5 things I've learned about being a virtual orchestra

May 8, 2015
Over the past 25 years as a live and session keyboard player, I’ve been fortunate to have worn a multitude of musical hats, playing myriad different keyboards in a wide variety of settings. For the past seven years, I’ve been touring as a “virtual orchestra,” emulating the sound of a real orchestra using samples and a laptop, for artists like Chris Botti and others. Coming to this new role as a pianist, I’m able to rely on my previous experience as an accompanist for singers, using the knowledge of how to support them with just the right amount of musical information to express a lyric or song. I’ve also been inspired by listening to film composers and by writing music for film and television myself. Here are five ideas that can help you support a band orchestrally and teach you to add different sonic landscapes to an ensemble’s sound. [Photo above by Sandrine Lee.]

1. Start with the Basics

There are endless software libraries of wild sounds to draw from these days, but make sure that you start with basic sounds that work for most occasions, like string, brass, and woodwind section sounds. I usually begin with a solid, sustained string orchestra section sound that is based on a good mix of string sounds with different qualities. Then, by way of a real-time MIDI controller, I am able to mix in things like French horns and woodwinds on the fly. Depending on the situation, I also like to add in some ethereal sounds that evolve over time.

2. Make Friends with Your Expression Pedal

Often times, samples can sound static. But by using your expression pedal, you can make musical phrases “breathe.” Think in terms of long, sustained phrases and use your expression pedal to swell a bit for entrances, and taper off for ends of phrases. You can also use the expression pedal to make split-second dynamic adjustments while both of your hands are busy playing.

3. Simplicity Always Works

When playing live, always try to streamline complex ideas from a recording. Remember that while you may not be able to emulate an entire 90-piece orchestra, you can take the main line or idea of a musical passage and flesh it out to fit something that feels more natural to play on a keyboard. When coming up with my own parts, I like to play only what may be “missing” from a song. Sometimes fewer notes in a chord, or one sustained note in a high register, is exactly what’s needed. As time goes on, your arrangements can and will evolve, but starting simple is always a good idea.

4. Think Like an Arranger

Play in ranges that aren’t being used by other chordal instruments in your band, and try not to play string or horn sounds in a pianistic way. Listening to the background parts of recordings will help you to get a better understanding of how string and horn sections move as a whole. Remember that you can get a lot of musical mileage from just the right sound and a few sustained notes.

5. Be Flexible

Be ready to change or alter your sounds at a moment’s notice. Often times, you will need to come up with an entirely new concept on the spot, so have alternate sounds that you are comfortable using available to load at the drop of a hat. The more flexible and in-the-moment you’re able to be, the more indispensible your skills will become to your band and others.

Keyboardist and composer Andy Ezrin has performed and recorded with artists such as Joe Jackson, the New York Voices, and Steve Tyrell. He is currently touring with trumpeter Chris Botti and readying a new solo piano album entitled Dusk. Find out more at andyezrinmusic.com.

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