Friday, April 4, 2014

The Creative Process – Different Approaches Part 2

Another approach to that intimidating blank page is to simply add your creative spark to an existing tune. Arrangements of Folk Songs, Spirituals, and Christmas Carols are always well received, and many of these can be used by both school and church groups. Publishers love to cross-promote these types of songs, and get a broader audience for their investment.

If you have a favorite Folk Song, Spiritual, or Carol in mind, chances are you already love the melody and the lyrics. One substantial benefit of working this way is that this part of the creative process—Words and Music—is already done. Further, these songs have stood the test of time, and continue to resonate with singers as well as listeners. So if you have a creative way to set a song you love, don’t hesitate to do so.

One word of advice though; you should be absolutely certain that the work you are setting is in the public domain (PD). Any piece of music that has a copyright notice on it is owned by someone, and it is a violation of copyright law to create a derivative work—an arrangement, an orchestration, adding a flute part – anything. Always verify that the song you want to set is free and clear and you have multiple sources of proof. (Many publishers insist upon verification of PD status of an arrangement.)

If you want to do an arrangement of a tune that is not PD, you must obtain permission from the copyright holder. Unless the publisher has an agreement with the copyright holder (or they own the copyright), it is difficult to get this kind of song published. It costs the publisher a lot more in fees and licensing, paying the original writer(s) as well as the arranger (who usually gets a half royalty). So it’s better to just stick with the PD tunes, of which there are legion!

There are numerous resources that are readily available to help you find works that can be arranged if you don’t already have one in mind—hymn books, carol collections, folk song anthologies, culture-specific folk song collections, international song books or carol books, collections of children’s songs, and of course, the Internet.

If you are going to do an arrangement of a tune, you first have to figure out whom the arrangement is for and set it in an appropriate key signature for their voices. (We listed range parameters for Heritage Music Press in an earlier post.) Sometimes folk songs can be a challenge for young singers because of a wide melodic range, so choose your song and the target market carefully.

When you begin writing the piano part, make sure it is appropriately supportive for your voicing. It should be playable, laying under the fingers comfortably for the average accompanist. As you well know, some music teachers do not even have an accompanist; they play the piano part and conduct with their heads. So, be creative, but have mercy!

If you are adding another instrumental part—trumpet, flute, strings, or others—be sure you are familiar with the optimal ranges for these instruments. It’s always a good idea to run a draft of the part by a band or orchestra person to make sure it’s playable and “makes sense” in that musician’s language. Depending on the instrument, there are preferred key signatures too—strings love sharps, brass and winds love flats. So keep the instrumentalist in mind when determining the key signature.

It’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? But it’s great fun to take a song you’ve always loved and give it a unique, personal treatment. Go for it!

Ruth Elaine Schram wrote her first song at the age of twelve, and her first octavo was published twenty years later, in 1988. In 1992, she became a full-time composer and arranger and now has over 2,000 published works. Over thirteen million copies of Schram's songs have been purchased in their various venues, and Ruth has been a recipient of the ASCAP Special Award each year since 1990. In addition to Schram's choral music for church and school choirs, her songs appear on thirty albums (four of which have been Dove Award finalists) and numerous children's videos, including sixteen songs on four gold videos, and four songs on one multi-platinum video. Ruthie's songs have also appeared on such diverse television shows as The 700 Club and HBO's acclaimed series The Sopranos.

Ruthie began piano and theory lessons at the age of five. She studied music at Lancaster Bible College and Millersville State College and taught Elementary Music in Pennsylvania for several years. Schram now lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her husband, Scott, and they have two grown daughters, Crystie and Celsie.

Ruth Elaine Schram's current published works, including pieces published by Exaltation Publications, Monarch Music, Laurel Press, Heritage Music Press, and Lorenz Publishing Company (all Lorenz companies) are listed on her web site,, with samples of audio excerpts and select pages of the scores.

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