Feeling Overwhelmed?

to all our Horn Enthusiast

Feeling overwhelmed? 

When I first moved to LA I stayed with a vocalist I had worked with in Canada.  He was part of a singing group and within two months we were all on the road traveling east on interstate10 through the deep south. I was the music director/keyboard player and the youngest member of the group by a few years. When we would arrive at the venue in a new town, they would drop me off to rehearse the band for that night’s two shows, and they would check into the nearest hotel to relax. 

I had grown up with my Mom’s Count Basie records and always loved big band music. So for this road trip I had brought this small book on arranging for a full big band. I don’t remember where I got it, or the title, but I studied that book backwards and forwards while sitting in the back seat cruising down the freeway. I remember it all seemed a bit overwhelming but I couldn’t wait to try some of this out on a real band, if that was even possible. 

Because I had yet to apply what I learned in this book with live musicians, I had a lot of questions and it was still a bit of a mystery as to how all the pieces would actually come together. I had little confidence, feeling overwhelmed.

A year later I decided to study at a music school in L.A. called, Dick Groves Music Workshop, and wrote for either 5 saxes with piano trio or a full band/studio orchestra, once a week for a solid year. Only after a few attempts the light in my brain started to glow and it was all beginning to all make sense to me. What a feeling.

This is why it’s so important to hear what you write. It’s like learning to ski. You could watch all the how-to videos on YouTube you could find, but just a few trips down the hill and you feel like your getting the hang of it. The same is true for arranging music for a horn section, or any sizable group.

You will come to a plateau where the light will come on and it will all make sense. Don’t worry if it all seems a little overwhelming. Writing it, then hearing it, is the key to success. 

Anything you don’t understand is overwhelming until you understand it. 

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Fred Stickley Music

Vocals Like Horns?

Are vocals the same as horns?

You’ve probably heard me mention that all these voicings that we’ve talked about for horns can also work for a vocal group. My two main instruments are piano and voice so I have a lot of experience with singing in all kinds of groups.

I must say that I’ve never been a choral director for a big choir. If I’ve worked with a lots of voices, it was overdubbing in the studio. My experience comes from working with smaller groups from 2 to 9 singers in soft and loud settings.

With the knowledge you have writing for horns, the critical thing to keep in mind for voices is that a singer needs to hear their note or musical phrase before they sing it. They need to get it into their head, as they say, unlike a horn player who has the luxury of fingering the note on their instrument. Most good horn players will hear their notes as they play them, but still have the fingering to fall back on.

I would say 90% of the time when you write, or do a head arrangement, your voicings will be in block or closed harmony. It’s the easiest to hear in popular styles like Rock, Country, R&b, and jazz.

If you’re going to do a jazz vocal arrangement or any style of any complexity, I would suggest writing it out first, otherwise you’ll be wasting time rehearsing, just trying to figure out the right notes. By writing it out you’ll be able to more effectively incorporate the techniques we’ve talked about, having better voice leading with your passing chords, and a better arrangement overall.

Polychords are another element I like to use in jazz to voice the vocal harmonies. Remember the top half of a polychord is a triad which is very easy to tune up for your vocalist. For example, if the chord is C13(#11) equals, D major over C7. The singers sing the D major triad over the band playing the C13(#11) chord which will sound rich and contemporary… and very cool.

Don’t forget that unison and octaves sound good, not everything needs to be harmonized especially with the more singers you have. 3 to 5 singers in unison can sound big and fat and it's easier to learn and tune up. The same goes for octaves. 

The nice thing about unison and octaves is that they can keep your arrangement for getting too dense if your going for a more transparent sound or have a lot of other elements in you arrangement. 90%, if not all of the Supremes (Motown girl group) backup vocals were unison. Their vocals still had an ensemble sound with both girls on the same note. Unison was all they really needed when they had strings and horns adding to the mix.

Don't forget with a lot of singers you can break your vocalist up into 2 groups. We've all heard that a lot.

In a live setting most vocal harmonies in popular styles can be handled with 3 parts even when the chord is 4 or 5 parts.  If you have a large group with 6 singers and want a fat vocal sound, you can double the parts putting 2 singers on a part, just like you would do in the studio. With 4 singers try doubling them up on 2 part harmony.

In a nut shell, write parts that will be relatively easy for your vocalist to hear/learn. Make it easy on your singers and you’ll get a better performances.

If you have experience with writing for singers and would like to add to the conversation, please do.
Leave it in the comment section below.

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How's your reading?

How’s your reading?

If someone hands me a chart I’ve never seen before and counts it off a little fast, I panic. I'll read through a chart in rehearsal or at a gig that went a little rough, then after taking the chart home I realize how easy it was If only I was more confident. 

Aside from playing trombone for one semester in college (should have never put it down) I’ve always been in the rhythm section, and have never been totally happy with my reading ability. Typically horn players learn to play their instrument looking at notes on a page and are typically good readers. On the other hand, rhythm players mostly learn to play by ear, so are not, for the most part nearly as good. To be clear, I have worked with rhythm players that are great readers because that's what they do. Being a good reader is something that needs to be nurtured.

Even thought my reading could be better, I can write almost anything because I have a moment to figure it out before I put it down finale or on manuscript. I have this little technique that I use when I have trouble counting some rhythm figures. Starting with my index finger and moving through to my baby finger, I count one-e-and-a, for 16ths and It works great.

I took a reading class while I was studying arranging, and just like in writing music you learn to divide the bar into 2 sections, the front half of the bar, and the back half of the bar. In class we would be shown a rhythm figure using quarter notes and eighth notes, and underneath we would be shown a “compressed” version of the same rhythm using eighth notes and sixteenth notes. This helped me a lot with reading through medium tempo r&b tunes on the gig. 

I would equate reading music to reading a book. If your an accomplished reader, you don’t sound out the words as you read through the text, you recognize the word and then read it. Reading music is much the same. You don’t consciously count through each eighth, or six-teeth note as your reading. The beat is obviously there, but you recognize the rhythm and just read it. In popular styles of music there seems to be a limited number of rhythm figures that are just rearranged into different groupings or sequences. There is of course the odd rhythm that pops up now and again. A fast run of 32nd notes, or a 7 note grouping over a quarter note. 

The example below are two of the most popular rhythms in all of popular music. If I clapped them, you would recognize them immediately. The next time you saw them you could clap them just by recognizing what they are. This is how proficient readers do it. It’s learning to recognizing the rhythm figures as opposed to counting the notes through the bar.  


My horn players tell me that to become a good reader you need to read something new everyday. I’ve noticed that the musicians that read well, typically do a lot of gigs that require a certain level of reading ability.

So don’t feel like you have to be a killer reader before you can start composing and arranging music. If you run into problems, your horn players can help you. Use my little "One-e-and-a" trick. Writing will help your reading, but reading something new everyday on your instrument will help you the most. I'm still working on mine.

I would love to hear your expertise on this subject. 
Leave it in the comment section below and thanks for subscribing.

Fred Stickley Music

Analyzing Horn Chart #2

It seems I always do things in multiples. So here's a second video that I just put together for our new song, "The Bird Sing, from The SEAN+FRED Show's new self titled CD.  The song was born out of the piano riff in 7/4 that starts the tune.

To set the tone or vibe that I wanted, I wrote some counterpoint for the trumpet and tenor sax that happens midway through the chorus or B section, and at the end. I wanted the tune to have a bit of a classical tone over the 7/4 rhythm. Except for the end of the chorus the trumpet is mostly in the staff throughout the tune.

I've provided a score for you to check out. Like the song from the previous blog this was arranged for trumpet and tenor sax, and like the last score this one is also in concert pitch for learning purposes.

Would love to hear your feedback and again thanks for subscribing.

Analyzing Horn Chart #1

This week I put up on YouTube a song that I wrote and recorded with my sextet. I thought I would share it with you and post the horn arrangement for you to study.  

The usual practice is to have the trumpet and tenor sax parts show as transposed on the score, but since this exercise is for learning purposes I decided to show you the parts in concert. Concert, meaning, what you see is what you hear.

It's three staffs, trumpet, tenor sax, and bass. Working off just a bass part served our purposes as a guide for the whole rhythm section since it was a new original piece and we would be experimenting with the drum and keyboard parts. The bass part developed as I wrote the tune.

In the next week or so I will be doing more videos, analyzing horn arrangements that I and others have written. Thanks for being a subscriber and I hopes it's been worth your while.