Sunday, February 13, 2011

Making Arrangements

It's the twiddly bits that make a song. Those are the parts I love. Like the "hep, hep" in Island in the Sun or the C7sus4 in Paperback Writer. I like to call this chord "Beatle Bling" because when played on the ukulele it sounds like the sustained chord in Hard Day's Night.

But how do you come up with an arrangement that will interpret the emotion of the song and provide enough interest to keep an audience engaged? What may seem perfect for one song is just distracting for another.

Several weeks ago I downloaded the manual to the organ at church. I have been spending some of my practice time loading more presets and really trying to understand the timbre of the available stops. This has allowed me more flexibility and variety when playing the hymns. Judy once told me that she plays each verse of the hymns using different stops. I've decided at the point I am at in my organ playing, I will try to use at least two settings and alternate between the two (one setting on the great and one on the swell). I've chosen a memory track that has heretofore been unused and I have assigned my own settings to each of the 10 memories.

Today, however, I was feeling quite conservative and for the sacrament hymn decided I would use my old standard setting from the public track. The greats were familiar with their very subtle flutes. However, when I switched to the swell settings, someone had added every 8 inch pipe available including the gavotte. This gave me a very noticeable and obnoxious reed sound. Needless to say, I played the rest of the song on the greats (all seven verses). Appropriate, but boring -- much like this story.

Last night (at home) I decided to experiment with an arrangement for the song Jambalaya which my kids claim is very boring because it just has two chords. I try to tell them that a song like Jambalaya is not about the chords, it is about the instrumentation, improvisation and enthusiasm. I was able to convince Sam to lay down a guitar track for me. He didn't take the bait when I told him I loved the way he plays guitar. He didn't even do it because I asked him to "do it for your mom." Finally he did it because I told him it would keep me busy all night.

I added ukulele, accordion and incidental percussion. Joe added a bass line. And at last I added several vocal tracks. None of this was done from sheet music, it is all improv. So some of it is off as I miss a pitch or a note, but in the end I think I expressed my enthusiasm for this song.

Bobo should have done an animation for it so I could add it to the innumerable versions of the song on YouTube, but she was sleeping. In fact she slept all day and all night (recovering from a friday night slumber-birthday party) so I had to make my own video. To do so, I "appropriated" some footage from Judea's computer. I had originally wanted to find some "bayoo" type imagery -- but then I decided nothing says "backwoods" like the northern plains. If you have a hard time following the story -- Iktomi is so hungry, he tries to catch some buzzards by pretending to be a dead buffalo. When the buzzard he catches with his bum gets away, Ikto curses him with a bald head forever.

The rest of the video is turtle on the warpath -- walking to war. My next project (fingers crossed) will be a sing-a-ma-jig concerto. The obstacle right now is all our sing-a-ma-jigs are tuned to Db major (stupid key)


  1. I love the accordion! Your arrangement was lots of fun, especially with the Bird in the Butt animation! I'm feeling like an organ slacker. I USED to try to vary the stops on the organ. Somewhere along the line I stopped caring, and just play on the same settings. It seems when I try something different it is often loud and reedy and jarring. (Plus you have to be a good enough pianist to quickly change stops between verses.) In December I played one hymn for Sacrament meeting in which I played the wrong notes on the last chord on THREE of the verses! I swore the organ had a vendetta against me! It sounded terrible, and I couldn't see which hand (or foot) was on the wrong key. Strangely the verse I got right was number three, not number four! It was humiliating. As a rule, I try to make my jarring mistakes on passing notes!

  2. But isn't it nice to talk about it. The organ is an instrument that inspires and promotes perfections, but rarely ever allows for it. There are times I can play a hymn on the piano and know that I played every note as written. I don't know that I have ever been able to say that about the organ. But every week, I try.

  3. you are so creative. Thanks for you magazine vote.