Arranging like crazy…

One of the things our school district has done for nearly 30 years is to hold an annual Masterworks concert in the fall.  The concert features “master” works, and combines the forces of all of our district high schools.  The school district provides funding for music and for the hiring of a small orchestra to accompany the choirs  I had the honor of working with that concert for seventeen years, directing choirs at one of the districts (at first) two and then three high schools.  The concert is about 7 or 8 weeks into the school year, which is wonderful–you start the year with a very strict focus, on high quality music, and at the same time, you will be performing with other schools so young singers are not “exposed” as individual choirs so early in the year.  One year we moved the concert to the March/April timeline, and that didn’t work as well.  Some high schools in our area hold a similar concert as their last effort in May!

We split the duties of the concert every year; one teacher took care of hiring the orchestra; another paying the orchestra (preparing and collecting expense vouchers); creating the program, ordering music, hosting, and arranging.  Arranging?  Yes.  There were times (well, every year) that we wanted to do a classical work that didn’t have anything other than a piano reduction.  Yes, our SATB works often have existing accompaniment (many available free through CPDL or IMSLP), but not so with our younger SSA and SAB choirs.

My role in the concert (other than preparing my singers and directing) over the years centered on ordering music, creating programs, and arranging.

Now that I teach at the middle school level, I no longer have any responsibility for the concert.  However, the last two years my high school colleagues have asked me to continue arranging works so the choirs can sing with an orchestra.  What ends up happening is I am given the music and then spend what free time I have (when I’m not teaching or being a dad) arranging the works in time for the orchestra to get their parts and practice before the first rehearsal.

I thought it might be worthwhile to discuss my process for arranging.

First, I need to get the source material from printed music to digital music.  Sometimes I luck out and the source is a PDF file generated by a music notation package.  If it is, I can use the program PDFtoMusic Pro to convert the data from a PDF into a MusicXML file, which I can then import into Finale.  This often leaves the least amount of work to do in terms of entering notes, but text is almost always wrong (and I end up deleting the text and starting over).

Another course of action is to scan the music and to use PhotoScore Ultimate to convert the document to a MusicXML file, again editing in Finale on my Mac.  This is generally successful, with a scanning success rate somewhere in the high 90s, depending on the quality of the original and the quality of the scan.  As I have scanned all of the music in two of the high school libraries, most of this music is already at hand.

My latest approach has been to scan the music with my iPhone, using the PhotoScore In-App Purchase in the app NotateMe.  I find that this approach is as successful as PhotoScore Ultimate on my Mac; interestingly when I scan the same piece using both the camera on my iPhone and a scan through my Mac–the two similarly-named programs make mistakes in different places!

Once I have the original in Finale, I clean up the score and correct scanning errors.  I also find printing errors from the original document on a regular basis.  After I have cleaned up the original score with all dynamics and diacritical markings, I re-enter text for the piece.  PhotoScore does bring in text, but hyphenation is always wrong and it is usually just simpler to start over.

After this happens, I create a new Finale file (this is a really important step in the process) with the voicing of the original score PLUS two violins, viola, cello, and bass.  I make sure that the new file is set up correctly with all time signature and key signature changes, and then I copy and paste the first Finale file into the new Finale file.

From that point, I work on orchestrating the score.  With music for the younger choir, I often try to make sure that their parts–particularly exposed entrances–are doubled by an orchestra instrument.  I tend to use a violin with sopranos, a viola with altos, and cellos with baritones.  The main focus, however, is to convert the existing piano score in a way that makes sense throughout the strings, so that if a piano player is not available, the orchestra could play without it.  I don’t want to create any new thematic material, and I try to use any existing material from the original score, if it exists.  For example, last year the women’s choir sang a work from a mass (that was originally for SATB and in a different key), and I was able to find the original orchestration for that mass and bring it into my arrangement for the SSA version.  If a song has been arranged for a solo instrument and piano (along with the choir, of course), I try to incorporate the solo part into the string ensemble as well.

As a tuba player, many of my original works were bass-heavy; in recent years I have tried to avoid overuse of the string bass so that arrangements don’t sound too heavy.

One of my favorite projects was arranging Requiem by Eliza Gilkyson in 2005.  My colleague heard the song on NPR, sent me a link to the song, and asked that I arrange it for choir.  I contacted Ms. Gilkyson, and she gave me permission to arrange the song–so I did so.  Craig Hella Johnson later wrote a SATB arrangement of the song; mine was first (and is written for SA).  That project was enjoyable because it required me to listen to the song and to try to capture Gilkyson’s “simple” song and to convert it for strings, piano, and choir.

Once again, I’m (generally) not using the orchestra in the sense that an orchestral composer would use an orchestra–but it does give our students (again, mainly the younger students in the high school program) the change to sing with an orchestra.  There isn’t a wealth of existing SSA or SAB literature that has existing orchestral arrangements–or arrangements that work with a small chamber-like orchestra.

After I have finished arranging, I listen to the pieces as arranged on Finale.  It is amazing how much better my ears have become over nineteen years of arranging for this concert.  Sometimes we will use a piece I arranged in the past, so I get a chance to pull up that arrangement and to fix the mistakes I didn’t hear when I was younger.

When the errors are solved (one common error is for a scan to miss a flat or sharp on a tied note in to the next measure), I check the layout of each part.  I make sure that pages past the first page of an individual part (e.g. violin) have both the page number and the instrument name.  Then I print the parts as PDFs and send them to my high school colleagues for distribution.

The latest development has been to create rehearsal audio files that the high school teachers can either use in class or to share with students, based on the completed scores (for these, I usually just use the piano and voice parts,  not the orchestra parts).  To get audio, I export the MusicXML from Finale to Dropbox, and then import those files from Dropbox into Notion for the iPad.  From the iPad, I can quickly change audio settings with Notion’s mixer, export the audio to Dropbox, and then create another audio file.  For SATB works, I create a number of files:

  • All parts
  • Rehearsal Piano
  • Soprano (featured) and piano (soft)
  • Alto
  • Tenor
  • Bass
  • Women
  • Men

I do similar things for SSA and SAB choir music.  Although Finale can create audio files, I like Notion’s stock audio quality–and the ease of modifying tracks and then exporting.  You can even export to Sound Cloud directly from Notion on the iPad.

Well, this year’s batch of arranging is over; all in all, I cleaned up a Mass (Haydn’s Organ Mass, mainly to make rehearsal recordings) and eight other pieces for the concert.  Although it is a bit of work, I do enjoy the challenge (even if not the short time deadline) and the opportunity to use my skills to help the high school programs.  You don’t get many opportunities to arrange for choirs and strings when you teach high school.  And the other benefit?  Now I get paid for doing the arranging (not much in hourly terms, but when I taught high school, it was “just part of the job.”)

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Posted on September 19, 2014, in General Musings. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Arranging like crazy….

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