Best Practices: Working with a full orchestral score

I have always found it challenging to work with a full orchestra composition. There are two challenges in particular:

  1. Navigating around the music, maintaining one’s bearings. If you zoom the music to a size easy to work on a part, most of the other instruments are off-screen, so it is hard to maintain the context.

  2. Similarly if you listen to a full score playback, it can be hard to hear the parts you have been working on to make sure they are accurate.

I am working on an orchestration of a piece that has full orchestra plus a gospel choir. I have evolved into a workflow that very elegantly solves both of these problems. A key to this solution is plenty of screen real estate. I have two monitors that are each about 30 inches, plus a third smaller monitor where I can stash VSTs, the mixer and other odds and ends.

The key to my workflow is to take advantage of Dorico’s brilliant ability to offer any number of layouts, and to keep them all in sync during playback.

I keep the full score open all the time on the monitor to my right. It is zoomed to the extreme so that I can see all instruments. I can’t read notes and certainly can’t edit at this zoom level. But I can see who is playing, which makes a huge difference. This window is always in galley mode. Moreover this window serves a powerful role in playback. See below.


On my central (main) monitor, I have 5 tabs open in this case. These tabs are custom scores for woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion and vocals. In galley mode, I can see all the instruments and edit very conveniently without any zooming. For this particular project, there is a rhythm section, so each of these custom scores includes the piano and electric bass part, complete with chord symbols.

A key part of this workflow is that I can quickly jump from one tab to another with no significant delay, and I never have to re-zoom in order to get instruments within view. If I am writing woodwind parts, I can glance at the full score to see what the strings are doing. I can’t read the string pitches from the full score, but I can see the rhythms more or less. It is really a very reassuring way to operate.

The real bonus that I didn’t expect is that this workflow gives me a choice between section-level playback and full orchestra playback. It is simply a matter of clicking the section-level scores or the full score. My typical mode of operation is to write a few bars and then play back the section to make sure all the pitches and rhythms are correct. At the section level, you can easily hear all the instruments (including the piano, bass and chord playback that I included in each custom score.) After I think I have a passage completed for e.g. the brass players, then I click on the full score to play back the full orchestration for that same passage. The brass custom score automatically scrolls along with the full score, so I can visually check the brass parts while hearing them in the context of the full orchestration.

I can’t really express how powerful this workflow is. You really have to experience it.

I’d welcome any other ideas or observations related to scoring for full orchestras and other complex scores.

Thanks for sharing that with us !
Happy new year :slight_smile:

This is great! One thing I didn’t know, but makes sense in retrospect, is that shift-space will “play from last played” but in the currently selected layout. So for your example, I can write a woodwinds part, and play from a specific note. Then switch to the full score, shift-space, and it will play that same passage – only this time for the full score. Awesome!

Is there a keyboard shortcut for switching between split panes? (they might be called tab groups?) Next / previous tab only works within a single tab group, which makes sense.

I did accomplish this basic setup using multiple windows – one for the sections, and one for the full score. But I generally prefer split pane to multiple windows. Only I don’t see a keyboard shortcut to switch between panes, whereas I can use cmd-` to switch windows.

I have been doing this the hard way, by clicking to the same point in the score and pressing P. Your answer is even better. But the key thing is that by keeping open BOTH full score and partial score, you can instantly get two different playback settings, and both are extremely useful. This is a dimension none of the other notion programs offer, AFAIK.

I would still like to have “scrub play” where you can hear the notes as you pass the mouse over them, but this section-level score does almost the same thing.

Regarding the split pane, I assume you are talking about this:
https://steinberg.help/dorico/v2/en/dorico/topics/user_interface/user_interface_project_window_splitting_tab_groups_t.html

I have not used that. I could see that being useful if one has a single monitor and wants to do this dual playback thing we’re discussing. And there could be other cases where it is useful. Generally I like to have as much screen space as possible for the task at hand, so I use full windows on both my monitors. But these variations can all have their place. I guess the point is that when working on a large score, give some thought to keeping multiple score layouts one way or another. It is a very powerful tool.

I should point out that, at least on Windows, Dorico doesn’t (usually) remember the settings for BOTH windows if you are using multiple monitors. (I swear I have seen it open up a few times, restoring BOTH windows, but I can’t repeat that.)

If you use a setup like mine where my primary monitor has multiple tabs with several custom scores (ww, brass, etc), and the secondary monitor has only the full score zoomed way out, make sure to close the secondary window first, then close the main window. That way, the next time you open the project, it will at least restore all those multiple tabs and you will only have to open the full score and move it to a new window.

In a perfect world, Dorico would be able to restore all windows the next time you open the project, and open them all in the same mode (galley) and zoom level and horizontal position. But I imagine this gets rather complicated interacting with the OS.

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On edit, I believe my description of the window preservation is incorrect. I think the issue is that the window status is saved when the project is saved (naturally), but if you have more than one window open while the project has unsaved changes (i.e. “dirty bit” is on), there is no offer to save the project until you are closing the LAST window. And at that point there is only one window’s worth of panes to save.

If you explicitly do a File-Save right before closing any windows, then both windows will be preserved and restored when you next open the project. It makes sense from a programmer’s point of view, but might be confusing to the user. I really can’t think of a better way to do it. I guess there could be a preference to cause Dorico to offer to save the project when any window is closed, but that might be confusing also.

On Windows, Dorico (like other apps) first opens on the display and desktop (if you use multiple desktops) that has focus when you launch it.

Unless you always use exactly the same window configuration, it could get confusing if an old project opened “somewhere” and you had to hunt through multiple displays and desktop views to find it - possibly hidden behind some other open windows.

The fact that you can only have one instance of Dorico running on a PC (presumably because of the way the audio engine works) is a restriction on working with multiple desktops, but that’s a different issue.

Now here’s an oddity. It turns out that if you have a bunch of tabs in your main window, you can start the playback and switch from tab to tab while the playback proceeds. The playback will continue in time, but include only the instrument(s) from the layout that currently has focus. That’s an unexpected bonus. However, it does NOT work for any layouts you have in other windows (at least under Windows 10).

Let’s say I have my full score in a second window (on my secondary monitor). Let’s say the score is in focus when I start playback. I will hear the full instrumentation in playback. And I have several custom scores in tabs on my main monitor. While the playback proceeds, I can click on any of those other tabs, and the playback will switch to playing only the players included in those layouts. I can jump around to any of those tabs while the playback proceeds, but if I click on my full score on the secondary monitor, the playback does not return to full instrumentation.

It isn’t a big deal, but more of a curiosity.