Monday was rehearsal for my barbershop chorus. I hadn’t attended rehearsals for about a month, with all of the insanity leading up the aforementioned “Worst… Christmas …EVER”, so I was glad to get back into the swing of the routine. We have a show coming up in late February, so I needed to get the songs back in my noggin and learn any choreography I may have missed. Lou picks me up and we walk in to warm smiles and ringing chords. Ahh, barbershop – my island of adequacy.
After some warm-ups, we’re handed our newest piece of music. We almost NEVER get things less than 3 months before a performance – let alone something as big as our annual show. The show this year is entitled “What’s Up, DOC” (DOC being the acronym for our Detroit-Oakland Chapter of the Barbershop Harmony Society), a clever moniker for a show themed around kid’s songs and cartoon and children’s TV theme songs. Our newest addition is an arrangement of the theme to “Might Mouse”, penned by one of our own chorus leaders.
The arrangement is absolutely wretched.
Don’t get me wrong; I like and respect this person. He’s a great guy and an adequate arranger. He does a few arrangements for his chapter quartet, consisting of himself and three other chapter leaders. His arrangements are quite functional, if a bit replete with barbershop clichés, stolen tags, and consisting of few chords more interesting than simple triads and the bare minimum of straight dominant 7ths. He’s done a few arrangements for the chorus before, that have been decent and easy enough to learn for the lowest common denominator in the chorus, but nothing particularly interesting or inspired.
This was at the lower end of his scale.
We start learning it, and I stroll over to Dave, my quartet’s bari, who has two (count ‘em – TWO) vocal music degrees, and before I can utter a word, he grins and rolls his eyes. As they are teaching the parts to the chorus, we’re in the back kibitzing virtually every aspect of the arrangement. This chord is wrong, that chord is improperly voiced, this phrase is over-simplified, that phrase has poor voice-leading, this phrase is just plain dull, majors chords where there should be minors or 7ths, the whole thing is pitched too low, etc. I know he was writing it to be simple and quick to learn, but SHEESH! We point out a few items as they're teaching it and he fixes the simplest of them one the fly.
We spend about 45 minutes learning it and by the end, most of the chorus has it pretty well down. A good thing, as we have only about 6 more rehearsals before the show and there are several tunes we still don’t have sounding very good. I’m sure they’ll all sound great by the end, but the pressure, nonetheless, is on. It should be a fun show, with most of the chorus in the costume of some kid’s show character (I’m Fred Flintstone, apparently) and the rest in black t-shirts with a cartoon character on it.
Later, I’m asked by one of our chapter leaders to give a vocal evaluation next week to one of our newer members. I appreciate being entrusted with this duty and feel somewhat respected as a musician to be asked to do this on occasion. This guy, however, is the weakest link in our chorus.
One thing you should understand about most barbershop choruses is that they’re like Little League teams – everyone plays, regardless of talent or ability. Ya got a kid who can’t catch worth a tinker’s damn? Stick him in right field. Got a guy who can’t sing very well? Stick him in the second to last row, surrounded by others on his part to shore him up and tell him to sing softly. That’s the usual M.O. for most barbershop choruses (sans the international finalist level, of course, who usually audition to even get on stage).
This guy, on the other hand, is impossible. Oh, he’s full of determination and desire to do well, but he just…can’t…get it! He stands like a statue with a somber look on his face and is basically a Johnny One-Note who can’t carry a tune in a bucket. For the past 6 months or so, whenever we have our vocal coach in, we spent a good half of the time trying to fix the basses and it’s almost always HIM that’s wrong. Eventually, our coach gives up, lectures them on learning their part, and just shrugs, not wanting to call him out and embarrass the poor, tone-deaf new guy.
I’ve dealt with people like this in marching band - kids with no sense of pitch or rhythm who can’t seem to grasp the concept “left foot, right foot”. Usually, after some personal coaching, they get it, but on rare occasion ya just gotta shrug and pray a judge doesn’t walk by them. Our chorus Big Wig tells me that this guy is having problems getting the higher notes – ON BASS PART! How do you fix that? In a show, it’s easy enough to just have him sing an octave lower (assuming he can hear the note in the first place), but on contest, a 5-part chord is an absolute no-no. I don’t like being the one who has to recommend giving someone the axe, but I anticipate having little to report that would recommend him. Likely, he’ll just be told he can’t sing in contest. More likely, he’ll be told just to stand on stage, do the choreography (which he doesn’t do any better than he sings) and just not sing. Still a no-no in contest, but harder to prove.
After chorus, I’m so frustrated that I open my laptop and start up the olde Finale ‘07 music software. The “Mighty Mouse” arrangement has me so wound up, that I HAVE to re-arrange it. At this point, I know we won’t use it in chorus, but I can’t just let that mediocre piece just stand, unchallenged. At first, I figure I’ll take what we were given and tweak it, but after looking at it I realize it’s better just to start from scratch. I play the original version from my collection of MP3s (I have a formidable collection of TV tunes) and get crackin’. After a couple of hours, I have something I’m happy with, save it, and hit the hay, figuring maybe I'll give it to my quartet after the show is over.
The next day, I open “Mighty Mouse” to listen and re-evaluate what I’ve done. I’m still pleased, but as I look at the folder with my Finale Files, I notice a tune or two I’ve started and never finished, so I dust them off and start working on them. Before I know it, I have one finished, a whole new one arranged, and another almost done. My addiction to arranging has re-emerged. Now I have a list of about 10 songs I want to start on for my quartet, and if the past 2 days are any indicator, I ought to have most of them done within a week.
Arranging (and marching drill designing) is like a puzzle addiction. Many people start puzzles like crosswords or Soduko and just can’t stop. Now, imagine designing your own puzzle on a scant template, solving it, and when you’re done, having not only the satisfaction of a job well done, but also a work of art. Better still; imagine that work of art being displayed in a gallery. That’s what it’s like to arrange a piece, then have it performed. Assuming your hypothetical “gallery piece” sells for money, that’s selling an arrangement – all for having fun with your bizarre obsession.
Now, I don’t have copyright for any of what I arrange and I’m pretty sure most of it isn’t public domain, so I can’t legally sell the arrangements – not without going through the time and expense of obtaining copyright or hefty legal repercussions, anyway. This means my quartet can’t perform them at paid gigs (technically speaking) and if another quartet wants to use them, I usually just charge them in free beer at social gatherings with the warning that they perform them at their own risk. Still, it’s a thrill to have them performed at all!
Anyway, it’s been giving me a great deal of personal satisfaction that, even if I’m not getting rich off it, I’m doing what I love and it’s (occasionally) being appreciated. Now if I could just get some commissions to arrange stuff that’s legal!