Orchestrating in Sibelius – condensing workaround

I’ve recently been doing some orchestrations in Sibelius as part of a fun project to introduce some of Debussy’s piano music to youth orchestras. As it had been a little while since I wrote anything for large ensembles using the software, coming back to it for this project reminded me of a few problems for Sibelius users – and helped me uncover new possibilities in finding workarounds.

Sibelius parts – the problem

The problem is epitomised by the example shown below, typical of scores I’ve seen many times, including this from a theatrical work I was recently sent to begin engraving ready for publication and performance:

One cannot be blamed for creating scores like this. Since its conception, the way we’ve all learned to work in Sibelius is to begin with the ‘score’ as we would expect to see it from a conductor’s viewpoint. It wasn’t until version 4 of Sibelius that dynamic parts were introduced, linking individual part files to content in the score.

The concept was good and a helpful one, but unfortunately because of the way the program is written, couldn’t go far enough. An ‘instrument’ in Sibelius could be placed in a part, but it was these ‘instruments’ that we were used to using to group players together. Now if you create a part for Trumpets 1&2 – which share a stave in the score – then the players’ part will show Trumpets 1&2 on a shared stave. Trumpet players (and any other numbered part players) will know: this is not okay.

(Extract from the dynamic part linked to the stave pictured above. Trumpet players don’t want to share a part!)

Then Dorico came along and showed us how it should be done: in Dorico you select ‘players’ who will end up with individual parts that appear correctly; then in the score Dorico offers ‘condensing’ – grouping players onto staves as we’re used to seeing them in conductor scores.

Given that Sibelius doesn’t currently offer this feature, and possibly never will without rewriting the application from the ground up, is it possible to work with it in such a way that we can end up with condensed parts in the score, while the individual players get their own parts? As it turns out, yes – and it doesn’t have to be too much work – just a bit more than in Dorico, and involving a conceptual shift.

The solution: The score is not the score

Create your score with a single instrument for every ‘player’ you want in your ensemble. This is a bit like the Dorico concept of selecting ‘players’ for your score. So if you want 4 Trumpets, you add a Trumpet instrument four times. This will create four individual Trumpet parts which can be exported separately for the four players. Important to note: do not add one Trumpet, and then add ‘extra staves above or below’ in the Instruments dialogue. This will add one Trumpet part with four staves – not desirable for score or parts!

When setting up your score, add an instrument for every player (a la Dorico)

Incidentally, if renaming lots of parts to add their number, I would recommend the Edit Instrument Names plugin to make this process quicker – you can tab through each name and its shortened version to make adjustments, saving lots of clicking around in the score.

Edit Instrument Names – Sibelius plugin by Bob Zawalich

Now, for large ensembles, this could end up in very large scores: for an orchestra with triple winds, and a 4331 brass section, timpani, 2 percussion, harp and strings, you’d end up with 33 staves – not very efficient, and likely to start getting cramped even with a staff size of 3.5mm on an A3 page. Condensing has been an engraving convention for centuries for a reason: it saves space. And in this day and age, cutting down paper and ink is more important than ever.

But fear not, this 33-stave score is not the end result. I’d suggest working with your score in this way while composing/arranging/orchestrating, perhaps using the Panorama view, or an even larger page size (!), or Sibelius’ ‘Focus on Staves’ feature, to enable you to ‘zero in’ even with so many staves. I can also recommend using the Timeline panel to keep an overview of your score and to navigate quickly to different sections. Of course, for smaller ensembles, navigating a large score like this won’t be such an issue, but you’ll still want to create individual instrument staves for each player in order to end up with the parts exporting correctly, and can still condense even smaller ensemble scores later on – but we’re coming to that.

Creating the score (and parts) from ‘the score’

The key is to complete your composition or arrangement in all its musical elements before doing any work to export the parts or create a ‘condensed’ score. This is because to achieve this we need to create a second Sibelius file, and once we’ve done that, any changes made to your original won’t translate across. Once your music is complete, open the dynamic parts, do whatever layout and engraving adjustments are necessary, and they are good to go – parts ready!

The new Sibelius file will initially be a duplicate of your original. Just do this in your file system and rename the new file with ‘conductor score’ appended, or similar. Open this score and, if the parts are open, close them – you don’t need them. You’ve already exported them from your original score, and they can be left.

In your new score, you’re now ready to ‘condense’ the parts that are currently all on separate staves. There are thankfully some quick and intuitive ways to do this.

The simple concept is to use Sibelius’ ‘Reduce’ function to group two or more parts onto one stave. This is found under the Note Input tab, in the Arrange section.

This is something Sibelius does in the way you’d hope and expect, and is perhaps the way we always should have done condensing in Sibelius (at least ever since this feature was available). It takes care of labelling parts as ‘1.’ or ‘2.’ where they play alone on a shared stave, or ‘a2’ where two players play identical music. You can choose whether to always use multiple voices or whether to combine voices if the rhythms are identical but the notes different. The latter would usually be what you want in a condensed score, but the options are there for you. This saves you having to think about these aspects during the composition/arrangement process, allowing you to focus on your creative skills.

Condensing smartly

Now you could, for example, reduce two Clarinets to one stave throughout the score, and be done with it – and this may well work out fine for you. But there may be times when you want to keep them separate in the score, if there is a lot of contrasting material in the two parts on a particular page; or conversely, while you might typically have four French Horns spread across two staves, there might be a moment when all four could share one stave. Some examples from my orchestration of ‘Golliwog’s Cakewalk’ are shown below:

The Clarinets here were worth keeping separate for their contrasting material and because space allowed; the Bassoons by contrast demonstrate how they’ve been condensed for this system
This system contained brass parts that were simple and rhythmically identical, allowing me to group all four Horns onto one stave, and all three Trumpets also onto one stave; this also allowed me to save space on a page where I was fitting two systems because of sparser material

It’s important to find the right balance here – between saving space on the one hand, and representing the material clearly and effectively on the other. To approach this, I first make an educated guess as to where to place the page/system breaks in the score, based on density of material across a roughly page-width passage, at the current/optimum maximum stave size. This might take a little trial and error; but once you have things set the way you think it’ll be best laid out, you can then also ‘hide empty staves’ to further save space.

Now, you can do your condensing across the score according to what best serves each system. In the case where you sometimes want two Clarinets on one stave and sometimes on separate staves, it is important to note, you need to preserve the ‘Instrument’ staves for all of these options, with the correct names (e.g. Clarinet 1, Clarinet 2, and a stave called Clarinet 1.2; again let me recommend the ‘Edit Instrument Names’ plugin). Where they are condensed to one stave, the two individual staves can then have their music removed and ‘hidden’; where they are separate, the ‘condensed’ (1.2) stave can be hidden. Similarly you’ll need instruments available for Horns 1.2 and 3.4, and a stave for Horns where that is needed. Work this out system by system. It sounds complex, but doesn’t take long to figure out.

In cases where the page is still dense, either because it’s not easy to condense instruments, or because you are fitting two (or more) systems to a page (as shown below), Sibelius has one more handy trick that comes in useful here: changing the staff size for individual systems. This is done in the Inspector when the systems are selected.

I’m not sure when Sibelius added this feature – changing the staff size for a selected passage via the Inspector – but it sure is useful. It previously would have required crazy workarounds! The normal staff size for this score would be 3.6mm; making this page 3.1mm allowed two systems with sparser material to fit comfortably

To summarise, create this condensed score by:

  1. Creating a specific ‘conductor score’ version of your file
  2. First laying out systems/pages according to the density of the music
  3. Condense music using the ‘Reduce’ feature per-system where appropriate, and hide other empty staves (first removing redundant music from ‘parts’ staves where necessary).
  4. Where appropriate, still-dense pages can have their stave size reduced just on those pages.

Finally, I’d be missing an opportunity if I didn’t mention that my arrangement of Golliwog’s Cakewalk is now available to buy, recommended for youth and amateur orchestras! See the Compositions/Arrangements page for links.

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