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Drawing a Line on Difficulty

“If a piece is too difficult for amateurs to sing, the chances are that it is not good enough.” (Randall Thompson)

Randall Thompson (1899-1984) is one of America’s most revered choral composers. Anyone who ever sang in a serious choir, whether in church, high school, or college, has almost certainly sung some of Thompson’s music: Alleluia; Frostiana; The Best of Rooms – and on and on. I discovered the quote above in a new memoir by Stacy Horn about her 30+ years singing in the amateur  Choral Society of Grace Church, titled Imperfect Harmony: Finding Happiness Singing With Others.

I believe Thompson captured one of the ironic truths of music: A lot of difficult music is difficult because the composer never took the time to make the music better.


Well-written music, particularly choral music, doesn’t have to be difficult to be good. In fact, I think it’s often the opposite. Well-crafted choral parts generally sing more naturally than those that are difficult for the sake of being difficult. Anyone who has ever sat in one of my songwriting seminars, or taken a lesson from me, knows that I adhere to the “less is more” school of thought. As a rule (and there are exceptions, I admit), fewer notes, provided they are the right notes, sound as good or better than lots of notes.

I don’t write this to demean virtuoso music, meant to shine a spotlight on a performer’s technical abilities. That sort of writing exists in its own realm, I think.  What I’m talking about is music that is difficult because the composer never stopped and considered:  1) Do I really need all these notes?; or 2) Is this the best voice-leading for each vocal part?; or 3) Does the piano accompaniment (or trumpet part, or violin part, or any instrumental part, for that matter) play well and naturally on the instrument?

Several years ago, I was tasked with doing an SATB choral arrangement of a new Christmas song from a popular animated film. (The song and it’s composer/arranger shall remain nameless.) In order to save me time, the publisher forwarded me a copy of the composer’s score, along with the studio choir chart from the movie’s soundtrack sessions. The choral parts were absurdly difficult. Ridiculous voice leading. Just ridiculous. And it was completely unnecessary. I was able to create an arrangement that sang easily and naturally without changing the keys or any of the underlying harmonies, and it would have worked perfectly well in the Hollywood recording session. The arranger either didn’t know what he was doing, or didn’t have time to care. The Hollywood session singers made it all sound great. (Great session musicians make everything sound great. That’s their job.) But the music was difficult because the composer didn’t take the time to make it better.

So, if you’re reading this (and I think that I’m now up to three readers), and you write choral music, and you don’t have regular access to Hollywood session singers: Take the word of one America’s greatest choral composers. If your music is too difficult for amateurs to sing, it’s likely you haven’t taken the time to make it what it could be.


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