SATB & SAB
I remember college classes I took (some willingly) in theory and composition. As I learned the nomenclature and history of various techniques of harmonization and structure on a mostly non- intuitive level, I did my best to connect left brain and right so I could use these new tools creatively. It took years. Over the decades since then I have let practical application rule over academic mastery, mostly because of where my interests as a producer and composer have led me.
I envy those who have large, capable choirs who gather promptly for every rehearsal and master complex pieces so diligently that the director can concentrate on the minutia of umlauts and trilled r’s as they prepare to dominate the next national competition. I spend more time with small choirs in schools and churches that may not have the singers they had last year, or even last week.
Schools and churches can both see talented singers come and go as the seasons and semesters roll by. Yet the job of the director is still the same: to get an effective ensemble sound out of the folks provided. So yesterday’s wonderful rendition of a favorite SATB anthem may seem out of reach without those two wonderful tenors who are no longer available. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Don’t we all love it when great new talent shows up to add power and color to any of the parts? Change is change, and we’re the ones who have to deal with it first.
I’m going to recommend a simple way of rewriting parts that allows us directors to adjust a score for changing circumstances. In this case I’ll take an SATB phrase and change it to SAB without involving a bunch of grey matter gymnastics.
Here’s the SATB:
To change this to SAB I assign the tenor notes to the altos, then adjust for range and tonality into this:
I chose this example because tenors seem to be the voice that is most vulnerable to personnel changes. The change from SATB to SAB and back again is an exercise that I’ve gotten used to over the years, one that allows me to maintain a larger catalogue of titles for various ensemble uses.
Recently I worked with a small choir that lost two strong sopranos halfway through the season. That choir had enough baritones so that I could reassign a couple of them to sing the soprano part down an octave as needed to strengthen the melody. We didn’t do this all the way through the piece, just in the choral sections that needed the melodic support to go with the harmonies carried by the other parts. It reinvented the piece, too, much to the delight of all involved.
Have you had a strong low voice show up lately? Have some fun and add a sustained pedal note on the root or fifth of a choral phrase, using a few of the local lyrics. Strong lead soprano? Do the same thing up top, or have fun and see if there’s a descant you can write over a section of the score. If the result is too dense, repeat the section, with the descant replacing the sopranos the second time through. Lots of altos and less tenors? If the score is written in separate staves, copy the tenor stave in standard treble clef and have some of the altos help with it. Sopranos a bit dull in an ensemble section? Repeat the section, with the choir out the first time through and just the sopranos. Sooner or later all directors discover these simple fixes for a choir that has become out of balance from changing singers.
I’m hoping that the next time you’d like to pull a classic from the catalogue or add a wonderful new title to your upcoming season, you’ll be able to fine-tune it to your singers with some simple and creative adjustments.
Producer/composer Fred Bogert has written for choir, band and orchestra for over thirty years. His catalogue ranges from many styles of choral music to chamber arrangements of Grateful Dead songs, to symphonic scores for the Austin Symphony. His 4,000+ studio productions include the Nashville Chamber Orchestra and renowned composer/conductor David Amram, as well as film music for David Carradine’s “American Reel” and three Grammy-nominated CD titles. Fred now composes and produces in Louisville, KY.