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The Arts Unit @home Art Bites – Choral singing tips with Ian – 4. Arranging a song
IAN JEFFERSON: Today, I'm going to talk about my approach to arranging a piece of choral music with treble voices.
In this instance, when I say arranging a piece of choral music, I mean taking a song that already exists and altering it to give it a new feel - or at least a different flavour - to suit the requirements for a particular performing group. The melody and lyrics of the original song will pretty much stay the same, but the accompaniment - the feel, the harmonic texture, and perhaps the overall structure - will be altered somewhat.
As an example, I will use an Irish-Australian folk song I arranged a few years ago called 'The Wild Colonial Boy'. First, some history. The poem on which the song is based was originally written about an Irish convict, by the name of Jack Donahue, who was transported to Australia in 1825. He escaped from custody not long after, and began a life of bushranging with some other fellows around the outskirts of Sydney.
In 1830, some policemen stumbled across Jack and his pals camping in some bushland in Sydney's southwest, not far from Campbelltown. He was shot dead on the spot. Not long after, a poem about Jack Donahue and his exploits, was being retold around the traps.
In this ballad, he is depicted as a hero, who dared to stand up for the underdog in an unjust and corrupt world. The poem was seen by the authorities at the time as seditious, anti-establishment I guess. And so, they tried to ban it. But, as time went by, variations of the poem emerged.
The name of the 'hero' was changed to Jack Duggan, or, in some cases, Jack Doolan. And, his attributes were perhaps exaggerated somewhat to make him a bit of a Robin Hood figure - robbing the rich to feed the poor. A melody was added based on another Irish folk song, and this helped to add life and longevity to this 'stick it to the authorities' ballad, which captured the plight and fighting spirit of the victimised Irish in colonial Australia.
In 1905, Banjo Patterson was gathering and editing bush poems for publication. And, to this collection, he added both the - let's call it original poem - 'Bold Jack Donahoo', and the alternate version starring Jack Duggan/Doolan called 'The Wild Colonial Boy'. The latter is the version that most closely resembles the song I grew up knowing.
It includes 7 verses, with a chorus separating each. Verses 1 and 2 tell us Jack's back-story, coming from Ireland. Verses 3 and 4 tell us of an encounter with a judge. And, verses 5, 6 and 7 describing Jack's run-in with 3 troopers, leading to a shootout and Jack's ultimate demise.
Here's a cut-down version, performed by the Clancy Brothers and Tom Makem when they appeared on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' in 1961.
(SINGING) He was his father's only son, his mother's pride and joy. And dearly did his his parents love, the wild colonial boy.
One morning on the prairie as Jack, he rode along, a-listening to the mockingbird a-singing a cheerful song.
IAN JEFFERSON: So, here we hear the song pretty much only using 3 chords, presented in a fast, cut common time signature. The version I grew up with was set in a jaunty 6/8.
(SINGING) There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name. (SPEAKING) But, there are also fast waltz versions like (SINGING IN 3/4 TIME) There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name.
Structuring the song, and selecting the lyrics, proved tricky. I wanted to truncate the story, but without having to invent new lyrics. And, the difficulty with folk ballads is they tend to tell a linear story with a beginning, middle and end. And, that usually means a lot of verses, and therefore, a whole lot of lyrics.
I decided to introduce the character of Jack Doolan in verse 1, and get him to Australia and set up as a bushranger, straightaway. Then, on to the first of the choruses. The chorus would appear 3 times in total, ostensibly repeating verbatim, which would be easier for the choirs to learn.
So, after the first chorus, verse 2, I skipped the whole section where Jack Doolan encounters a judge - snippety, snippety, snip - and jumped straight to the action, where Jack the bushranger comes across the 3 troopers - Kelly, Davis and Fitzroy.
The second chorus happens before the slightly unsettling and dramatic standoff scene between Jack and the troopers, which is verse 3, followed by the shootout, and Jack's death, in verse 4. There's a small moment of poignancy when Jack is killed, before launching into the final defiant, almost joyous, chorus, taking us to the end.
'The Wild Colonial Boy' as a song suffers from what I call 'supercalifragilistic' syndrome. Many folk songs have this issue, and it's where the verse and the chorus are pretty much exactly the same tune. For example, 'Botany Bay' - the verse. (SINGING LILTING DESCENDING PHRASE) 'Farewell to old England forever.' And, the chorus goes (SINGING NEW WORDS WITH SAME MELODY) 'Singing too-ra-li, oo-ra-li, addity.' (SPEAKING) Same tune.
Or 'Cockles and Mussels'. (SINGING ASCENDING PHRASE IN 3/4) 'In Dublin's fair city, where the girls are so pretty.' (SPEAKING) And, the chorus is (SINGING SAME MELODY) 'Alive, alive-o, alive, alive-o.'
(SPEAKING) There's lots of songs like this, including 'Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.' So, in my arrangement, I attempted to make each of the verses have a flavour of their own, and the chorus to feel like a separate entity, even though the tune is pretty much identical to the verses.
I ended up setting my arrangement in D major, although I have a feeling I may have initially set it up in F. (SINGING IN THE KEY OF F) 'There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name.' (SPEAKING) Which is absolutely fine. But, then I realised it had to come down lower, because in the chorus I needed a descant soprano part to sail above the melody in the chorus. And, in D major, it goes up to a high E. And, it would have sat too high if we'd set the whole song in F major.
OK? The nuts and bolts of how I do an arrangement. Well, to get started, I normally map out the main sections of the song. And, I use my 2B pencil and my manuscript paper. And, this way, I can sit at the keyboard, away from the computer screen, and muck around, scrawling accompaniment ideas under the melody, trying to work out the rhythm, and the feel, that will work best for all the verses and choruses.
At this point, I really don't even think about vocal harmony. I wait until I get the accompaniment down on paper. I tend to be quite aggressive and brash with my rhythms and accents in this type of song. And, this is probably in reaction to the plethora of other repertoire that is gentle, and lyrical, and beautiful. You need variety.
I write out the rhythm of the melody. And, as I go, I check to see if the other verses will sit comfortably with the same rhythm. I soon realised that, in this case, no 2 verses have exactly the same rhythm, because the lyrics don't allow it. This will make it tricky to memorise. Oof.
Anyway, I jot down the basic chords over the tune. And, then I work out the piano part. In this particular case, I've got a dotted crotchet, followed by a quaver, tied to a minim feel. To add a bit of whimsy, I've got the right hand playing light arpeggios that incorporate the tune. This will help the singers. And so, this process goes on and on, laboriously.
I do the same thing for the chorus - melody with chords written above. And, then I work out the piano accompaniment.
[syncopated piano playing in background]
And, now there will be some harmony in the vocal parts of the chorus. So, I write the vocals on 2 staves, soprano and alto. The descant will be (SINGING) 'We'll wander valleys and over plains.' I want the chorus to start with short, stabby chords in the beginning, and, then settling into a kind of, a Latin feel. So.
[music playing] (SINGING) 'Come along, me hearties, we'll roam the mountains high.'
And then ... (SINGING) 'Together we will plunder, and together we will die.'
And then, into a half-time pop feel for the second half of the chorus - 'We'll (SINGING) run down valleys and over plains.'
Nice little, sort of half-time rock feel there. And then, we get to the end of the chorus.
The second verse -
- is virtually a cut and paste of verse 1. I had a cute little piano feel after the reference to the little birds. A happy warbling song - I won't play because we can't do it - which is a bit of word painting. Then we introduce the 3 troopers with a bit of yelling from the choir - 'Kelly, Davis, and (SINGING) Fitzroy.' This makes them seem like bad guys. So, apologies to the authorities. There's a repeat of the chorus, then into a restatement of the introduction, to get us to the dramatic part of the song.
These 8 bars of choir tacet give the singers a chance to collect their thoughts, and think about what's coming up. Very important. Nearly dropped my pencil. For the next verse, which is a stand-off between Jack and the troopers, I added low, threatening bass notes to take us to the shootout in the next verse. I decided not to interrupt the flow with a chorus in between verse 3 and 4.
So, verse 4 gets violent with people shooting each other. The actual gunshots were hand claps by the choir. Word painting again. Bit cheesy, but there you go. And, here we come to the lyrics that gave me the biggest headache. The original is -
(SINGING) 'He fired at Trooper Kelly and brought him to the ground. But then a shot from Davis gave the boy his mortal wound.'
Now, unless you perform this with an accent - (IRISH ACCENT) 'and brought him to the ground; gave the boy his mortal wound' - it sounds unsatisfying trying to rhyme 'ground' and 'wound.' Even though they are sight rhymes, they look like they will rhyme, but they don't with our accent. So, I changed the lyrics to - 'he fired at Trooper Kelly and brought him to the ground, but 'twas a shot from Davis that the fatal mark was found.' Now, I feel quite guilty that I did this, partly because it doesn't quite make sense, but mostly because a new bunch of students would now know my version of the lyrics, and I feel we have drifted further and further away from the original. But anyway, I did it.
Whimsical death scene - (SINGING) 'all shattered through the jaw he fell, still firing at Fitzroy, and that's the way they finished him, the wild colonial boy.' Straight into a defiant, upbeat chorus and out. The structure of the song is done.
So, the next thing I do - that previous section, by the way, takes the longest. [laughs] And, the next section I do, is I transfer my manuscript scrawlings to a default Finale file. The intro needed to sound hard-edged and brash, so, I stole the opening of 'The Heat is on in Saigon' from 'Miss Saigon.'
[music - Claude-Michel Schonberg, 'The Heat is On in Saigon']
(SINGING) 'The heat is on in Saigon.'
IAN JEFFERSON: I put in the title. We add opening tempo marking - half-time rock feel, minim equals 84, key signature D major, and, I'm not sure if it will be best written in 4-4, or 2-2. It's a conducting issue, rather than a feel issue. I add the left hand of the piano first, then I add the right hand.
I want the opening to be full and strong, so, I make the left hand quite meaty. So, I add 8vb and add the dynamic marking of 'forte' to the piano part, strong.
I might add some articulation to the piano, as I go, just to hear what it will sound like when I play back the file. Lots of staccato accents, open chords, and flat sevenths - very pop '80s. I add the melody at 21, where the choir starts verse 1, and then the piano left hand and right hand. I put in dynamics and articulations. But, I don't worry about lyrics at this point. I tend to assign lyrics to notes right near the end of the process, because it's a pain when you make edits to the melody with lyrics hanging around.
Have a listen back to the verse.
Make any fine-tune adjustments to the notes, move on to the chorus. Same thing - melody and vocal harmony; piano left hand, then right hand; dynamics, articulations and other markings. Have a listen.
If it sounds good, we can copy and paste this chorus when it appears later on in the song. And, this continues for the whole song - sometimes, copying and pasting, and then altering slightly to suit a particular part of the song. Publishing of the song - by which I mean the look of the sheet music - is important so that conductors, singers and accompanists can clearly read, and interpret, what has been arranged.
This is the last part of the process and only really happens after all the other musical components are done. So, you may work on spacing. I'm usually quite generous with spacing, which uses up more paper. Sorry, environment. Normally, 3 bars per system for this sort of song.
You make sure dynamics are aligned properly, that the lyrics are assigned to the right notes, checking for spelling and the way multi-syllable words are hyphened. You add courtesy accidentals for the piano player, and generally proofread, ensuring the music makes sense. Then, you proofread it over and over again, usually finding small errors every time you do. And so, I might have a final read-through of the entire song.
WOMAN: (SINGING) There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name. He ran away from Ireland and to Australia came. He robbed the wealthy squatters and their flocks he did destroy. And a terror to the rich man was the wild colonial boy.
So, come along me hearties, we'll roam the mountains high. Together we will plunder and together we will die. We'll wander over valleys, and we'll gallop over plains. And, we'll scorn to live in slavery, bound down by iron chains. Well, early one spring morning, as Jack Doolan rode along, a-listening to the little birds, their pleasant laughing song, he met 3 mountain troopers -
- Kelly -
- Davis -
WOMAN: (SINGING) and Fitzroy. They swore that they would capture him, the wild colonial boy.
So, come along me hearties, we'll roam the mountains high. Together we will plunder and together we will die. We'll wander over valleys, and we'll gallop over plains. And we'll scorn to live in slavery, bound down by iron chains. 'Surrender now, Jack Doolan, for you see it's 3 to 1. Surrender now, Jack Doolan, for your thieving days are done.' He drew a pistol from his belt and shot that little toy. 'I'll fight but not surrender,' said the wild colonial boy.
He fired at Trooper Kelly -
- and brought him to the ground. But 'twas a shot from Davis -
- that the fatal mark was found. All shattered through the jaw he fell, still firing at Fitzroy, and that's the way they finished him, the wild colonial boy.
So, come along me hearties, we'll roam the mountains high. Together we will plunder and together we will die. We'll wander over valleys, and we'll gallop over plains. And we'll scorn to live in slavery, bound down by iron chains.
IAN JEFFERSON: Next time, I will tell you about my adventures -
- attempting to orchestrate a well-known piece of music. Have fun, keep singing.
End of transcript