Choral singing tips with Ian – 5. Orchestrating a song

Duration: 18:33

Transcript – Choral singing tips with Ian – 5. Orchestrating a song

[theme music]

[music playing]

IAN JEFFERSON: Today I'm going to talk about my adventures in orchestrating a well known piece of music - at least, well known to many Australians - called 'Advance Australia Fair.'

[music - 'Advance Australia Fair']

The reason I'm using this particular song, as an example of orchestration, is because I have access to a nice, clean recording of the end product. And, I figure it's a piece of music that most people watching this video will already know. And, if you don't know the song, why on Earth are you watching this in the first place?

(SINGING) Advance Australia Fair.

IAN JEFFERSON: What is orchestrating, as opposed to musical arranging? Well, they are intermingled in many ways. But, in simple terms, arranging music is organising the structure, feel, and the melodic and harmonic tone of a piece, which the composer often does. Whereas, orchestrating is taking the arrangement and assigning the various musical components - the parts - to the accompanying musicians.

This is a very simplistic way of describing it. To see how a Broadway show is put together musically, see 'Wicked Music: Music Prep' on YouTube. And, you can see how a music team works together, taking a piece from the composer, to the arrangers, to the orchestrator, and then, to the copyists, before the sheet music finally arrives in the pit with the musicians.

Of course, classical composers orchestrate their own music. In a sense, the orchestration is the composition. Or rather, the composition is the orchestration. But, here I'm talking about taking a piece that has already been composed and arranged, usually in my case in the form of a piano/vocal chart, and, then working out how to orchestrate the song in a way that will sweeten it, or make it more dynamic.

This is not a video about how to orchestrate. I haven't had any formal training in this art form. And, like many others, when I first started doing orchestrations, I just winged it. But, you can study the art and skill of orchestration at Uni, or just read up a lot about it.

[orchestral music]

By and large, a bog standard orchestra has 2 flutes, 2 oboes - I actually don't normally score for a corps anglais - that's the one in the middle there - 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, and maybe a tuba, 3 or 4 percussionists. Often one of them is assigned to timpani, another assigned to mallets - you know, glockenspiel or xylophone. And, the others to play everything else such as snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, and all the little bits and pieces we call auxiliary percussion, such as triangle, woodblock, or tambourine.

Then, you have a whole lot of string players. In case you weren't aware, the string section is broken up into 5 parts. First violins, second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses.

The players in each of these sections play the same part as the others in their group. They have their own copy of the music, of course. But, the notes they're reading are the same.

Usually, every 2 string players share their music on 1 music stand because it saves space. And, each stand is called a desk, the place where musicians sit when they go to work.

So, in this illustration, you can see the string family, in the bottom section closest to the conductor. And, starting from the left there are 6 desks of first violins, 6 desks of second violins - across to the right there - 6 desks of violas, they're the darker ones, 5 desks of cellos, with 4 desks of double basses behind them. That's a string family of over 50 players.

Of course, there are many other instruments that can be used, and very often are. But, this is your typical full orchestra. In most of my orchestrations, I keep in mind that the parts I write are to be played by student musicians, except for the piano part. So, nothing too fast, or too high, or in too difficult a key. And, also making sure that each kid has something to play, rather than counting endless bars of rest, or worse, having a tacet. This means my orchestrations are often too heavy and thick, and tend to drown out the singers. But, I'm learning as I go along.

You can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the number of parts that need to be written for a full orchestra. But, if you already have a piano part there as your base, then you can think of the other instruments as colours on your palette, from which you can pick and choose to make everything in your painting more vibrant.

And, more often than not, one instrument is doubling another instrument. And, not everyone is playing at the same time. But, nevertheless, it is time-consuming. And, good orchestrators must be inventive, musical, accurate, sensitive, and most importantly, they need to be fast.

Now, back to 'Advance Australia Fair' and my approach to orchestrating this particular piece. Let's travel back in time.

[harp music]

The year is 2000. And, my former colleague and mentor, George Torbay, was approached by the musical director of the Sydney Olympic ceremonies to come up with a version of Australia's national anthem, to be performed at the closing ceremony. George said, 'Yeah, sure.'

He then rang me, in a slight panic, and said, 'OK, Bugalugs' - that's me - 'we've got to get this thing arranged now.' So, we collaborated on a new arrangement. George explained that in contrast to the opening ceremony version of the anthem, which was to be this huge extravaganza, the closing ceremony version had to be light and whimsical, a gentle version that would suit a children's treble choir, in this instance, the Sing 2001 choir.

The orchestra, that would be recording the instrumental parts for this arrangement, was the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. No pressure.

So, first we bashed out an arrangement. The main song is only 20 bars long. I made up a piano accompaniment, with gentle arpeggios, that tried to disguise the song's usual chords, without totally changing the harmonic structure, while George worked out what the choir was going to sing.

We set it in A major, which is a pretty good key for kids. The tune goes up to a D.

(SINGING) In joyful strains.

And touches on a low A.

(SINGING) With golden soil and - which is low for treble voices. Most adults want it set even lower, for when they join in. But, you can't please everybody.

This is what my first try at the piano accompaniment sounded like. The vocal parts are the doo, doo, doos.

[piano music]

(SINGING) Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. Doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.

IAN JEFFERSON: If I fast forward through, you can see this version only has 1 verse with George's 2 choir parts.

[piano music]

The only difference to the next draft is the length of the introduction, which is now slightly shorter. And, the adding of a second verse with a third vocal part. So, now it's SSA. Soprano 1, soprano 2, alto.

George was reporting back to me, after attending Olympic ceremony meetings saying, 'They want a shorter intro. We've got to get to the singing sooner.'

So, the third draft is what we ended up going with. The same as draft 2, with an even shorter intro. Then, it was time to orchestrate.

[piano music]

SINGERS: (SINGING) Australians, all let us rejoice, for we are young and free. We've golden soil and wealth for toil, our home is girt by sea. Our land abounds in nature's gifts, of beauty rich and rare. In history's page, let every stage, Advance Australia Fair. In joyful ...

Like most of my own songs, the piano was going to be left alone exactly as it was, with the orchestral instruments coming in here and there to sweeten the tone, or to 'Disney-fy' it, as George would say. We decided to go with a cutdown woodwind section - just 1 flute, 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, and 1 bassoon. I guess we thought the piece would sound more intimate with fewer woodwind instruments.

The B flat clarinet is in B major, as it's a transposing instrument. And, of course, the bassoon is in bass clef. And, scrolling down, we have 4 French horns in F. They're playing in E major, with horn 1 and 3 sharing the top staff, and 2 and 4 sharing the other one.

3 B flat trumpets playing in B major, with trumpets 1 and 2 sharing a staff, as are the trombones 1 and 2. They're all in bass clef there. Then, down to the 3 percussion parts, auxiliary, which is triangle and suspended cymbal in this case, glockenspiel, and timpani.

Scoot past the piano part and we have harp. Then the 5 string parts - violin 1, violin 2, viola, cello, and double bass, AKA contra bass. I'll run through each section of the orchestra, from the beginning, so that you can see what we did.

The intro is 4 bars long. We needed a shimmering opening. So, added to the piano we had high strings, a whimsical oboe, leading to a bit of melody on the flute.

The beginning of verse 1 needed to sound dry and woody. So, we had piano, with bassoon and clarinet, with a little bit of oboe fill.

The first release - (SINGING) Our land abounds ... is brought in with a second harp gliss with reasonably high and long notes from the string section. The French horns play for the first half of this section, with the woodwinds taking over for the second half. Then, the horns take us through the tag section. Here are the horns and then woodwinds in isolation from the release in verse 1.

[music - 'Advance Australia Fair']

And, then the second verse is launched by the first notes from the trombones, trumpets, and timpani, with a suspended cymbal roll, along with a hunting call from the French horns. If you ignore the singers, verse 2 is pretty much a conversation that starts with the strings, then to the trumpets, back to the strings, and then to the woodwinds. Here's a mashup of the featured instruments in verse 2.

[music - 'Advance Australia Fair']

The second release is now pretty full on, with very high strings - higher than I would ever write for students - and, the trumpets blasting little fanfares. From the halfway point of the second release, it's gloves off. Forget about light and whimsical. Let's get patriotic!

There is a rit leading into the final tag.

(SINGING) In joyful strains ... doubled by a strident brass, and semi-quavers on the fiddles going up and up and up with the climax - (SINGING) Advance ... horn rip. Boo wah. Austral ... horn rip again. Boo wah. ... ia fair. Trumpets playing high. And, then a fortepiano on the fermata crescendoing to an accented button!

[music - 'Advance Australia Fair']

Looking back at this arrangement, I'm still pretty happy with how it worked out. I realise there's too much glockenspiel, and a few dead spots here and there, but still it's OK.

On the day of the recording, George Torbay was there, as the conductor, in front of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and the Sing 2001 Choir, in the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House.

For our version of the anthem, I think George had 2 run throughs. The first was a level check. And, the recording engineer said, 'Yep, that's all good.' And so, they did it a second time and recorded it. That was it. And ... [drum roll on desk] ... here it is.

[music - 'Advance Australia Fair']

(SINGING) Australians, all let us rejoice, for we are young and free. We've golden soil and wealth for toil, our home is girt by sea.

Our land abounds in nature's gifts, of beauty rich and rare. In history's page let every stage, Advance Australia Fair. In joyful strains then let us sing, Advance Australia Fair.

Beneath our radiant Southern Cross, we'll toil with hearts and hands, to make this Commonwealth of ours, renowned of all the lands.

For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share. With courage let us all combine, to Advance Australia Fair. In joyful strains then let us sing, Advance Australia Fair.

Well, that's it from me. Be upstanding and keep singing.

End of transcript