How To Become an Orchestrator
What Exactly Does an Orchestrator Do?
An Orchestrator writes scores based off a Composer’s drafts (or sketches) for film, TV, video games, orchestras, bands, or individual performers. They also transpose music originally written for one voice type or instrument to be performed by another voice type or instrument.
Jeremy Levy is an Orchestrator/Arranger/Composer whose work can be heard on TV shows Empire and Revenge, films Crimson Peak and Minions as well as in dozens of other movies, TV programs and video games. He says, “My day to day duties are orchestrating cues [an individual piece of music within a film] and managing a small team of Assistants. I have a couple guys that cleanup MIDI files from the Composer we’re working with, and then they prepare sketches in Finale for me. My experience as a Composer informs all of my work. It allows me to understand what the Composer’s intent is, and how best to facilitate it. As an Arranger, it gives me the skills to quickly flesh out harmony where needed without thinking twice about it.”
Most people start off as Assistants before being hired as full-on Orchestrators. Those just getting started in the industry often must work other part-time jobs or cobble together several projects at a time to make a living. Advancement would then come in terms of getting hired as an Orchestrator for more prestigious projects with higher budgets, or by becoming the regular Orchestrator for a television show or some other project that would provide a steady source of income.
Education & Training
A college degree in Music, Composition or Performance can help an aspiring Orchestrator learn the necessary musical skills they need to understand the mechanics of music. Levy says, “I have a Master’s in Jazz Composition from the University of Miami. It was incredibly helpful in teaching me the wide range of skills needed to find a career in music. At school, I also learned how to be a Recording and Mixing Engineer–two very helpful additional skills. Besides formal education, an in-depth knowledge of orchestral scores is very helpful. Being familiar with a wide range of musical styles helps quite a bit, too.”
What skills do you need to be an Orchestrator?
Of the experience and skills necessary to become a successful Orchestrator, Levy says, “I would classify this under two areas. [You must have] an in-depth knowledge of the orchestra and all the instruments, as well as deep harmonic knowledge. Being able to look at a score and find issues just by sight is incredibly helpful. Being able to quickly work out solutions is even more helpful. [Also of importance is] being incredibly versatile in all aspects of music production software. This includes notation and sequencing. You will need to do everything at some point in your career. If you don’t know how to use a piece of software for a job, learn it and don’t let anyone else know!”
“You need to be able to deal with a bit of solitude. I am most often at my home studio working by myself,” Levy says, and indeed most Orchestrators do spend most of their time working alone. He adds, “However, you need to communicate well with others. Unless you’re orchestrating your own score, you will be working with a Composer, so you need to learn how to manage his or her stresses and responsibilities with your own. Everyone is on a time crunch, so it is important to respect that and stay organized. Time management is one of the most important aspects of a successful Orchestrator.”
Although Orchestrators work as part of a team with other Composers and Arrangers, they spend a good deal of time working on their own. Their work schedule is dependent on the project and its deadline, but Levy says, “I try to work normal-ish office hours. I have a studio in my condo, so that provides a bit of flexibility. My usual work schedule is 7:30 am to 6:00 pm. I’ll keep working after dinner if I’m on a time crunch. Otherwise, I try to spend time with my wife after dinner. Weekends are often needed to work during crunch time. A lot of times, recording sessions are on Mondays, so I’ll need to work Sunday if that’s the case.
I collaborate most often with Conductor/Orchestrator Tim Davies. The two of us have split orchestration duties on most projects over the past five years. Our process usually involves fully orchestrating a cue and then having the other look at the finished score to see if anything can be improved. You’d be amazed at what another person might find in your scores!”
“That is the tricky part,” Levy says of landing a first job. “Finding a way into the industry is hard. There are some good organizations in LA” for networking opportunities. “Otherwise, if you went to college, hopefully, there are alumni working in the business. I met with every Miami alum I could find when I moved here. It was very helpful with introductions.”
How Much Does an Orchestrator make?
Going rates for Orchestrators will vary based on the type of production, its budget, and whether or not it’s a union or non-union job. Orchestrators are paid in two ways, with the first being “an agreed upon package deal for the entire project. The lead Orchestrator gets the paycheck and has to pay anyone else working on the project,” Levy says. The second is “by the page. A page is four bars of music. The rate goes up or down depending on how many staves are in the score. Another factor to set the page rate is whether or not it is a union contract. If on contract, the upfront rate is a little lower as there are health benefits paid by the employer, as well as secondary market residuals. Off contract will be higher since there are no residuals.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
- “Start your own writing projects! I started a big band to feature my writing when I first came to town. You’ll meet a lot of people, and it shows you have the gumption to follow through on work.”
- “Also, get on the phone and call people you want to meet up with! You don’t usually get turned down unless it’s a scheduling issue. I’ve found people in the industry to be incredibly open to meeting up for advice.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Be content with orchestrating, and don’t look at it as a way to get into writing for film. It doesn’t really work that way. You get hired for being able to deliver a finished score without mistakes in a very short turnaround time. Don’t be a diva; the Composer is always right.” He jokes, “Unless you can convince them of a way to do it better.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“They don’t take it seriously. Orchestrating is a full-time job. It’s not something you can do part-time in between other gigs. Make it your priority. My first couple of years involved multiple all-nighters and included every possible job needed in the work chain. It also includes some financial investment to get your rig up to speed. It’s helpful to have a large format laser printer to deal with big scores, as well. These things don’t come cheap!”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“What does an Orchestrator actually do? Most people have preconceived notions of the job that are all off. Either they think we secretly wrote the whole score, or we deal with handwritten piano sketches. The truth is that we are the musical middlemen that make it all happen. We are able to turn a Cubase file into a real orchestral score. We are able to orchestrate sixty minutes of orchestra in two weeks. We are able to fix any potential issues that may arise. We know our role in the post-production workflow and maximize our skill set.”
What is one thing I should have asked which I didn’t?
“How long did it take you to make a living off of just orchestrating? It took me four to five years to be working enough that I no longer needed to play trombone professionally for supplemental income. I used to tour with the Brian Setzer Orchestra, but I had to give it up after a while.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Jeremy Levy is a Los Angeles-based Orchestrator, Arranger, and Composer. As an Orchestrator, his recent film, TV, and video game projects have included How to Be Single, Ant-Man, Crimson Peak, Minions, Revenge, Empire, The Book of Life, Batman: Arkham Knight, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Smurfs 2, Jack Reacher, Tower Heist, The Event, No Ordinary Family, Battlestar Galactica, Infamous 2, and God of War 3. He has also arranged music and provided music preparation services on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and American Idol. He is the co-leader of the Budman/Levy Orchestra, which features many of LA’s top musicians.