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I'm thinking of composing pieces for small ensembles with varied instrumentation.

Typically I compose on a keyboard. How do I determine if the musician can easily play on woodwinds such as clarinet, oboe, flute and saxophone the parts I write for them?

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Simple: learn to play them. You don’t have to play them well, but rent 1 for a month or two and sit down with a method book. There’s no substitute for having under your fingers and feeling where the difficulties lay.

Also: talk to players. Ask them what’s easy / hard on their instrument. Give them sketches to look at and give you feedback. I was in a clinic once where a particular clarinet passage became infinitely easier when the performer put it down a whole step because it eliminated awkward fingerings.

Last: write lots of music. You’ll learn as you do it more, but you have to start somewhere. Same with playing, you just gotta do it.

  • Learning to play all of the instruments is not a remotely feasible approach for most people. You're not going to get any useful information from one month of beginner struggles. – MattPutnam Jan 17 '18 at 20:49
  • @MattPutman - I sincerely disagree; it can be most illuminating. How many instruments have you learned? – jjmusicnotes Jan 17 '18 at 20:57
  • I've learned a lot, because my goal is to be a very flexible performer. But for someone who's goal is composition, this route is extremely expensive and time consuming. "A month or two" is nowhere near enough time, even with a teacher, which you're suggesting to avoid. – MattPutnam Jan 17 '18 at 21:00
  • So you voted to close the related question but answered this one? Maybe this whole situation needs a meta question, but in the mean time you might decide for yourself one way or the other about these questions. – Todd Wilcox Jan 17 '18 at 22:17
  • @MattPutnam - You’re absolutely right about it being time consuming. When I first learned the instruments after one month I played scales up to 4 sharps and flats and could play music the same. I was terrible but I could do it. The point is to have a rudimentary feeling for the instrument; to appreciate it and get a real sense of the weak and strong places. Too many composers are disconnected from performers needs. Also, the length was just an example - could be years if they want; skills compound. No more expenses to rent than what some spend on coffee a month. – jjmusicnotes Jan 17 '18 at 23:29
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You are entering the realm of instrumentation. There are many books on this subject. For classical writing, some standard texts are Piston, Adler, Blatter, and Rimsky-Korsakoff's books on orchestration. These will teach you the different timbral ranges of orchestral instruments (some books include the saxophone as well), what types of articulations are common, what fingerings are hard (e.g. certain trills are easier than others), and many more aspects. If you are more into jazz or other genres, there might be similar books available as well.

There is a slight distinction between instrumentation and orchestration. The former focuses on the qualities of individual instruments, whereas the latter focuses on how to combine instruments effectively to create large scores. Most standard books on orchestration discuss both. For you, instrumentation seems more interesting at this point than orchestration.

This will help you with the basics. After that, many composers consult with players they know for specific questions. There's always more to learn.

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