Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Composing for an Original Score

Writing an original choral octavo brings new challenges as compared with a choral arrangement.  Take a look at these considerations:

1)  Text - Once again, a composer must select a text that is meaningful…a composer might live with the text for weeks, months, or years.  How long does it take to become comfortable enough with a text, before setting it to music?  It varies, but I can tell you that one text was on my desk for five years, before I finally decided to go ahead with the composition…the challenge?…I "heard" a melody for the text in mixed meter, with several 5/4 measures.  Would anyone want to sing a piece in 5/4?  Thankfully….yes!

2)  Population and voicing A composer must consider for whom the text is being set.  Many texts are appropriate for a particular age group and maturity level.  Others are perfect for all singers. The text may determine whether the composition is for male, female, young, or mature singers.  Who will sing the composition?  Before beginning the piece, a composer must know the age group and musical ability level of the persons who will be singing the piece.

3)  Melody - What is a good melody?  In my opinion, a good melody is one that really "sticks"…the melody is put on the page, when I can sing it all day in my head.  When I am forming a melody, I take a look at the rhythmic "suggestion" of the words…then…I take a look at the vowels in the phrases.  It is my opinion that in most cases, open vowels ("ah, eh, oh") should be assigned to "moderate to high" notes, and vowels such as "oo" and "ee" will work better for the "low to moderate" notes of the melody.  In a good melody, stressed syllables should be longer durations than unstressed syllables.  A melody must be easily sung, and it must make sense.  

4)  Key - Once the melody is secure, a composer must find an appropriate key that will complement the notes in the melody.  In addition, the key must be compatible for the vocal abilities of the singers.  Is there an accompaniment?  Are you writing for a "hired" accompanist or a "student" accompanist?  Would the accompanist be able to perform the piece in the selected key? As an accompanist, I've often wondered, "Where would I be, if someone had not written a piece that a junior high student could play (with a little effort)?" 

5)  Structure - The process for writing an original composition will generally follow the same steps of "writing an arrangement," once items 1-4 have been determined.  Take a look at the blog for 12/20/14.  In some cases, the text calls for a through-composed composition, but most listeners want to "find home again."  They want to hear something familiar.  When my Mom attends a concert, sometimes she says, "They only sang a couple of songs I knew."  For my Mom, to hear something familiar is very special.  You see, she is 90-years-old, and enjoys celebrating her musical life "in concert."  It gives her something to sing and hear in the days ahead.  So…for original material, if the text has a recurring passage, you might want to think about some repetition...making it a refrain, or at least allowing the listener to find some familiarity along the way.

6)  The creation of the composition - What effect do you want to create in the total composition?  Mystery?  Jubilation?  Power?  Energy?  Reflection?  Joy?  We must know how we understand the text, and work to that end.  We must know where we are going and how we are going to use the text in order to get there.  That is the challenge in musical composition.  We must understand the text, so that it travels "hand-in-hand" with the music.  

7)  Accompaniment - Before a composer writes an accompaniment, there are several considerations, most of which concern the difficulty level and style of the accompaniment. In addition, the composer must determine exactly how the accompaniment will enhance the voices and the structure of the work.  How much is too much?  When should the accompaniment be silent, and when is it necessary?  If the accompaniment is present, what is its function?

Wrap-up:  These considerations might help you get started in writing an original composition.  You might want to start simply (2-Part), and gradually move toward more complex voicings and accompaniments.  Give it a try….you'll enjoy it!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Earlene's Creative Process - Arranging

Happy Holidays to all of you!  I hope you are really enjoying the "hustle and bustle" of the season, and I hope you are finding some time for peace and contentment along the way.

One of the most exciting things I do in my work has to do with writing arrangements of pre-existing public domain material (written during or before 1923).  I love the process and challenges in arranging choral voices that will enhance the meaning of the text.

I created photos of a couple of holiday scenes in our home, and thought I might be able to make a few transfers into choral arranging…just by looking at these photos…thinking through the process that has become the "norm" for me…and assisting you in "thinking" like one choral arranger (me) as I begin the process of arranging.

It is so interesting…my husband has the "gift" of visual arrangement…however, the aural arrangement of sounds is my "sphere" of artistry.  There are many, many gifts of "arrangement" out there, so as musicians and choral music writers, we must concentrate on how we get others to "see" new, effective ways of experiencing pre-existing folk songs, orchestral themes, arias, masterworks, hymns, etc.

Take a look at the photo above, and consider the following:

1)  There is an underlying foundation upon which all are resting (the greenery).

2)  All of the participants are easily identified in the "scene."

3)  There are some unifying similarities in all of the major participants (fur on the clothing, similar clothing styles, color of clothing etc.), yet each is independent of the other…they  have unique, independent contributions in the total "artistic picture" (the mother with muff, the dad with full-length coat, the girl with a plaid skirt, different hats, etc.).

4)  We can recognize each costume without the "face," but the face gives us a "window" into factors that we might translate as joy, intensity, pleasure, lack of pleasure, etc.

5)  The placement (arrangement) of the singers might suggest importance…you are forefront, I am less important, etc.  

6)  The clock…is it "decoration?"…does it have a purpose?…the clock would definitely be missed, if it were not there, and…for some reason it just seems to "fit" in the midst of caroling……hmm……what can we do with that clock?  It is "fun" in the arrangement, but it must ultimately have a purpose.  

All of these factors contribute to a visual arrangement.  All of the factors are important for a reason…it is important for us to clarify the reason through the presentation of each.  If we come up with something "neat"….can we find a place for it in the arrangement?  You see, several items in that photo were purchased as part of a "set," not the clock…we like "the clock"….it seems to complement the total arrangement….can we make "the clock" work?

So many things to be seen in a "visual" of an artistic idea!!

Let's transfer the visual ideas above into an aural presentation.  Here goes!

As I begin to think about an arrangement, I will generally look at the original song form of the piece I am to arrange.  I will then begin to think about creative presentations I might use in the final product.  

General considerations (and opinions) from Earlene…not written in stone…just opinions and ideas.

1)  Most important...I must like the piece.  I am going to be living with this music a long time, so I need to really like the original form of the piece:  text, melody, harmonies, harmonic progression, etc.  

2)  Market consideration…my arrangement must be different from all others (Brian Busch echoes in my mind).  How?  It might be a different voicing….it might be paired with another song….it might incorporate a related partner song with identical harmonic movement and length (that means I will also be able to present the songs simultaneously at some point).

3)  Population…who will sing my arrangement?  The answer determines several factors:  key, range, complexity of vocals and accompaniment, ending, general style, etc.

4)  Compositional techniques...for young voices - canon, ostinato, descant.  More mature singers might enjoy using soli, vertical presentations (homophonic hymn-style textures), imitation (polyphonic textures), advanced ranges, and more difficult presentations of those techniques used with young voices, etc.

Structural considerations:
1)  Introductionmight include some melodic/harmonic material from the original song…might be based on a unique element in your arrangement (interest)…might be totally unrelated to your melodic material.  Length:  varies…but…my intros are generally 
4-8 measures.  Most important:  write the introduction so that singers can sing the first note of your piece with absolute certainty.  

2)  Initial presentation of the first versegenerally straightforward (unison, simple harmonies…branching into more complex textures).  At this point, make it clear as to what you are doing to make your arrangement unique.  Whatever you choose for  the "theme" of uniqueness (harmony, different interval, accompaniment, etc.), make it consistent throughout the piece.  This will prevent a choir director from pulling his/her hair out… makes it much more fun for the students (opinion).

3)  Second presentation…look at the text…how can you present this verse most effectively?  Is it a text that is "spoken" by a male in the song?  If so, then maybe you might assign the melody to the tenor and bass sections.  If "told" by a female, then maybe assign to sopranos and/or altos.  You might want to use an appropriate countermelody on this verse, then both sections come together for the refrain, with simple vertical harmony.

4)  Third presentation…if the text has eventually come to a strong resolve by the speaker, it might be that a key change would be appropriate.  So…maybe it's time to come up with a good modulation into another key.  Okay…dust off the old music theory books…and take a look at all of those modulations….common chord, half-step, whole-step, abrupt, etc.  This is the toughest aspect for me, in writing an arrangement.  I must modulate to a key so that singers are able to sing any extreme notes, and the accompanist must be able to play the piece in the chosen key.  A modulation is not a requirement, but there must be something that heightens the energy and intensity in this presentation, if the text demands it.

5)  Unify the arrangement…it is time to "wrap it up."  How can I unify the arrangement to let folks know it is a cohesive unit that makes sense?  Even though the modulation might have left me "out in left field," I  know where home is located (original presentation), and I want to unify the arrangement by including a bit of "memory" related to earlier presentations.  You might want to repeat a compositional technique that was particularly creative in the first verse or the refrain…if so, celebrate that creativity with repetition.

6)  End it!!!  This is a difficult task for me.  I tried for years to make really good endings, and wound up putting too many ideas in the ending, going on and on…just to make sure I had said everything I needed to say.  As Brian told me, "End it.  Just end it."  Don't let it drag on forever, but give singers enough opportunities to be artists.  Give enough time for the listener to be ready to "let it go" (great name for a song, huh?).  No need to go on and on…but the challenge is when to know "enough is enough."  Decide the emotional response you want for the piece…then write the ending with that idea in mind.  Good luck!!


There are many wonderful resources for choral arranging.  The internet has opened up an incredible world for information on this subject.  The following book was recommended to me back in 1990, and you might find it helpful for getting started in writing your own choral arrangements.  It seemed to provide everything I needed many years ago, to get started in my choral arranging efforts.  Enjoy!!

Monday, December 8, 2014

Inspiration: Part II


You get the idea…inspiration comes from so many sources…the beauty in the world around me (photos above are from the Canadian Rockies)…feelings that arise from beautiful people being beautiful…experiences…poetry...words heard through other sources, etc.  Sometimes the inspiration comes when I am terribly burdened about a particular injustice in the world...incredible tragedy…when I would like to say something, but do not find myself in a position to do so.  One question I would like to have answered with a "Yes!"... "Will my music eventually get to the "right place?" Because that is usually not the case at all, many of us composers write music to heal ourselves.  That is our vehicle to express feelings we might not be able to express in spoken words.  We express ourselves, because of the need to do so.

I have no idea if my music always gets to the right place, but I do know of many interesting events that have transpired through performances of my music…events that I had nothing to do with it, really…I just put my thoughts and feelings on paper.  For example, there was one time when I was trying to begin a new piece…anything…and nothing would come to me. Then the events of 9/11 transpired, and a Kyrie Eleison went down on the score in one day.

Then…I was trying to get started on a commission...trying to set the words of John G. Fee, the founder of Berea College, and…nothing would "happen."  As I was thinking about the words of Fee, horrible events at Virginia Tech happened, and again, I wrote down most of The Presence of the Lord in one sitting.   I mentioned to Dr. Stephen Bolster (who was waiting on this piece) that I seemed to move faster on that day, because I could relate to the words in terms of what I might like to say to families, if I had been given the chance.  I totally forgot about this comment…until I read a description of the piece in a program where the premiere was taking place at Berea College.  As fate would have it, almost a year hence, Berea's choir would be singing on choir tour at the Blacksburg (VA) Baptist Church, and unbeknownst to Dr. Bolster, the pastor of the church was the person responsible for relating much of the tragic information to the families, regarding their loved ones.  The Berea Choir assisted in the healing process in an incredible, emotional way, and I was reminded once again that the music carries the strength and depth of my emotions into many of the right places, and those who understand it the best can relate to my music the most.

SO MANY WAYS TO BE INSPIRED!!  So many things to be said!  So many notes to select, in order to say things as I want to say them!

I have written choral music for twenty years.  One of the major reasons I created Earlene Rentz Online Publications, is that for the rest of my life...I want to write the things I want to write…say the things I want to say…say these things in the ways I want to say them!!  I want total freedom in my musical expression.  I'm just doing something different from my past work in this area….I love it!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The RPS Wrap-Up (Part 6)

It's time to wrap it up!  There are other topics to talk about in the future…so stay tuned.

There are some simple, concise ways to put this information into a "list" of sorts. Please take whatever might benefit you and your students, and leave anything else "at the door."  "Whatever works" is whatever is good for your classrooms.  My opinions and ideas are not "Truth," they are just ideas that helped me.  So….let's time to wrap it up!!!

RPS Wrap-Up: (No specific order of importance)

1)   Example 1 - Establish the key.
2)   Create an easy melody, using the scale, moving toward the score.
3)   Repeat difficult intervals, and move from known to unknown.
4)   Rehearse examples at moderate tempi, moving gradually toward the score tempo.
5)   Teach new rhythms (particularly dotted rhythms) using ties; then introduce new notation.
6)   For experienced singers, establish the triad for the key.
7)   Create examples that reflect the repertoire.
8)   Use step-wise motion to teach modulations…make it easy.
9)   Use referenced measure numbers, for maximum transfer into the piece.
10) Keep examples as short as possible initially.  Success is the goal!
11) Examples are unaccompanied.
12) Process:  Simple to Complex
13) Keys of RPS = Key of octavo
14) Repeat unfamiliar concepts, until performed with ease.
15) Rhythm study - begin with long durations…move to short.
16) Long durations for difficult harmonies…get them to hear it vertically.
17) Keep the same voicing as the score (SSA RPS for SSA choir, etc.)
18) Examples should appear in all keys of those represented in the score.

Thank you for reading my blog!  I hope this helps in your quest to write a Rehearsal Preparation Sheet.

Rehearsal Prep Sheets - Difficult Intervals (Part 5)

"Hearing"…"Singing"... Difficult Intervals 

How do we assist students in "hearing" those challenging intervals in their mind's ear before singing?  Although I am not totally sure, I would like to share some ideas as to how students might get a "process" going in their minds.  As always, we start the process with what students know…then take them to what they do not know.

For example, when creating an RPS, young singers might need a good bit of work with the corresponding scale (Example 1).

Then…as you move through the scale, possibly use some skips, as students become challenged with "aural recall" (Example 2).

Then…gradually find the melody, as notated on the score (Example 3).

Then…simple harmonic additions, moving toward the chords as they appear on the score (Example 4).

You get it…a gradual working toward the complexities found in the score.

Take a look at this specific example:

TASK:  SINGING A PERFECT 5TH (Use whatever sight-singing syllables you choose)
1)   Sing the scale (Major).
2)   Sing up and down (step-wise) from Tonic to the Major 3rd.
3)   Sing from the Tonic to the Major 3rd.
4)   Sing from the Tonic to the 5th (step-wise).
5)   Repeat Step 2.
6)   Sing from the Tonic to the 3rd (do they remember?).
7)   Repeat Step 2 (if necessary).  My experience has taught me that it is generally necessary.  
8)    Repeat Step 3.
9)    Repeat Step 4.
10)  Combine Steps 3 and 4.
11)  Sing the triad (Do, Mi, Sol) - they can usually do it!
12)  Sing from the Tonic to the 5th!!

The repetition gets it "in the ear."  It is drill, drill, drill with young singers.  It is all worth it.  It is all worth it.  Notice the "drill" I just provided for you?  Did you get it??  It is all worth it!

For older singers, you might be able to skip a few steps along the way.  Since we are in the holidays, take a look at the first page of one of the RPS sheets on my website for…

Because this is an SATB voicing…likely for older singers…I have skipped a few steps at the beginning.

Example 1:  Notice that I brought in simple harmonies, but they are related to the actual harmonies the singers will perform.  I am making assumptions that the singers are familiar with singing minor keys.  I am assuming that there might be a bit of independence in these singers.  What if I'm incorrect?  Well…that gives you a marvelous opportunity for creating a few more examples, huh?  ALL GOOD…My goal?  Get them familiar with the "sound" of e minor.

Example 2:  Notice I started with the "G"…many students have a bit of trouble transferring from major to minor keys…so…I might have made a mistake, but…I started with the more familiar, and went immediately to the less familiar (e minor melodic movement).  Then…I "played around" with e minor and how that "G" figures into what the students will experience. I also provided some repetition…getting it in the ear.  

Notice the drill with quarter notes (mm. 9-19) in the melodic line before going to the shorter durations (8th notes).  Work gradually to the 8th notes…generally, we can only handle a couple of things at a time…so…present the challenge with one…then the other.

Notice that there are no words in the RPS.  Take a look at the complete RPS.  The text does not "arrive" until the final five measures of the final example.  The reason?  We are learning pitches and rhythms, and I want students' total attention focused in those areas.  We will get to the words, but I want this piece in the ear.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Rehearsal Prep Sheets…do them yourself! (Part 3)

I have a couple more things to add to the "how to" list for Rehearsal Preparation Sheets.  Both of these are rhythmic considerations…

9)  Rhythmic Notation - Sequence durations from long to short.  If you have a melodic passage, and the passage consists of 16th notes, you might want to introduce the melodic material as quarter notes first…then as 8th notes…finally, as 16th notes.  You can find this same principle followed in most RPS materials.

10)  Dotted Rhythms - Start with something the student knows, then move toward a new concept. Until the student understands why it "goes that way," there is little chance of transfer occurring.  We teach for transfer…we teach for independence…that comes with understanding.  

So…introduce dotted rhythms first as straight rhythms, usually consisting of quarter and 8th notes.  Use ties to create the new rhythm.  You might need use the word transfer as you learn the music

Thank you for visiting my blog!  I love my work, and I love creating Rehearsal Preparation Sheets!  I hope you will enjoy creating them, too. 

There are more ideas to consider in creating these RPS sheets, but…this should get you started.  Other concepts to teach might include:  1)  Difficult Intervals, 2)  Voicing, and 3)  Sequencing the steps (simple to complex).  

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rehearsal Prep Sheets…do them yourself! (Part 2)

Hello there!  Welcome back to my blog!  Hopefully, you have been thinking about a piece of music you might like to have fun with, trying your hand at developing an RPS.  One factor that I should have covered in RPS #1:  Students should sing the RPS a cappella.  If we have done our job, moving from simple to complex (successive approximations), just give the starting pitch (usually the key note), and they should be "set."

Here are a few additional considerations in the writing of an RPS:

4)  Keep the examples short - When students see short examples, they have hope for completing the task.  If the example is incredibly long, they might be overwhelmed.  Just try a 4-6 measure example.  Yes, I realize that eight measures might make more sense in music…just be sensitive to "length."  Success…we're going for SUCCESS!!  My husband is a minister, and as he can tell you, "short" is better in every "Sunday Situation."

5)  Coordinate the Keys - If you are studying an octavo in the Key of F Major…create an RPS in F Major…not G Major…not F or G minor.  We are teaching for transfer.  We want students to be able to use the knowledge they gain from one experience, and apply to another…so…write the RPS in the same key as the octavo…no "clutter"...otherwise, there is yet another "unfamiliar" component in the learning process.  The keys must be exactly the same.

6)  Simplify Modulations - If a piece eventually goes into another key, create a couple of short examples in the new key.  The most difficult aspect of creating an RPS has to do with getting from one key to another…modulations in the voices.  Practice getting the students to the new key, using the things they know…step-wise motion, half steps, etc.  Make it easy…so important.  Once you get to the new key…write an example for the new key.  Ah…feels like home…a new home.

7)  Fast Passages - If the tempo is fast, it is easier to sing a new passage a bit slower than up-to-tempo.  For all RPS sheets, I indicate a moderate tempo for rehearsing.  With every repetition of the example, I speed up a bit, until I eventually reach the tempo notated in the score (known only by me).  Your students will let you know how quickly they are prepared to move toward the given tempo…if mistakes are heard, they need a slower tempo.

My process:  start by writing augmented note values (whole or half notes).  Once the pattern has been presented, write the note values shorter (quarters/eighths, etc.), until you get to the note values in the score.  Always move toward the exact notation you see in the score.  Transfer…

8)  Difficult Harmonies - Present these chords vertically…and…slowly.  We must give our singers time to get these harmonies in the ear, so that they can retrieve them later.  We need to spend a little time, so you might want to write these harmonies in whole notes first, then half notes, then quarters, etc.  However, the goal is the score...the score…the score…the score.  If they hear different durations in rehearsal, it only makes for trouble later on…trust me.

Again, go to my website, and click on the Rehearsal Preparation Sheet link on the left side of the Home Page.  Take a look at some of the sheets…I'll refer to them more specifically later on.

I love writing these supplementary "helps," and I write many for my publications.  As always, if you need one for a purchased octavo from my website, just let me know, and I'll gladly compose one for you, at no extra cost.  At this time in my life, it generally takes an hour to create an RPS.  The first one?  Uh…quite a bit longer.  Hang in there!!!

Just so you know…my office is the place where all of the RPS sheets "happen."  Until next time…enjoy writing an RPS!


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rehearsal Prep Sheets…do them yourself! (Part I)

From the feedback I have obtained from choral music educators in the field, one of the most helpful contributions I have made to the classroom has been that of providing Rehearsal Preparation Sheets (RPS) for many of my pieces.  The good news is that you can prepare your own RPS materials for yourself.

Yes…it is a bit easier for me, because I have built every chord and every section of choral music from the "idea" to the notation...definitely an advantage…yet…sometimes you can crawl into the composer's head, and create materials with relative ease that will assist you in your own rehearsals.  More good news:  the more you create RPS materials for your choir, the easier the process becomes.

There are some basic steps to follow in creating an RPS.  I am going to share the steps I have followed over the years, with a tiny bit of explanation along the way.  Feel free to comment, or ask for clarification.  In addition, please share your ideas regarding the creation of materials that assist you most effectively in the teaching process.  The entire idea regarding my Rehearsal Preparation Sheets came about because I wanted to  assist teachers in teaching my music in the shortest amount of time.  

My wonderful friend Gayle Box gave me idea of using RPS materials, while I was observing her classroom in my "student teacher observation" time.  Gayle was a supervising teacher, and provided short examples that would teach challenging melodic lines, harmonies, rhythms, and other elements she would be teaching THAT DAY (really important).  In short, she was preparing her students for daily success!  That's exactly what I wanted to do with an RPS…get them to know the music…get them to love the music…every day.  My hope is that they will have a clear understanding of the "nuts and bolts" of the music...and…maybe they will love it!!  

Here is the process I use for creating Rehearsal Prep Sheets:

1)  Work from simple to complex - Start with whatever the students know…then take them to what they do not know.  Take them where you want them to be in systematic steps…that is, if a student understands quarter notes and 8th notes…instead of just throwing out a dotted quarter…you might try having them sing a passage with quarter notes and 8th notes…then…write a "tie" going from one of the quarter notes to an 8th note…then….cleverly replace the 8th note with a "dot," once the students perform the tie successfully.  Just take a chance, and see if there is someone in the class who might know about the "dot" in music…give those advanced students a chance to shine.  A little more explanation about the "dot" might be necessary, but…they have already experienced the significance of "the dot."  It has entered "the ear."  They have heard it.

2)  Repeat unfamiliar concepts - New concept?  Rehearse it a bit...let them perform it at least 4-5 times, until it becomes familiar.  Let them see it, and get it "in the ear."  This will allow them to perform the concept with confidence in the context of the entire piece.  They are no longer strangers to the concept…however, you might need to remind them gently in the larger context.  They panic sometimes…they are human.

3)  Use RPS content relevant to the repertoire being studied - If you are singing a piece with triplets, then the RPS should include opportunities to sing triplets…moving toward the goal of seeing and singing these triplets AS THEY APPEAR in the actual octavo.  Make everything relevant to the score.  THAT'S where you want them to be…you want them singing the score correctly…so…why teach materials they will not encounter in the octavo?  Stick with the most relevant teaching material…then students will not become confused.  Other components might be good, but focus on the score of study.

I will discuss more components of the Rehearsal Prep Sheets in the next blog entry.  In the mean time, take a look at the RPS materials on my website:
These are free materials…print off a couple of them, and follow along with the process.  

Have a great day…in order to give you time to digest the process, I will share more "steps" in future entries.  You might want to find a piece of music, and just try creating an RPS for fun.  Again, the entire process will become much easier after you have begun to think "RPS Style."