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  • Ida Olsonen

Writing Original Music With The Choir

An important part of Musta lammas' repertoire is original music written by the group itself. With the present restrictions, we have been leaning into more songwriting and vocal arranging than usual, as being separated from each other actually favours creative endeavours and individual ways of working. Here I am talking about songwriting, but it could equally be called composing and/or writing; creating music with some kind of lyrics attached to it.


After one of the songwriting sessions, I found myself thinking how fortunate I was with these musicians and musicians-to-be. This would never work with another choir. I paused to re-examine what I had just stated to myself. Did I really subscribe to that kind of thinking? Why wouldn't it work? It felt like a challenge that I needed to examine closer. Less than a week later, my female choir ZinZingen was already diving into collective songwriting with astonishing results. Being a group with an incredible spirit and one of the warmest atmospheres I've encountered, they were very open-minded in taking on the challenge together with me.


So in this post, I present the two adaptations of the same songwriting method I have developed; one for experienced singers who are independent in their musical creating, and another for singers who are perhaps writing music for the first time, and need more guidance to get started.


Pass-it-on

is what I call the songwriting method that I have experimented with. It blurs the lines of ownership over the material created, and operates on the principle of "done is better than perfect". So how does it work?


The group is divided into smaller groups of 3-5 people. Each group agrees on an order of circulation, for example; Anna will pass it on to Björn, Björn again to Cecile, Cecile to Dean and Dean to Anna - and the loop is complete. This order remains the same throughout the process.


Warmup

When our goal is to explore something new, put ourselves out there and be vulnerable, doing a warmup to get us in the zone and connect with each other is even more important then usually. If the warmup includes playfulness, lightheartedness and laughing together, even better! A long-time favourite of mine is an exercise known as Kolme asiaa ('Three things'), where you basically just shout out the first three words that come into mind, and then pass the turn on to the next person. With a group that is comfortable with the mute function online, this can work pretty neatly online too.

Lyrics

First, everyone sets out to write some lyrics, with a clear deadline or time limit in mind. Now, aiming to produce finished song lyrics is not the point here, rather, it is to come up with something, anything really, to trigger the next phase of the experiment. If it is a tragicomic selfreflection of the lack of talent to find the right words, go with that. If what is written doesn't feel sensible, that is not a problem; there will be time to adjust that later. Just write something, a few sentences at least.

Melody (freely or with backing)

Then the lyrics are passed on, according to the circulation scheme from before. Everyone gets some words to write a melody to, again, with a clear time limit or deadline to operate with. Now - here's the twist that makes this really fun - during all the steps of the process, everyone has the rights to change, edit, adapt or add to the previous material, fully and freely, without restrictions. So if the melody you find for the first few words doesn't really go with the rest of the sentence, or if something doesn't feel quite right to you, you are allowed and actually obliged to change that.


At this point, I did two different adaptations of the method. With my very able and experienced musicians in Musta lammas, the task was to write a melody explicitly without chords; even if there were chords happening when writing the melody, they should be left out of the recording. With my adaptation for ZinZingen, I decided to go another way, and support their melody-making by supplying a number of harmonic backing tracks*) as inspiration. I also offered the option to write the melody freely or to any track of choice, hoping thus to accomodate to everyones needs. This way, they'd have something tangiable to set their musical process in motion.


Here again, the bar is supposed to be intentionally low; if self-critisism hits the fan and "writing a melody" turns out being finding the first couple of notes to the song, that is perfectly fine. Do what you can and keep moving. Even if you would have had chords in mind or played chords to the melody while writing it, don't pass them on to the next writer. Just give them the updated lyrics and a recording of the bit of melody you came up with.


If the melody was written freely; harmony

In the Musta lammas -adaptation, the melodies are passed on, and harmony is being added, again, with full permission to change anything from the previous phases. As previously, an updated version of the lyrics and a recording or a sheet/note of the harmonies is created, that are then passed on.

Putting it together

The last step of this process is putting it all together, creating a version of the song that can be shared with the rest of the group. This could contain many things; developing and tweaking everything a little, continuing on writing a new passage to the music (another verse? a chorus?), adding voices and starting on something that could turn into an arrangement - whatever feels natural! With ZinZingen, I did a separate brief for this stage, providin inspiration for the parameters that could be changed in the song. Can the lyrics be pared down to be even stronger in their message? Does the melody need more silent spaces? Is the music un-intentionally repetitive; could a break be created for added effect and interest? Where could welcome contrasts be found? Many times, this phase is about just checking that everything is somewhat decided, perhaps recording a clearer vocal track to the presentation and making sure the newest version of the lyrics is up to date.

Finale: debrief

For the finale we gather as a group to listen to the music we have created. Here it is incredibly important to support, celebrate and encourage each other and enjoy the outcomes of the challenge together. As no-one alone is responsible for any piece of music, surprises will probably occur. Point out the good that you hear in each others creations, and talk about the directions in which you could see these musical seeds be developed! I have been amazed, moved, entertained, baffled and intrigued by the outcomes of this challenge. It is amazing to see what can become of a simple exercise of a musical pass-it-on.


Amongst the singers, these debriefs have been incredibly popular and appreciated. There rarely seems to be enough time when listening to the products of the challenge, and the process could certainly be continued with working further on the different drafts.


Timing & supervision

With ZinZingen, I've been very careful with providing clear instructions for each phase, providing them in writing (so that the singers can reference them when working individually) and have had all of this happening during our rehearsal time, divided up between several rehearsal weeks. Giving them the huge task of going out of their comfort zone and creating music, I did not want to leave them alone with that task. Doing it literally simultaneously has felt like a good frame, and that has allowed me to be there and assist them f. ex. with technical challenges. With Musta lammas, the process has happened independently over a 2-week time span per challenge, with the groups agreeing on schedules amongst themselves. There, giving freedom and responsibility to the groups felt like the right choice.

What is the point?

In our usual praxis, we many times spend the majority of our rehearsal time carefully learning our parts, striving for a good blend and unifying the voices as much as possible. Inviting our singers to create music themselves breaks some of the indirect defecits of that endeavour, giving them individual initiative, responsibility. Furthermore, having them create music invites creativity and imagination. When developing each others creations, the singers face similar challenges as we do when conducting; What do I like? What is working? What needs improving? Where does my mind naturally strive? It can for sure also be uncomfortable and unsettling - that is OK too. I find that most of the singers find the pass-it-on songwriting exercise incredibly inspiring and motivating, as it allows them to give each other reinforcing feedback and relate to each other. With both of my groups, I hope to be able to refine some of the material to actual music in our repertoire. And isn't that the ultimate cool thing - to end up with actual repertoire that has had its' beginning in one of our distance rehearsals?


*) What are these backing tracks I talk about? Well, I spent an afternoon playing around with my MacBooks GarageBand and its virtual instruments and sounds, creating four short loops in different moods and styles. Optimally, I would have preferred a slightly larger library of options, but this what what I could muster within the time that I had. Similar material within at least the most common rhythmic music styles can easily be found online.

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