Project: John Clayton, Jr.’s “Star Spangled Banner”

One of the most important pieces of music in my life is John’s arrangement of SSB. I’ll spare you my story of why this is so — but suffice to say is that this is the only good rendition of SSB ever arranged. Really, brings tear to my eyes.

Whitney Houston dials in a performance that’s equal parts technical brilliance, personality, and reverence. By reverence, I mean it is not this:

How not to sing the national anthem. Ahem, Mariah.

A few months ago I was thrilled to discover that it was for sale. Legally. Arranged by John himself for concert band. I quickly ordered the entire set, but when it arrived, I was disappointed to learning it was a “Young Band” stripped down arrangement. (There is also a marching band arrangement, which is helpfully “not available”. Come on, take the damn page down, stop being jerks.)

I could write a few articles of analysis on this piece alone – all 35 bars of it – and what makes it so majestic. But let’s get to the arranging part now.

Selecting the Orchestration

Score or not, I’d have to reduce it down to a smaller band orchestration. Just starting with a real score, however, gives me quite a leg up, and saves a lot of time with the initial pass. This particular piece is extra challenging for accuracy, as the only recording is the open-air Super Bowl performance. In 1991. No studio edition. No alternate takes. (Well, almost none.)

A quick listen to the original sounds to be a typical orchestra – strings (violin, viola, cello, bass; brass: 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 4 horns, tuba; winds: 2 flute (doubling piccolo), 2 clarinet, oboe, bassoon; percussion: snare, bass drum, timpani, crash cymbal, harp (yes!!), and maybe just maybe – is that a marimba at the end?

Our band is 5 reeds, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones, keyboard, bass, guitar, drums. We can work with that, given competent doublers on the reed parts. Ain’t no saxophones in the original.

Reading the Score

A cursory reading of the score while listening is a little disappointing, as it has been heavily modified for beginner players. Still, having the score is a gold-mine, as I can listen to what does and doesn’t match, note them down, and work from there.

Transcribing large-scale music by ear is a like solving a puzzle. Nobody can hear absolutely every part in isolation, but you can hear the lead parts, the bass, selected lines here and there, the tessitura, the rough type of voicing (octaves? close parallel block chords? drop-2? 4-part vocal?), and so on.

But key is the the snippets that you can hear – oh, that’s a clarinet playing and F and Eb over here, that’s the French horns playing this phrase over there, there’s the trumpets playing 32nd notes… you get the picture. Those are like the “easy” puzzle pieces that can only exist in one spot on the board, unlike the vast piles of ambiguous gradient background. I mark every single one of these “keystones” down.

This, by the way, is a continuous process – every time you listen to it with different headphones, EQ settings, and so on, you’ll hear different bits. So you have to be ready to move those puzzles pieces around and solve the problem. This is learning, you’ll get better each time.

Or you can skip all that, and your arrangement will sound… meh. It will “work”, if you’re competent enough an arranger. But it won’t sparkle or resonate. And you won’t get any better.

The rest is just… when you get right down to it, filling the blanks.

I forget where I read this, but if the music you are working on seems chaotic and complicated, it’s because you haven’t discovered the simplicity of it yet. There always is some underlying framework, you just have to find it.

Coming next: the strategy for this particular score.

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