We know that Mr. Zappa’s forte was staging amazing tours. In this excerpt from a recorded interview, he stresses the importance of holding your bandmates to high standards.
We know that Mr. Zappa’s forte was staging amazing tours. In this excerpt from a recorded interview, he stresses the importance of holding your bandmates to high standards.
In Part 1, I described how I devised an overall strategy for the arrangement, then transcribed the verse parts. In Part 2, we examined the keyboard part in the chorus. Today, I shall conclude by summarizing the other rhythm parts in the chorus and bridge.
The guitar in the chorus is elementary: 5th chords in rhythmic unison with the keys.
The bass doubles the roots throughout.
As I mentioned in Part 2, the keys need to dominate the arrangement right here. I have found in performance that laying low with the guitar part can be a challenge. Right before this tune, I need to do something that attenuates my overdrive channel volume. For now, it’s selecting a quieter model on my Variax, which I prefer to turning down the OD1 channel on my amp, which might prove difficult to do just the same way every night. This is a situation where a volume pedal or an extra EQ pedal might make life easier.
Our band’s manager asked if I could give our horns something to do. I wasn’t crazy about throwing horns into the mix, but it doesn’t hurt to give a group options. This arrangement will work with our without the horn section. I decided to use them only in the chorus to reinforce the keyboard.
I could have voiced the horns with the trumpet doubling the highest note of the keyboard — an obvious approach, given that the highest notes seem to carry an important melody. But that also seemed a bit too near the edge of the trumpet’s range. When you push an instrument that hard, its intensity can distract attention from the principal voice of the arrangement. So I took a chance in assigning the lead voice to the tenor sax and trombone, playing in unison, with the trumpet playing roots above. In jazz, this would be blasphemy. But after hearing this in performance, I’m okay with the results. The trumpet does tend to pop out a bit too much at times; but I figure that even if savvy listeners might notice something about the lead line that doesn’t resemble the album (which is unlikely), they have already accepted the use of horns — already a departure from the original.
The second half of the chorus has the guitar doing a repetitive, 4-note pattern:
This sounds like a synth in the original; it’s tough to tell because it’s one of the more subtle components of the arrangement. In performance, I cut my overdrive a bit. My approach is to use a Boss SD-1 throughout the tune, coupling it with the clean channel for the verse riff and the above pattern, and switching to the amp’s overdrive channel for the power chords in the chorus and the lead in the bridge. As in every other part of the arrangement, my objective is to lurk in the shadows and provide textural support. It is important to use your technology to suppress as well as impress.
Note the volume swell in the guitar part at the end of the first chorus:
Here I also had the tenor and trombone double the bottom two notes of the 5th chord. This is a type of subtle touch that often comes to mind when you are focused on making an arrangement sound ideal, and not simply transcribing parts.
Finally, here is the last new phrase in the song, a guitar lick that soars above the bridge:
I indicate “long delay” at the end of this section, so the final two notes can echo in the background during a break.
The rest of this arrangement was a matter of cutting parts here and there and mapping out sections. Finally, I double-checked the legibility in the parts, and made sure there were rehearsal marks and helpful dynamic markings where appropriate.
I hope this process has been educational. I recently completed another arrangement that I’d like to share in an upcoming post.
I would expect any jazz student to be familiar with the Charlie Parker Omnibook, a compendium of transcriptions of heads and solos by the seminal altoist. It is an essential tool for any performer interested in building a bebop vocabulary.
YouTube user dancohen has created a series of videos which follows the original recordings with note-by-note animations based on the Omnibook transcriptions. One hazard of learning solely from another person’s transcription is being unaware of the quirks of rhythm and accent that cannot easily be notated. I found these videos useful for learning how Bird’s phrasing might sound different than mine if I simply learned the transcriptions as written.
In Part One, I described my process for preparing to arrange the pop tune “Call Me Maybe,” and some of the decisions I made in charting out the verse. Now, let’s look at the chorus:
I remember reading in the Songwriter’s Market way back in the 80′s that a successful song needs two hooks, one vocal and one instrumental. In this tune we get both at the same time, each occupying spaces left by the other. The classic riff that drives this section is found in the keys:
Note the directions to switch to arco strings. It helped to know that both arco and pizzicato strings are common patches on keyboards, and often found within close proximity of each other. Asking a keyboardist to use specific patches can sometimes invite trouble, but definitely not here, especially with the rest before the double-bar.
As for the voicings, these pretty much took care of themselves. Listening to the recording, it’s fairly easy to hear the octaves in the right hand. Double the bass line, then fill in the remaining harmony notes in the left hand et voila. Still, I double-checked my results against a couple of online arrangements.
The risk here is having your keyboard player not play the right hand part loudly enough. It needs to dominate the arrangement. However, keyboardists are all too easily buried in a live mix, and often rightfully so: I find that electronic keyboards often have a difficult time finding the zone between too loud and too soft, and the guys I work with tend to err on the side of caution. They understand that guitars and vocals are usually at the center of a rock arrangement. That attitude won’t work here, though; and I place the forte marking hoping for the best.
Here’s the biggest problem spot:
Every second time through the chorus riff, the strings do this rapid descending passage. I saw it notated online as a G major scale in 32nd notes, but wasn’t sure of the accuracy, so I slowed the recording down. Sure enough, it sounds like a string section playing all the notes in a G major scale. Is this a sample, sped up? Perhaps. On the other hand, I noticed in the recording that the strings are slightly out of sync with each other, which is to be expected when they are playing this rapidly in unison. Now how to mimic the passage in the keys?
I faced a couple options: Simplify the passage by reducing the number of notes, or remove one of the octaves. The second option was out — one test, and it proved too thin sounding. So how to simplify? Use a pentatonic scale? Simply mark a long glissando? Neither option sounded good in practice. So I took a chance on the performer. Normally I wouldn’t advocate this when arranging for a working group, but I chose to notate it as closely to the original as I could, and let the keyboardist find his own shortcut. Sometimes if you do this, who knows? You might be surprised at what your performers are capable of.
In part 3, we will take a look at what the rest of the rhythm section is doing during the chorus. I’ll also share how I tried adding horns.
I turned 40 this year. Such an arbitrary milestone, yet so ingrained in our culture that as it passes, one often pauses to reflect on the implications of middle-age. My god, I realize, I have outlived Mozart and Charlie Parker! And yet what have I accomplished? Time seems to move so much more quickly now; I have spent ages to reach this point, but I expect to double that lifetime, fates willing, in what will surely seem like moments. I can only hope, futilely, to savor the best moments within those moments with a deeper appreciation than I ever cultivated throughout my impatient youth.
I have reached a point where I need to carefully choose what pet projects I undertake, for fear that time will not allow their fruition. One of my current projects is learning Japanese. When faced with the prospect of spending years on a subject, only to achieve a basic level of proficiency, with no practical applicable use for the skill (not a lot of Japanese speakers around here, and what companies will hire someone bilingual who is almost completely unlikely to relocate?), I asked myself, Is there an age at which one must stop trying to learn new things for the mere sake of learning? Wouldn’t my time be better spent improving my family relationships, securing our family’s financial future, and mentoring the next generation of employees at my workplace — in other words, leaving the world a bit neater than when I entered?
Then I imagined how I might react if I witnessed a friend from the previous generation taking up something new. If an older coworker told me she was starting a business, learning an instrument, or taking up creative writing, would I pity them for starting too late in life, and risking time on something that may never pay them back for their effort? Of course I suspect we all would react in quite the opposite manner, with a nod and a smile, and a “Good for you! That sounds exciting.”
So why should I treat myself any differently? And why should anyone fear new long-term experiences, solely because they might be interrupted by death? I would suggest two good reasons for taking the opposing viewpoint — that no time is better than now to begin learning something new, no matter the commitment or challenge.
First, realize that you study for the benefit of others as much as for yourself. Take language, for example: Peter has decided to study French, and after a few months doesn’t feel like he has gotten anywhere. He only gets to use it once, when a French speaker asks him for directions to Johnson Street via car. What Peter doesn’t know is that by aiding the French tourist, he made it possible for the tourist to catch a flight with only a couple of minutes to spare — fewer minutes than it might have taken to drive in circles looking for Johnson Street. The French man had to cut a business trip short to rush to the death bed of an estranged relative, who has requested his presence. Relationships in the man’s family are repaired, and new opportunities arise down the road — a special deal on a home, perhaps, or a bigger share of a will. Years later, as the Frenchman recalls the time he came through for his family, he may be unlikely to remember Peter from Madison, Wisconsin as being a critical link in that chain of events. There were so many other things going on — maybe he struggled with slow service while refilling the rental car’s fuel tank, or perhaps he marvels at how lucky he was to avoid a pedestrian by mere inches as he rushed through the labyrinthine one-way streets. This story doesn’t end with Peter saying “Thank heavens I was able to save the day with my French skills;” he is oblivious to the impact he made.
Here is another example: An elderly woman purchases an organ, hoping to entertain herself with some simple songs. She doesn’t get very far with it, but her grandson spends some time with the instrument. The experience is one of many that inspires him to continue studying music into his adulthood. While he may never find a career in the music field, he eventually does find enough work at clubs and special events that Grandmother’s investment has paid him back several times over. She has left the earth long before she was able to witness her grandson’s development as a musician, so she never had a chance to be proud of having planted the seed that grew in him.
When you take up a new interest, you do so partly for the benefit of others. Reason number one that it is always a good time to learn something new:
1. You can be grateful ahead of time for having taken an interest, on behalf of those who you might impact later.
But will this happen in every case? Will your pursuits necessarily have an impact on others? And what if you die friendless, without a family? Who is there to benefit? You are, naturally. Even if you don’t see a payback from your studies, you have already reaped their benefits.
I study guitar because, among other reasons, I like to demonstrate what I have learned on stage. There are many guitarists who never perform live. Do you think they regret having studied? We have heard adages about the journey being as rewarding as the destination. Tired as it is, this sentiment is absolutely true.
I feel pretty good when I am performing with other musicians, putting our faith in our skills — always a semitone away from a wrong note, a split-second away from a missed entry. Live performance can be like a high wire act, carefully choreographed and rehearsed, but with an underlying sense of impending disaster. The rush, for both audience and performer, is intoxicating. A live performance is a product I and my bandmates have developed. We pass it on into the hands of the listeners, who take it home with them.
But I find just as much appeal in private practice sessions and rehearsals. Working out problems, correcting bad habits, pushing the limits of my stamina and technical fluency — this is play as much as it is work. For the practitioner of a craft, the process is the product. During the Middle Ages, it took decades to build some castles and cathedrals. Many stone masons and carpenters are likely to have spent their entire lifetimes on projects whose completion they would never witness. Do you suppose they lamented their fate? Today’s scientists are laboring over concepts that could eventually have tremendous applications, in technology power management and data storage, interstellar exploration, human longevity — yet cannot fathom what role their contributions will have played hundreds of years from now. Does this discourage them? Thus…
2. The very act of learning any subject or skill is an end unto itself.
Do something interesting. Any reason is good enough.
I was recently tasked with arranging Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” (YouTube link) for a variety band. I thought I might share my process.
My first step was to take inventory of the various components of the song. How about instrumentation? Never mind what parts are heard in the recording; what really concerned me was how those parts could be spread among one guitar, one keyboard, one drummer, and a bassist. The variety band has horns — could those be utilized? How about background vocals? What would the roadmap look like? Could I squeeze this arrangement into a single page, using repeats and a coda?
Thankfully, this tune has a rather simple arrangement, well-suited for cover bands. I determined to arrange the guitar and bass almost exactly as heard in the recording. Same for the keyboard, which would have to change from pizzicato strings during verses to arco strings during the chorus. Drums would probably need to be simplified. As for the horns, I figured they could double the famous keyboard riff during the chorus and lay out during verses, but overall they would be treated as optional.
Once it became time to put pencil to paper — or in this case, mouse pointer to virtual paper — things couldn’t have begun more simply. Here’s what I heard the keys doing during the verse:
Listening closely to the recording, I noticed that the D-G diad in the opening two bars gives way to alternating C-G and D-G diads as the vocals enter. This makes sense, because it foreshadows the chord changes in the chorus. I wouldn’t have perceived this if I didn’t have to arrange the song. Details like these are what make me nervous about trying to “fake” any song from memory.
In the guitar, I heard this pattern:
Notice that the E on the final eighth-note pulse of bar 4 rubs against the D in the keyboards. I may have heard the recording incorrectly, but conceptually I didn’t have a problem with it. It doesn’t break any “rules” by implying an Em7, and when a rub is spread across two different-sounding voices, the dissonance is softened.
By the way, songwriters take note: It is a natural tendency to set up an opening verse with a four- or eight-bar vamp. Not here. This arrangement cruises right into verse one after little more than the establishment of a tempo. This being one of the hookiest songs I have ever heard, I am not surprised. The original arranger shows zero tolerance for filler.
Also note the instructions in the guitar part. As a guitarist, I recognized the honky sound of a bridge pickup in the beginning, which works well later as the overdrive kicks in, so I did the courtesy of providing a clue to the performer. Without direction, guitarists have a variety of tones at their disposal, and may rely upon their own favorites. I also wanted to be perfectly clear about how subtle the guitar part is. “Piano” wasn’t enough; I spelled it out in plain English.
Bass was pretty straightforward — in a high register, it doubles guitar, but with glissandi between some notes.
Lacking the time and energy to transcribe every note in the drum part, I looked up drum arrangements online until I found one that didn’t take too many liberties, and pretty much copied it into the part:
There was some clean-up work here and there, but the drum part I worked from was pretty reliable. And no, this is not cheating; this is getting a job done for a working band.
More on this process in part two, later.
Here’s a dose of inspiration from Mark Helprin, in the Wall Street Journal:
In his article, Helprin discusses the creative process, and how it is less romantic and more work-oriented than we often like to think.
When I was (regrettably) involved in a direct sales organization some time ago, one of the few positive lessons I learned is that in any system you have the “lovers” — people who just love being involved but don’t involve themselves. These are the types that can recite historical trivia related to their chosen pursuit, but don’t work towards an objective in that pursuit. For musicians, these are gearheads that don’t practice, or composers that fail to shake themselves out of the role of philosopher and transition into the role of a doer. Helprin’s example is the “tech weenie” — a mountain climber that is “weighed down with $10,000′s worth of equipment.”
Whether you are sitting at a kitchen table with black manuscript and a number 2 pencil, or facing the display of a high-end MacBook Pro running Logic Studio, create something! Even if you spend your next few hours fruitlessly brainstorming, or building something up only to tear it down in frustration, you are taking steps that you will certainly have to take sometime, whether that time is now or later.
In a blog post, Ben Levin details his experience auditioning for a Lady Gaga tour. I found it pretty interesting. Some takeaways:
1. Being well-trained as a musician doesn’t necessarily give you stage appeal, and that’s what many acts are looking for. Is this a negative reflection on the industry? I’ll leave the question open.
2. I was intrigued by the fact that the audition panel seemed to be looking for someone who could think on their feet. Adaptability is indeed useful in a rock show. Can you play a song exactly as it is on the album? Can you personalize it, for example by turning a mostly synth arrangement into something more guitar-heavy? Can you fade into the background, or take the spotlight and go crazy? Can you improvise in any context, even when you don’t agree that it’s appropriate? What is your personal definition of “shredding,” and how would you meet someone else’s expectations if they asked you to shred?
3. Groove is everything. Play in the pocket, and your perceived virtuosity will gain a few points.
The Captain frowned. After a while he said, “Anjin-san, what’s the significance of the stone?”
“The stone. Why, Anjin-san?”
“Ah! I watch stone grow.”
“Oh, so sorry, I understand,” the captain replied apologetically. “Please excuse me for disturbing you.”
– James Clavell, Shogun
Although this is mostly a music blog, I believe time management and organization are important to success in any field. Earlier, I shared the Pomodoro technique, which for me has been instrumental in making sure tasks get done effectively. Now I’d like to share a thought on how we can reduce “mental clutter.”
Mental clutter can be described as nagging thoughts that make us feel more stressed and busy than we probably should. They also tend to distract from the higher-level thinking which enables us to do great work. We like to attribute it to the pressures of our jobs, raising children, and other adult responsibilities; but I suspect a large portion of mental clutter is self-inflicted. If we can remove what is within our power to remove, how much more effective can we be? Imagine a PC that is slowed by hundreds of background tasks. If that PC is my brain, then I want to close those background processes and apply a greater portion of my mental resources to the work that requires the most focus.
Here is my plan: Each week, I will choose something to remove from my life. It can be a habit, like watching a specific television show, or it can be an object, like a box full of junk in the garage. It might be an unused application on my computer, or an unnecessary step in a routine process. My expectation is that with each thing removed, I am contributing to a cleaner home and work environment, and freeing space in my mind that was once occupied by the thought of something that should not require attention.
How scientific is this? I’m not sure what the literature says; but at the very least I will be systematically tidying up the space around me, and that should certainly have a demonstrably positive effect on my life.
Last Sunday, I was sitting in an echoey room that was at times the lobby of a posh rental hall, but that night was the field headquarters of a mobile catering crew. The idle chatter of my bandmates swirled around my head without penetrating my field of awareness, as my sleep-deprived mind surrendered to a moment of spontaneous introspection. What the hell am I doing here? I wondered.
After a summer full of shows, the venues had begun to blur into one big gig. Over the last few weeks, I sometimes found myself forgetting where I was. Imagine how much more an actual touring schedule affects musicians on the road! They not only have the constant travel, but they have near-total separation from home, which certainly can be disorienting.
Back home there were a wife and two children who had gone to sleep without a goodnight from Dad. I was facing a three hour drive back after the show, and work in the morning. I was being paid enough to consider the job cost-effective, but for that moment in the reception hall something felt vaguely wrong.
The day was stressful to that point. There were technical difficulties, errors in logistics, and a couple of performance blunders. The bride had expressed disappointment — bad news for performers in the wedding business, which makes or breaks you through word-of-mouth.
I’m struggling to gain momentum with the new music project that I’m trying to launch. I reflected on the irony that my attempts to produce something musically meaningful are proving fruitless, yet I can find regular work churning out wedding music.
Still, I turned my attitude around with a few thoughts, which I would like to pass on to the other working musicians that might be reading:
The first thing that I realized was that my internal monologue froze on the word “play,” as in, “I play music.” What does that even mean? This isn’t play, it’s work. I don’t play when I practice at home; I take my craft very seriously. But wait, why should I? If you were to ask me why I work so hard at practicing and performing, my instinctive response would be, “because I enjoy it,” right? When did I stop enjoying it? I guess I never did. So stop acting like you don’t enjoy it, I reminded myself. No matter what level you’re at as an artist, they still call it “playing.” And for good reason.
Then I thought about the money. Sure, there is the well-worn adage that you’re lucky to be paid to do something you enjoy; but I took this line of thinking one level deeper. These people paid a lot of money for me and the others around me to make their night special. This band is just part of a larger package, one including a ceremony, decorations, photos, video, hotel rooms, buses, and so much more. Every component of this day contributes to some of the sweetest memories this couple and their families will hold. So even if I stop enjoying what I do, I should take pleasure in knowing someone else enjoys what I do.
Then, I remembered this guy:
Just recalling this performance brought a smile to my face. And I remembered that one of the biggest lessons I have been learning — and never quite yet mastered — was to let go of my stress regarding all the things surrounding the music, and just get into the music. Just do it and love it. And stop feeling shitty about it.
Take a note from the blues. When guys sing the blues, they are talking about real problems, problems you and I generally don’t have — being kicked out of one’s home, being chased by the law, killing someone out of jealousy. The character in a blues song is turning tragedy into revelry. These songs are the pearls formed by intense irritation. If we fail to take pleasure in having opportunities to express meaning through song, then we miss the point of singing.