In my last post I outlined the process I generally use when I’m arranging or composing a new piece for publication. For this post, I will use my forthcoming choral anthem, “Room at the Welcome Table,” as a case study of the composing/arranging process. Here’s a look at the process “for real.”
1. The editor presents a request or pitches an idea.
An editor called with a request for me to do a choral arrangement of two spirituals, “Welcome Table” and “Plenty Good Room.” I was not familiar with Welcome Table, but vaguely recalled hearing Plenty Good Room. Often I will have a few months to complete an arrangement, but this was a last-minute thing (another writer backed out on them due to health issues), and they needed it in about a week’s time. The piece was scheduled to be recorded less than 2 weeks from his phone call. He said one of the reasons he called me was he knew I can work “fast.” I suspect another was that I had done a Christmas arrangement pairing “Go, Tell It on the Mountain” and “Ain’a That Good News,” for this company about a year earlier. I didn’t have any other immediate deadlines coming up, so I told him I would give it a shot.
Here’s the bulk of a follow-up email I received from the editor after an initial phone call where I agreed to write the arrangement.
Good speaking with you and catching up. Thank you for your interest in creating TABLE IN THE SKY (that’s the working title) which contains the spirituals “Welcome Table” and “Plenty Good Room”.
Here’s a YouTube link for WELCOME TABLE
Of all the different settings I saw on YouTube for this song, this version is straightforward and well done. I think you can get a good sense of the style, music, and lyrics for the song. Since it’s public domain, you can alter the lyrics in any way you so desire to make it complement “Plenty Good Room” all the more. I’ve often heard a “hallelujah” added in to this lyric (i.e., “I’m gonna sit and the welcome table. I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, hallelujah, I’m gonna sit….” Etc.). Don’t feel a need to add a hallelujah, but just wanted you to be aware I’ve heard it that way before.
I couldn’t find any sort of lead sheet for the song online, but I do have a choral arrangement at home if you so desire. But I suspect you’ll get all you need from the YouTube link.
2. I research (or create) the source material.
I used the YouTube link provided by the editor as a starting point for my research on Welcome Table. I noted the key, the general harmonic structure and feel of the piece, and the lyrics. I found the verse, “I’m gonna tell God how you treat me” fascinating, and it certainly brings a poignancy to the spiritual. I could almost picture the slaves working in the fields singing that lyric.
YouTube always includes related videos on its sidebar and so I watched several of those. The internet has made it incredibly easy to find multiple performances and arrangements of just about any song. There was quite a wide variety of arrangements of this particular spiritual. Here are 3 very different examples:
The other spiritual in the arrangement was to be Plenty Good Room. I only had a minimal familiarity with this one. Searching YouTube I found multiple performances of an arrangement by Kirby Shaw. This excellent arrangement is a lot of fun and really energetic; however, Kirby really strays widely from the source material, changing the melody and harmonic structure, deleting key original lyrics (in the Father’s kingdom) and replacing them with others (on the Glory Train). I was almost classify this as a new song “based on” Plenty Good Room.
The challenge in finding original source material with spirituals is that it’s challenging to find a “definitive” version. Spirituals were passed along aurally, and like oral history, it can change in the telling. Some versions of Plenty Good Room have a different melody and lyrics for the verses than others. I finally decided that I would treat Jay Althouse’s arrangement of Plenty Good Room as my source material. To my ears, it sounded like it could be the “closest” to an authoritative source.
3. I noodle (brainstorm) ideas.
Since I didn’t have any sheet music for either of these pieces, I decided to play along with the YouTube recording that the editor referred to me. It’s simple enough harmonically that I could play along by ear and remember what and when the chords would change. I will often “play-around” for quite a while, and if nothing is “clicking,” I’ll go take a break for awhile or do something else. Then I’ll pick it back up a few hours later or the next morning and see what happens. That was the case here.
As I started again the next morning, I posted a note on Facebook about my assignment.
The encouraging comments I received from my friends helped spur on my creativity, and I soon had a cool piano groove going. However, I realized that I didn’t know what musical style the editor wanted specifically. Did he want a southern gospel feel, like the YouTube video link he sent? Did he want me to give it a black gospel feel (a style I’m known to write in on occasion)? I didn’t want to get too far down the line only to have him say, “Sorry, not what I’m looking for.”
I called him, and I was glad I did because I learned that:
1. He did not want it to be in a southern gospel style. That was a relief. It’s not my favorite style of music, and I don’t think I have done a choral anthem in a southern gospel style to date.
2. He did not want it to be in a black gospel style. I was a little disappointed to hear that, as that was the direction I was leaning.
3. He wanted something that would appeal to both church and school choirs. That meant I needed to make sure high school age voices would sound good on it, as well as a typical church choir (15 older adults).
4. He liked Kirby Shaw’s arrangement of Plenty Good Room, but definitely wanted a piano accompaniment.
Based on the phone call, I decided to try and write an energetic piece that would be fun to sing, and be able to use at least some bluesy/jazz harmonies, but being careful not to lean too far in that direction.
4. I begin notating the music on the computer.
It doesn’t always work this way, but I started with the piano introduction. For this piece, I used the last phrase of the song, a very common technique. I spiced mine up with some a few blues notes and a punchy jazz chord to get the listeners’ attention.
Next I transcribed the melody from the initial YouTube video. I decided to make a couple minor changes, but since the editor had liked that version, I followed the singer’s rhythmic choices pretty closely. Next I added in my piano accompaniment for that first verse.
5. I consider and vary musical ideas as the piece develops.
Since I began the piece with a solo, I decide to have the choir enter next in parts without the soloist. For the third verse, I bring the soloist back in, but have the choir sing pseudo-background vocals underneath the solo. This is a common technique in spirituals and provides a nice contrast rhythmically.
After 3 verses of Welcome Table, it feels about time to bring in Plenty Good Room. I decide a key change would be a nice lift and bring some new energy along with the new material. I start with the choir singing the chorus in parts. It’s a short chorus, so I have them repeat it using the tried-and-true technique of many choral arrangements of spirituals: the sudden dynamic change, in this case, softer. This also serves to set up the soloist nicely for a strong entrance for the next verse. I have the choir sing some more pseudo-background vocals underneath the soloist, which will be hopefully fun to sing.
I’m guessing you get the idea (i.e., I vary things as I go) so I will spare you the rest of the compositional analysis.
6. I have self-doubt, then revise and edit.
The biggest issue I had in arranging this piece was trying to decide if it should have a swing feel or not. Most of the YouTube videos and recordings I heard used swing eighth notes. The initial groove I came up with had straight eighths, and give the piece a slightly 60’s Motown-esque feel. I went back and forth on this over a couple days. I finally decided to be “different” and go with the even eighth notes. I knew my editor didn’t want a black gospel feel for the piece, but I wondered what he would think about my Motown groove.
7. I add in the details.
Once all the notes were in, I typed in the lyrics, figuring out the correct hyphenations as I went thanks to a pocket spelling dictionary I keep close by. Then I added dynamic markings, articulations, and the expressive and tempo markings.
8. I adjust the visual layout of the score.
Switching over to “Page View” in Finale, my notation software, I check to see how it will look on the printed page. It seems that I can fit about 3 measures per system comfortably. Sometimes this has to be adjusted depending on how many notes and words are in a measure (i.e. more note and words in measure = more space on the page). There are lots of little things to look out for and adjust.
9. I print out the sheet music.
I print off a copy to see if I can catch any corrections or formatting issues with a physical copy in my hands. Everything looks fine, so I move on.
10. I send it off to the editor!
I sent off the completed piece 6 days after he first called me. Here’s the text of my email.
Here is the piece in pdf and Finale 2011. For now, I’ve named it “Room at the Welcome Table.” I’ll look forward to hearing what you think. I have a full weekend ahead (Friends University Jazz Festival on Friday and Saturday) so if you have any edits/changes to make, please let me know ASAP.
The next morning he replied, acknowledging that he received it:
Thank you for this! Received….and we will review it today and be in touch.
11. I wait to hear back from the editor.
As I posted in my previous article, this is the “fun” part (not!): waiting to hear back! Will they love it? Like it? Hate it? Ask me to make a bunch of changes? I’ve had all of these responses, and you just never know, although I do my best to give them what they have requested, and then some!
6 hours after my editor sent the “got it” email, I heard back from him about the piece. This, my friends, is INCREDIBLY rare, even for an “assignment” such as this, where I wrote the piece at the editor’s request. Most of my composing these days comes from assignments, but if I submit unsolicited manuscripts (meaning I send it off to an editor uninvited, who I think might be interested in the piece) I can wait MONTHS or to hear back, and sometimes they don’t respond at all. Not cool.
In this case, I couldn’t have asked for a better result. Here’s the email he sent:
[Another editor] and I reviewed ROOM AT THE WELCOME TABLE (Love the title!). We love what you’ve done! It really hits the nail on the head. You took both tunes and made them organically connected…not an easy feat, as you well know.
The accompaniment is interesting, playable, fun. The vocals are singable and fun as well. The solo is a great, celebrative touch. In short…we can’t find one thing to nit-pick about! Congratulations…that’s a rare feat.
I say this one is ready for the production assembly line. Thanks again for not only doing a fine job on this, but working fast after our other guy petered out at the last minute. We’ll always remember to “break glass” and call Craig Curry when there’s a choral emergency! (And we’ll certainly keep calling when it’s not a rush either).
12. I make revisions (or not) to the music at the editor’s request.
It’s pretty common to have a request to tweak a note or two. For “Room at the Welcome Table” I was good to go.
13. I review proofs of the music.
The day of the recording session, I received proofs via email of the typeset score. The engraver adjusted the layout to fit the publisher’s look and feel. I printed out the pdf he emailed and played through the piano part, then the vocal parts (singing as I went), and checked for missing slurs, ties, etc. The only error I found was he had overlooked a few lyrics at the end of the piece in the bass part.
Here is the first proof for ROOM AT THE WELCOME TABLE. Please look over it and mark any changes you wish to make. Mark up the attached PDF and send it back to me.
Also, please provide performance notes and biographical information.
Thanks for you prompt reply as we proceed toward our printing deadline.
I replied the next morning (which is today as I’m writing this) mentioning the corrections needed to the bass part, to which he replied a few hours later saying he would do so. I don’t expect to see another set of proofs, but occasionally I may see a final proof.
14. I sign the contract.
With this particular publisher, which is the only one to do this, they have a “master contract” of sorts (my term), that I signed when I published my first piece with them more than 10 years ago. What they do is add each new piece of mine published to my master contract as an addendum. They are the only publisher I know of to do this. It certainly does mean less paperwork to sign and exchange. Some publishers now issue contracts via email with pdfs to sign and email back.
So, there you have it: An behind-the-scenes look at choral music publishing with my forthcoming piece “Room at the Welcome Table” as our case study! The next stop for the piece will be my editor traveling to some major print music dealers (such as JW Pepper) in about a month to present this piece to them along with the other new releases. If the dealers like my piece, they will promote it more aggressively, or give it their “Editor’s Choice” award, which is their endorsement of the piece and can increase the piece’s sales and exposure. Here’s hoping they like it!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little look at my workflow and the publishing process. Please comment below to let me know what you think and if you have any questions I can follow up on.