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On the Job Training: “The Importance of Simplicity”

Lessons learned from a life in music.
(#2 in a series of posts.)  

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” & “Tree Song”

On November 9, 1977, I signed my first two choral arranging contracts. A few months earlier, I had submitted four charts to the publisher, all written on spec. When you are just getting started, that’s what you do. You write on spec. The publisher chose to take two of the four submissions. Not bad. My first at bat in the Big Leagues and I hit a solid double.

The two chosen were “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” hymns in the Public Domain. Turns out the Public Domain aspect was part of the reason they were chosen over the other (copyrighted) arrangements I submitted. PD music comes with none of the hassle and less expense than songs in copyright.

When submitting arrangements to a publisher on spec,
never submit material that is under copyright.
Never. Ever.

On the advice of my mentor, Charles F. Brown (Charlie), I had submitted the arrangements to Shawnee Press in far away Delaware Water Gap, PA. Why Shawnee Press? Considering that I lived in Waco, TX, at the time, and Word Music was right across town, why not send them to Word? Because – a couple of the charts were secular pop tunes, and Word did not sell secular music.

Don’t submit music outside the realm of the publisher’s product line.
It is a waste of their time and your postage.

 One reason I submitted to Shawnee was that Charlie Brown had begun a publishing relationship with the company, so he had an open door.

Lesson #3:
Relationships matter in the music business. A lot.

But the main reason for submitting the arrangements to Shawnee was they were difficult jazz-pop charts, and Shawnee was the only publishing house that dared sell such music. In fact, Shawnee Press had the guts to publish Gene Puerling’s brilliant Singers Unlimited a capella arrangements. And now my two fledgling offerings would be rubbing elbows in the same catalogue with Gene Puerling’s arrangements! The music I had sweated bullets creating, with all its intricate jazz chords and tricky rhythms was about to make me rich and famous. (Don’t hold your breath, Robert.)

Less than a year later, the head editor at Shawnee Press, the late Lew Kirby, asked me if I would write an arrangement for children’s voices, piano and a C instrument, of a song by Ken Medema, titled “Tree Song.” He asked that I keep it simple. No crazy harmonies. Easy. Sing-able.

I wrote the entire chart in an afternoon. “Tree Song” was certainly no showcase for my enormous talents (or was that my enormous ego?), but it was work, and I did the job as I was asked. Lew was pleased and “Tree Song” was put in print. Fast-forward 35 years, and guess which of my earliest works is still selling?

You got it: “Tree Song.”

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” hung in there for a long time. But it, along with “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us,” is now mercifully out of print. If Shawnee hadn’t taken them out of production, I would have begged them to do so. Both charts were unnecessarily difficult. The voice ranges were too wide and the voice leading was awkward. The accompaniments called for a full band (with a horn section!). They deserved to be put out of their misery.

But little “Tree Song” in its elegant simplicity continues to plug along. My work on it was neatly crafted, because I stayed safely within both my ability level and the guidelines Lew laid out. Interestingly, Ken wrote “Tree Song” as a lesson song for children. It became a lesson for me, as well.

 Lesson #4:
A well-crafted, simple piece of music will almost certainly outlast one built with flash and bombast. The simple piece will likely reach a broader audience.
And – here’s the kicker – it will make more money for the writer.

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