Improvisation in Slow Motion

I have been arranging solo and chamber music for low brass instruments for almost my entire teaching career. As is true of just about everything I do as a teacher, my reasons for doing this have been mostly practical. The typical scenario is that I see a need for a particular piece or type of piece either for my own performances or for my students, I search for an already-existing publication that fulfils that need, and when I fail to find something suitable, I set about creating an arrangement myself. I’ve become fairly adept at this, and currently have over 30 arrangements in print. Most of these have been published by Cimarron Music Press, but I also have published with Potenza Music and TAP Music. While publication has always been a secondary goal for my arranging work and yields an extremely small amount of extra income, it has provided an extra “feather in my cap” when applying for promotion and tenure. I also like to think that others have found my work useful over the years.

I am speaking entirely of arranging—taking already existing music and adapting it to the medium of my choice—as opposed to composition, which is creating an entirely new work. I have yet to try my hand at the latter in any serious way, but maybe one day. One potential obstacle when one decides to engage in arranging is copyright, as works composed after 1924 (why that is the year is a very long story) are generally still under copyright protection and their composers (or the present copyright owners) entitled to royalties for each copy sold. While many composers, songwriters, and publishers are happy to grant permission to create new arrangements of their works, they do demand appropriate fees, and with the already razor-thin margins in music publication, publishers are often unwilling to publish arrangements when they will be responsible for paying royalties to copyright holders in addition to the arranger. To avoid all this, I have thus far chosen to limit my arranging work to pieces no longer under copyright protection.

Some of my favorite older pieces to appropriate for low brass are from the Baroque era. This introduces a peculiar difficulty: figured bass realization. Figured bass is a sort of shorthand used by composers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when composing accompanying parts for keyboard or sometimes plucked string instruments. The practice was to write the bass line only, and then to include indications regarding how the rest of the chord should be realized by providing numbers and symbols indicating the intervals to be played above the bass notes. In some respects, this was not unlike the chord changes seen in jazz and other improvisatory idioms today, and indeed well-known composers and keyboard players such as J.S. Bach (1685-1750) were widely regarded as skilled improvisers.

While figured bass is typically studied in college and university music theory courses, reading and interpreting these markings in real time during performances is a skill that has largely fallen by the wayside. Therefore, modern publications of these works even for their originally intended instruments typically include a complete keyboard part with the figured bass realized by an arranger or editor. Those preparing to arrange Baroque music for low brass instruments should be aware that while the pieces themselves are in the public domain, the figured bass realizations in more recent editions are not. To avoid running afoul of copyright law, a new figured bass realization must be created as part of the arranging process. Even without the legalities involved, this is usually still a good idea so that one can ensure that the accompanying part is most suitable for the new instrumentation.

Of course, it is one thing to correctly realize figured bass. It is another thing entirely to interestingly realize figured bass. My own skills in this area have certainly grown over the past 15 years or so. My very first published arrangement of a Baroque solo piece was a G.P. Telemann (1681-1767) bassoon sonata that is commonly performed in its original key by trombone and euphonium players. I thought moving it into a different key would make the fingering more amenable to CC tuba, and created a tuba arrangement in that key. This has been a successful arrangement and is still in print, but the keyboard part (which does not include the figures) is rather simplistic, though functional. I’m sure good pianists embellish this one a bit, which is entirely appropriate.

Fast-forward 6-7 years, and we come to this example from my setting of the J.E. Galliard (1687-1747) bassoon sonatas for bass trombone or tuba. Here the figures are included, and the right-hand keyboard part has more melodic interest.

My current project is creating a new bass trombone/tuba edition of the Benedetto Marcello (1686-1769) cello sonatas. The right-hand piano parts are still more inventive. While their function is primarily harmonic, there are little countermelodies and other motives to create interest.

While it is correct to say that my figured bass realization has improved due to having more experience with it, as I reflect on this evolution over the past fifteen years, I can identify a key difference in my approach to this task. In my early efforts I was thinking of the music almost entirely vertically, worrying only about writing the “right chords” over each marking. At some point, I began thinking more horizontally, imagining in greater detail the interplay between the solo and accompanying lines. At its best, the writing process has come to feel a bit like “improvisation in slow motion.” This has led to more interesting and, I hope, more idiomatic parts for the keyboard player in these arrangements, as well as a more enjoyable experience for me both writing and performing.

One of the dangers of formal music study is that we can become so concerned about things like technical execution and chordal analysis that they forget to simply “make music.” While accuracy is important, flow and direction are important also. This is obviously true in performance, but I have discovered that it is true in writing and arranging, as well.

About Micah Everett

Micah Everett is Associate Professor of Music (Trombone/Low Brass) at the University of Mississippi, Principal Trombonist of the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra, Interim Music Director at College Hill Presbyterian Church, Assistant Editor (Audio/Video Reviews) for the International Trombone Association Journal, and an S.E. Shires trombone artist. He is the author of THE LOW BRASS PLAYER'S GUIDE TO DOUBLING, published by Mountain Peak Music, and released two solo recordings, STEPPING STONES FOR BASS TROMBONE, VOLS. 1 and 2, on the Potenza Music label in 2015 and 2022, respectively. In addition to his professional work, he maintains an avid interest in the study of the Bible and of Reformed theology. He holds doctoral and master's degrees in music from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a bachelor's degree in music education from Delta State University, and a certificate in systematic theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
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