First off, I must apologise for that awful, awful pun. When it came to dividing up the skills of MusicForMy, Alice got all the comedy and I got the dry application of instrumental knowledge. Luckily for me today is a dry day for we are to learn important things; how to arrange for Woodwinds. As a family, the Winds include any instrument that produces a sound by blowing down a resonating chamber (often a tube) and then manipulated by a mix of increasing/decreasing air pressure and altering sets of keys. The broadness of the term includes two main groupings, Brass and Woodwind. Brass instruments are uniformly metallic and differ from Woodwind instruments by the use of 3 or 4 valves to extend the length of tubing allowed to resonate with any given blow. Woodwinds, on the other hand, tend to be either made of or derived from wood and alternate pitch by covering holes in the resonating chamber, which in turn lengthen/shorten the resulting vibrating air column. While we’ll be focusing on the Woodwinds today, it’s good to understand the broad differences and how they alter the way we think about an arrangement.
The most common orchestral Woodwinds are Flute, Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon and together they cover an exceptional range, even before adding the exceptionally low Contrabassoon and piercingly high Piccolo into the mix. That said, it’s not a wholly similar sound through the octaves as you would find in the strings as the manner in which air is blown through the differing instruments is not necessarily consistent. Flutes (Piccolo, Bass Flute, Recorder, Ocarina etc.) create sound by blowing across an opening in a resonating tube, exactly as you can create a sound blowing across an open bottle. This leads to an exceptionally pure tone that ekes out emotive melodies in some of the classic pieces of the modern era. Debussy chose the Flute to set the hazy dream state of his 1894 masterpiece, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. In the opening passage alone you can hear the beauty inherent in the lower ranges of the flute and the clarity with which it leaps to the higher notes. This is where we hit our first arranging hurdle, for while this low range is terribly romantic, it is really quite quiet. Indeed, the Flute on the whole tends to struggle in loud passages unless in the higher ranges, which is quite lucky because it can play incredibly high.
The Clarinet also has beauty in it’s lower ranges but, unlike the Flute, it’s tonality changes as the pitch increases. You may already be aware of Gershwin’s 1924 piece, Rhapsody in Blue but if not have a quick listen to the opening few phrases as the Clarinet screams it’s way across the octaves. The lower range I known as the chalumeau range and like the Flute is a brilliant place to put a romantic melody in a quiet passage. However the brusque nature of the Clarinet’s mid to high range means it can clearly be picked out in the crowd and provide harmonic support across the family. Being a single reed instrument it shares many similarities with the Saxophone, a relatively modern instrument (invented in 1840) designed to bridge the gap between the Woodwinds and Brass. Personally I tend not to use the Saxophone in an orchestral setting but it is indispensable if scoring for pop ensembles.
The final two main orchestral Woodwinds differ from the previous two in that they both produce sound by directly blowing into two reeds and are therefore rather ingeniously called double reeds. The Oboe (and related Oboe d’amore and Cor Anglais) fall roughly halfway between the Clarinet and Flute but without the extended range of either. That said, the Oboe has probably the most clarity of all Woodwind instruments and can carve out a melody in even the most densely packed tutti section. I always approach the Oboe with great respect as a misplaced entry can often derail a carefully planned texture with the rustic nature of it’s sound as often as it lifts a piece. You have been warned. It’s bigger brother, the Bassoon (and by extension, Contrabassoon), is one of my favourite instruments to write for. The lower range instantly smooths the sharp tonality, even at higher end of it’s range as seen in the achingly beautiful opening to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps. I love this piece and I love the warmth of the Bassoon line, balancing on the edge of calamity with a great sense of poise. Of course, the Bassoon is predominantly used as a bass instrument and in this guise provides a great tonal counterpoint to the Cello. I quite like doubling bass lines between the Bassoon, Bass Clarinet and Cello to provide a fully robust low end with which you can build a solid piece.
So what’s the most important thing to remember when arranging for these versatile instruments? The sole drawback to having your dreams streaked in audio? The thing I consistently forget? Wind players need to breathe. Think about your lungs after an intense run and how much they cry our for oxygen; now think about what it must be like to have that feeling and still need to regulate your exhalation. As wonderful as having long drawn out chords held solely in the Winds is, after a few seconds they’ll need to replenish their lungs. Luckily most professional players can sneak in a few sneaky breaths if you give them the occasional break but it’s still good practice to break up and divide a melody amongst the family.
So there are a few pointers for how to approach the Woodwinds that barely gloss over the sheer variety of instruments and sounds available to you. Here at MusicForMy we can arrange for any instrumental ensemble and any skill level to create the perfect music for your special event. Be it a wedding, christening, party or other, just drop us a line at email@example.com and we can help make your dreams a reality.