next album.
So, for the first post, I thought I’d start with the basics, and that to me means understanding a little bit about how the instrument is played, what is possible and what is challenging from a players perspective. Of course, the level amongst current professional string players is extremely high. Chances are, if what you write is at all physically possible, most of us can probably play it, given enough time to learn it. So why should you care about writing idiomatically at all? The number one reason is that it will always sound better if you understand how to write FOR the instrument, and not AGAINST it. That is of course a given, but it will also sound better because us players can instantly tell if you respect our craft enough to have learned how the instrument is played, instead of just assuming that anything you can chuck out on a piano is just as easy on a violin. And when players feel that the composer understand their instrument, they always want to give you everything they’ve got. While crazy feats of dazzling virtuosity are possible on string instruments (try to google “Kavakos” and “Paganini” for example), certain things just falls under the fingers in more natural way, and if you want to get the most out of a recording session, you’d be well advised to write things that the players can get under their fingers quickly, and thus spend the time working on what actually matters the most: The phrasing and sound of your music.
There’s is nothing new in all this. Ask any violinist on the orchestral audition circuit what their preferred audition concerto is, and very few will say Beethoven’s while many will say Tchaikovsky’s, even though the Tchaikovsky on paper is far more technically challenging. The reality is that while the Tchaikovsky is hard, it’s written with a great understanding of the instrument – in the words of virtuoso Anne Sophie Mutter, “It fits like a glove”. The Beethoven concerto doesn’t (sorry Beethoven, it’s still one of my favourites!).
When it comes to learning this stuff, the traditional way is to turn to an orchestration book. They all have fingering charts for the strings, but that can be quite abstract to wrap your head around, so rather than write a wall of text, I thought the best I can do is show you – so I made a video. I hope you find it useful!