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Adapting Original Music to Fit Your Orchestra

Frank Lestina | June 2014

    Great original music can be captivating for students to play. However, these works often present some extremely difficult passages, which can put the piece outside the reach of young ensembles. It is true that there are many arrangements available for school orchestras, but often these arrangements are oversimplified to appeal to everyone and lose some of the character of the work. My solution is to adapt music specifically for my orchestra.

Graded Music
    Under the grading system for music, educators know that a grade 4 piece is appropriate for high school students but a grade 6 piece will be beyond most high school ensembles. However, grading the work as a whole overlooks that a grade 6 piece will have some sections that are really only a grade 4 or even a grade 3. Take that one step further and it is possible to have a grade 6 piece where the violin 1, flute, and trumpet parts are all very demanding (and the reason for the grade 6 rating); the viola, bass and oboe parts are really only a grade 3; and the other parts are somewhere in between.
    Over my teaching career, I spent an increasing amount of effort selecting the perfect literature for my specific orchestra. I would think, “This may be the year to challenge my cello section,” or “This is not the year to feature the bassoon section.” The key is to find the right literature for each ensemble, even if it is necessary to make a few alterations. The best result usually occurs when most of the players are playing the original parts while a few others are playing parts with only minor changes. Often I would make different alterations the next time I performed a piece years later because the orchestra’s needs would be different. I have always enjoyed the challenge of trying to make suitable adaptations of my favorite works for orchestra so that my high school orchestra students can enjoy the vast repertoire by the world’s greatest composers.

Changing Octaves
    The easiest way to adapt parts is simply to change octaves. With challenging high parts, one approach that works well is to have a portion of the section play an octave lower. A band director I observed would frequently ask much of his flute section to take passages down an octave, leaving only a few students to play the part as written. Orchestra directors seem less willing to make such changes to the score. Perhaps it is our long tradition of great literature or the notion that one cannot improve Beethoven.
    Changing octaves can also help to address problems with ensemble balance. An orchestra with more upper strings than lower strings will sound better if some of the first violins play down an octave. Many composers already write some of the string parts divisi in octaves, but it may be beneficial to do this even more often. If the first violin part goes above fifth position, it is time to consider the option of having some students to play an octave lower. With a little practice, students can become quite proficient in playing up or down an octave at sight. I just have them think note names. This is also great practice because some students need work on note names. Another option is to pencil in the lower octave right in the part. If this gets too difficult to read, I take the time to enter the part in a notation program (both octaves) and paste it into the original part. I would estimate that I change octaves on at least a few notes in every concert. Sometimes this is to help with balance, but more often it is to assist less experienced players who would be frustrated or struggle to play the high parts in tune.

Tchaikovsky: Swapping and Reducing Parts
    The Finale of Symphony No. 4 is one of my favorite works and an instant hit with students. The famous opening 16th-note scale passages are challenging for any orchestra, but there are a few other string passages later in the movement that are actually more difficult. By simplifying the most difficult passages, it allows students to focus all their practice time on the opening scales, which really cannot be changed without altering the piece drastically. My goal, again, was to find options that could be performed right along with the original score. So, some students will play the original part from beginning to end while other students perform a modified part simultaneously.
    One situation I have encountered is a second violin part too difficult for some of the players and a viola section with too few players. One change that works to address both problems is to rewrite the viola part in treble clef as a divisi second violin part. With that change, some of the second violins will be helping the violas while still playing notes written by the composer.

Cello Parts in the Finale of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony

    I have also used a similar approach by adding some of the highest cello notes in one section to the viola part. This made the cello part a bit simpler because I could leave out those higher notes. In another section, I gave the bass part, which was the melody, to half the cellos. It never hurts to have more melody. Changes that involve switching parts from section to section, while time consuming, are not difficult at all. Making these changes can address problems with balance and make difficult parts manageable. This works in reverse also. Think about challenging a talented bass player by writing a cello part an octave higher.

Addressing Difficulties in Accompanying Parts
    In some pieces, Mozart for example, the first violin part is less demanding than the second violin part. While the first violin plays the melody, the second violin parts often play ostinato patterns that can be quite challenging. After careful analysis, you can determine which notes or measures are causing the pulse or intonation problems. I look for patterns that fit the fingers and avoid string crossings. Minor changes to the accompaniment are not going to be as noticeable as long as the melody is left untouched.

Modifying Parts in “The Moldau”
    One work I have performed several times with my orchestras is Bed˘rich Smetana’s “The Moldau,” from Má vlast. The first violin part plays a wonderful melody, but the seconds, violas, and cellos play the undulating river theme, which is quite difficult.
When I studied the score, I realized that it wasn’t the entire second violin part that was difficult; rather, it was just one note every few measures that caused pulse and intonation problems. This prompted me to revise the parts. Although I kept the original parts for the first violins, cellos, and basses, I wrote a completely new part for the second violins and had the violas play the original up to a certain point before switching to an adapted part. Overall, the orchestra was playing 90% or more of the original notes composed by Smetana. However, the second violins were only playing about 60% of Smetana’s original part. I started out with just a few changes to the second violin and viola parts, but soon it became difficult to read as more modifications were made. At that point, it was just easier to write a completely new second violin part in a music notation program. This also makes future modifications extremely simple. Notice in the example that only measures 2 and 6 were altered. Measure 2 was just an intonation concern with the Cn and En. In measure 6, it was the D# that caused all the trouble. While I miss that note in the chord a bit, I do not miss the intonation problems that it caused.

    Later in the same piece (St. John’s Rapids), the violin parts are extremely high with many accidentals and large skips. By penciling in a few optional notes in the first violin part, some large leaps are eliminated, and the part can be played in third and fifth position. In addition, the modified part is designed to be played alongside the original first violin part, challenging top players and assisting the others. The second violin part was a different story. Few students in my second violin section could play the original, even with a few modifications. Therefore, I decided to write a much simpler part. Although there were second violin students who could still play the original part, most opted for the revised part.

    At the end of “The Moldau,” there is an E major section in which the strings are playing moving notes on every eighth note. I took out one of the notes from the arpeggio in the second violin (quarter, eighth) and viola parts (eighth, quarter). Although these parts are still playing 16th notes, they do not change notes as often. However, someone is still moving on every 8th note. I made this change partly because of the tempo in this section, but also because of the key (E major), which is tricky for intonation.

Explaining and Notating Parts
    Sometimes addressing difficult parts does not require changing something; rather, it may simply be a matter of explaining clearly to students how the parts should be played. This may be as easy as adding in fingerings, finger spacing, and positions. Asger Hamerik’s Symphony No. 6, Movement 1, is a work that many directors would consider a challenging work for high school students. After reviewing the parts, I realized that the problem is that the parts are tricky, but not really so difficult that they cannot be played. What makes them playable is for students to be in the right position.
    Orchestra directors often will spend a great deal of time studying scores to figure out bowings before passing the music out. In a work like the Hamerik, however, fingerings are almost more important than bowings. When I first tried playing this work with the orchestra, my cello section was extremely frustrated. I then added fingerings, and explained the shifting required. As soon as the cellists started thinking across the strings instead of first position, the piece immediately became easier and students started to enjoy it. Young string players often think of first position as the default, but sometimes playing in second, third, or fourth positions will actually make the part easier to play. It is my experience that cello and bass students should have more fingerings in the parts than the upper strings.
    I do not shy away from challenging students when selecting literature or when adapting parts. It is not my goal to remove all technical passages from the music. However, if the part is way beyond their ability, you are doing them a disservice by allowing them to fake it. Parts that challenge students without overwhelming them can be a real benefit. In the case of the Hamerick, I don’t think you could compose a better etude.

Changing Keys
    The Barber Adagio for Strings is a wonderful work for advanced musicians. The two most challenging aspects of this piece are bow control and the key of Bb minor, which can create all sorts of intonation problems. I was curious to see if I could eliminate one of these challenges, so I transposed the Adagio for Strings a half step lower to A minor. Choral directors have few qualms about trying music in a different key. Sometimes this is to match singers’ vocal range in one or more parts, and sometimes it just feels right in a different key. It makes me wonder why orchestra directors are more reluctant to do this. My decision to switch to A minor had to do with fingerings. After all, the key of Bb major is a lot easier for band than B major. Similarly, five flats for strings is much more difficult than no flats.
    At first, I was unsure whether I would perform the Barber in the new key, but I figured it would be a great way to introduce the piece to my students. It turns out that I have performed the Adagio for Strings in A minor twice since then and have never gone back to the original key. I thought it would bother me that the piece would sound too bright in A minor, but the better intonation far outweighs the darker sound of Bb minor.
    I only made one other minor change in the Barber. Right at the most powerful point of the work, every part has a shift up that was almost impossible to play in tune. When I analyzed the score for this section of the piece, I realized that revoicing this one chord would make every part much easier. Choir directors sometimes do this to avoid difficult skips.
    For example, the bottom second violin part note is only a step from the new viola note. The same was true in all the other parts. I simply had to make the first violin part divisi, half the section shifted up for the new note, the other half moved to the second violin note, while the second violins moved to the viola note. A very simple rewrite made a big difference, and we are, in essence, still playing the exact same pitches the composer intended. Immediately after this chord change, there is a grand pause and the perfect opportunity to go right back to playing the original parts.

Mendelssohn Sinfonia: Viola in F
    Mendelssohn wrote twelve string symphonies when he was young. These are popular pieces for high school orchestras, but a few of his them have more than one viola part. His String Sinfonia No. 10 has two viola parts, so the ensemble overall has parts for Violin 1 and 2, Viola 1 and 2, and a Cello/Bass part (the cello and bass are in octaves, which is typical of that time period). The problem is that this work would sound best with an orchestra that has an equal number of violins and violas. Most high school orchestras have at least twice as many violins as violas. The difficulty is achieving balance without eliminating violins.
    One solution is to rewrite one of the viola parts for violin. Some music even comes with a Violin III part. This is not ideal because both viola parts use the C string and violins lack the deep sound of a viola. The best solution is to have violinists learn to play viola. I have had success in teaching violinists to read alto clef and switch to viola, but some students just get frustrated with alto clef and give up.
    Examples from the band world inspired me to try transposed parts. Almost every set of band music comes with euphonium parts in both bass and treble clef, which allows band directors to convert a trumpet student to euphonium in minutes without learning new fingerings or a new clef. I entered the entire second viola part into music writing software, transposed it up a fifth, and put it in treble clef. I gave six of our violinists school violas and had them play the transposed part.
    This is similar to oboists transitioning to English horn. It is a simple transition because the English horn is a transposing instrument. The fingerings for both instruments are mostly the same. The English horn player is reading the same notes in treble clef; they just sound a fifth lower. True, the embouchure and perhaps the resistance of the air stream are somewhat different, but players of these instruments adjust quickly and alternate between the two often. The same is true with violin and viola. The technique is exactly the same, and it often takes little time for a student to adjust the finger spacing and use a little more pressure with the bow. 
    I have done this with no adjustment time. Just hand a violinist a viola and the Viola in F part and put him in the viola section. This change immediately doubled the size of my viola section without anyone having to learn alto clef for one piece; rather, they just had to space their fingers a little wider. I learned that I could turn a violinist into a violist in five minutes just by having them practice that spacing.

The Future of Viola in F
    I am not sure viola in F will ever catch on like the euphonium treble clef, but the idea that a trumpet player can be turned into an instant euphonium player is quite helpful. I think the orchestra world needs a similar option to create viola players just by providing transposed viola parts. For now, I use the viola in F for the works that require extra viola players, and I am happy to share those parts with colleagues. The side benefit is that some of my students who have played transposed parts were inspired to learn alto clef. I have found that once students get started playing viola in the orchestra, some of them will like the deep rich sound, and they are then willing to spend a little time to learn alto clef.

Mendelssohn Sinfonia: Advanced Cello
    After creating the transposed viola part for some of my violinists, I noticed that the viola 2 part was quite low and in the perfect range for cello, so I also transposed the viola part to bass clef for some of my advanced cellists. Later, I made a few changes for notes that were too high or did not fit the cello, but this took little time. The cello students enjoyed the challenge of playing the viola 2 part, and the balance was actually improved because the remaining cellists and basses were playing the same part. We performed the Sinfonia No. 10 with six violinists playing transposed viola parts on school violas and four cellists playing the viola 2 part. The balance that resulted from making all of these changes was quite good, and it sounded the way Mendelssohn intended, with equal numbers in the violin and viola sections.

Mendelssohn Sinfonia Viola Parts Written for Viola in F and Cello

Simplifying Shostakovich
    I had the privilege of conducting the Illinois All-State Orchestra this year and chose the Finale of Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 for my program. It may be important to note that Illinois has two All-State Orchestras, All-State and All-State Honors. The Honors Orchestra typically programs grade 6 music, but the Shostakovich was a stretch for the All-State Orchestra, especially in the brass and a few string parts. I also happened to be studying the score of a band transcription of this same work to guest conduct with a local community band. In reviewing the trumpet parts in a transcription by Charles Righter, I observed that the highest trumpet parts near the end of the finale were all written down an octave. To make up for this, Righter added the horns to double the trumpets and some woodwinds playing the notes in the original octave. With these changes, few noticed that the trumpets were playing down an octave. This is how we performed it with the All-State Orchestra. I rewrote all of the trumpet and horn parts for the last 32 measures and handed out to the ensemble what I referred to as optional brass parts. Some of the woodwinds received edited parts as well. Students played the original part until the final 32 measures. I also made a similar change to the first trombone part in the same section. Instead of lowering it an octave, I wrote out the second trombone part as an option. This works since the horns were now doubling the trombone parts. I just had more horns play the top part.
    The other changes to brass parts were to assist with low horn parts. The third and fourth horn parts go into bass clef, down to a range that is a struggle for most high school hornists. These notes happen to be in a perfect range for bass trombone and tuba. I simply moved the fourth horn to the third horn notes and put the fourth horn note in the bass trombone and tuba. I rewrote these two parts from about the middle of the piece to the end so the students would not need to switch back and forth.
    The only other changes I made were optional parts for the violins and violas. Many of the players could perform the original parts, but there are some high sections that would be a stretch for some students. My solution was to write out divisi parts for violin 1, violin 2, and viola. The original parts are only divisi for ten percent of the piece, but they are difficult to read because the originals are in manuscript print. I created new divisi parts that left off the top parts. When there was an option to play in octaves, these parts only had the bottom octave. I also added some lower octaves in a few places. Students had the option to play either part, and the balance worked out just fine.
    In all, we played 95% of the Shostakovich finale as written, with a few string and trumpet parts lowered an octave, tuba and bass trombone helping the low horns, and woodwinds covering the highest trumpet notes. My feeling is that with changes like this, you are just adapting the music so that the players can perform with more success. I wish I had made these changes years ago. I have since shared them with two colleagues and would be happy to share them with others.

In Conclusion
    It is time-consuming to rewrite parts. Now that I am retired from my full-time position, one of my goals is to continue adapting music and to clean up all of the music files that I have collected on my computer over the years. As I work on this project, I will be sharing these adaptations with colleagues. I am currently working on a website that will list the works I have available. Look for this at My ultimate goal is to create a sharing website where one could search for pdf or midi files. Instead of a fee for using one of these files, I would simply ask for a donation of something that someone else has created.