Tag Archives: Phrasing

Thanksgiving song arrangement

I got a call from our assistant choir director yesterday who requested a simple arrangement of a song for Thanksgiving: Come, Ye Thankful People. So I guess I’ll make a score for this. The instrumentation is still not completely settled, so I’m wondering how this is going to turn out. But part of the decision making process obviously will be to write in all the melody and harmony that is already there, so it may be ok to just get going anyway.

I’m looking at the notes. I accidentally chose the wrong key, and when thinking about whether that could work, I saw that the setting was pretty low already in F, so going down to D was not going to happen this time. I am considering a key change to A flat major though, which I think would sound beautiful.

After talking again to the assistant choir director, she makes it clear that she does not want any key changes, so I scrap that idea. We settle on the instrumentation guitar, violin, viola, cello.

I write in a cello bass line and then a guitar part. The guitar sounds an octave lower than notated, and will be easy to drown out as it’s pretty soft. I’m thinking maybe to let the violin and viola pluck so they don’t get too loud. I’m listening through it now, and thinking that a piano actually isn’t necessary… I guess we’ll see what they think once we start practicing.

I start on the second verse, letting the guitar take the bass line. I want the violin to play an octave higher than the sopranos, but I am not sure how comfortable our violinist is with the high register, so I write it lower and the octave doubling, and ask the violinist to pick one octave. I add in some more phrase markings for the instruments. It can be hard to guess sometimes as an instrumentalist, unlike for the singers. It’s usually pretty obvious as a singer, because of the lyrics and punctuation.

I’m printing off parts and sending them off.

Calling it good

When God created the heavens and earth… he saw that it was good (see Genesis 1:10). It’s intimidating to turn over your piece to the choir director and saying it is good now, because it is echoing the great Creator. But at the same time, I do think my arrangement is pretty good now, and I’m going to move on to other projects.

I added in a couple of measures for a transition between verses 1 and 2, this time with four instruments (clarinet, alto sax, violin, viola), to help us feel the key change happen, and make it easy for the choir to come in. I have the flute, alto sax, and strings accompanying the second verse, and only letting the piano come in for the refrain. And then I cut out the piano for the repeat. Rude, I know. But I think the choir can hold its own with just clarinet and alto sax, and then let the strings help with the last phrase of that verse.

We’re used to having the piano kind of guide the voices, but I get bored with the same kind of gestures so we’re doing something a little different. This might make it so we’ll have to practice the choir with the all instruments more, but maybe that’s ok.

I’m keeping the piano part pretty simple because I don’t like it when it’s much harder than what everyone else has to do (it’s often the case that the piano part is the most difficult of all). Also, I know I will need to give out parts to our instrumentalists so they can start practicing. I can’t sit on this much longer for that reason too.

I look through the score some more. I add in phrase markings for the piano as well as for the violin. I add in a fortissimo for the last repeat. I like to orchestrate for dynamics, but it’s helpful for the ensemble, in particular for the piano, since it’s probably the most versatile of all the instruments. It can be soft or loud at all the registers, unlike the flute, for example.

And just like that, I’ve sent off the parts. I guess I should print out my part so I can start practicing too.

Looking through parts

A quick way to notices mistakes is by looking through each individual part. When I first started writing for orchestra (and voices) I wrote everything by hand. It was amazing when software extracted parts for me automatically. And even more amazing when the software made them dynamically, and if I made a change in the part, it automatically got changed in the score.

I start with flute 1. A little after rehearsal E, I see a missing dynamic. I go to the score, because if it’s missing in this part, it’s likely missing in other parts as well. I look at the section, and it appears I only missed to give the flutes a dynamic. I look at flute 2, and I’m wondering if the fortissimo continues after the four measure rest. It does. But then I see that the oboes were supposed to get to participate in the last couple of measures, and I had to forgotten to add them in. Actually, I wanted all the musicians in the orchestra to play the last couple of measures, in pianissimo, so I write in the horns and the trombones as well. It will be an interesting pianissimo, but I think it has its place.

Oboe 1. There is one suspicious omission of dynamics, but it’s a short rest, and I just add in the word “solo” in two places to help her or him know that it’s kind of exposed. I proceed to add in the same word for the clarinets and the tuba in their respective exposed parts. I’m looking over the clarinet part. I see what looks like a solo in the high register in mezzopiano, and I’m wondering if I’m serious about that dynamic. I go to the section, and see that for some reason, the second oboe cuts off before the other woodwinds. Why? No good reason, so I extend that note two beats. I experiment with extending the chord two more beats, but then the delicate clarinet gets kind of drowned out, so I undo that. I notice that I forgot to add in a slur at one point. Clarinet 2 gets added in several measures after the first, and I had forgotten to give them a fortissimo. I notice a similar problem in the second bassoon part.

I get to the second trombone part. I’m wondering if they’ll be frustrated that I didn’t give them more notes. I will listen through the piece and see if it looks like it’s missing a second trombone anywhere. I find this one part where a lot of the brass is playing, and I double the cello line in the second trombone, and add in a tuba octave doubling to the fourth horn. Listening in to check that they don’t drown out the bassoons. Adding in a doubling of the bassoon to the second trombone for that one gesture that seemed kind of lost once the tuba came in. Seeing as the notes are the same as the timpani has tuned to, I add in a doubling on the timpani.

I add in some more doublings in the ending part. The low brass is needed there. I add in a Glockenspiel doubling as well. It should pop now. I look back at the trombone parts now, and they look better.

Moving on to percussion. The timpani will have to retune two of the timpani one step or a half step, twice in the piece. They have plenty of time, so I hope they can do it. The percussion parts look ok. I see that the marimba might wonder at what dynamic level to start their diminuendo and add in a forte.

It’s time to look at string parts. The first violin has four pages of music. I’m looking at the bowings, and it’s pretty much what I had in mind. I guess I’ve looked at this part a lot in the score. I’m looking at the second violin part. One small section looks like I neglected to add in phrasing, and when I go to the score, it’s also missing for the viola part, and I fix it.

I look at the viola part, and for some reason, the missing phrase markings are more glaring here. I go to the score, and fix it for violins, viola, and cello all at once. There’s this suspicious part in the cello part, where no markings for phrasing or bowing are present. I go to the score, and I decide to change the notes just a little to better align with the rhythm right there. The phrasing follows.

Well, I think I must have given the contrabass part a lot of attention before, because it’s looking deliberate throughout.

Breaking for lunch.

I come back to it. I add in a cover page. I’m wondering what kind of subtitle to give it, I’m coming up blank so far. I look at the opening gesture, and decide to give the first trombone part to the second trombone part, and give the first a new part, a little higher, closer to the oboe’s melody. I decide to divide the violas in this one part where there is a big gap between violins and violas, and I want to fill it in more.

I think it’s time to print it out and maybe show it to a musician friend.

Today’s the day? Maybe

I’m starting where I left off. I’m at the percussion, last two pages. And I listen to the ending. Ugh, that chord progression and bass line together? I change a couple of notes in the contrabass, and double with the second bassoon and tuba. I like it better. It’s more definitive.

I continue to go through the symphony movement. I fix a few notes that ended up the wrong kind of dissonant in the clarinet part yesterday, add in an oboe doubling. Adding in more percussion, because with the new introductions of instruments, my palette of sounds has expanded and I can hear how the new ones (shaker, tam-tam, wood blocks) can fit in on occasion.

I keep going through, fixing slurs, dynamic markings that are obscured. There’s a few more articulations I add in. It’s getting very close to where I feel I can play it for my family for the first time.

Breaking for some baking. I play the piece for my family after adding in another couple of percussion lines/phrases.

As we listen to the piece, I decide I want to write some more notes for the viola. That leads to a few more notes for the rest of the string section as well. I give the woodwinds a diminuendo right when the horns are coming in to give them more space to be heard.

I’m feeling very close to abandoning the project. I fix a few more slurs so they aren’t obscuring the note underneath. It’s a strange sensation to stop working on such a big project. I’ll look at it some more tomorrow, and make sure I didn’t miss writing in dynamics for any parts, and other such easy misses.

More horn parts. And more clarinet lines. A trumpet rescue.

I start my composition today by just listening from the beginning and stopping when I notice that I could easily add in some more horn parts where I initially only had one. The melody passes from the first horn to the trumpet, and I decide to give the four horns some chords to play.

I continue listening through, finding where I need to add in some clarinet parts, some oboe lines, and a second flute line. The bass drum loses a few notes to give the measure two beats of just a little less thunder. I have this bassoon line that I want to support, and those clarinets get to help, and I also let the cello section pitch in.

I go to the ending, add in some clarinet doublings to the trumpets, let the tuba double the second bassoon. Adding in a few accents for the marimba. I get back, add in more clarinet parts. Seems like a clarinet kind of day. Like it’s the solution to a lot of problems. Another time, the first trumpet comes to the rescue, when I feel like I need a gesture to repeat once more in the first part of the movement.

Back at it in the evening. I see that the strings need some slurs to denote what kind of phrasing I’m after. I’m keeping it simple for now, it’s mostly tying sixteenth notes together for switching bows each beat. There are times for more complicated bowings, and I have them already defined. Some trill notations look really bad and I clean them up. I add in a second trumpet to the aforementioned trumpet rescue. There are a number of other woodwind additions I fit in.

I add in a couple of more percussion instruments that suit the quiet part better. I make note that I need a few more percussion lines in the last two pages.

Another non-zero day

I wrote some more on a first violin part I had started another day. I continued the idea I had stopped on yesterday, and was able to get to the “actual end” of the movement. I added in a tuba line to accompany a contrabass solo line. I gave a few more notes to the snare drum, and took one away from the bass drum to allow for a quick switch.

I added in some more slurs to help with phrasing. I added in some dynamics where that was missing.

As I was making lunch, I had the thought to maybe cut out part of a timpani line I wrote the other day that didn’t seem to fit.

I listened to Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. With the Chicago symphony, and then LA Philharmonic. I was struck by how many intense notes the upper strings had. Wow, that’s a lot of notes to play. I was reminded how talented the orchestra musicians usually are, and that I ought to try and give them a small challenge.

Refreshed after lunch, I set to put in a second violin part to sustain the firsts, and then a viola part. Wondering if my key change is working or what I should do about it. Is all I’ve written over the past eighteen measures an accompaniment or does it hold its own? It’s interesting to see the work unfold.

Leaving the computer to clear my head. Coming back, and adding in a measure to improve the key change transition, continuing work on the viola part. Changing the ending note to a whole note instead of two half notes. I want to bask in the glory of the high strings in a C major chord just a couple of more beats. Seeing that a section really calls for a marcato and adding in the marking to clarify for the orchestra members.

Wondering if the parts that I think are very emotional will speak to anybody that hears it.

Tweaking the timpani part to take out the offending notes. Adding in a snare drum part to a quiet woodwind solo for an accompaniment. Changing the ending note one more time, to let us rest in the chord before the bass comes in. Found a spot where I want the oboes to fill in the texture of flutes, clarinets, strings, and percussion, wrote some notes for them, doubling some string parts. It’s more satisfying now.

Taking a break again. We’ll see if I get back to writing later or if that’s it for today.

Just another day in composing paradise.