Arranging

On Singing All the Lines

It was almost 7 years ago when I wrote in detail about Making Parts into Lines. At the time I had just been working on the Mary Poppins set for Cottontown Chorus, and it remains a landmark moment in my development as an arranger. Not just because this was the first time any of my arrangements had won a contest gold, but because the process of working through the technical and artistic detail gave me musical insights that have informed my work ever since.

This was also the place where I first articulated the performer’s two roles – as Manager and Communicator – which have become very useful concepts in my coaching as well as my arranging.

Raising the Game with Amersham A Cappella

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One of the many things I love about my life is the opportunity to both arrange for and coach skilled and up-for-it ensembles. I mentioned my recent arrangement for Amersham A Cappella that they performed at BABS Convention recently when I was reflecting on the quality of lit-up-ness. When I went down to see them on Tuesday to work with them on another new chart, this one destined for the European Convention in October, that excitement was evident again.

(I am sure I have mentioned before how excited I am about the range of new arrangements LABBS choruses will be showcasing to our European visitors this autumn. As well as the four of mine due for premiere, I know of one by Debi Cox and two by Heather Lane due to be unveiled – though all I know about the last two is that they exist. It’s going to be a long contest, but it’s not going to be dull!)

Belles of Three Sessions

Working on back width...Working on back width...I had an action-packed day on Saturday with the Belles of Three Spires, with three quite different types of coaching activity.

We started off with the kind of music coaching you’d expect as a matter of course at this stage of the rehearsal calendar. They are learning a new (to them) song to take to contest in the autumn, and I was there to help them bring out the musical shape and expressive detail.

They had asked me to come and work with them in particular because it happened to be one of my arrangements, but, interestingly, the coaching process is much the same as it is when I coach other people’s music. It’s still a process of identifying the role of various musical features in the overall narrative, to help the singers bring out texture and meaning. It’s just slightly more efficient, since for the parts where I think, ‘What’s going on there then?’ I have a pretty good idea already.

Reflections on BABS 2017 Convention

We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....We go to these beautiful places and spend the whole weekend inside: Just as well the music is good....

As usual, I spent the last weekend in May at the second largest barbershop event outside America. (Well, usually it’s the largest, but the European Convention in October is going to be a doozy this year.)

It was the first BABS Convention since the introduction of the new Performance Category into the judging system. In many ways, this change is completing shift in ethos started when the Presentation Category replaced the old Stage Presence and Interpretation categories back in the 1990s, so it represents a development rather than a step change. But the difference it is making is already perceptible in the performance choices people are making.

What I was expecting less, though, was the effect that the change has had on my experience as an audience member. I found myself less patient than previously with performances that I found mechanical or contrived. It made me realise how much I have been in the habit of forgiving certain habits or mannerisms or skill deficits as simply normal for the genre and not therefore to be worried about.

Arranging Processes

Every so often somebody will ask me how long it takes to do an arrangement, and I invariably find it a difficult question to answer. The headline answer is usually 2-4 weeks, depending on what else is going on in my life. But that’s just the time elapsed between starting work in earnest and delivering a completed chart, which isn’t the same as how long I spend working on it.

The more detailed answer is that it is impossible to say, as the distinction between working on an arrangement and not working on an arrangement isn’t very clear cut. (This is a specific instance of the observation that to talk about work/life balance assumes you can tell which is which.) Anyone who has been involved with practical music-making is familiar with the way your brain keeps processing the music you are working on between rehearsals and practice sessions. I may only spend an hour or two at a time actually sat at the piano or the computer, but the effectiveness and productivity of those sessions absolutely relies on my brain’s ruminations in between them.

And it turns out that this background processing isn’t just a continual, generalised mulling. I have gradually become aware of certain types of musical problem-solving emerging in quite specific circumstances:

More Musicking in Yorkshire

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Wednesday night took me back to Yorkshire for my second evening of music-making with Sally McLean in a month, this time with the chorus she is featured working with in my choral conducting book, The White Rosettes. And, like my last visit, the task was to work on a new arrangement in its early stages of development.

So, once again it’s all going to be a bit cryptic, as I’m not going to tell you what the song is before they are ready for the big reveal. I realise that this makes the reading experience a bit abstract, but it will all be worth it when you hear the contest premiere in October as they sing to defend their LABBS and European Championship titles.

A theme throughout the evening was the different ways a piece of music can be challenging. There are several dimensions in which I had deliberately chosen not to stretch the chorus in this arrangement. Apart from a somewhat rangy melody (the composer’s choice, that one), the vocal parts stay well within the compass the chorus are used to. The texture isn’t unduly complex. The chord choices are in the main the obvious ones suggested by the melody – indeed, quite often the harmony is less complex than the original. And the lines have had received a lot of work on making them intuitively singable.

Minor Changes in Availability of Arrangements

There have been some alternating rumbles of excitement and disappointment in the arranging community over the last year or two over a programme developed by Sheet Music Plus in collaboration with Hal Leonard. They have produced a list of about 1000 songs pre-approved for arranging, so long as you publish the arrangements through SMP. Anyone who has to grapple with the bureaucracy of copyright permissions for new arrangements finds their ears perking up when they hear of it.

The disappointment arrives when you realise that one of the excluded ensembles is choral. I’d been round that loop a couple of times when my friend Debi Cox had the bright idea of actually contacting them with a query, and established that while they don’t know when they’ll be able to add choral arrangements to the list, they are able to accept arrangements for chamber-sized, one-a-part a cappella groups such as barbershop quartets and contemporary a cappella ensembles, up to 8 parts.

Hurrah!...However…

Sing for Europe

EUflagThis week brought an interesting creative collaboration my way – working with someone I met in a Facebook group to produce a singable arrangement in English of the EU anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I’ll talk about the creative process in a mo, but first I’d like to invite you to download it from the bottom of this page and sing it with all your friends. In particular, if you can join us on 25 March in London, that was the primary occasion we produced it for, but really sing it wherever and whenever you like.

So the thing about this that was interesting is that it would seem on the face of it a simple and obvious thing to do to sing the Ode to Joy in a mass open-air gathering. It is, after all, written to evoke the great odes produced for mass open-air gatherings during the French Revolution, and the melody is transparently accessible in both its vocal demands and its memorability.

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