About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dipping a toe into arranging

The school where I teach has an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. assembly every January. It's quite a big production. There's music, skits, excerpts from MLK's speeches, and faculty and students, and often outside experts, are all involved.

I had taken part in 2013 by playing a duet with my husband - horn and tuba. We played Amazing Grace, which he arranged for us. It went well and added to the overall program, we thought. This year, though, the organizer, a fellow teacher, asked if I could put together an instrumental ensemble and "play something." I knew right away that this would mean arranging something. We would never have a standard instrumentation for any known ensemble. So I said yes.

I had not arranged any music since college. First I sent our a call for instrumentalists among the faculty and staff. I got one trumpet, one horn (me), one tuba (my husband), one clarinet/oboe, a mandolin/cello, and a percussionist. The only members of this new ensemble who played regularly were my husband and I. The percussionist told me very honestly that she hadn't played since high school.

Next, I went to IMSLP to search for spirituals in the public domain. I printed off a three-part arrangement of "We Shall Overcome" and an organ arrangement of "Deep River." I decided to set "We Shall Overcome" and wait and see if I had time to do something with "Deep River."

I had ideas about using the instruments to vary the texture and move the melody around. The biggest challenge for me was choosing a key that would be comfortable for everyone and still have a range that was musical. I also had to search online for a mandolin piece so I could see what the written music looked. I most definitely did not have time to learn Finale or Sibelius, so I had to write everything by hand.

Once it was done and I had copied the parts, we had a rehearsal. It sounded quite nice! There was an odd harmony in one measure, but we left it. The brass dominated, which was fine for this occasion. The mandolin could not be heard at all, so my friend the mandolin/cellist first thought he might amplify his mandolin. His second thought was that  he was really more comfortable reading bass clef than treble, so he decided to move his part into bass clef and play it on cello. Since the parts were simple and the rehearsal had gone just fine, and everyone in the group was very busy, we decided against having another rehearsal.

We were scheduled to play first on the program, as people were settling down. Four of us were set and ready to play in the gym. Our cellist was playing with an amplifier in the music room, thinking maybe he would amplify his cello. I think the volume from the brass had him worried. Our percussionist was missing. We waited, but finally the teacher-organizer asked us to begin. So we played as a quartet, and except for one phrase of the melody that was too faint, it was good. I found out later that the percussionist thought we were playing at the end, not the beginning, so she wasn't there at the right time.

And so I learned 1. why band directors are so obsessed with details and making sure everyone knows exactly what they need to do and when, and 2. that arranging is fun! I plan to try it again. I have some ideas for horn quartets that I hope to try this summer. And the third thing I learned, or relearned, is that trying new and challenging things is rewarding.

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