We are making arrangements!
We sing with London City Singers and our chorus director, Simon Arnott, is rapidly making a name for himself as a rising young star on the arranging scene. His view is that arranging is not some sort of arcane mystery, it is actually a skill that anyone with the musical ability to sing in a barbershop chorus could learn. And to prove this he set us Simon’s Christmas Challenge – to select and arrange a piece of music, create teach tracks for it, and rehearse the chorus to the level where he could just polish it for our Christmas Concert.
He said it would be easy and it would be fun. Well, it wasn’t terribly easy (although Simon was extremely patient and very helpful) but it was tremendous fun. So in the hope that you will feel inspired, here’s how we went about it.
We formed groups of 2 or 3 to give some self-support. That step is really important!
The first challenge is to find a song that might work, and after a long look at the Christmas Conga and the Andrews Sisters’ Christmas Polka, we selected I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas.
The other teams selected Carol of the Bells and Jesu Joy, by the way, so we had a fairly eclectic mix.
Next, we needed some way to write out and listen to the music, and swap our workings as we don’t live near each other. We found Muse, a music scripting programme which has the double benefits of a) being free, and b) running on both Mac and PC. It’s got all the features you need to produce a good-quality barbershop arrangement and playback, but it did take a bit of learning, and we will certainly be much quicker next time.
So then, armed with some notes on chord sequences from Simon’s many text books, and a list of “the chords you are allowed to use in barbershop” we set off.
The first bit was HARD. We started with a piano arrangement of the song with guitar chords shown over the top. This means that on each syllable you already have three notes which form the anchor shape of the main chord plus any extra notes if the chord is more complex or if the tune is moving off the chord. If you use this exactly as it is written, it gives you something that is ok if you read it vertically chord by chord, but gives a very boring set of parts for each voice. Alternatively you can write creatively for each voice, and then the chords themselves turn into a peculiar shape. At this point we were pinging bits of music to Simon daily – our big lessons here were don’t put the third twice in a chord, and make sure that the chord makes some sort of musical sense by checking it on a piano. After a while we did get the hang of this, and things became easier and more creative.
We did find that we had to adapt the song a bit. We know as singers that songs which have repeated word sections are easy to get muddled up, so we took out repeated phrases, and we cut the overall song down to four verses and one bridge on the ‘leave the audience wanting more’ principle. We added on an intro – in the song the band starts before the singer, so instead we wrote a couple of lines of straightforward singing to mislead the audience into thinking that it was going to be a nice little song about peace and goodwill. We put little twiddly baritone bits in as echoes at the ends of some lines (“I wanna hippo!”) and then we found we’d overdone those a bit and pulled some of them out.
Finally, we didn’t want to use the final phrase “and hippopotamuses like me too!” because the “oo” sound is too difficult to use on that all-important final ringing chord, so we substituted the slightly weaker line “a hippopotamus would make my day!” This allowed us to have fun with the tag, including a triumphant bass “hippo hippo hippo hippo hay!”
When we taught the song to the chorus, it was extraordinarily satisfying to see and hear it coming to life, as the little girl who is SO determined to have her ideal Christmas present explains to everyone how she would overcome every obstacle they can possibly place in her way.
We would never, ever have done this without Simon’s challenge and his support – nevertheless, we encourage you to please try arranging music yourselves. And as a final boon, every time a copy of our arrangement is sold on the SheetMusicPlus website our chorus gets 65p. Instant fundraising!