For the last week, I have been working on the closing sequence of music for our upcoming Christmas program at Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church. The music for the program is celtic in style and is borrowed at least in part from my father’s 2003 album, “Irish Christmas.”
When working day in and day out on arrangements, taking ideas and bringing them from the mind into notation, playing the audio on the computer and on the piano over and over and over again, it is so tempting to push towards the end and finish the piece! However, I have learned two valuable lessons as an arranger:
- Sometimes it’s best to walk away, rather than force a creative issue. I am not saying that creativity should only flow from us, and that it doesn’t require work. However, we sometimes get stuck in a bubble and need to regain the perspective of the bigger picture. That means we give ourselves permission to say, “that’s one idea, and it might be fine, but I reserve the right to not commit to it at this point.”
- I have been living and breathing this music, but nobody else can hear that mental soundtrack. Getting the notes written on the page isn’t the end of the work. That’s like framing a house, wiring some lights and slapping some plumbing together and saying, “done!” It is now time to think through each part, considering the idiosyncrasies of each instrument, and communicate the details necessary to bring the soundtrack to life.
You might skip this next list if you are not an arranger – here are my steps to finishing the parts using Sibelius 7, and I do them in order to prevent having to fix things that I already fixed:
- Set the title, copyright info, composer info, and other global text items.
- Assign the rehearsal marks that would be the most helpful in rehearsal.
- Assign dynamics, slurs, and articulations for woodwind instruments. It is usually best to not use the “simile” indication – besides, it is trivially easy in software to assign articulations to large swaths of music. Use the Keypad to assign articulations, not the Symbols chart. Trust me.
- Now assign dynamics, slurs, and articulations for the brass and percussion parts.
- Now assign dynamics, slurs/bowing, and articulations for the strings. Match the depth of bowing information to the abilities of your players and the time you have for rehearsal. Generally, the more advanced the players, the less bowing info they will need. However, the more limited rehearsal time you have, the more bowing information is helpful. This assumes that you know what you are doing when it comes to bowing. If you don’t, it’s time to learn or find a string-playing friend.
- Would the parts benefit from a few well-placed cues? If so, go ahead and put those in now in the full score. (Home Ribbon: Paste as Cue)
- Go to the Parts ribbon and set the default Part Appearance page margins for All Parts – I typically need to give the bottom margin more space on the first page to accommodate the copyright text.
- Now open up each individual part and clean it up: Adjust the positions of the staves to minimize problematic page-turns and minimize the number of pages needed if possible. Watch for collisions and awkward spacings. If the stave spacing is jumping around in a part in a way that you don’t like, go to House Style: Staves: Justify when at least 100%. That will basically turn off the automatic spacing.
- Now go back to your full score and make it look the way you want. Feel free to “Hide empty staves” when you need extra room on the page. Think about page turns, upcoming instrument additions, etc, as you work through the layout of your full score. It is going to be your only tool in rehearsal, so you better think through the rehearsal process itself and what you are going to want to see at each moment in the music.
Good, articulate communication conveys information in an efficient manner. Mark Twain was quoted as writing, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” When we musicians who are working as messengers of the Gospel give time and attention to detail, we are doing several key things: We are working hard to be faithful stewards of our own musical gifts, we are being respectful and considerate of the time and the talents of the musicians we are working with, and we are communicating the creativity, power, and joy of excellence when used for worship of God. It’s so much more than accents, slurs, up and down bows – it is our refined craft, and the knowledge that it is an offering of our heart to God, who deserves and demands our very best.