From My Heart to Your Ear: A Composer’s Play-by-Play

So just how does a song get from my heart to the audience’s ears?  Here’s the Cliff Notes version (with bonus song at the bottom of this post):

I spend about 2 weeks doing research on the story, using scriptures, talks, class manuals and the web as resources.

Composing the song could take just one day, but more typically takes several days.  My favorite part of this process is after I have the basics in:  I’ll sleep on it, then sing it over and over again for several days to tweak it.

After the song has “settled in”, I’ll notate the lead sheet (words, melody and chords) using Finale, a very robust (read: complex) notation program.  (Thanks to all fellow-Finale users who share their knowledge on the forums – without them I’d be lost!)

Finale 2011

The orchestration of the music is also done in Finale:  I’ll choose which instuments to use and create and notate each of the instrumental parts.  I use the included Garritan patches (instrument choices) for this part of the process.


Once the orchestration’s complete, I’ll export a MIDI file to Reaper, software that acts as a digital audio workstation so I can mix the song.  In Reaper, I can choose other patches (instument sounds) if I’m looking for something other than the standard Garritan patches.  Reaper lets me adjust the volume of all the tracks, add effects and….record vocals!


Based on the style of the song, I’ll ask singers if they’d like to take part in creating a demo of one or more songs.   In the past we’ve recorded these demos to help cast members learn the music quickly (since this music is new to everyone and not all performers are good at sightreading).  We’ve also sold these audio recordings to audience members who’ve requested copies.  For Old Testament Records, we are using the MP3 demos to present the show to performance entities (I am hoping to find a venue with a robust pit/symphony).

To help our demo vocalists prep the music in a reasonable amount of time, I’ll record the vocals for the solos and create a scratch copy MP3 (listen to one, below).  I typically record 2 tracks for each song and just go with the best takes for this throw-away-version.  We don’t do much editing or pitch correction on the vocal part, it’s more about showing the emotion of the song so our recording time can be more productive.  Mixing the orchestration happens during this scratch creation and can take a half to a full day.

I’ll email the the vocalist an MP3 of the my scratch version, an MP3 of just the orchestration, (so they can rehearse) and a PDF of the lead sheet (which I extract  from the Finale score).  Usually the lead sheet has to be adjusted prior to the step:  The melodies have almost always changed a bit from the time they were first inputed (the week after song creation).

Vocalists come in knowing the notes and record about 5 takes, with extra punch-ins to fix tricky parts.  During the first takes, we look for correct notes and rhythms.  With each successive take, we shift more toward telling the story and catching the emotion of the song.  As a general rule, vocalists feel by the end that they are completely overacting, but we’ve rarely had to ask a vocalist to dial it back.  Most of the time, emotions evaporate by about  50% when recording – it’s amazing.  Vocalists are often in and out in 1 hour if we’re only recording 1 song.

It takes us a day to do all the vocal edits and we’ll send this to the vocalist to get their nod prior to completing the mix.  Once s/he gives us the go-ahead we complete the remix of the orchestration to balance to their voice.  The remix can take another 1/2 day or more.

Once a show is cast, we usually take 6 weeks to stage and rehearse it, then do 2 weeks’ worth of performances.  The feedback from cast and audience members has always been fantastic, but sadly, I am so exhausted by performances that I can only smile and nod.  Want to catch me with some enthusiasm?  Come to auditions!  😉

Want to hear a work in progress?  I’ve included a scratch copy of Jonah’s song “A Second Chance” here.  Remember!  This is a scratch copy done in 2 takes and without the usual studio fixes.  Please don’t judge me – I can hear all the issues.  😉  (For example:  Jonah’s first scream?  It will be twice as long on the actual demo – remember this recording is just to give the vocalist an idea of what I want.)  We’ll get the real version recorded  and released in September.

Why post this now?  It’s a good example of a work in progress AND I know many people who are following the 2014 Old Testament study guide are just now studying Jonah.  Hope this is something that brings Jonah to life for you.

Want to hear about orchestrating this song?  Click here for the progress blog:

This song includes lines from both the narrator (doing the beginning patter to set the scene) and Job, the singer.  Unlike most songs in the show, the narrator rejoins the soloist on stage during the song, doing the singing as Jonah sits in shock after he realizes that “A Second Chance” applies not only to him, but to others!  The narrator also join Jonah for the finale 3 phrases of the song.  Since this scratch recording is The Wanda Show, you won’t be able to hear who’s who:  To see a breakdown of who’s singing, see the lyrics page for this song:  The narrator’s part is in italics.

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