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Altering Choral Parts

August 27, 2010

Some of the older Broadway shows have really crazy choral parts. You know the kind I mean, the one where there’s a 12 part divisi that isn’t marked with who sings what, and you can’t even find the melody? Usually if you look at the cover page of that kind of a show, you’ll see a funny thing: a dancing chorus and a singing chorus. So the 6 part men’s section is actually sung by a bunch of cowboys who are sitting against a fencepost while everyone else dances. Nobody does that nowadays, thank goodness, but you’re still going to have to teach that monstrosity. Well, here are some hints for making that process easier on yourself:

1) Figure it out before your rehearsal! Don’t wait until the rehearsal, open the score, and go, “Crap. They’ll never be able to sing this” It’s a waste of everybody’s time, including yours. Go through and figure it out ahead of time

2) Don’t be a hero. You don’t have time to beat certain parts of the show into their heads. You’ll earn the anger of the director and the choreographer when you use up all their rehearsal time trying to make sure the 2nd tenors sing the tritone jump correctly in the interior part of the bows. Simplify it, so you don’t throw good time after bad.

3) Find the melody, and make sure somebody’s singing it.

4) Probably you won’t have enough men, so whittle the men’s part down to one or two notes at a time. When they start dancing, they’ll all switch to the melody anyway, and you’ll have to teach it all over again. Better to teach 2 parts well than 4 parts that they’ll change into the melody when you’re not paying attention.

An Example:

Here’s a passage from near the end of the first act of Bells Are Ringing, by Jule Styne, lyrics by Comden and Green:

Now, you can see at first glance that this is going to be problematic. The passage begins with a kind of responsive singing in 3 groups, then those 3 groups sing in 2 part harmony, (how do you split 3 parts evenly into 2 lines?) then 3 parts (how are those three parts divided?) and then builds to 4 parts, but the score doesn’t specify which parts are sung by men and which by women. I suspect that this was originally intended to be sung in 8 part harmony, SSAA, then the same notes one octave down TTBB. Yeah, right. An 8 part divisi during a dance number. Well, for the sake of argument, let’s say I actually have a 4 part chorus: Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, and Basses. I might break the parts up like this:

I gave the first group to the sopranos, the second group to the combined men (let’s face it, combining them will bolster their small numbers) the third group to the altos. Then I split them up with the higher female and male voices on the higher part in their own octaves in measure 98, the lower voices on the lower part, in their own ranges. Then at 100, when we split into 3 parts, I put the sopranos and tenors on the highest part, so that the melody is doubled, and the basses do the lowest part, an octave down. At 104, when it becomes kooky, I interleaved the parts. Sopranos on the highest part, altos second from the bottom, tenors second from the top (in their own range) and basses on the bottom part (in their own range) And now you can begin to see why planning ahead is so important. Imagine opening to this page in your rehearsal and realizing you have to make these decisions! And let me assure you, explaining this solution to your choir is going to be a trial in itself, a trial you’ll likely have to repeat three times because the altos were talking the first 2 times you explained it.

Another solution, for groups that have a harder time holding parts:

Here you can see that I split up the group in 3 equal parts, without much regard to voice types. Probably Group 1 should have your highest voices in it, for reasons I’ll explain later. The first 1/3 will take the 1st group part, the second 1/3 takes the 2nd part, and the third 1/3 takes group 3. Then I double up the melody at 98 with groups 1 and 2, group 3 takes the bottom part (which is incidentally, the same as the previous 3 phrases, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble there) Then at 100, Group 1, 2, 3, top to bottom. When the 4 part harmony comes, I abandon ship and scrap the harmony. The melody is on top. It will likely only be available to your sopranos in that octave, but you need it up there, because it’s a big moment! So you have those who can sing it, sing the G up there above the staff, and everyone else sings it down the octave. A G, mind you, not the A a minor seventh below from the harmony I removed.

Obviously there are hundreds of ways to tweak this passage, but something to keep in mind is that this is also a huge production number, so the choreographer will have them moving around during this. Whatever you decided to do with 104-106, they’ll have to be able to do moving around. The more complicated you make this solution, the more rehearsal time it will cost you.

In order to get this kind of editing right, you will need to know your group intimately, and you’ll have to understand the effect the original arranger was going for well enough to approximate it with your edits. Not a job for the faint of heart, but you can do it!

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