“Key” Considerations

I recently attended the national conference of the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, and during the conference a conversation developed regarding how composers felt about their pieces being transposed to a different key or octave. For example, when a composer writes a song, is it meant for one voice only, such as soprano, or can it be adjusted for another voice part? This is a question I have asked myself, and for me it really depends on the piece.

Earlier this year, I wrote a short song setting the Prayer of St. Francis for voice and piano. I originally wrote it for soprano because my daughter was singing while I played the piano; it was written and performed at a special event celebrating my husband’s 10th anniversary serving as the pastor of our church. However, I later wondered if advertising this as a soprano piece was too limiting. I imagined that perhaps a mezzo soprano, a tenor, or even a high baritone might like to sing this piece. But there was a problem; the original key would be slightly out of range for those with a lower voice range. Was the solution to simply transpose the key down a step or two?

It isn’t that simple. Certain keys cause problems with the piano part. Either the pianist would need to use awkward fingerings on the keys, or the piano part would be pushed too low, sounding muddy, or placed too high, sounding tinkly.  The right range for a low voice part didn’t necessarily work for the piano.

However, I really wanted to make this piece more accessible. It didn’t seem right to me to exclude singers who might want to present this piece during a church service, or even a wedding or funeral, simply because it was slightly out of range. After exploring the possibilities, I decided that one other key would work and be acceptable for both a lower voice part and the piano. Now I present both as an option – but there are only two options.

I do consider suggestions regarding my music. My son recently asked me to transpose a violin piece for double bass. I thought the idea sounded good (besides also feeling quite pleased that my son liked a piece of mine enough to ask this favor), so I agreed to it. As a saxophonist, I have also played quite a few pieces that were originally for violin or cello, so, the idea of using a piece differently than it’s original intent is not foreign to me. However, I do like having the final say.

Regarding “The Prayer of St. Francis,” I was able to be  slightly flexible yet still control the various choices. I would not like to have my piece  transposed into any key the singer chooses, as can be done on some sites with downloadable sheet music. Because of the nature of the piece, it’s uses, and the  broader pool of potential performers, I was willing to make adjustments for various voice ranges, but I am not willing to do so for every piece I write.

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