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4. examples of my writing process

This chapter presents three very different pieces of music and the process used in the creation of each. The first piece is “In Other Words,” a rhythm section-based piece for small instrumental ensemble. I learned several important things writing this piece, as I will discuss below.

1. “In Other Words”

I’ve mentioned this piece earlier in this book and presented the schematic in the previous chapter. Writing this piece presented some challenges that I think will be useful to consider. Here’s a link to the page of “In Other Words” in Scores and Recordings.

“In Other Words” in Scores and Recordings

The germinal idea came to me when I was asked to play something to set levels during a recording session. The first eight bars came out without any thought. I was surprised and pleased: I knew this idea had depth, possibilities, and value and quickly sketched it out before I could forget it.

The genesis of the music – the reason for writing the piece – came at the same time. I was working on writing the tunes for an album project that eventually became From Here To There (see Scores and Recordings) and knew this piece would fit right in.

Initial decisions. I had already decided the album would be written for a small, rhythm section-based ensemble with a solo instrument or two as possibilities. It quickly became apparent that guitar wasn’t appropriate for the tune and that the solo voice I was hearing was alto saxophone. So, I had the ensemble: alto sax, piano and keyboards, bass, drums, and percussion.

Working the tune. Since this was going to be a piece for piano, with me as the player, I wrote at the piano, jotting ideas into three-line sketch paper as I went along. I realized the germinal eight-bar seed was an A of the opening part of the tune (it felt immediately like some kind of introductory material) and that it required a second A. Just by letting the music lead into the next section, the second A phrase appeared, transformed by a different harmonization and an extended melodic phrase. That came very quickly, but I was stumped about what came next. Some kind of contrasting B phrase seemed obvious, but nothing was coming. So, here’s what I had so far:

Example 1.1, “In Other Words,” Sections A1, A2

I had a lot of energy and didn’t want to stop writing, but ideas for the next section weren’t flowing. Without thinking about it too much, I did something I do a lot now when I reach some kind of barrier or feel stopped: I skipped that section and picked up writing at the point where I knew the final A returned. Again, the final A, with an extended melodic phrase and more chromatic harmony, came quickly. Here’s the final A section:

Example 1.2, “In Other Words,” Section A3

As I worked with this section of the piece – A1, A2, (unknown B), A3 – I started to get a feel for its possibilities, where it wanted to go, how it could work in the larger piece that was taking shape. Since I knew I wanted a major portion of the final piece to have a less harmonically complex and active section that would provide groove and a place for improvised solos, and since the character of the section felt like an introduction (the A section of a larger piece), I made a big decision about the form. I knew I had the option of changing things later if the plan that was emerging didn’t work out, but it gave me a way to quickly move forward and keep the energy flowing.

I decided to shape the container for the piece into what I call a “bookend” form. By that I mean that the main body of the piece, complete in itself (that I hadn’t written yet and labelled in the example below as big letter B), would be bracketed between two statements of the section I had so far, with it placed at the beginning (the left bookend as an Intro) and end of the piece (the right bookend as an Outro). The schematic looked like this, with the letter A representing the bookend sections comprised of A1, A2, (unknown B), A3:

Example 1.3, “In Other Words,” bookend structure

Since I knew there wouldn’t be any rehearsal time and wanted the players prepared when we went into the studio, the production process I was using for the album included making complete mockups of each tune. I followed the same process for this tune and started sequencing the demo right away. So, I was sketching in two modes – the three-line sketch paper and the sequencer – at the same time, while I was also drawing ideas in the schematic. I sequenced A1, A2, and A3 and left the unknown B section mostly blank, with just a shaker playing eighth notes for 16 bars (a quick guess of the length of the section).

Writing the tune that would make up the central part of the piece went quickly. I had a nice percussion loop set up that I could experiment on top of and a good idea of the character of the music I wanted. Since the A bookends had rapid harmonic motion and a linear bassline, the ideas that seemed to make the most sense for the middle B section involved a more static, slower harmonic rhythm with greater focus on the melody. (I realized later that the basic harmonic plan of the tune was essentially a blues.) Here’s the melody, chords, and bassline of the basic tune (labelled section C) of the middle part of the piece:

Example 1.4, “In Other Words,” the C section of the tune

While working through this material, a contrasting B section appeared. The possibility of using this section in the bookends occurred to me and – happily – it worked well. The form of the whole piece was becoming clear and now looked like this (the tune is labelled small section C under the larger B section of the middle music):

Example 1.5, In Other Words, same B sections in the tune and the bookends

Finishing. Now that the form of the entire piece was clear, I began the process of finishing the tune. I sequenced the whole piece, adding solo sections over the changes of the middle tune. The form felt right, except that the appearance of the B section in the right bookend (the Outro) felt like a letdown of energy. Also, coming out of the sax solo, I felt the need for some way to bring the energy down more gradually. As an experiment, I moved the B section of the right bookend to the beginning, resulting in a B, A1, A2, A3 form, so the structure of the bookends now looked like this:

Example 1.6, “In Other Words,” new right (Outro) bookend structure

I liked how this worked and settled on this as the final form. The finished schematic now looked like this. You can see I added some additional notes. There are no dynamics on this schematic, which I usually show, but things were getting visually cluttered and I was moving quickly.

Example 1.7, “In Other Words,” the finished schematic

The rest of the process of finishing involved working with both the sequence and the score. In the sequence, I worked on the bassline to get it in a mostly complete form, knowing that Eliot (the bass player and my partner on the project) would take some liberties when it played it. Then I worked at a very detailed level on the drum part, especially with the kick drum, to make it agree with the bassline. At this point, I stopped working on the sketch paper and was working directly in the sequence and score. I have a lot of experience writing drum parts so I made sure the part was detailed enough to work as a guide for the drummer, knowing that the player I had picked was an excellent reader, but also not too complex to groove while reading.

One decision still needed to be made: where would the sax enter? I really liked the sound of the piano on the first two A sections of the left bookend, but also felt that the sax needed to make an entrance in the Intro bookend. Bringing the sax in at the beginning of A2 or A3 felt too predictable and lacked impact. I’d already decided that the B section would be scored for synthesizer. So I did another thing I’d never done before (the bookend structure was also a new device for me): I put the sax entrance after the beginning of the A3 section. The part kind of sneaks in after the double bar separating the B and A3 sections. I really like the way this works. I think the first time you hear the tune that this is a surprise and creates a lot of interest. You can see where I note the entrance of the sax in the finished schematic and in Example 1.2 above, showing section A3.

Another task of the finishing process was to work the cadences at the end of several sections. You can see these areas on the schematic, labelled “riff.” They seemed to happen too abruptly during the tune section, so I changed the meter and elongated the melodic rhythm. At the end of the piece, I extended the harmony, delaying the arrival of the tonic chord. Here are the statements of the riff cadences:

Example 1.8, “In Other Words,” the “riff” cadences

Finally, while the final chord was fading out, I put three loops that cycled during the fade: the first phrase of the melody from the A2 section of the bookend, the beginning of melody from the tune, and the bassline of the tune, voiced in a tenor register. Here’s what it looks and sounds like:

Example 1.9, “In Other Words,” ending fade

Writing and producing this tune presented some interesting challenges and I tried some new things when I was working them through. I learned two things that have stayed with me since then:

1. Don’t stop working, even if you get stuck. Before this tune, I always wrote pretty much left to right, meaning that I started writing the beginning and worked through the piece, in chronological (or experiential) order, to the end. If I reached a point where the ideas were no longer flowing or I couldn’t solve some problem that came up, I would stay there and work it out before going on. This had resulted in a lot of pieces that were started but never finished.

With this tune, the idea of skipping the problem spot and picking up the writing at a later point in the tune worked really well. I was lucky that the section I was looking for appeared later, in a different context, and I didn’t have to struggle. A variation of this strategy I’ve since discovered is: when I get stopped, I work on some other element of the tune – adding articulations, refining rhythms, organizing the files, etc. I do anything to keep busy and engaged with the tune and keep the forward motion going.

2. Abstract ideas are great, but be flexible when they don’t work out. I think the form of this tune worked well, and the idea of the bookend – which was an abstract rather than musical idea – was a good one. However, when I applied it literally, meaning that having identical left (Intro) and right (Outro) bookends, it didn’t really work. When I rearranged the right bookend to a BAAA form, which I auditioned by playing and hearing it, rather than thinking about it, the problem was solved. So, I learned to, when in doubt, rely on musicality rather than intellect.  

2. “Praça Onze”

This is the second movement of the Choro Suite for woodwind quartet. In the Scores and Recordings section, you can listen to the entire suite and see the full score. Here’s the score and recording of just “Praça Onze.”

The genesis of the writing ­ came from the Della By Moonlight album project. Michael Farquharson and I decided to write a set of pieces for woodwind quintet. We planned to write many of these pieces for the quintet with rhythm section and soloists, but we each wanted to write a piece for “a cappella” quintet (in this context meaning without rhythm section).

I wrote in the Introduction about my interest in Brazilian music and I made a decision to write in the style of Choro, a (mostly) instrumental style of music that arose in Rio de Janeiro a few decades before Samba developed. Heavily influenced by European harmony and form, Choro uses intrinsically Brazilian rhythms, and to North American ears can sound a little like bluegrass or ragtime. The typical Choro instrumentation includes violão (Brazilian nylon string guitar), hand percussion, cavaquinho, and a woodwind instrument, commonly flute or clarinet. Similar to bluegrass in North America, it remains a vital style in Brazil to a small community of dedicated writers and performers.

In my overall planning of the suite, before writing any music, I created its basic structure, consisting of these four movements:

  • “Prelude” ­– all the great Brazilian musicians were deeply inspired by “classical” music, and by Chopin in particular, and this introduction is an homage to that influence. I planned to write it in a major key and a slow tempo.
  • “Praça Onze” – Plaza 11 was a public square in downtown Rio where all the Choro musicians met and played. I decided that this movement would follow the old style of Choro in terms of melody, harmony, and structure, written in a major key, up tempo.
  • “Tres Lados (Three Sides)” – is a tribute to three great Brazilian composers: Pixinghuinha, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Guinga. I planned to use more contemporary harmony and write the movement in a minor key.
  • “Roda Loca” – Choro musicians often play in a roda (circle), and it’s fitting that the woodwind quintet plays in a half circle. I planned for “Roda Loca” (Crazy Circle) to be the most technically challenging movement of the suite and contain the most adventuresome harmony.

Initial decisions. In my initial decisions about the suite, I had decided that “Praça Onze” would follow the basic form and key structure of Choro, but I wanted to take a few liberties. Since I was already very familiar with the style, I didn’t need to do any research and started writing right away. I decided on a working approach, which I’ve used many times, that I call “create the container and fill it.”

Working the music, the form. I started to work by designing the formal structure first, planning to create the container. Later, I’ll discuss the melodic material that I created to fill it.

I began with the formal structure of the typical Choro. Notice that each section is 16 bars long and contains two 8-bar phrases:

Example 2.1, Form of a typical Choro

I wanted to work in this form, but quickly decided that the literal repeats of the standard form limited the possibilities for development I wanted to explore, both in terms of orchestration and composition. So, the formal plan I decided on now looked like this: the same form but with no repeats:

Example 2.2, First draft of the form of “Praça Onze”

Choros use a matrix of closely related keys and they don’t usually modulate outside of this matrix. Here are the key areas of the typical major key Choro (there is a different scheme for Choros in a minor key, not relevant here):

Example 2.3, Keys of the typical major key Choro

The key matrix can be shown like this:

Example 2.4, Key matrix of a major key Choro

Here’s an example of a schematic showing the key areas of the typical Choro. There are other possibilities, but this form and harmonic structure is extremely common.

Example 2.5, The typical form and key areas of a Choro in a major key

Another decision I made early in the writing process was to extend this key matrix to include two other key areas, as shown below, and to avoid the subdominant area (it felt too closely related as I was working the melodic ideas):

Example 2.6, The extended key matrix used for “Praça Onze”

Here’s the first draft of the schematic of “Praça Onze” showing the key areas I’d decided on:

Example 2.7, The schematic and key scheme of “Praça Onze”

Working the music, melodic material. Now that I had the form and key areas of each section, I started writing the thematic material: the basic themes of A, B, and C. I laid out the form and the key areas in a sketch book, like a lead sheet without the melody, showing only the main key areas of the formal sections. Next, I started writing the melodies. I can’t explain exactly how I did this, but it seemed that, working within the harmonic and formal structure – the container I had created – the melodies just came. It took me about 45 minutes to write the melodic material of the whole movement. Here’s a scan of the first page of the sketch with the finished melodic material. As you can see, it’s pretty sloppy, but my main concern was getting the melodic ideas down on paper.

Example 2.8, First page of the melodic sketch

You can download/view all four pages of the sketch here:

These melodies underwent development during both the orchestration and finishing process, but the initial writing was quick. While I was sketching the first draft of the melodies, I made a quick change to the form, adding a final B section and a 4-bar extension to the end of the piece to strengthen the final cadence. This seemed to add needed formal balance and resulted in a quasi-palindromic form. Additionally, I followed my ear and transposed the last two sections of the tune up a half-step, something atypical of Choro but that I felt was necessary to keep the piece bright. Ending in C# major was a perfect set-up for the next movement of the suite, a ballad in D minor.

Example 2.9, The final form, now a quasi-palindrome

Working the music, developing the A themes.  Since there are eight occurrences of the 8-bar A themes (four in the first big letter A, two in the middle A section, and two in the final A), I felt an ongoing development of these statements was needed. I focused primarily on developing the first four bars of the phrase. In the first big A section, I assigned the melody to a different instrument in each phrase and also made slight adjustments to the melody. The four statements are isolated in the score and audio below.

Example 2.10, The opening phrases of the four statements of the A theme in the first big letter A section

Here are the two statements of the A theme in the middle big letter A section. You can hear further melodic and harmonic transformation.

Example 2.11, The two statements of the A phrase in the middle A section

Here are the final two statements of the A phrase, from the final big letter A section of the piece. These underwent the most development. The goal was to create the right level of energy to close the piece effectively.

Example 2.12, The final two statements of the A phrase in the last A section of the piece

Working the music, scoring. I had already created the five-line score template for the suite in Finale, so I began with that template and added a single line at the top. I transferred the melodic sketch to the top line of the score. I then worked my way through the piece, copying the melody from the top line to whichever instrument I decided should have the melody at any given point. Then I orchestrated the supporting lines in the remaining winds. Rather than do this work on the schematic, I just worked quickly, by ear – on the fly, so to speak.

This process took longer than the initial writing stage because, in addition to scoring the melody, I was also making some revisions and developing certain areas of the melodies – in particular, variations on the A theme and the phrase and section cadences.

Finishing. The last step of the writing process focused on refining the score, adding articulations, phrase marks, and dynamics. By adding and carefully editing all these details (and a few other controller assignments and invisible things), the score playback produced a reasonable mock-up. Then I adjusted the page layout of the score and extracted and edited the individual parts.

3. “Retrato em Branco e Preto (Portrait in Black and White”

Since this is an arrangement of a song by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Chico Buarque currently under copyright, I don’t show the score or stream the audio on this site. However, you can listen to this arrangement on any of the standard streaming services. Here are links to Spotify and Apple Music where you can hear the arrangement on the album Carinhoso by Larry Monroe and Donna McElroy.

Spotify / Apple Music

I’m writing about this piece because creating the arrangement followed a fairly standard and typical process. I wrote “Retrato” as part of a larger project involving a set of pieces all written for a specific performance, so many of the initial steps in the process were common to all the arrangements. While these tunes were initially created for live performance, Larry – the client – later decided to record them, so I will also write about how they were adapted later for recording.

The genesis of the project. Larry Monroe, a saxophonist and colleague from Berklee, was invited to perform an evening concert at the Voices of Music in the Upper Galilee, a chamber music festival held at Kfar Blum, Israel. While Larry is primarily a jazz musician, he felt that swing feel would be difficult for an ensemble composed of classically trained chamber musicians. Like me, he’s a fan of Latin music and he decided that Brazilian music would be the contemporary style most accessible to these players. Larry proposed that the concert be a set of Brazilian standards for the chamber orchestra with rhythm section and a vocalist, and the music director of the festival agreed.

Initial project decisions, tune selection.  Larry and I decided that the concert would have seven tunes and we spent a few days discussing various options. “Retrato em Branco e Preto (Portrait in Black and White)” was one tune we agreed on quickly. While it’s perhaps not Jobim’s most well-known tune, jazz musicians have made several recordings of it, including one Larry had heard by Dave Liebman under the title “Zingaro.” Once we had decided on all seven pieces, I started writing and “Retrato” was the first piece I scored.

Initial project decisions, instrumentation. The instrumentation of the orchestra was predetermined by the festival music director: a small string section (ten violins, four violas, and two cellos) and five winds (flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, and French horn). We added a rhythm section of keyboard, nylon string guitar, electric bass, drum set, and percussion. I then created a Finale score template for the entire project based on the requirements for the festival orchestra. This template had the instruments of the ensemble in score order, with samples assigned in case I wanted to playback the score.

Initial project decisions, level of performance difficulty. In determining the level of difficulty of the writing, there were three competing factors: 1. the chamber players were all excellent musicians with extremely strong reading ability, capable of playing technically difficult music; 2. the music would be in a style with which the chamber players would be unfamiliar and the rhythmic aspects would present a challenge; and 3. there would be limited rehearsal time.

Then, I considered four qualities of the music: range, linear complexity, musical/textural complexity, and rhythmic complexity. Because of the players’ technical skills, I anticipated no limitations on the range of the parts (as there might be in writing for a college or semi-professional ensemble). I felt confident that I could write throughout the entire range of each instrument and there wouldn’t be any problems with intonation, timbre, or facility. Similarly, I believed that complex and challenging linear material wouldn’t present a problem, nor would complex textures or musical gestures. The one area that needed to be carefully calibrated to the players’ ability was rhythm. While the music needed a certain level of syncopation and stylistic rhythmic interpretation, I decided to keep the rhythms of the orchestral parts relatively simple, strongly supported by the rhythm section, and use a relatively small set of characteristic rhythms in each piece.

Overview of the arranging process

I’ve done a lot of arranging and have developed a process that allows me to work quickly, spending the least amount of time on mechanical tasks and making room for maximum creativity during the writing process. I summarize the three basic stages of the process here, and then will discuss the individual steps of the process.

Beginning steps. These steps take place in this order:

1. Create a lead sheet
2. Find the best key for the vocalist
3. Set the style and tempo
4. Create a schematic, showing the form and other “macro” information (tempo, energy levels, foreground and background elements, etc.)
5. Lay out the score
6. Add the parts for the soloists (voice and sax) to the score
7. Sketch in the basic parts for the rhythm section, where appropriate

Writing. These steps can take place in any order, but before the finishing stage of the process:

8. Write the backgrounds
9. Write any foreground music not sung or played by the soloists
10. Write the introduction
11. Write the coda (or outro)

Finishing. The final steps take place in this order:

12. Adjust the rhythm section writing to support the scoring of any of the foreground or background writing
13. Add dynamics, articulations, phrasing, expressive text, and any other score details
14. Refine the score layout
15. Create and edit the parts

During the arranging process, there’s a lot of interplay between the schematic created in the beginning and the sketching that happens during the writing stage, and of course it’s always possible to go back and refine the writing during the finishing stage as ideas occur. But I like to separate the more mechanical tasks of the first and final stages from the writing process, so that once I begin writing, I don’t have to stop the creative process to do something technical or mundane. 

Here are the steps, in detail:

Stage 1. Beginning Steps

1. Creating the lead sheet. The first step in arranging an existing song is to create a lead sheet in the right key with an accurate melody, lyrics, and a good set of chord changes. In my study of Brazilian music (see the Introduction), I quickly discovered that most lead sheets – whether in “fake” books, published songbooks, or on any of the web sites that come up in a title search – are full of errors. I own several songbooks of Jobim’s tunes and started with the published version of “Retrato” in one of those songbooks, but checked the melody and chords against Jobim’s own recording on the 1974 album Tom & Elis with the iconic Brazilian vocalist Elis Regina, arranged by Cesar Camargo Mariano. The result was a simple lead sheet, with the basic melody, Portuguese lyrics, and a good set of chords. The song form is extremely common for tunes from the Great American songbook: a 32-bar ABAC form. Many of Jobim’s tunes – but by no means all – follow this basic structure.

2. Finding the key.  Picking the right key for the singer is crucial. The melodic range of “Retrato” is fairly typical for a Brazilian song – an octave and a fourth. Mariano’s arrangement starts in D minor and modulates to F minor. In these keys, the vocal ranges are:

Example 3.1, “Retrato em Branco e Preto” vocal ranges in D minor and F minor

Using Elis’s keys as a starting point, I created basic demos of the piece (with piano, bass, and percussion) and lead sheets in D minor, E minor, and F minor for the vocalist to check. The singer contracted for the concert, Paula Valstein, picked E minor.

3. Setting the style and tempo.  I decided almost immediately that the piece would have a rubato intro and that the body of the piece would be in a medium bossa nova groove. Mariano’s arrangement is in rubato throughout, but we had already picked a ballad of the set (“Por Toda Minha Vida”). Because we wanted to keep the overall energy of the concert high, we decided to avoid having a second ballad in the set. So, I sung the melody at what felt like the right tempo in a bossa nova feel and found the tempo using the “Tap Tempo” function of my metronome.

4. Creating the schematic, working the form. Knowing the instrumentation, style, tempo, and key, I then started working on the form – the container. Anytime I begin writing, one of my main concerns is the length of the piece. To me, the conceptual approach for a three-minute piece is very different from the approach for a five-minute piece. Mariano’s arrangement on Elis & Tom is just over three minutes. That felt too short for this project, so I started sketching the form for a longer arrangement.

As I started working on the form, here are the elements I knew I wanted the arrangement to have:

  1. An orchestral introduction. I love to write for orchestra and recognized that the intro to this chart would be a great opportunity. I planned to write the intro after the rest of the chart was done so I would know how the introduction should balance the arrangement.
  2. First chorus: rubato with vocal melody accompanied by the orchestra. (I’m using the jazz arranger’s definition of the word “chorus” to mean one complete statement of the 32-bar form of the song.)
  3. Second chorus: a sax solo in a medium bossa nova tempo.
  4. Third chorus: the first half of the chorus scored for the orchestra, the second half featuring the return of the vocalist.
  5. A brief, rubato extension of the song form at the end, repeating the C section of the song form, to provide closure and recall the first chorus of the chart.
  6. A coda (or “outro”) of some kind. I wasn’t sure at this point what the outro would be, but I planned this as another place in the arrangement where I could write something original and interesting.

The right first draft of the schematic looked like this:

Example 3.2, “Retrato” schematic, first draft

5. Laying out the score.  Using the Finale score template I’d created, I transferred the elements of the schematic to the score. I made a rough guess that the intro would be 12 bars long (as it turned it when I went back later and wrote the intro, it was 9 bars long) and started laying out the rubato chorus in measure 13.

6. Adding the soloists to the score. I copied the melody, lyrics, and chords from the lead sheet to the vocal line of the score at those places I had set in the schematic: the entire first chorus and the second half of the third chorus, pasting another C section for the extension. Then I copied the chords from the lead sheet into the sax part for the second chorus and first half of the third chorus, as shown in the example below. Except for the intro and outro, the vocal and sax parts were now complete.

7. Sketching the rhythm section.Next, I sketched in the rhythm section, starting with the nylon string guitar part for the first chorus. I arranged the part for the entire 32-bar song form of this rubato chorus, knowing that it would provide an underpinning for the orchestral textures I would add later. I spent some time working with the tempo map so that it felt musical and fluid. Then I sketched in the piano, guitar, bass, and drumset parts for the second and third choruses. I took enough care with these parts so that they sounded reasonably musical when the score played back but, since I knew I would go back later and refine the rhythm section parts, I didn’t spend a lot of time refining the parts.

Stage 2. Writing

Scoring the first chorus.During this process of getting the chord progression entered and working with the tempo map, I started hearing the things I wanted the orchestra to do, so the next step was to add what I was hearing to the score. I sung through the lines as they occurred to me and added them to the score, working through the entire section from left to right (meaning that I started writing in the first bar of the form and wrote through the end of the section). I finished this section completely before I went on to the rest of the arrangement.

I had planned to have the second chorus be an instrumental feature for the sax and discovered that, after the rubato chorus, I needed a few bars to set up the groove before the next chorus started, so I added a 4-bar vamp. As I was working on this transition from rubato to a tempo, I noticed something else. By this point in the chart about 90 seconds had passed and I was planning for another three or four minutes. Additionally, I was getting a feeling from the emotional quality of the music as it was unfolding that suggested something else needed to happen as it went into the groove. One option came immediately to mind: modulation.

The modulation plan. When pop tunes modulate, they usually do so to create a lift in energy. There are lots of examples of this. One instance, familiar to anyone with any exposure to pop music in the last 30 years, is Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.” The tune starts in B major and at about 2:00 modulates up a half-step to C. There’s a big emotional lift from the modulation as the tonic rises. Another well-known example is Bobby Darin’s version of “Mac the Knife,” which starts in Bb and modulates up a half-step five times, ending in Eb for an ever-increasing rise of energy (somehow making the macabre lyrics seem even more grotesque). My arrangement of “Brazil,” also on Carinhoso, modulates twice to raise the level of energy, from the opening key of C to Eb, and then to F. Mariano’s arrangement of “Retrato” modulates up a minor third at the end of the arrangement for this same reason. (Of course, a primary concern for the arranger is how the change of key affects the vocal register – an issue I kept in mind as I experimented with keys in “Retrato.”)

As I worked on this arrangement, however, I realized that the modulation should serve a different purpose. Rather than a feeling of ascending energy, the modulation should create the feeling of going to a different musical territory. The lift in musical energy was less important that this feeling of “going away.” Any change of key involving upward motion of a second or third would create the feeling of rising energy, whether I wanted it to or not. Modulation a similar distance down would create a falling level of energy. Any movement to a closely related key such as up a fourth to the subdominant of a fifth to the dominant wouldn’t provide the feeling of “going away.” So, one key was left, and to my ear it worked perfectly: the modulation a tritone away, from E minor to Bb minor.

I loved the sound of this modulation and placed it right after the vamp, at the beginning of the second chorus featuring the sax. While I was experimenting with the sound of the two key areas, going back and forth between the two keys, I noticed that the modulation from Bb minor back to E minor was just as interesting as the modulation from E to Bb. It’s obvious to me now that this is because both movements are the same distance, a tritone, but while I was working the tune, I wasn’t thinking about how and where I would modulate for the return of the vocal in the third chorus; I was just checking the modulation to Bb minor. This was one of those happy accidents: I noticed that moving back to E minor sounded great to my ear and it solved the problem of how to manage the range of the vocal when it re-entered later.

So, here’s the updated schematic, with the added vamp and the modulations shown:

Example 3.3, “Retrato” schematic with key scheme

Scoring the second and third choruses. Again working from left to right, starting with the beginning of the second chorus and working through the end of the third chorus, I started singing and imagining the background orchestral parts, deciding where the different instruments would enter, what they would do, and where they would stop. Based on what I planned in the schematic, I knew that most of this material would be background to the sax solo and the return of the vocal in the second half of the third chorus. Adding the elements to the second chorus was a quick process.

Continuing to write from left to right, I then scored the foreground writing of the instrumental soli that began the third chorus and continued through the end of the chorus. It made sense to write these sections in “experiential order” (meaning as they would occur as the music was performed) so that I could join the backgrounds of the second chorus to the soli beginning the third chorus, and then craft the transition from the soli to the backgrounds for the remainder of the third chorus. I made a slight change to the schematic during this process by adding another solo in the B section of the third chorus: the piece felt like it needed another statement from the sax at this point before the return of the vocal. When I completed this process, the entire arrangement was basically complete, except for the intro and outro.

Writing the ending (the outro). At some point during the writing process (I don’t remember exactly when – it was after starting the writing process and before the scoring the second and third choruses was complete), I was walking to the train one morning and found myself singing (sort of in my head and under my breath) a bassline in time to my steps. I wasn’t trying to generate any musical ideas; I was just walking along not thinking about anything in particular. After a while, I realized I was singing a 2-bar vamp that was based on the final cadence of the song. Even though it was in a completely different feel than the rest of the arrangement – it was in a half-time funk feel with slap bass and a heavy backbeat from the drumset – it felt right and I liked it. I think I must have been working on the tune subconsciously and this idea arose and made itself heard.

When I got to my office, I immediately added this to the score as a repeating vamp. I knew it would work well as a section where the sax and voice could improvise together. I didn’t plan for them to trade fours or follow any formal structure guiding the interaction and decided to leave it open in a way that would allow for shared improvisation by the two musicians. Once this was laid into the score, I added the instrumental backgrounds.

Writing the intro. Through the scoring process, I had become immersed in the tune and was starting to get a good idea of how long the intro needed to be and what kind of writing was appropriate as an introduction. Rather than write directly into the score, I sketched into a three-line sketch. This felt like the best way to proceed as it allowed me to generate all the melodic and harmonic ideas without making decisions about scoring. As it turned out, a 9-bar section was the right length for the intro, so I deleted the unneeded measures from the score and, working in the score again, orchestrated the intro from the sketch.

Stage 3. Finishing

12. Refining the rhythm section writing.  Because of the laidback nature of the bossa nova style, there wasn’t a lot of interaction between the rhythm section and the foreground material of the arrangement. There’s an overall gentle and smooth quality to the style that I wanted to create in this arrangement. So, there were only a few places where I had to adjust the rhythm section to catch accents in the orchestra. I added these stop time figures to the score quickly. I also added the rhythm section to the end of the first chorus to support the energy of the piece and for a smoother transition to the bossa nova groove of the second chorus.

13. Adding score details. Working again from left to right, I added dynamics to the entire score. This process went quickly. To add articulations, I worked first on the winds, from left to right, adding phrase markings and articulations by singing the lines and adding the markings that reflected my intent. Then I did the same thing for the rhythm section, which (because most of the writing used time slashes) required many fewer articulations.

String bowings. I’ve had a lot of experience writing for strings, but I usually leave bowings up to the players. I add slurs (which is not a phrase marking but indicate notes taken in a single bow) at those places where I want a legato connection between notes. When slurs are used carefully and in conjunction with staccato and tenuto marks, accents, and text directions, the players can add appropriate bowing to their parts during rehearsal. However, because of the limited amount of rehearsal time for this project, I decided it was important to have bowings in the parts for the first rehearsal. So, I hired a colleague – a former student who is both an excellent writer and violinist – who added the bowings to all the arrangement in the entire project. I waited for this process to be completed for all the scores before I refined the work on the score and parts.

14. Refine the score layout.  When all the scores came back with the added bowings, I refined the layout of each score, adjusting the number of measures per page, setting page margins, and fine-tuning many other details so that the scores had a uniform look. At the beginning of the project, the festival librarian had sent the size requirements for the score and parts. I usually use 11 X 17 score paper but, like many professional orchestras in the US, the festival orchestra preferred scores on 10 X 13 paper. The template I created for the project used this page size.

15. Creating the parts.  Luckily, this project included a budget for music preparation. Creating error-free parts for seven arrangements, most of which were written for orchestra with rhythm section, is a lot of work, so I was glad to pass the finished scores along to a trusted copyist to make all the parts. The finished parts, in A4 size, were emailed directly to the festival librarian. He printed and collated all the parts in advance of the festival. I’m happy to say that there were no errors in any of the parts. With all the other challenges we faced during the festival, it was nice that there were no problems in the written music.

Adapting the arrangement for the recording

Pleased with the festival concert performance, Larry decided to record the arrangements. This chart and five of the charts for the festival, along with three more arranged by my colleague Michael Farquharson, make up the Carnihoso album.

Reviewing the initial decisions. We quickly decided to use the same instrumentation for the recordings. After careful review, I decided that the level of difficulty of the writing could remain the same. We knew we could find professional players in our area whose skills in reading and musicianship were on par with the festival players in Israel. We knew these pros would also be challenged by the rhythmic aspects of the music, but since that was managed through the initial writing, it wouldn’t present a problem.

To make up for the lack of rehearsal time, we decided to perform all the music in a live concert in advance of the recording session. We hired a contractor to book the players for the both the live concert and the recording session. For the live performance, we scheduled one long rehearsal the day before the concert and a shorter rehearsal the day of the concert to run through the entire show.

Changing the key. Larry wanted to use vocalist Donna McElroy on the record so I went all the way back to step 2 of the process to check the key with her. Feeling that E minor was too high, she asked for the arrangement to be transposed down a step to D minor. After I transposed the score, I took a close look at how this affected the writing.

The most obvious problems were those places where the double bass was on a low E. Since the original arrangement was in E minor, there were a few places where the basses had a low tonic. At these points, the part had to be transposed up an octave. This put the cello and double bass in unison – rather than octaves –but that didn’t create any real problem. Luckily, only a few of the string voicings were too low and muddy when transposed down a step and I was able to revoice these chords quickly. There were a few places where I had to adjust the horn part, but the rest of the wind writing was fine.  

Changing the ending. Since the original arrangements were written for live performance, they all had written endings. To get some variety, and because “Retrato” had a great vamp at the end, I decided to extend vamp and have Larry and Donna feel free to improvise for as long as they wanted at the end. We used a fade rather than a hard ending on the track.


This chapter has turned out to be very long. My goal was to present three very different pieces and show the common elements of – and the differences between – the process used for each piece. I work from a basic blueprint that guides my overall approach to writing, but adjust the process to fit each particular project. All these projects began with the open creative space that makes room for the music to emerge, and end with the much more technical aspects of creating the final form of the piece – usually written notation in the form of a score, parts, or lead sheet, for recording or live performance. In between, creativity and technique merge in various ways and to different degrees, depending on the situation, to bring forth new ideas, and to capture, refine, and develop them. I strive to leave as much time, space, and energy as possible for the artistic aspects of the project and to be as efficient as possible in the more technical parts of the process – I’m always looking for that balance between art and craft.

Back to the chapter overview…