I have written a whole blog about how to use this Android app as there is no User Guide available. It was the first new tool I mastered last year when I started creating recordings of myself singing harmonies.
When I first started to use it, it really did feel like magic, something I had been waiting for my whole life. I don't use it so much these days, apart from creating quick demo videos, as its limitations actually mean it is easier to get a good result using more complex tools, now that I have mastered some alternatives.
As a teenager I remember using two cassette recorders to try to layer up harmonies so that I could record myself singing with myself. I would record on one, then play it back while singing another part, recording it on the second machine and so on. Here is a recording from those days that has survived .. I have applied noise reduction but the quality is still very poor, due mainly to the way it was recorded. Its the first verse from 'Come and join the celebration'
So imagine how delighted I was to be able to easily create recordings such as this (which I made as a 'Virtual Christmas Card' last year, it was recorded on the fly without planning or writing down the harmonies in advance):
So what is Acapella Maker? Its a mobile phone app for Android, that allows you to film yourself singing (or playing) multiple parts for a single song. While recording, I use headphones, through which I listen to an extra track that I recorded earlier, to remind me of the key and tempo. When you have made all the recordings, the app stitches them together to create a collage. It has limited editing features (can adjust track volume, re-record a whole track, arrange the items differently in the collage and that's about it). And it is rather flaky and prone to random crashing. The fact that I have persevered with it so long and created nearly 60 recordings, is testament to how much of a game changer it was for me in my musical journey.
I find it very easy to use for simple harmonies. But when I am less sure of what notes I should be singing, it is much easier to record using Audacity, for then I can listen to an individual 'guide track' via my headphones for the part I am recording, which is not possible with Acapella maker - just one backing track for the whole song. So for the most part I feel I have now mostly 'outgrown' Acapella maker, but still feel a great affection for it!
I leave you with one of my more ambitious and silly Acapella Maker recordings, made as a Thank You for Gareth Malone for the Great British Home Chorus (as it was based on a warm up piece he taught us) ... this features clever use of a stock video of a real dog ... captured in a very low-tech way by pointing my phone camera at the video playing on computer screen!!
So finally 2020 is no more. I guess its true to say that never before have so many people been glad to see the back of a particular year. 2021 can surely only get better?! Well, in spite of still being in the middle of a global pandemic, (one that back in the Spring, many of us confidently assumed would be over in a matter of months) at least now the vaccine is here, and the end is hopefully in sight. Lets hope that 2021 will include significant elements of the return of 'normal life'.
But as I have briefly touched on before in this blog, as far as my musical life is concerned, 2020 has actually been a rather positive year. And I would not want to have to turn the clock back in this aspect of my life -- yes it would be awesome to have been able to have been involved in all the musical projects for reasons other than a global pandemic, but the fact is, the COVID cloud had a silver lining for me and many others, as far as making music is concerned.
So as we embark on a New Year, I wanted to spend a short while looking back over what I have achieved this past year, as far as musicality is concerned.
2020 started off pretty much 'normal' for a couple of months. I had little spare time as I had two part time jobs. I went along to choir practice once a week and that was about it as far as music in my life was concerned. My choir (the Belstead Singers ladies choir) were learning a song that I had arranged last year - the first music I had written for this particular choir. We were due to perform it at our Summer concert (which of course did not happen). The song was 'With a Smile and a Song' (from Snow White) and I was rather pleased with the final page where three voices sing in counterpoint...
Then COVID 19 reached the UK, I gave up my interviewing job suddenly because of this (I had intended to work until June) so found myself with extra time, and we went into lockdown, meaning I was working from home with my remaining job (Suffolk libraries). So when I heard that Gareth Malone was starting up an 'online choir', meeting daily on YouTube, on the very first day it happened I tuned in at 5.30 for the Great British Home Chorus . Gareth taught us crazy warm ups, and a selection of songs, some of which we recorded. The whole process was totally new to just about everybody - at that time I think only Eric Whitacre had done any work with online choir recordings.
Gareth's YouTube sessions had people's comments appearing during the rehearsals. It became clear to me early on that there were people watching who did not have a clue about the basics of singing in a choir .... so I created my very first musical blog to provide some helpful tips and information. I tried to advertise this by posting the URL in the YouTube comments myself, but didn't attract many readers at this stage as the comments scrolled past so fast.
The next important development was when one of the GBHC participants, Derek J Wilcox had a great idea. He created a Facebook Group called GBHC Friends, where we could discuss all things GBHC related with much greater ease than via the YouTube comments. Once again I was one of the first to join, on its very first day, and have been active in that group ever since. I have made so many new friends there, mostly just 'online' but quite a few local ones have met in real life several times since we formed a Suffolk Group later in the year. And through the group I have been introduced to all sorts of wonderful things.
The one that has become enormous for me this year, to the extent that most GBHC friends think of it as my musical trademark, is an android app called Acapella Maker. I was first introduced to this by a fellow GBHC Friends member (Christine Worthington) and immediately saw its amazing potential for someone like me, who has always loved creating harmonies. It lets you record yourself singing harmonies with yourself - pure magic! It felt like I had been waiting all my life for something like this. I don't think there have been many weeks since then when I haven't created something with it. And I wrote another blog to act as a User Guide, as there was no help within the app. Here is the very first video I made with the app, based on one of Gareth's fun warm ups
The next project I was involved in was once again with the GBHC friends. We had decided to create a 'Thank You' song for Gareth, this was to be using new words to the Abba song 'Thank You for the Music'. People were invited to offer various skills, so I did mention that I had arranged some choral music. So one Saturday, I was suddenly asked to write a SATB arrangement by Monday ... no pressure or anything! I worked at it all day Sunday, I knew it wasn't brilliant, but I had never produced anything so fast before.....
Thankfully (unknown to me at the time) they had also approached two other people with the same request, and one of them was a professional. So little or none of my ideas made it into the song we actually recorded, but I was totally fine with that as Charlotte's arrangement was so much better! But the bonus was, as I had worked on it, I ended up with my name in the credits on the same page as Benny and Bjorn from Abba!
Somewhere along the way I started yet another musical blog, The Music of my Life ... not so much for others, more of a musical memoir for myself. But so far all I have done is a page about Easter music, and a page still in draft form with my Desert Island Discs.
I became conscious that my musical education was somewhat lacking - all I had was an O level, my Grade 5 theory, and clarinet exams up to grade 7. I looked into doing A level but the cost was prohibitive. So I looked for some free or affordable courses. I completed one called 'Foundations of a Musical Mind' with Musical-U and I am still working through one called 'Diploma in Music Theory' with a free provider called Alison.
My last big project for 2020 was one of the more ambitious and got me learning more new skills, as well as leading a directing others for the first time. I intend to write a page about this in depth, but will just share here the final result - a video of 'O Holy Night' by Suffolk members of GBHC friends.
So that's been my musical Year! I wonder what 2021 has instore?
Over the past couple of months I have been writing a new song - probably the biggest piece of composition I have ever done. Its a song for the ladies choir that I sing with.
I thought that, while its still quite fresh in my mind, I would use this post to try to describe how the creative process worked for me in this instance, what order things came in, and what the timeline was like.
It all started on 15th September, when I had the idea to compose something from scratch (rather than just arranging already existing music) and straight away the idea of using words from a poem seemed like a good one (as writing lyrics is not my strong point). It didn't take me long to settle on which poem it was going to be - one of my favourites from school - 'Song of the River' by Charles Kingsley (which Google informed me was actually from 'The Water Babies', but I had forgotten that). This poem has three verses which trace the life of a river from its pure beginnings ('Clear and Cool'), through a polluted town ('Dank and Foul') and eventually into the sea ('Strong and Free') - right from the outset I think I knew I wanted to set the middle verse in a minor key to fit the theme.
So the following day (which happened to be the day before I was going on holiday for a week) I was playing around in my head with possible melodies, which seemed to come to me almost unbidden. The first one I 'lost' as I didn't record it or write it down quick enough before I forgot it. but soon I had three alternative 'beginnings' which I described as 'fragments' when I shared them in an email with the conductor of the choir asking for her opinion on which one I should develop (I actually sent 4, but the last one was just to make up the numbers really) Here they are:--
Of these she preferred the first and third (and so did I). The reason I decided to go ahead with the third rather than the first was simply that the words fitted better.
So in that first 24 hours I'd had the idea to compose a song, decided on a poem to use, and chosen the opening bars for my tune. I probably would have taken it further that first day, had I not needed to pack for the holiday! All I actually did was to make a couple of recordings using the voice recorder on my phone, so I wouldn't forget the tune, and would have it with me when I was away on holiday. One was the opening bars of the first verse, and the other was the opening bars of the second verse in the minor key.
The next day, on holiday in Wales, I had come up with a tune for the whole of the first verse. It wasn't the same in every respect to the 'final' version, but it is nevertheless recognisable. Here it is, as recorded that day on the voice recorder:
The same day I also recorded a version of verse 2 in the minor key, and two days later the third verse. All slightly different to todays version, but very recognisably the same piece of music.
On return home, after a week away, the first thing I did that same evening was to open up my notation software (Noteworthy Composer) and get the melody transcribed into dots! I think I started off in D major/ D minor as per the original 'fragment', but as soon as I started adding harmonies I transposed it to F major/F minor to make the ranges of individual parts suitable for the ladies in my choir.
Sadly I didn't keep a copy of the original melody as originally transcribed. The earliest copy I can find is a PDF of the melody (with additional harmony in verse 1) from 2nd October.
The next stage was to start writing vocal harmonies. This is the part I enjoy most! I had a rough idea of what I was trying to achieve:
the first verse to be mainly melody to get the tune established, but I couldn't resist adding a second soprano line for the second part of the verse, (with very predictable harmonies that I could sing in my sleep), the altos coming in with 'Ding Dong' following the words 'the church bell rings', then the verse ending in 3 part harmony for the final phrase 'Play by me bathe in me mother and child'.
The second verse to be in three parts throughout, the first section with counterpoint for the two lower parts, and the remainder homophonic.
The third verse to be 'all singing all dancing' with a descant and harmonies below also.
In practice, the first verse vocal parts were straightforward to write and was complete in no time. The second verse I started on a harmony line, but to fully write the verse I had to first sit down and think about chords. For the third verse, I heard the descant in my head, but I had to actually write the notes in and play it back to convince myself that it would 'work'. The remaining harmonies in that verse, I left until I had worked out the chords.
So the next stage was working out chords. This I didn't find particularly easy. It was the first time in the whole process that I sat down at the piano! It was just a case of trial and error. My ear tells me what is pleasing, but I have a very rusty grasp of things like chord progressions. I was reading up a lot about chords, circle of fifths, and other music theory topics at the time, which did help to an extent. I started with the third verse for some reason, with a piece of paper with the lyrics, trying to fill in the chords. This is what I came up with at the time (later changed as the piece developed)
I then went through a similar process for the other verses. Then and only then could I complete the vocal harmonies for verses 2 and 3, based on the chords I had selected. (I wrote a temporary bass clef line in the score with the chords in root position to remind me of the notes).
Then there was the piano accompaniment. This was the hardest bit of all for me, as I don't have the first inkling of how to write piano music! And I hadn't even paid very much attention to what sort of textures and rhythms the piano plays during choir pieces. Yes I could have dug out some music for ideas, but I really wanted this to be 'mine', so I stumbled through.
For the intro I wanted some light arpeggios, rather like a John Rutter piece (I was thinking about 'For the Beauty of the Earth' I think). So, based on my chords, that bit was fairly straightforward, and carried on in a similar vein throughout most of the first verse.
Second verse I wanted 'plonk plonk' chords (I have no idea what the correct name is!) which was harder - I started off by putting in far too many notes, especially in the left hand.
Third verse I didn't have fixed ideas, it just grew! I wanted to leave it fairly plain in format for the first half of each bar where the descant was doing the run down, so I added in rhythmic bits to the second half.
So this is what I ended up with as my first attempt with accompaniment. I recorded it as a score video as well...
I shared it with a Facebook group for choral composers for feedback, and received the following comment
"congratulations on your first full work. The feeling is lovely, I like the syncopation and the interaction of the voices. With the piano writing, it's unusual to have chords in the left hand. Do you know about the harmonics of notes? https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harmonic_series_(music).... in arranging chords for piano accompaniment, it will feel (I don't want to say natural exactly) but easier on the ears if you arrange your chords with some feeling for mapping onto the harmonics. I know the computer sound isn't attractive and a pianist will be much more delicate and sensitive, but nonetheless I suspect you will like the effect more if you arrange the chords in the piano with closer notes in the right hand, and more space, largely octaves or fifths in the left hand, (which is not to say you can't have inversions, of course you can.) I'd invite you to play around with this and see what you like. For eg, in the arrangement below, the first chord will be less heavy to our ears. The other thing is, in the vocal lines, consider putting in rests for breaths. Music directors will thank you."
I still don't really understand what she meant about the harmonics, but I did my best to implement the other suggestions.
Round about this time I also made a recording of the vocal parts using Acapella maker (this is transposed down a tone to be slightly more 'singable' for me as an alto)
Then my own choir leader started to offer suggestions to improve the piano part. This is pretty much complete now as far as I can tell, so what I have now probably not much different to what will be the completed version.
I eventually arranged a virtual choir recording of the piece with the help of an enthusiastic group of friends from the Great British Home Chorus. This was published yesterday on YouTube and can be seen here.
Further Addendum April 2022
Finally on 7th April 2022 the Belstead Singers (for whom the song was written) gave their first performance of the song at Thursday Forum, Christ Church, Ipswich.
It probably won't come as too much of a surprise to readers who know me in real life, to hear that although I have not been formally diagnosed, I do believe that I have a form of Asperger's Syndrome. I experience many of the classic signs such as:
Love of routine and resistance to change
Difficulty in making friends and forming relationships
Difficulty in reading social situations and understanding what people are thinking
Obsessive interest in specific topics
Lack of eye contact
Preference for communication via the written word
I could go on and on! I suppose I have always known that I was a bit 'different', but for the most part it hasn't hampered me too much in life, and it is only in the last 10 years or so that the penny has dropped for me, in a way that makes it so much easier to for me to understand the reason for many of my own preferences and traits, and the impact this has had on my life.
I do believe there is a strong link (for me at least) between my Aspergers and my musical ability. It is well documented that gifted musicians can often be on the spectrum ... apparently people now believe that Mozart was for instance! Music is definitely one of my 'obsessions' - something I connect with on a deep level, and never tire of. Also my lack of social awareness/lack of embarrassment has helped me to not be worried about making a fool of myself in performance etc
My problem has been that in normal times, getting involved in all things musical is so often a rather social activity. Whether it is learning an instrument, singing in a choir or attending a concert, all these involve interactions with other people. Now when its just about the music, I have no problem with that, and those who may have taught me, or worked in any sort of musical activity group with me, will know that I am never afraid to ask questions and discuss the music. But when it comes to the more 'social' side of musical gatherings - coffee break time, or any other sort of social situation, that's a totally different kettle of fish for me - making small talk is too much like hard work, even with people I have known and worked with for quite some time.
So in many ways 2020 with the Coronavirus lockdowns, has been quite a blessing for me, musically, in that I have been able to engage in all sorts of new musical activities myself, without having to constantly interact face to face with others. I have had extra time on my hands (since I moved into semi-retirement) and have had the opportunity to take part in of all sorts of online experiences (joining virtual choirs, recording, performing, interacting with others 'on my own terms' in shared interest groups over the internet, taking courses, experimenting with new music software, composing, arranging, writing blogs etc etc). I have reacquainted myself with lots of long forgotten music theory, and learnt new techniques. I have had the time to develop skills I already had, and learn new ones. All in a safe comfortable environment, where I can get involved with others as much or as little as I want to. This has suited me, as an Aspie, very well indeed, and has probably produced my best work so far.
I first became aware of the magic of transposition at quite an early age, probably before I had learnt to properly read music. The idea that the same piece of music could be played using completely different notes (on the piano) was a revelation to me. Until then I think I must have assumed that there was one and only one way to play any particular tune.
For example I think it was my mother that taught me to play my first melody on the piano ... a little children's chorus called 'I am H-A-P-P-Y'. (by the way its strange that it was Mum, if indeed it was, for she couldn't really play the piano ... I guess she had just been shown how to do this piece)
Now the strange thing about this, looking at the music, was that it only used 4 notes, and yet to play it in this key (F major) , needed the use of a black note. If I had been taught it in C major or G major it could have been played all on white notes, which to my mind would make it easier to teach a young child. But the way I though it had to be played was in the key of F (not that I knew the note names or anything like that at the time... I was probably about 5 or 6.
So the piece where I eventually discovered transposition was much more complex. Its a tune well loved of budding young piano players in those days which we knew as 'Chopsticks' (although it isn't the one that appears when you Google that name ... so I have no idea what the real name of this piece is!!) I don't think it appeared in the piano primers, but rather seems to be passed around by demonstration from one child to another (those were the days when quite a lot of people had a piano).
Well I first learnt it like this .... note the strange way I twist my hand to play the Bb/E chord ... this was exactly as I first learnt it!
So my sisters and I had been playing this tune in this key for quite some time (incidentally I was very proud of the fact that we could play something using both hands, as it sounded so much more like proper piano music, 'than the one hand a time' music I was starting to learn in the piano primer at the time).
Then one day, we were visiting some children who lived across the road - I don't even recall their names, and one of them played this piece, recognisably the same piece, but almost entirely on the black notes! I was gobsmacked - didn't realise you could do that! So we switched to that key, as for this particular piece its much easier to play (from ear) on the black notes (with sheet music it would have been more difficult as there would be masses of sharps or flats to decipher). On the black notes we also learnt more of the piece .... so here again, from memory, is how it went...
So that is how I first discovered transposition. Interestingly I have no idea what key I was playing in for either of these demonstrations ... I could work it out of course, but I suppose that again illustrates my own particular musical skillset - I can play this music, by ear, that I learnt more than 50 years ago, without ever considering what key each rendition is in! I just know they are different keys.
By the way if anybody knows the name of this piece, I would be interested to find out!
I have never been able to work out if my own
particular musical aptitude is in any way unusual, or just what any musically
literate person can achieve. Here is a summary of my particular talents as I
see them, an honest appraisal hopefully, but those who know me can judge if I am wrong!
I can read music, but not particularly brilliantly: sight reading either
for voice or instrument is unlikely to come up with a perfectly correct
rendition, but will probably be about 80% accurate for a fairly
straightforward piece, less so for complex rhythms or lots of accidentals
by ear is much easier for me. In a choir piece, once I know my part, I
only need the music to remind me of words, dynamics or expression (unless
it is particularly tricky bit) … I sing the notes by memory.
comes completely naturally. Whenever I hear a melody, once I have heard it
a couple of times, I am likely to start humming my own harmonies, often
without even realising I am doing so. Being forced to sing a melody all
the time feels like being put in a straitjacket to me. Especially in church.
I don’t know how much this can be explained by my childhood background in
the Brethren, where we sang unaccompanied, in harmony, without any music,
in our morning meetings of open worship (…. My father was the ‘precentor’
in our fellowship, who led everyone in singing, by selecting an
appropriate tune for whatever hymn had just been chosen by one of the
congregation, and pitching it appropriately.)
I can sing harmonies to songs without first planning them or writing them down. I can record parts for simple tunes 'on the fly' without knowing what I planned to sing in any formal way …. For me it can be much more effort to notate the music than to just perform it (although I am also perfectly capable of notating, composing and arranging
using formal scores)
all applies to voice, but to a certain extent to instruments too. I am not
a particularly accomplished instrumentalist of any sort, but can easily
pick out a tune on piano, recorder or clarinet if someone mentioned a song
that I knew. And can sing along with a guitar playing basic chords to many
simple melodies (…. Or at least I used to be able to do so, I’ve not
picked up a guitar for years so I am sure I would be a bit rusty!)
accomplished musicians say that they need the music in front of them, and
are completely stumped if asked to play something, however simple, without
music …. Well that’s not me! Once again I think it comes from my father,
who is a very competent pianist, but plays much better without the notes
in front of him.
Other musicians can only play by ear, never having learnt to read music, or seen the benefit in doing so. That's not me either - I am pretty fluent in the 'language of music' in its written form - I can read it, write it, sing from it, play around with it....
Perhaps I am the best of both worlds? Or maybe Jack of all trades, master of none? Who knows?!
So this is me, a summary of what I know about my musical aptitudes. What I don’t know, is if my talents
are in any way special or unusual? I’ve never mixed with enough musicians to
get a feel for this!
In this blog I will perhaps explore the limits of my musicality, to find out how and where I should focus to extend my capabilities. Hopefully some of my readers will offer ideas and assistance to me in this journey, and we will be perhaps able to help and support one another as we develop our musical lives.
I have created a number of blogs, for various purposes, usually as a convenient and free place to put some content online, but this is the first one that is intended to be more like a 'proper blog' in the way the term is usually understood. In other words it is a place where I will publish thoughts and ideas from time to time, for people to read and comment on. That's what a blog is supposed to be isn't it? Something a bit interactive!
The subject of the blog is all things musical. Making music has always been an important part of my life. Here I will discuss the creative process, look at aspects of musicality, discuss technical tools I use to help with aspects of music learning/creating/understanding, and share some of my projects. And anything else that springs to mind!