Category Archives: Arranging

NBHS Christmas Concert(s)

Try as it might, the snow did not manage to disrupt this year’s NBHS Christmas Concerts on Mon 13 & Tue 14 Dec. We lost rehearsal time during the week of blanket closures. Even when pupils returned, not all could get in and some of those relying on buses missed another rehearsal. However, thanks to a bit of give and take between schools, some replacement rehearsal time was found and the Guitar Ensemble turned in two of their best performances to date. I was particularly pleased with the sensitive phrasing in the Sicilienne by Paradis – not for the want of my droning on about this topic, I can assure you – still, worth it in the end – I hope you agree.

Sicilienne Merry Christmas Everybody

Bellevue Rendezvous

I didn’t expect, at the age of 50, to discover an instrument of which I’d never heard. This would be understandable if its provenance were a distant continent whose shores my occasionally itchy feet had yet to reach. However, the instrument concerned, the nyckelharpa,

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hails from Sweden, a country I visited on a trip with Lothian Region Orchestra and Jazz Orchestra in 1994. Its haunting sound is produced by four bowed strings, and twelve resonance or sympathetic strings.

Apart from a pre-emptory visit to their myspace page (which features mp3s and video footage), I had, to my shame, little knowledge of Bellevue Rendezvous when I went to see them in The Wee Folk Club, in the intimate basement of one of Edinburgh’s traditional music haunts – The Royal Oak.

I was enchanted by the sound of the trio (nyckelharpa, fiddle, cittern) and by the engaged, joyous musicianship of the its members, Ruth, Gavin, Cameron. Every journey along East Lothian’s roads since then has been graced by their CD, Salamander , which I bought at the gig. It is a fantastic recording – the product of Pencaitland’s Castle Sound Studios. I was also impressed by the beautiful musical arrangements and the eclecticism of the programme which, in addition to original material, featured tunes from France (especially Brittany), Serbia, Scotland, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Macedonia & Poland.

If you happen to be in Edinburgh and free from 12:00 – 13:00 on June 22, 23, 24 then you can catch Bellevue Rendezvous (free of charge) in St. Giles Cathedral.

You can also hear Bellevue Rendezvous on Spotify.

I look forward to seeing them again – perhaps in The Lammermuir Festival 2011 – a trio such as this was made for some of East Lothian’s intimate church acoustics…..

I’ve Got You Under My Skin

Last session I included a short Desert Island Discs session in an In Service as a prelude to offering a session on Audacity. The item I chose to represent my love of the craft of musical arranging was I’ve Got You Under My Skin (Cole Porter arr. Nelson Riddle) from the album Songs For Swinging Lovers:

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At that time, this was the only arrangement of the song I really knew and, as so often happens, it seemed like the best and only expression of the song. However, on Monday of this week, following another In Service, I heard a contrasting arrangement on the Radio 3’s In Tune – one of those moments when you end up sitting in the car, at the journey’s end, until the song was over. The singer is a sprightly 82-year old Barbara Cook with Michael Kosarin on piano and Peter Donovan on bass. I’m presuming the arrangement to be the work of Kosarin – a celebrated Broadway musical director. You can hear the song here at 27:35 (until it’s over-written by the edition on Monday 2 Nov). What impressed me particularly was the harmony from 28:27 – the arpeggios seeming to capture the giddy relentlessness of romantic obsession.

I’ve always felt the art of arranging to be taken for granted. Perhaps that’s a compliment to many arrangers – that their work makes songs sound so natural that it seems like no big deal. However, the result is that, compare to performing & composing there is little discussion of the topic. That’s why I consider this six-part interview of Nelson Riddle to be something of a treasure:

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NBHS Spring Concert

I seem to have fallen behind with the dusting 🙂 possibly due to having spent 10 of the last 16 nights in schools. Here are some of the highlights of items featuring NBHS guitarists this evening:

Guitar Ensemble Scottish Medley 2009 scottish-medley-2009

Zoe & Senior Guitarists Ca’ The Yowes ca-the-yowes-live

Zoe & Senior Guitarists John Anderson My Jo john-anderson-my-jo

I was keen to clarify, to the audience, an important nuance in accreditation. The musical arrangements were my own but in the case of the Ca’ The Yowes, Zoe had brought as much to the project as I had in creative/interpretative terms and certainly a good deal more in performance terms. My role had simply been to find the nicest harmonies I could and sprinkle notes, like so many dew drops, around the fingertips of my fine young friends in the ensemble. The melodic variation wrought by Zoe (entirely her own idea) provided, for me, the lion’s share of the transformational and affective content of the performance.

Have a great Easter, everyone!

Now Westlin’ Winds

Continuing to experiment with video…here is a hurriedly shot, and appallingly lit, rendition of Now Westlin’ Winds. This is basically an instrumental version of what Dick Gaughan does with Burns’ original on his excellent Handful of Earth album. I did this arrangement a few years ago and a couple of pupils played it their Advanced Higher programmes. The tuning is DADGAD i.e. strings 1, 2 & 6 tuned down a tone (2 fret’s worth). [kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Just after writing this, I discovered that this is Dick Gaughan’s “favourite song of all time.”

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Hands across the pond

I received a nice email from John Lay (of Silver Lake Regional High School in Kingston, MA) complimenting the playing of the East Lothian Guitar Ensemble and asking for details of one of the arrangements so that his own school guitar ensemble could play it. Flattered on behalf of the pupils, I emailed the score, parts and play-along midi files as a gift and look forward to telling the ensemble of our new found trans-Atlantic friends.


A strange thought occurred to me today while watching a DVD performance today of Raymond Scott‘s The Penguin by Mr McFall’s Chamber (check out TheirSpace ). As far as I know there is not a YouTube video of McFall’s playing this and so, to give you an idea, here it is performed by Racalmuto:

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I think we’d all agree that the piece (particularly the introduction) could be described as comical – or at the very least light hearted.

Hearing it today reminded me of a remark made at a conference I attended last Saturday entitled Communicative Musicality. The contention expressed was that music, unlike language, does not have semantics. This prompted me to wonder how, given such conditions, this tune has the potential to be unmistakably humorous – even if played in an incongruous setting e.g. a cathedral, or at an inappropriate occasion e.g. a coronation or a funeral (I’d like to have it at my own – funeral, that is). I would go as far as to imagine that nobody from a culture entirely at odds with our own would mistake this for serious music. Surely our perennial vagueness about music is unnecessary and the quixotic elements of this piece could be isolated and their contribution to the overall mood evaluated.

This in turn reminded me of another topic in the conference: how should emotions be conveyed to the audience by a performer? Is it appropriate for the performer to join in? Might they get carried away and be unable to switch emotion when change comes along? You’ll notice that no-one in the above laughing or even smiling – mind you three of them are blowing into things!

If my ears are up to the job, I’d like to transcribe this piece and arrange it for guitar ensemble one day. If successful, I promise not to instruct the pupils to perceive it in a comical light and also to report their reaction to it.

p.s. this piece appears in the climactic and heart-warming circus scene of the film Funny Bones – well worth watching for this scene alone, featuring Freddie Davies – seen in this lugubrious photo from the film.


I conducted a short experiment over the last couple of days, concerning who gets what part in the first of our East Lothian Guitar Ensemble arrangements. The piece is in three parts – top, middle and bass. I’ve also created four heterophonic parts so you could say the structure of parts is:

1, 1a, 2, 2a, 3, 3a, 3b

Using Sibelius, I played the score to the pupils at performance speed – which is pretty brisk . In addition to the speed there are two other unusual factors:

  • there are 7 beats per bar – grouped as follows 12 12 123

  • it is based on a very unusual scale (E Lydian Dominant) – resulting in unusual harmonies – one effect of which can be to make the less confident pupil occasionally doubt that they have landed on the correct note

Before the music began pupils were asked to identify which parts would meet the following criteria for them:

  • the part would (eventually*) be manageable

  • it would provide some element of challenge and interest

  • it might appeal to their natural strengths e.g. by being essentially melodic, harmonic or rhythmic in nature

  • it would avoid any feeling of distress

Somewhat to my surprise, every group and individual chose as I would have predicted. This could mean one (or possibly more) of three things:

  • that pupils are aware of their current levels

  • that they are aware of the likely speed of progress over the remaining months (even although some have not yet played in the East Lothian group)

  • that I am unconscious of Derren Brown-style levels of manipulation

Over the holiday, I hope to upload not only play-along midi files but parts of the piece so, if you play the guitar, you could simulate the experiment. For this particular piece, Hungarian Wedding Dance, most of the parts will be in TAB as opposed to traditional notation. This is due to the fact that many of the notes have been relocated onto strings other than the one where they would normally be found. This is done for two reasons:

  • increased resonance e.g. using 2nd string E at fret 5 instead of open E on string 1 – the sound of which is a little thinner

  • the note is more easily reached from the previous note than it would be in its normal location

* eventually, in this case, is the Showcase Concert on Friday 27 March at 7:30 in Musselburgh Grammar School

Guitar in Ensemble

I received an email today from José Antonio Chic, the musical and business brains behind Guitar in Ensemble. This website offers music for classical guitar in various settings – duo with another instrument; ensemble with other guitars; ensemble with mixed instruments. To allow you to sample the wares, there are some free mp3 and pdf downloads: The Language of the Wind for solo guitar; 30th of December for flute & guitar and The Language of the Stars for guitar quartet.


Do I have any evidence of emerging technologies improving ensemble skills? Nobody has ever asked me this but I found myself reflecting upon the topic recently as a result of gradual changes in practice. In days gone by, I always began secondary school guitar ensemble rehearsals in Week 1. Increasingly, the result of this was that pieces peaked too soon and so, more recently, I’ve tended to start in week 3 or 4.

The single biggest factor has been pupils being able to access play-along midi files on this blog, facilitating more meaningful home practice. This year I hope to experiment by producing mp3s which pupils can import into their mp3 players. I don’t imagine that they’ll listen for pleasure, but they’ll probably drive their families not quite so far up the wall in households where the family computer is in the living room.

Freed from the rush to begin rehearsals, we have spent a little lesson time trying out a few ensemble pieces for size – playing along with Sibelius scores on a laptop with external speakers attached. This allows pupils to try out not only varied pieces, but different parts within the same piece – with some surprising results. Some pupils have bid for parts more difficult than they would have been allocated – the appeal of the part sweetening the extra practice required. Another surprise is that arrangements, shelved a few years ago as too ambitious for school use, are beginning to seem possible. Pieces with syncopations* and cross rhythms** intended to wrong-foot the listener can have a frighteningly similar effect on some players if sufficient familiarity does not materialise. As most instructors spend only one day in each secondary school, today’s technologies create a space where that familiarisation can take place.

* Int 1 concept                       ** Int 2 concept