Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Practice What You Preach, Part IV

When last we left our aspiring composer type, he staring down the barrel of a deadline, albeit self-imposed. The situation was by no means hopeless … but it was starting to look like all those research papers of his life: in spite of all possible preparation, he was going to be typing till midnight the night before it was due.

With three days of a summer vacation remaining before I had to dive back into the world of faculty meetings, lesson planning and lunch duty, I had written five songs. My plan had been for seven. So, three days and two songs. No problem.

Which is, on its face, a pretty absurd statement. No, I wasn’t going to be writing the equivalent of the Pathetique Symphony – perhaps a Pathetic one! – but it’s over-the-top to expect to whip off a decent anthem in a day. Which, I reminded myself, is why we sleep on it and the next morning we edit. Hard.

Right. To the poetry pile! I looked at what had been written so far and it was severely lacking in shepherds and angels, which is of course one of the fun parts of the Christmas story. Many years ago I imagined writing a piece that properly conveyed what the shepherds might have felt. I don’t care who you are: if you are suddenly set upon, in the middle of the otherwise quiet wee hours of the morning, by blindingly-lit supernatural figures that claim to be angels, you are terrified right down to your regulation sandals. But back then, I imagined a much less contemporary-music-sounding thing, and frankly it was probably wouldn’t have been appropriate for the Offertory music slot at the local Methodist church.

Two things happened almost simultaneously. First, I recalled having thought that it would be a fun experiment to write a tune based around one of those four-guitar-chord riffs that go around and around and around and are in fact the entire harmonic structure of a Green Day or a Michelle Branch tune. Especially since at one point way back when, I remember mumbling, “well THAT’S not very creative.” I was a Gershwin snob, I think.

And second, remarkably, a poem hurled itself at me, out of the Christina Rossetti catalog, that started out, “Shepherds watch their flocks by night…”

Well there ya go.

And after a morning and an afternoon, and then another morning of polite but ferocious editing, I had a song in 6/8 (up to that point I hadn’t gotten into compound meter, and was beginning to consider the monotony of having most of seven songs in 4/4), driven forward by a pair of ’90s pop guitar riffs. Not my usual. Kinda fun.

The other element of the Big Story that was still glaringly absent: Wise Men of any kind. And again … I don’t know who exactly was choreographing this wild poetry-goose chase, but amazing! This time the Madeleine L’Engle catalog stepped up and delivered a curious poem, written in the first person, from the perspective of the three kings. Its structure was intriguing: each of the six stanzas had a six- or seven-syllable line, followed by a pair of very similar two-syllable lines, followed by a last eight- or ten-syllable line. So? Tenors and basses sing the longer lines, punctuated by sopranos and altos interjecting the short lines, and we potentially answer the question “so, are the men going to have any melodies in this collection of songs?”

And possibly the question “how much Philip Glass -grade repetition can a choir stand before it throws up its collective hands in frustration?”

And possibly the question “can I get away with overlaying a piece with a stereotypically Lawrence-of-Arabia, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ percussion ostinato?” Well? They traversed the desert, after all … and we’ve got a couple of fine percussionists in the congregation (one is seven years old, one is a recent college graduate, and both rock-solid), so of course we utilize!

Is our hero finally finished? Do seven songs actually equal one complete work? Will our hero step back and admire, or will he perpetuate his irritating habit of writing a lesson plan ahead of time and then straying from it halfway through the class? Find out … in the final installment of … “Start Rehearsals Already”!

August 30, 2013 - Posted by | choir, music, SUMC | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. […] halfway point, a slow gospel anthem, followed by a Wise-Men desert camel groove (please refer to this dignified explanation for this silly description!), followed by the big […]

    Pingback by Practice What You Preach, Part V « Editorial License | August 31, 2013 | Reply

  2. […] space, during the last few months, I’ve occasionally mentioned my pie-in-the-sky attempt to become a Serious […]

    Pingback by Enthusiasm, Part the Second -or- From the Soles of Your Shoes « Editorial License | December 23, 2013 | Reply

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