Among the songs performed at the Upper School choir concert this spring were eight arrangements unique to Gill St. Bernard's, pieces that cannot be heard anywhere else. Of particular interest, two of those works ("Jackrabbit" and "Drops of Jupiter") were arranged by students in the Upper School music theory elective.
A few months before the concert, Upper School music director David Southerland began looking for a song that could be arranged by the four students in his music theory elective: juniors Lynnsey Kwaak and Brooke Stephenson and sophomores Sarah Crystal and Miles Griffin. He wanted it to be a relatively new song and to offer enough complexity to challenge the group. He eventually decided on "Jackrabbit," the title track of an album released in 2015 by the Brooklyn-based band San Fermin. "I contacted the band to ask for permission to use the song, and they were incredibly helpful," Southerland says. "They not only gave us the rights to arrange and perform the song, but they also sent us the full orchestral score."
The San Fermin version of "Jackrabbit" incorporates more than a dozen instruments (including two glockenspiels) with lead and backup vocals. To arrange the piece for the choral concert, the music theory students needed to rework it for vocals and drums. Essentially, instruments were reassigned to vocalists (sopranos, altos and baritones), but the task is not simply a mechanical one. As Crystal explained, "The song writer, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, did a fantastic job of creating a pop song that still maintains all of these intricate layers. Our challenge was to keep the complexity, even though we were vastly reducing the number contributing to that complexity." She continues, "There are places where the song gets really big and other places where it is very thin and simple. We wanted to keep those dynamics and volume changes in the vocal arrangement."
While it sounds like a Herculean undertaking, the students actually pulled together the arrangement in under two weeks. Southerland assigned each of the four a section of the original for homework and then had them compare notes in class. "More often than not there were a lot of areas of agreement," he said. "The group worked really well together and they were equal contributors; everyone came to the table with ideas and opinions and everyone has ideas that are represented in the final version." Throughout the process, Southerland kept a master score, incorporating the work of the four students.
In addition to learning more about the essential structure of music, the students learned about musical notation. For Griffin, this proved invaluable. Over the summer, he had arranged a choral version of Train’s "Drops of Jupiter" simply for fun. He did not work off a score, but did it entirely by ear. When he was done, he sent the arrangement to Southerland. "Miles has a great ear," Southerland said. "He had arranged the song before he had any coursework in musical theory. While his score was technically correct, it wasn’t user-friendly. Now that he understands the conventions of musical notation, his work is easier to share and to perform."
Once Southerland decided he wanted to include "Drops of Jupiter" in the spring concert, he had the students reach out to the band for permission to use the song. Another great lesson from Upper School music courses is not simply the importance of respecting copyright, but learning how to contact professionals in the music industry and secure permission to use material. Over the course of his 16-year career at the school, Southerland has never had a band decline a request for song use. "People are often surprised that musicians—especially famous ones— are willing to give schools the rights to perform a song.Honestly, I have never come across a band that was anything other than encouraging. As long as you are not planning to broadcast the performance, most are happy to be asked." A case in point, yesterday Griffin received permission from Coldplay to arrange "Viva La Vida" for a concert next year. "The choir members were really excited to hear Miles’ news," said Southerland.