August 19, 2010

I was fortunate to study with John Shirley-Quirk briefly at the Peabody Conservatory. He related a story to me, in which he asked the composer Benjamin Britten if he could transpose his Seven Sonnets of Michaelangelo, originally written for Tenor, into a Baritone’s key so that he could sing them for the BBC. Britten apparently asked if they could talk about it over dinner; he was unwilling to answer over the phone. After a long dinner, Britten seemed (to Shirley-Quirk) just physically unable to agree to allow the piece to be transposed, however much he may have wanted to grant the favor.

I suppose Authors of shows are lucky that it’s beyond the ability of most Music Directors to transpose numbers, or it would be happening literally all the time. Some pianists can do it at sight, or if you’re at a synthesizer, it’s as simple as using the transposition function. With the proper discretion, transposition can be a great way to fulfill both principle 1 and principle 2; the kids sound better, and the show sounds better. But do it clumsily or too often, and you will quickly add an air of amateurism to your production.

The justification for transposing:

As I wrote earlier, when a show is in previews, no key is sacred. The key that sounds the best on the singer is usually the one that winds up in the show, which is why show music is notorious for having ridiculous key signatures. The rationale is: “If it sounds good, who cares how hard it is for the pit to play?” If you look at Thoroughly Modern Millie, you’ll realize that Sutton Foster (Millie) sings sustained 3rd space Cs in virtually every number, that she rarely goes above that, and then only briefly. This is because 3rd space C is Sutton Foster’s Money Note. She sounds fantastic right there. So the songs are structured so that the money note is the big note in the song. If your singer has different strengths than the talented Ms. Foster, another key might be better. If the song is just rangey, with notes that are both too low and too high, you may have to come up with some alternate notes for the extremities of the range. But whatever you do, make sure you make the decisions early, so the poor kid can get used to your changes. Also, you’ll be transposing the instrument parts too, so if you make the decisions early, you’ll have time to copy the pages you’ll be transposing before you mail out the books to your players.


1) Don’t move it too far. If you go more than a Minor 3rd up or down, the accompaniments almost always sound bad. Try to move things a major second only if possible

2) Don’t be cheesy and accompany only with a synthesizer because you were too lazy to transpose the orchestra parts. It’s a hassle, but it’s good for you. Transposing parts is a great way to get to know the way the pit orchestra works.

3) If possible, give a half step of headroom on either side for the singer. The highest note for the singer should be at least a half step lower than what he could sing, and the lowest note a half step higher than the lowest note he could sing.

4) Pay attention to the material that comes before and the material that comes after. If there’s nothing attached to either end of the number, you’re probably okay, but be careful about transposing sections of larger pieces that rely on proper modulations.

5) Sometimes it’s possible just to change one part of a song, and not the whole thing. For example, if the piece modulates up a step for the final A section, you could move the last section back to the original key, and save everyone some trouble.

6) I enter the score as accurately as possible into Finale, (use the music notation software you know the best) looking carefully for all the smallest details, then I change the key using the program, then I go back over and edit the part. When all the notes move, things have a way of colliding with each other. Take a few extra minutes to be sure everything can be seen. I do the same with the pit parts.

7) Sometimes you can tell it’s not going to work even before the first rehearsal. For example, I have a copy of “The Farmer and the Cowman” that I intend to use every time I do Oklahoma. I think it’s very unlikely that I’m going to ever have a chorus that can sing high F well in unison. The whole number works better down a step, and I don’t need a rehearsal to know it.


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