I like to work with choirs when there are three levels of repertoire and rehearsal. One – the warm-ups, where the energy and awareness are established. This is a time when single aspects of singing together can be examined to broaden the choir’s depth of expression. Two – the standard repertoire pieces, where bigger forms and more complex developmental devices are explored over several weeks as the choir prepares its own rendition of timeless classics. Three – new material that is often fresh from the pen and can be learned in one or two rehearsals.
This combination of three disciplines can help to create a balanced and interesting season for a choir. And that third area – new (and mostly original) pieces – is what I’m visiting with you today. One of my goals as director/composer is to encourage the singers to be courageous, open and adventurous as we develop premier performances of a variety of new and easily-learned choral works. These may be new settings of known melodies, some with new words, or completely original works with new words, melodies and harmonies. By introducing these pieces on a fairly regular basis, I’ve helped choirs expand their awareness of a variety of musical options. I’ve encouraged active response from our first readings, so the singers can generate useful and creative feedback about aspects of the latest score as they learn it together. Often, I will compare notes with the choir and adapt the piece in ways that make it a better match for their strengths and limitations. They build a sense of ownership of what they’re singing, and the level of commitment naturally increases as they make the song their own.
As I develop these new pieces, I usually keep the forms simple and short, with some repetition so both the choir and the audience can understand the music and story quickly. Early in the process I like to block out the phrasing and dynamics to support an accessible melody. I want audiences to carry this music home with them after one hearing, and this influences the level of complexity as much as my desire for the choir to find it easy to learn. Harmonization and rhythm are things I usually keep pretty simple. However, I enjoy putting in a surprise somewhere during the piece to tweak the energy of singers and audiences alike. An example I’ll share with you comes from a short piece that one of my choir members wrote recently. He presented me with lyrics, melody, and guitar chords that combine to form a simple and meaningful Advent song of prayer. The form is AABA, repeated. I fleshed out an SATB hymn-style setting, and then looked for ways to add a little interest to the setting.
Look at the score and you’ll notice that the second “A” line has the same melody as the other “A”s, but is harmonized by elements of the relative minor key instead. That, and the slight hold-over of the last notes of the bridge – “All I ask of—you”, are enough to give some spice to the musical mix. Our choir will learn this in one or two rehearsals and interpret this score for performance the way we would a hymn, maybe singing one verse unison, or just SA, or any one of a number of options that eventually leads to the full choir in parts. Frank Gilbert can play along on acoustic guitar, supporting the dynamics by leaving a phrase a cappela, finger picking or strumming where needed. Or, our pianist can play the reduction of the SATB for the last time through and put us all in church. Lots of options, lots of fun.
I have fun bringing this kind of simple original composition to the choir. They really are learning how to quickly bring a new piece of music to life. These days they greet the adventure, and they enjoy the excitement of exploring new music together. I’ve been working with this choir for a few seasons now, and I’ve noticed something wonderful lately – Frank’s new song is the third original set of words and music I’ve received in the past month from choir members! I have a feeling that as we have gone through the process of awakening new music together on a regular basis, folks in the choir have become more intrigued, even courageous, about the adventure of creative expression. That has added a layer of curiosity and passion to everything we’re singing.
Try “Let Me Be with You” with your choir if you’d like. Consider it a handful of clay that you and your crew can play with. Take it apart and reconstruct it with new lyrics, chords, rhythms, whatever you’d like. The best thing about it being new is that there’s no older version to answer to. Be free, have fun!
Go here to download the PDF of this score: http://bit.ly/CD-Dec