July 30, 2013

Brigadoon for Kids

I just got done doing the classic musical Brigadoon with a summer theater camp that I work at every year. I thought I'd share some of the things I did to make the show a bit more manageable for kids.

The camp I music-direct at puts on a show every summer with around 80 kids aged between 6 and 14 years old. We also don't use microphones. There are some general things that apply every year, such as the need to maximize volume while keeping the health of the performers a priority, arranging the songs so that they remain interesting while not too difficult, and keeping the orchestra quiet.

Brigadoon has some unique challenges for a music director.

Vocal Ranges
This show (and lots of older shows in general) have insanely high soprano parts. The main song of the show, "MacConnachy Square" shows up multiple times across the show and in higher and higher keys. By the end of the show, the composers have sopranos singing a high B at a fortissimo dynamic. This note is just not feasible, or desirable, from most elementary and middle-school singers. I had to do a lot of rearranging and octave-dropping with my singers to make the songs not only palatable but good sounding.

This show relies heavily on the harmonies to make the songs interesting. We did a lot of work on singing parts this year but even with that emphasis I ended up collapsing most of the score into three part harmonies. With this age group you also have to deal with boys whose voices are unchanged or in transition. I ended up with a soprano/melody part which included the young boys, an alto part with some of the girls who sing strongly as well as some of the strong singing unchanged boys, and a tenor part. For the boys whose voices had dropped but weren't strong enough to sing a harmony part, they joined on the melody singing an octave lower than the sopranos.

On a few of the songs, such as opening and some other smaller features, I had groups of strong singers do four-part harmonies but even those I arranged to make the part singing easier. This show required by far the most re-arrangement I've ever done for a show. When writing harmony parts I essentially tried to make them as tuneful as possible while preserving the harmonies from the show. This meant a lot of jumping from voice to voice as written in the original score.

Solos and Duets
Brigadoon has quite a few large chorus numbers and even more dances (more on that in a second), but it still relies heavily on solo songs. We had strong actors in a our lead roles this year but a slow song can still feel like it drags a song down in the hands of a non-professional. I kept the solos relatively intact this year but in Act II I cut the bridge out of one and chopped some of the others down a bit to keep the show moving along.

A show that relies heavily on dance is great when you have professional dancers but for a choreographer figuring out what to do with 80 children, it can be overwhelming. We ended up cutting most of the big dances out completely, and kept the big spectacle dances as special features. One of the big centerpieces, the "Entrance of the Clans" turned into a somewhat improvisational set of music that required a lot of chopping apart of the written music to fit what the choreographer had created.

We were lucky and got a really great piper to work with. The show only requires him to be used in a funeral scene, but we decided to use him for a scene change before the "Entrance of the Clans" as well as to open the second act. I found that a melodica sounded pretty close to a bagpipe for rehearsals and would have substituted pretty well in a show as well. Just bring earplugs if you're in a confined pit!

Operatic Style
Compared to modern musical theater, some songs in Brigadoon sound fairly operatic, with high soprano lines and dramatic flourishes in the orchestra. Keeping the orchestra down enough to hear the singers was difficult at times and getting young singers to grapple with these songs in a way appropriate to their voices was a constant source of work.

July 26, 2013

Please, Not on Stage

At a recent gig at a small town block party our band was faced with a request. We had just finished playing "Shout" and only had about 5 or 6 songs left when a woman approached the stage and asked us if her friend could sing the song with the band. He wanted to sing the number we had just performed, and he wanted to do it in Spanish. "He just got into the states a few days ago and really wants this. Promise you'll let him do it. Promise!", she pleaded us. The band glanced around awkwardly and finally said, "Sure, he can sing it in a few songs."

Saying no to people is awkward, especially for Minnesotans, and when you're in the spotlight and people are waiting for you to make decisions it can be even more difficult. But I'll go ahead and say it right now, for the future: "Just Say No".

We were getting to the end of the night and had played all of the songs in our set when someone in the band remembered the promise we had made to the lady from before. We called him up and everyone in the band looked around nervously.

The guy was perfectly nice, he had been hanging around and watching the entire set (he was hard to miss wearing a bright yellow day-glow t-shirt) and even when he got on stage he was quite congenial. He didn't speak any English, but luckily we had someone who could translate for us. It turned out that he didn't want to sing "Shout", rather it was "Jailhouse Rock" (I think). The Presley classic had been our first song of the entire 2.5 hour set so apparently he had been waiting around the whole night just itching to belt out a Spanish version. So after a bit of bumbling around on our packed stage we deciphered the song he wanted to sing, readied our instruments and played the first chords.

He was awful.

I'm not going to be nice and say that he "made a great effort" or some other Minnesotan platitude that sounds uplifting but actually hides the hideousness of the whole thing. He stunk. It may be that "Jailhouse Rock" wasn't actually the song he was thinking of, or it might just be that he was born with a charismatic personality and a scientifically incomprehensible vacuum where his sense of rhythm was supposed to be. The first verse went somewhat normally, but by the time the band was on the chorus, our visible-in-all-light friend was already yelling about a "gato on a saxafon". The wind left his entourage's sails at breathtaking velocity. The water went from lapping at his heels to being 8-feet deep. The excitement in his eyes turned to fear.

Eventually he ended the song and sometime later the band did as well. He said thank you and left the stage, and we played one last song to go out on a good note.

My anger about this experience doesn't rest solely on the man who sang. I have a feeling that his friend, the pushy lady, caught him singing along a bit and demanded that he force his way on stage. Or maybe it really was him, in which case his bombing serves him right. If pushy lady was to blame though, she's the worst kind of audience member. The kind that views the world as her play-thing.

Bands practice to play on stage. Often a lot. There's usually a long collective musical experience put together in a band and that experience is what makes it work. To demand that your friend gets put on stage is offensive to everyone who has worked hard to make the music work.

I've been in other situations where people push their way on stage. At a bar I played at a group of drunk 20-somethings demanded the tambourine from the singer and proceeded to play keep-away and bang it erratically. At my college after a recital, it was not uncommon to see other students go on stage and play the the pieces that had just been performed while people were still in the room, including the recitalist.

I try to be a humble musician, but if you want your time in the light, work for it. Make a band, learn your pieces, do whatever it is you want to do and perform, but don't shit on someone else's work.

July 24, 2013


Every time I mess this section up I imagine Gottschalk laughing at me.

July 14, 2013

Mendota Day 7/13, 2013

Mendota Day
July 13, 2013
Mendota, MN

July 6, 2013

And then that happened...

I really like Anderson and Roe but this...

..okay it's actually kind of cool.