The word orchestration typically makes people think of a symphonic orchestra setting; strings, winds, brass, percussion in a large scale way. The skill to orchestrate for this kind of group is an awesome skill to develop; I also think that we can use the term to apply to ensembles of all different varieties. You can orchestrate a piece for steel drum band, ocarina quartet, or any combination of combined instruments. Orchestration is the art of making a musical arrangement for different instruments in an ensemble. The traditional symphonic setting is probably one of the most intimidating ensembles to work with for many composers who are not experienced in that area, and the bulk of my experience is not in that area but I’m quite familiar with most of the standard instruments and have worked with them a lot in other combinations. There is a feeling though that there is a right way and a wrong way and some people are very particular about following a strict set of rules and guidelines more so here than in most other ensembles. You won’t find so many orchestration manuals telling you how to combine guitar, bass, piano, voice, and drum set but you’ll find a lot of text about violins, piccolos, timpani and that sort. Really though there are a lot of universal musical fundamentals that dictate best practices for arranging your ensemble no matter if it’s for a mini-moog or a Stradivarius.
There is something quite special about a well balanced string section with accents of winds and a strong brass section for some weight. I’m not discouraging you from studying traditional orchestration at all, it’s a wonderful task to undertake, I simply want to remove some of the stigma for those who might feel they are not allowed to orchestrate for certain groups because they didn’t come out of a conservatory. You have been an orchestrator of sorts since your first composition, whatever that may be. Considerations like frequency, range, tone, and texture come into play for any composition so you are likely already accustomed to be thinking in these terms when you compose or arrange. Those are the same skills you need for dealing with an orchestra, there are probably just more instruments to wrangle and keep track of than in some of the other work you might have done. That has been true for me, although there’s nothing so foreign about it, different but not foreign. The question of understanding tonal differences between an oboe and clarinet are for example are not so different from comparing between two different guitar effects pedals. You’ll want to consider the range, the playability, and volume differences of the instruments too but that’s all stuff you can learn. The stuff that’s harder to teach is the pure musical inspiration, but you already have that right? So you’ve got the hard part down.
Getting used to all the instruments sounds and nuances just takes time by doing things like listening, studying, and hands on experimentation. I’ve been going through this process for a while and I’ll start sharing some blog posts specifically about my transition from an orchestrator for contemporary pop/rock groups to symphonic orchestra. I’m still in the process, so this will be an evolving journey. Isn’t the musical journey always an evolving one though? Yes indeed it is. Look for upcoming posts to dive into this more detail.