400. It’s not a magic number, but when it refers to a collection of songs by a single person, it might just elicit a “wow.”
Almost four years ago, an acquaintance had been in touch with a mutually respected undergraduate music professor. My parents regularly see the same man at church meetings, and the subject of the prior dialogue came up in conversation with him. Within a couple of weeks I was in contact with Carole, a dear lady, and we began work on her musical creations together.
The backstory: Carole Obrecht, born in 1935 in rural Indiana, now lives in Nebraska. Now a widow, a few years ago, she was taken to the hospital with a serious illness (MRSA), and her children were told she had about two weeks to live. She spent 43 days in the hospital, recovered, and was referred to as “a miracle patient.” With a new lease on life, about a month later, she experienced a fountain of gratitude in her soul and began composing words and melodies—most of them in the broad category of congregational gospel songs. Many times she has looked back in amazement at this burst of creativity. For each song, Carole would eventually
- type a lyrics sheet (in Word)
- sing the melody into her computer’s microphone
- (initially) use her keyboard to devise rudimentary harmony
By the time I got to know her, Carole had created more than 100 songs. She needed someone to edit and notate them properly for potential church use and for posterity. That’s where I came in. It takes a certain complement of proficiency and experience to do this type of work. I happen to be agile with music notation/engraving, I have some good software, and I know fairly well the kind of music Carole creates. In the spring of 2013, I also had some extra time available, so Carole sent me a handful of songs, and I began work. It soon became clear that I would not be able to use her keyboard work as a basis, so I would work out new harmony in all-vocal arrangements.
Carole and I worked with each other patiently (she, all of the time; and me, most of the time) in the early phases, trying to figure each other out. Almost always by e-mail but periodically by phone, we would discuss this issue or that. We worked through a standard template (the style, typeface, size of musical staffs, how to show her name, the copyright, my name, etc.). I believe she still overestimates the limited value of filing her materials with the U.S. Copyright Office, but one of her goals is to make things easy to navigate for her children, should any issue arise, so it’s understandable that she would spend time and money on copyright filing. Carole has been a perpetual model of consideration and grace in responding and thinking out loud with me, even when she doesn’t quite agree.
Behind the backstory: When Carole and I began our partnership, I was deep into what I might call a disadvantaged phase of vocational life. My musical creativity had begun to be squelched and constrained. I have written more than 100 songs myself and have arranged many more than that, not to mention a sizable catalog of instrumental works, but I’ve had little inspiration to produce music in the last decade. When one is discouraged, he needs something to do in order to feel useful, and a little extra money would be good, too, but how to negotiate. . . . Although I had arranged for hire before, I had not engaged in any sort of ongoing relationship. Carole and I easily reached an agreement under which I would be paid on a per-song basis. Now that that was out of the way, we moved ahead with the substance.
The process: I receive a dozen songs at a time, each song consisting in a .docx lyrics file and a .wma audio file. These are the three phases of work on each creation:
- Melodic dictation—listening to Carole’s recorded voice and notating the melody (perhaps 20% of the time spent here)
- Harmonic arrangement—writing three underlying voice parts, arranging each song for congregational use (perhaps 50% of the time)
- Lyrics insertion—either retyping or reformatting and importing (30%)
When a sheet music draft is complete, I e-mail it to Carole, in the form of a .pdf file with an accompanying .mid sound file for her to listen to. She will often note words or phrases she wants to change; seeing music and words on a page together can give her new eyes. (At times, the changes can be extensive, and it’s back to the drawing board, but this is relatively rare.) A typical song might require 75-90 minutes of initial work on my end, 2-3 e-mail exchanges, and 15-20 more minutes of editing work. The final steps for each song are (1) my sending edited files (to the left is a group of the .pdf files) and (2) Carole e-mailing to confirm the files are received and saved on her end.
Carole had piano instruction as a young girl and also remembers vocalizing with her mother at the piano. After childhood, Carole was not trained as a musician. She hasn’t studied, for instance, any principles of melodic contour or the important balance between unity and variety (so, for example, some melodies are relatively predictable), but she produces some pretty good songs! Most of them are tuneful and accessible to the average person. During the process of notation, if I find a measure or two almost like the melody from two lines above, but not quite, I adjust the notes, and Carole is fine with this. When a melody has too great a range or suggests a nonstandard harmonic progression, I often recommend a change, and most of the time, we move in that direction. The style of many of the songs tends to reflect the generation in which Carole grew up and perhaps a halcyon sense of congregational singing that is on the decline, but the music is an expression of her genuine faith, and she trusts that the Lord will use the songs according to His pleasure.
A few challenges: Carole’s voice is remarkably strong, so it’s rarely difficult to take melodic dictation on her tunes. She has a wide range, but she sometimes starts a song too low for congregational soprano lines. This doesn’t typically present much difficulty—I just transpose it up two or three steps—unless the melody ranges high as well. Once in a while, she seems to meander a little, and I suspect such instability is attributable to her having had a cold at the time, or perhaps she was less focused than usual because the next song was on her mind, too. Sometimes, apparently feeling some out-of-genre expressive impulse, she changes keys midstream; on a few occasions, we have decided to leave the key changes intact in the final product. (Changing keys is difficult for an a cappella group to navigate.) Her sense of rhythm is fine but sometimes presents challenges, as do a few other technicalities that require adjustments.
If I can’t figure out how to notate one aspect or another, I just say so, and Carole suggests something else or sometimes goes back to the drawing board herself to record another version of the melody. My Sibelius music software has some bugs in the way it handles lyrics as they are being imported, matching syllables to notes: it thinks “trials” has one syllable and “Savior,” three, so I have to manually divide those words and a few other frequently used ones. The software also has no idea what to do with the word “reigns,” so I have to trick it and correct after the fact.
A few characteristics: Carole loves words and phrases such as “thrill in His glory” and “our Savior has conquered sin.” Even more, she loves faith- and hope-filled expressions that look toward Heaven. In her catalog may be found strong notes of gratitude to a loving God, and of evangelistic concern for others, that they might share in what she has found.
Carole loves choruses and codas, and I have sometimes picked up that her others-conscious heart just can’t bear to let a song rest with the last word in the final stanza. She is compelled to say just one more thing—in the hope that, eventually, some soul will be a bit more inspired to faith in God . . . and so she adds a chorus or a coda to say that one more thing.
Sometimes, in our e-mail exchanges, one or the other of us will refer to a song as though it is a “child” of hers: “this one seems a little unruly and needs some parental love” or “you must feel this is a special child.”
My feelings: We have been working together for nearly four years now, and I remain grateful for this working relationship. My available time for “Carole songs” ebbs and flows, and Carole understands this and works with it beautifully. She has become a friend. We surprised her once by dropping in on her at church while we were traveling. Carole is also my elder sister, sort of a “great aunt” in faith. She prays for me and my family with great empathy, even as she cares for many others, including her own family.
Carole, thank you for your constancy and your example of faith. They are treasures, as are the poetic expressions of your sincere heart—a heart so very thankful to God. At times, you and your songs have amounted to a spiritual rope to hold onto—a constant in a sea of uncertainty and negative circumstances.
Our respective loose-leaf binders full of songs grow by the month. A couple of days ago, we reached song number 400. As we celebrate this milestone, and as we move into what may be the last hundred, Carole, I pause in gratitude for you.
B. Casey, 1/29/17