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theshaggyfreak

Learning Orchestral Composition - A review of Berklee online classes

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A lot of people ask in these forums on how to write orchestral music and the answer to that can be pretty complicated. Since I'm now done with my first class through Berklee's online program, I thought I'd throw out my feelings on the experience. If you're looking into learning the orchestral thing, it may be for you.

About a year ago, my friend Brett finished up a certificate program through Berklee and he had a lot of great things to say about it. I've always been a bit skeptical of doing this sort of thing because it just seemed like you wouldn't be able to get as much out of a traditional class. After talking to Brett, I decided it might be a good way for me to go since I wanted to further my knowledge of writing orchestral music.

I signed up for a specialist certificate program which is a total of three classes. I'm taking Orchestra Composition 1, Orchestral Composition 2 and Composing for Film and TV. I just finished up the first class with my instructor Ben Newhouse and I can honestly say that it was worth the month. I never felt once that the course was lacking in content or feedback.

These classes are not geared towards an absolute newbie, though. You are expected to know how to read music and have a fairly good grasp on working in a DAW. You also need to have a certain level of software such as a set of good orchestral samples and a program like Finale to do your notation in. The assignments in the class require you to up load an Mp3 or a PDF of your notation and sometimes you have to have both. Berklee offers various discounts on certain software packages like EWQL SO Gold and the full version of Finale. I personally used both of those as well as Vienna Symphonic.

Now, there are some quizzes and tests that you have to do but they're a breeze. All of them are multiple choice or true false. There's no time limit when you take them and it's always open book. Not only that but you get to take them as many times as you want with your highest grade being the one used.

The class meets once a week in an online chat for an hour. Usually the first hour consists of discussing that weeks material and the latter half is geared towards looking at examples of notation or listening to a piece of music. The software you end up using is kind of like Netmeeting and the like. If you miss a chat, you can read through the log of the session later on.

These classes are far from cheap but that's not surprising. Each class costs about $1k or so but you do get a discount if you sign up and pay for a full program up front. They do several ways to get financial aid if you need it and it's a fairly painless process.

All in all, I had a great experience with my first class and I'm now in the first week of Orchestra II.

If this is something you want to do and it's in your budget, I wouldn't hesitate to go for it. While you might be able to learn these things on your own by reading various books, the feedback you get from the class is invaluable. My professor, Ben Newhouse, is composer who has done real work in the TV and film industry. While he does over constructive criticism, I never felt that he was maliciously negative about anything. He always seems to try to push you in the direction you're already heading.

If anyone has any questions about my experience with my Berklee classes, feel free to ask. You can never learn enough about your craft no matter how good you are. There's always more to learn.

Oh, if you want to listen to my final project, I'll post it below. Is it great? Well, it's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It was completed over a 3 week period and is going to be used in an online radio program at http://www.misfitsaudio.com . At any rate, the guys at Misfits Audio seem to love it. I haven't got my grade on it yet but I'm fairly happy with the outcome considering this is my first full orchestral composition that I've ever attempted.

http://soundcloud.com/theshaggyfreak/bullies-main-theme

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Congratulations on completing your first class.

I love orchestration concepts and it's always admirable to see people seriously pursuing a greater understanding of those concepts--it truly is a life-long pursuit and I learn new things every day I engage study.

I know one of the guys that teaches that course and it sounds like a solid program.

Re: The Bullies Main Theme

I like the colorful and idiomatic utilization of the various orchestral instruments and timbres, very nice. I liked that you didn't overuse an instrument group, we had constant shifts in timbre to keep things fresh.

I'm not totally sold on the repeating cadenza-like figure mostly because I don't quite understand its purpose as part of the compositional narrative.

I would also like you to take a production pass with this and really work on breathing a little more life into the instrumental performance. More expression, more varied articulation use, etc. I know those weren't part of the parameters of your course, but they're all important factors in getting work.

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How does one get started on the online course? It sounds like something I'd be interested in. Do they start each month, or do I have to wait until a certain date?

I'm primarily a visual learner, are the lessons supportive of that? If it's just a lot of text then it might not be something that's for me.

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Congratulations on completing your first class.

I love orchestration concepts and it's always admirable to see people seriously pursuing a greater understanding of those concepts--it truly is a life-long pursuit and I learn new things every day I engage study.

I know one of the guys that teaches that course and it sounds like a solid program.

Re: The Bullies Main Theme

I like the colorful and idiomatic utilization of the various orchestral instruments and timbres, very nice. I liked that you didn't overuse an instrument group, we had constant shifts in timbre to keep things fresh.

I'm not totally sold on the repeating cadenza-like figure mostly because I don't quite understand its purpose as part of the compositional narrative.

I would also like you to take a production pass with this and really work on breathing a little more life into the instrumental performance. More expression, more varied articulation use, etc. I know those weren't part of the parameters of your course, but they're all important factors in getting work.

Thanks for the constructive criticism! I think at some point that I will revisit this and try to breath a bit more life into it. I'll be curious to see what changes I might make once I'm done with the next class.

Darangen,

The classes run on a quarter system pretty much like any other college that does. The lessons comprise of reading, listening to some material and looking at various pieces of notation. The reading part isn't too much and they tend to use a good bit of multimedia in their presentations. For instance, you might be listening to a piece of music and at the same time it shows you that exact point of notation. I'm pretty impressed with how they put it together.

At their website, berkleemusic.com , there are some samples of various courses to look at. They also have a pretty white range of classes outside of orchestral music. I may take some jazz composition classes down the road.

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That looks pretty interesting. Online classes are aways relevant.

Looks pretty expensive too... by what I saw, it's like, 4000 bucks for the 3 classes you took? Thinking about it, the price is fair, but that doesn't mean anyone can get that money by snapping fingers.

I can only wonder, though, do they support international students? I'm interested in taking the classes (as soon as I get the money), but I'm from brazil. Even if I can pay with an international credit card, I'm not sure if they accept students from that far away. Can anyone confirm me this? I couldn't find it on the FAQ.

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A number of my classmates are from various countries. We had several from South America and Europe. So, it seems that it's more than possible.

Yeah, it is a bit on the costly side and is definitely not a solution for everyone. I ended up taking out a small student loan so that we could pay it out over a years time instead of it hitting us all at once.

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I've attended several Berklee summer sessions, I've found them to be as valuable as you're willing to take from them.

It's a solid school with great faculty from all walks of the various music industries and sub-industries.

Berklee's strongest program, however, is Jazz, and you can pretty much count on any Berklee performance grad to be a GREAT session musician.

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Isn't the secret to composing popular orchestral music (especially for film) to just get some horns and strings and go

HONNNNNK ♫♫♫♫ HONNNNNNK ♫♫♫♫♫ HONNNN.....

But nah really, sweet thread and shaggy freak's tune is pretty awesome in my opinion.

I actually have renewed appreciation for that soundtrack after watching this explanation.

Hansy is a crafty guy:

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If there are people out there interested in self-study, I recommend the following books:

Samuel Adler's The Study of Orchestration (Third Edition)

This is an excellent book that exposes orchestration and choices made by the orchestrator in the modern day orchestra. It must be paired with the accompanying MultiMedia CD:

Samuel Adler's The Study of Orchestration (6-disc Accompanying Multimedia Set)

Together these two provide a powerful insight into every choice made from videos of performers performing individual articulations on their instruments, so you can observe performance and understand what articulations sound like, all the way to understanding how to voice a brass ensemble and how different voicings create different moods, etc, etc. It's packed full of content and a must have for anyone studying orchestration.

I will also recommend:

Rimsky-Korsakov's Principles of Orchestration

It's a bit old, but a lot of what he discusses remains true to the orchestra today. Mostly, thouh, I like his charactarization of timbres and voicings and doublings in both the melody and harmony. A very useful reference--it would be nice to have some recordings of his examples, but they're not hard to find on Youtube (after all, the guy is a famous composer).

And finally, I suggest checking out any of the John Williams Signature Scores Conductor Scores. These scores are the concert scores that John Williams himself has approved for when he does his own concert tours.

I personally own the Star Wars Concert Suite, which is over 100 pages long and contains the Star Wars Main Theme, Princess Leia's Theme, Imperial March, Yoda's Theme, and the Throne Room Scene; I also have the score to Battle of the Heroes as well as the Concert Suite from The Cowboys. They contain the full orchestration by John Williams and his people and provide incredible insight into modern, cinematic orchestration choices--and it's easy to find a high-quality recording to compare it to.

With John Williams as material, there are many exercises I can set for myself--anything from honing my production skills by attempting a reproduction of the music with my orchestra samples, to studying the score and creating a piano reduction to udnerstand what the final orchestration branched from originally.

Of course, Williams isn't the only score around--I just like it because it's contemporary and the Signature Scores are as accurate as you can get.

Similar studies can be highly useful with people like Maurice Ravel who could arguably be considered one of the best orchestrators who ever lived.

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Williams is kind of the composers composer for film or at least I think so. We have been studying some of his work. He's one of those guys that can still produce Hollywood material yet it will still have that classical flavor to it.

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Williams is kind of the composers composer for film or at least I think so. We have been studying some of his work. He's one of those guys that can still produce Hollywood material yet it will still have that classical flavor to it.

There are other scores I'd love to get my hands on:

I'd love The Land Before Time by James Horner

and

Back to the Future by Alan Silvestri

and just about anything new from Alexandre Desplat.

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I'd love The Land Before Time by James Horner

Total agreement here. I used to watch this movie as a kid and I recently watched it again for the first time in a long time with my own kids. Nostalga aside, the sountrack is just fantastic.

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