I recently had the pleasure of interviewing composer Walt Ribeiro, author of the website ForOrchestra.com. Walt got the idea of making his own orchestral arrangements inspired by famous pop-songs and themes, and by releasing a song a week he has so far created a library of 200 music tracks based on this premise. His work has been shared amongst music lovers and fans of the original songs alike, and the majority of his tracks are based on suggestions by people who would love to hear their favorite pop-song in an epic, orchestral version.
I asked Walt Ribeiro to tell a bit about himself and his music, and how his interest in music first arose.
“I was sixteen years old, and really nerdy in high school,” Walt says. “I just played a lot of video games with friends. I needed a hobby other than that, to keep my mind sharp and keep myself off the street. So I started playing guitar and absolutely loved it. Two years later, at 18, I began teaching it at a school. At this time I had to decide what to do for college. I wasn’t good enough to go to an actual music college, so I went to the local community college to study mechanical engineering. So I was actually an engineer before I was a musician, and pretty amazing at it too, getting a lot of A’s.”
But even though the engineering professors at the college loved him, this was obviously not the end of Walt’s music career.
“At the community college, some of the faculty who were there also had connection to The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and suggested I talk to some of their friends there. After a year of finetuning my guitar skills I auditioned and got in.”
Walt Ribeiro continued practicing with the guitar, but then had to stop when he developed carpal tunnel syndrome. “The doctors told me I couldn’t play anymore and should probably change career into writing music instead.” Walt says. “It sucked. It was just a long year of not knowing what I was going to do. If you get carpal tunnel syndrome as a jazz performer one week before finals, your whole year is shot. It was a really dark time for me. But then, once I changed to writing music, I fell in love with it fifty times more. It was so much more fun than playing.”
In 2006 Walt Ribeiro graduated with a degree in music composition and released his own CD. Unfortunately the project failed, and Walt had to figure a new plan. And this time, with the help of the Internet, things worked a lot better.
“After the CD failed, I said to myself “This CD thing is not working, let’s try to go digital.” So then I came back in 2008 and did “round two” of my career, where I moved to Manhattan and started a Ustream show. I had one of the top Youtube channels in 2007-08, and this was when I really learned how to use the Internet.”
The Economic Collapse and Birth of ForOrchestra.com
During this time, Walt taught weekly music lessons online, and did very well at it too, garnering a lot of sponsors and appearing on several big, syndicated networks. But when the economic collapse came about, it forced another big change in Walt’s professional life: “When the economy in America flat-lined in 2008, all my sponsors dropped out, and within a month or two my entire business model went down. During my unemployment, I thought about how I could redo my attempt at a CD release, and that’s when I came up with ForOrchestra.”
Walt Ribeiro began building on the idea, including finding the perfect name for his new project.
“Before I came up with the name “ForOrchestra”, I knew I wanted a name that should be descriptive but simple.” Walt says. “It was originally going to be called “YourOrchestra”. But the domain wasn’t available and I didn’t have money to buy it. Then I thought about naming it “MyOrchestra”, but I didn’t want it to be about me. So the closest I could get to that which was simple enough was “ForOrchestra”.”
Starting a new project like this was intimidating at first, but Walt knew that he was either going to see the idea to the end or not do it at all. “I figured “You either do it or don’t”, so I started doing it, releasing one song a week.” Walt says. “I think right now I’ve made about 200 songs, or something like that.”
Walt has made a schedule for himself which he follows in order to get one song out per week. But he also makes time to practice playing the piano, which has become his favored instrument when it comes to arranging music: “I play the piano first thing in the morning before I do anything, because if you have a list of errands that you want to get done during the day, the first thing you should do is always the most important. With me that’s playing the piano, so I try to play piano three hours a day.”
A major part of his schedule goes into sequencing his music. “Sequencing is how I make the music sound realistic and heavier,” he says, “so it doesn’t sound like bleeps and bloops – less fake and more epic.” He describes the process of sequencing as having two parts. “Monday and Tuesday I spend on writing the music for the different instruments – sometimes I do it on Wednesday too. Then the actual sequencing is done usually on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”
His Own Sound
Walt remembers first falling in love with orchestral music during his time at the college.
“In college, studying music, they started us off with something small like a little piano piece. And the next semester it was a quintet, so five musicians instead of one. After that we got to do a big band piece, and at the end of the year it was an orchestral piece. That’s how I fell in love with it. I tried all these things, and ended up with orchestra.”
In Walt’s opinion, there are several things that make orchestral music unique compared to other kinds of music. “The thing I like about orchestral music is that it strips out the lyrics, ’cause I’ve always loved instrumental tracks. And then it’s the color variation. You can take any song and make it sound in so many ways, soft, loud, fast, slow, and that’s all just for one instrument. You can have complete silence or have everyone playing at once. There’s so many colors that you can do.”
Though he is inspired by others and arranges from other people’s music, Walt is very determined to have his own sound and not be a copy of someone else’s style. “I try not to copy others, like Hans Zimmer and other composers. When you hear one of my pieces you should be able to hear that this was arranged by me without knowing it beforehand.”
Walt also learned that not everything fits perfectly with his particular style, a fact he realized when trying to arrange for Beyoncé’s “If I were a boy”.
“It was the shittiest arrangement I’ve ever done. The reason it turned out so bad is that I have a very specific arrangement style, it’s very up-tempo, epic, and progressive. The “If I were a boy” track is very slow and soft, and I just wasn’t feeling it. ”
Despite still disliking his arrangement halfway through the process, he was committed to follow through and release it. But even though he was never satisfied with the arrangement itself, he learned a lot from the process, and in that sense he feels his work was worth it.
The track “Code Lyoko” from the show of the same name turned out to be one of his biggest personal successes, and he was very surprised with how the track was received. “I asked my community “Hey guys, I’m getting a lot of requests to do this song from this show called Code Lyoko, has anyone heard of it?” And my Tumblr just blew up, everyone saying “You gotta do it, you gotta do it!”. I didn’t know what the big deal was, and I thought I’d sell maybe like ten units. But I kept getting so many requests, so I spent a week and I finished it and released it. And now I actually think it’s one of my best arrangements. The song got 8000 notes in a week, and the official Code Lyoko Twitter and Facebook featured the song, it was wild. I’m so used to arranging songs from big artists like Britney Spears and Nicki Minaj, but these small communities are so much more passionate than these other, bigger ones.”
Streaming Versus Buying
It is no secret that the Internet has changed the face of the music industry, and Walt believes in taking his community and role as a musician seriously in order for his work to survive in this new world.
“500 years ago, if you were Mozart or Beethoven, your income was supported by kings and queens.” Walt says. “Today you don’t have that model. Today you are literally supported by your patrons, so I feel like it’s my responsibility to, in a sense, be their employee – that I work for them. If they write me a message after they’ve given me their hard-earned money, I owe it to them to give an answer.”
Though his business has seen growth since the beginning, Walt expects challenges up ahead as people have become more used to streaming than buying music. “The first year I did this, I made $10 in sales.” he says. “The next year I made $1000. The following year I made about $10,000. And in the past year I have made about $18-20,000. Perhaps I can keep up the exponential growth. The problem is that with platforms like Spotify and Pandora Radio, more and more people are streaming music rather than buying it. People were buying a lot of music back in 2008-10 – iTunes was big. It’s not so big now.”
Walt knows that he must adapt to survive, though. “The fact that people are streaming music rather than buying it, I have no beef with that. People don’t have to buy my music, I just have to adapt or die as a company. The consumer is on auto-pilot, they’re gonna do what they do, and it’s up to you as a producer to adapt to them. It’s much easier for you to try and rotate the ship rather than change the ocean.”
The Road Ahead
In his quest to develop his business, Walt is planning to incoorperate more video content to his site.
“I always thought of video as important.” Walt says. “When I jumped into the orchestra thing I couldn’t hire an orchestra, so I couldn’t film an orchestra. Because of that, I kind of neglected Youtube because at the time it wasn’t the right medium for my music. So that’s what I think this will do for me, that the video will personify my music more than just blogging could.”
Walt just made $2000 off writing a commercial piece and he plans to use the money on his latest undertaking – a music video written and produced entirely by himself. “I’m taking this money and spending it on everything I need for my latest project. So rather than spending this money on my current business model which I think is dying, I’m reinvesting it in other platforms like Patreon and Youtube, which is where I think it’s headed. This is a big gamble, and we’ll see how it goes.”
When asked about what kind of advice he would give other people trying to get into composing, Walt has a ready response. “I have a tag on Tumblr called “tips” that has a ton of tips for people trying to get into music composition. But I think the single most important thing is to do it on a schedule. Whether it’s once a week, once a day, once a month, whatever – to come out with a song on a scheduled deadline. Then your community knows when to expect something from you, and you will create excitement for your work.”
Be sure to check out his Patreon page as well!