The Importance of Arrangements for Amateur Ensembles

May 3, 2022, 9:33 PM · As a conductor of community and youth orchestras for over 40 years, I’ve had to grapple with the question of utilizing arrangements for amateur musicians who may not possess the technical skills to perform all the requirements of an original composition.

Some people recognize the necessity and advantages of the many decent arrangements that are available. Others feel that composers are compromised when their music is simplified and that only unadulterated works should be rehearsed and performed. I see both sides of this argument, but the pragmatic reality, more recognized by those in the educational system, is that any program needs to be tailored to the abilities of the ensemble.

Difficult music that cannot be effectively managed by the ensemble can produce insecurity and even dampen the enthusiasm of the musicians. That is why certain composers are inevitably omitted from the repertoire solely for their technical challenges. The result is a lopsided perspective of classical music, emphasizing early periods and avoiding more contemporary ones.

I remember attending a rehearsal of the All-Connecticut High School Orchestra when the late Gustav Meier was conducting. He had masterfully edited Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 to conform to time constraints. Thorny sections were avoided while thematic material from all the movements was utilized. At one point, a principal wind player struggled with an exposed solo. Meier patiently tried to coax and encourage the player, but it was of no use. During a break, Meier wrote a simplified version of the solo which the young musician had no difficulty playing beautifully. I realized that Meier had effectively created his own abridged arrangement of the original work.

In my own experience, I’ve been forced to incorporate “cuts” to eliminate sections of a piece that were just never going to be performance-ready. It is a challenge to do so without butchering the piece’s harmonic development, but it does give the sense of tackling an “original” work.

Keeping the Entire Ensemble Engaged

My earliest conducting experience was with a community orchestra that had an open-door, no audition policy. The result was a wide disparity of musical abilities and an arduous task of programming. I didn’t want to lose good players who were turned off by simple music, but I also didn’t want developing students to be discouraged and quit. I thought about programming Classical pieces by Mozart and Haydn because they were more manageable from a technical standpoint. But they presented challenges of musicality and often left entire sections of the orchestra, particularly the brass and percussion sections, with little or nothing to do.

The Romantic repertoire, with its expanded instrumental ranges and more sophisticated harmony and rhythm, was simply too difficult for many members of my orchestra. So, the compromise was student arrangements which, for starters, eliminated the problem of transpositions for the winds and brass. Everyone got to play, and I could program shortened versions of exciting works by composers that the group would otherwise not be able to perform, such as Tchaikovsky or Mahler.

I quickly learned that I needed to peruse arrangements before ordering them. There are some pathetic and overly simplistic arrangements out there. In a lot of cases, keys and rhythms are so watered down as to render the selected work virtually unrecognizable except for its most famous theme(s). But I soon learned that arrangers such as Merle Isaac, Vernon Leidig, Calvin Custer, and Sandra Dackow could usually be relied upon to capture the essence of a masterwork with few artistic compromises.

I recently listened to a recording of my first orchestra and was impressed by our performance of the Finale to Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. It was an abridged arrangement of a work that I loved – a work which the ensemble could never manage in its original form. The performance captured the spirit of Mahler and incorporated many of the techniques that define his music. And the entire orchestra enjoyed rehearsing and performing it. The audience also received it with enthusiasm.


First, Do No Harm

I once took an arrangement of Franz Lizst’s Les Preludes and added portions of the original work to construct a “meatier” version of the piece. Inevitably, that meant there was some faking going on in the string sections, but I always promoted the idea of Do No Harm. “If you can’t play something well, leave it out and jump in when you can,” I’d often say from the podium. Discretion IS the better part of valor when playing in a large ensemble!

With auditioned groups, I program original works, but I still need to keep things interesting for the brass and percussion players. Luck’s Music Library offers “standard transpositions” of trumpet and clarinet parts of many masterworks. I’ve also programmed isolated movements of a symphony along with Overtures and Suites. There is also the option of having some first violins play extremely high passages an octave lower or writing out cello tenor clef parts in bass clef or opting for a lower octave. I’ve always been judicious about such alterations and concerned for preserving what I perceived to be the artistic integrity of the overall work.

The Question of Student Arrangements

The youth orchestra I conducted at the end of my career prided itself on the quality of their program and discouraged student arrangements, except for their beginning ensembles. I found the blanket disregard for arrangements to be limiting, and it made the task of programming much more difficult. After leading a youth orchestra for 16 years, I began to feel programming burnout. I felt that I’d programmed nearly every conceivable piece for the level of musician I was assigned to work with, on multiple occasions. It became increasingly difficult to locate appropriate pieces that conformed to the “original music” ideal. On a few occasions I was able to commission new compositions that were tailored to the limited abilities of the orchestra. But those situations were rare and came with a financial burden.

In the end, every orchestra director has to find their own way. But keeping members of your ensemble engaged and involved in active participation should always be the goal. Frustration and discouragement will not generate the kind of musical unity that a developing group relies on. Sitting idle while counting rests will not endear any amateur musician to a group. And a percussionist who is Tacet for entire pieces will most likely find another activity to participate in. If you can provide a taste of a great piece of music literature without desecrating it or alienating many members of your ensemble, then, in my mind, you’ve accomplished a great deal. And if, like Gustav Meier, you have to adapt the music somewhat to preserve a performance standard, then by all means do it!

Programming for amateurs will always present a unique series of challenges but, when it works, the smiles and the music and the compliments will be just the kind of reinforcement we all need to sustain ourselves in this wonderful endeavor.

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May 4, 2022 at 07:53 PM · I remember playing a lot of arrangements in my first youth orchestra, and I think it was very beneficial because of the reasons you mention -- it allowed us to play those big Romantic pieces, without completely dashing our confidence! I didn't even think of the fact that those arrangements also probably gave the winds, brass and percussion a little more to do, thereby keeping them in the game.

May 4, 2022 at 08:09 PM · I've been dealing with this this year in school. I'm not a music teacher, I'm a biology teacher, but I've been helping the music teacher with the string players over my lunch and free periods. Anyway, we have a very eclectic mix of instruments with a wide range of abilities in our group. We have had to take arrangments and write new parts for some of the beginning students so that they can all play with the group. Our "Pirates of the Caribbean" arrangement sounds quite nice! I'm also playing viola myself on one of the pieces because the group has zero violas.

May 4, 2022 at 08:15 PM · I completely agree that these arrangements and adjustments are invaluable. I've seen a lot of "school" arrangements that have a third, very simple violin line. Nobody notices, and everybody plays! Some judicious re-orchestrating can be very useful as well. I was once conducing Brahms Second with a university orchestra that had a small cello section, but a strong viola section (imagine that!). During the gorgeous second theme in the first movement I added the first two stands of violas to the cello section, et voila! Nobody came up to me and asked why I had done that, but lots of people remarked how great the cellos sounded at that spot. Our little secret!

May 4, 2022 at 08:22 PM · Arrangements are perfectly reasonable. I can kind of understand the purist who feels bad leaving out some of the hard bits of "great literature" pieces, although I personally think it's fine. However, there is a compromise, which is to play arrangements of pieces that are generally not considered "great literature" such as movie themes.

May 5, 2022 at 12:36 AM · Paul makes a good point on movie themes. My orchestra meets for 3 terms/semesters throughout the year starting in Septemember, ending in June with breaks at Christmas, Easter and the summer. We do a mixture of "proper" classical stuff (symphonies, overtures etc.) alongside lighter music. In the last semester, our time is more limited (due to bank holidays and school holidays), so we do a lot of arrangements for our concert in June cos of the limited technical ability of our members. When we have time to learn, its fine though and is really good fun when it goes well!

May 5, 2022 at 11:29 AM · I would say some people's disdain for student arrangements (or indeed arrangements of any kind) is misplaced. If not for arrangements for brass band, I would never have played half the music I have been privileged to play.

Certainly one wouldn't expect professional orchestras to lower their standards, but when you have an amateur ensemble that doesn't match those standards anyway, it is okay to make arrangements to fit their abilities.

I expect the great composers themselves made arrangements of their works to match their musicians' abilities, the way JS Bach wrote minor pieces for his children and wife, the way Haydn wrote his Baryton Trios for Prince Esterhazy ...

May 5, 2022 at 08:21 PM · I have an ancient memory of playing in my school orchestra a Concerto Grosso for strings by Ralph Vaughan Williams, which he composed in 1950 specifically for an orchestra of mixed levels of skill, such as in a school orchestra. For this piece Vaughan Williams splits the orchestra into three sections based on skill: Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice for those who prefer to play on open strings (sic). The Concerto Grosso itself is in 5 short and varied movements, totalling about 15 minutes. This Concerto Grosso is possibly a rare example of a major composer seriously bearing in mind the technical capabilities of his players.

Another example is a set of 6 German Dances (KV 536), all minuets, composed in 1788 by Mozart for a village band. At some stage during the composition of the pieces Mozart evidently realised that the village band didn't have a viola. His solution was to rewrite the 2nd violin part taking this into account, resulting in an unexpectedly elaborate and satisfying line for the second violins.

There is an interesting story to tell about the Trio in the 2nd dance of the German Dances. For the best part of 200 years in England it has not been an uncommon tune (the 1st violin part) to hear being played in folk music sessions and dances, but it is always known as "Michael Turner's Waltz", with no reference to Mozart whatsoever.

It is a mystery how Mozart's tune came to be ascribed to Michael Turner, but what we do know is that Michael Turner (1796-1885) of Warnham, Sussex, England was a fiddler, shoemaker, parish clerk and sexton. As well as playing for dances, he led the Warnham church band until 1847, when it was replaced by an organ.

Church bands were common in England up to the middle of the 19th century. The musicians regularly played for dances, and their playing in church bands for choirs gave them a solid grounding in music theory and harmony, which is reflected in a lot of English dance music.

I am indebted for much of the above information concerning Michael Turner to Pete Cooper’s web page .

Occasionally, in folk sessions when Michael Turner is played I have sometimes remarked that "I didn't know Mozart was being played here". Baffled silence and quizzical looks, whereupon I satisfied the ambient curiosity.

May 6, 2022 at 08:11 AM · yes, arrangements are totally crucial for amateur orchestras. some very good arrangers were mentioned by name, I'd also like to mention Richard Ling. there are others of course. many nice arrangements of classics can be found on alfred or on goodmusic, among others.

May 6, 2022 at 01:16 PM · As Music Librarian for the local youth orchestra program as well as a non professional violinist, I can attest to there being a lot of great arrangements as well as original works penned by the same arrangers. All of the within the capacity of the non advanced musician.

I do have a problem with the pursuit of having NAMES on the program as if "good music" is limited to a handful of decomposed-composers from Europe.

I understand the SNOB Appeal and at rehearsals hear parents name-dropping the names of composers that wrote the pieces their children are practicing. Sadly, playing music has become a competitive sport based on name dropping.

Personally I prefer to hear any non-professional orchestra play music composed or arranged by someone like Sandra Dackow played very well instead of something composed by one of the "Greats" and played mediocre.

As Duke Ellington said: "If is sounds good, it is good!"

May 9, 2022 at 01:09 PM · Richard Brooks - thank you for starting this most interesting blog, and giving it a secure foundation for discussion free of prejudice or snobbery. Trevor - Mozart's German Dances and Michael Turner's Waltz are excellent stories: I shall seek out Michael Turner's Waltz. Additionally, it is good to be reminded about the Vaughan Williams Concerto Grosso: it's the real thing, where many film composers go for ersatz English/British sounding stuff nowadays. Jean - good leads for sources of well-made arrangements, which I shall share with orchestra directors.

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