Come All Ye
It was probably in the late 1990s that Finest Kind began receiving requests for printed copies of our arrangements. We had a hard time knowing how to respond. Some requests came from choir directors, music teachers, and even members of a barbershop quartet—all of whom we thought must have more apropos sources for repertoire. On the other hand, we were also petitioned by folks who get together informally to harmonize from time to time for their own pleasure, who were insisting they wanted to sing the songs we sing, the way we do. So we thought it might be that everyone was just being polite, like dinner guests who ask for your pot roast recipe, but don’t really intend that you give it to them—let alone that they cook it. However, when we heard that there were singing groups in places like Toronto and New York who had been listening over and over to Finest Kind CDs and painstakingly deconstructing the vocal parts—hard work, and I know whereof I speak—it finally dawned on us that people might actually be wanting what they had asked us for.
So here we are, publishing our arrangements. This is new territory for us and our music. We see this as working in harmony, so to speak, with our recordings, and beyond them. We hope that making Finest Kind’s arrangements available is a way, in years to come, to keep our music not just heard courtesy whatever electronic media exist, but actually sounding in the mouths of living people, folks who will get the same pleasure that we have from singing this music, this way. Certainly, if people in the future retain the same extraordinary sing-it-yourself ethic of Finest Kind’s audiences today, these songs should have a pretty good run.
Piece of Cake
We had a problem once we’d decided to issue our notated arrangements: we had no notated arrangements. Not that there was nothing on paper. When Finest Kind works out a song—and we’ve had this same procedure since we started—we each have a copy of the words in our hands. As the arrangement takes shape, the two of us singing harmony write above the lyric lines the notes we come up with. Strictly speaking, it’s not actually the notes, but the numbers of those notes in the scale of whatever key we’re in (in the key of C, say, 1 represents C, 2 is D, 3 is E, and so on). So when the melody note is 3, and Ann decides to sing a harmony note two above it, she writes over the word, “5”. Plus we scribble cryptic comments in the margins or under the lines like, “very fast” or “slide up to octave,” with arrows and stepped diagrams to help get the idea across.
So when we decided to do the songbook (it was to be a songbook back then), we thought, “Piece of cake: we’ll just turn the numbers on the sheets into musical notes and presto! it’s done.” Wrong. The transcribing actually took months. The number sheets offered only the vaguest clues to the journey we actually had to take. For one thing, interpreting our cryptic runes, mostly written years before, was akin to deciphering a mediaeval palimpsest written in Enigma code with a dull pen. And even if we could make out the numbers and squiggles, translating them into standard musical notation was a daunting task. We are happy-go-lucky folk musicians who have led a mostly note-free, aural life. Notation is not our forte. Worse, what the numbers represented wasn’t necessarily an accurate picture of what could be heard on the CDs, the standard to which we decided to hew. (They weren’t even always what we were singing now, as you will see.) So at the end of the day, we found ourselves forced to perform the task we had hoped to save everyone concerned: listening over and over to our CDs to figure out what we had done and, more or less, were still doing.
Even so, there were some pieces that were too idiosyncratic in meter or melody for us to put on paper with confidence. So we went for help to various musical friends, including Adam Adler, a Toronto choir director who had asked for our written arrangements early on; and Ottawa singers Colin Henein and Ellen McIsaac.
The songs in our repertoire have one of two basic structures: either ballad-type stanzas that are sung in harmony by all the voices all the way through, as in “Banks of Sweet Primroses”; or verses (usually sung solo) and choruses (sung by us all), as in “Faded Roses of December” and “Miner’s Dream of Home.” Whatever their structure, our arrangements usually vary from start to finish, so a transcription pretty much has to include all verses, all choruses. Not wishing to produce a book rivaling the Oxford English Dictionary in size and expense, we did two things: we notated only a selection of our recorded songs; and instead of a book, we are offering our arrangements as .pdf’s via website download. That way, you can order and print out the songs you want, and we save paper and warehousing space and keep costs down. [We did go so far as to give our songbook a title: You Never Heard So Sweet, a phrase from “By the Green Groves” (From Different Angels and For Honour & For Gain). We also had a cover designed by our friend, artist Marilyn Koop, who designed all our CDs over the years. Marilyn passed away in 2012: we’re glad to be able to show the last of her wonderful work for us here.]
The Notes - Vertical
Essentially, Finest Kind arrangements consist of straightforward 1-3-5 chords, peppered here and there for variety with unisons and two-note, open chords. We also like to insert the odd “jangle” —discord—to underline a point in the text, or to provide a musical frisson—a bit of a shiver in passing, some musical vinegar to give tang to a run of rich-sounding chords.
The choice of notes each of us sings in relation to the others’—what is called “voicing,” that is, who’s taking a particular note high, who low—is critical for blend. It’s hard to explain why or how voices fit together: complementary timbre and texture have a lot to with it, and certainly in our case, the absence of vibrato. But even if, as luck would have it, the physical qualities of our voices suit them to blend, the effect can be nullified if the notes we sing are too far apart in pitch. So we pay great attention to voicing.
Our more or less “home” configuration—Ian singing a high baritone or tenor lead, Shelley singing bass or low baritone, and Ann singing an alto between the two that completes the chords—is the environment that allows our voices maximum fusion. But whoever sings lead, we take care to craft the harmony parts so that the note pitches are close enough to maintain our blend. On “A Handful of Maple Leaves,” for instance, Shelley sings lead; Ian’s tenor rides closely above the melody, more or less, and Ann’s alto provides an almost bass presence below it.
Choice of key is important when finding the right voicing. We try to sing songs in keys that are comfortable for everyone, but more often than not, one or more of us winds up singing at the very top or bottom of our range. We try not to let it show.
The arrangements of our songs, of course, voice them for us. When you take up one of those arrangements, make sure its voicing works for you. If it doesn’t, try singing the song in a different key or with your group’s voices on different parts, until your optimum blend is achieved.
The Notes - Horizontal
Vertical chords aren’t our only consideration in crafting a vocal harmony: we are also concerned with horizontal continuity. Shelley, having cut his vocal teeth on sacred choral music, tries to work out a bass harmony line that can pretty much stand on its own as a melody. Ian, with his choirboy past, similarly strives for melodic sense in his high harmonies. Such independence is a luxury Ann’s part doesn’t offer: Ann works out her harmonies last—a matter of musical practicality, not gender politics—and her choice of notes is determined by their place in the chords she is completing. As a result, her line makes more vertical than horizontal sense, and is a challenge to sing it on its own (this is an understatement). Luckily, she is into jazz.
Lift Every Voice
It’s your turn now to take our notation and make it into music. There are any number of approaches to take. You might decide to consider the notes on the page the same way classical musicians do theirs: as sacrosanct texts to adhere to, but to shape and endow with musical spirit so they lift off the page and soar. If you are coming to Finest Kind’s music solely through the notation, you might want to listen to our CDs or come hear us in concert, to get an idea of what the notes-on-paper can sound like in performance.
Another approach would be to use our music as a point of departure, a springboard for your own creativity. Rather than attempting to sing the songs exactly as notated or heard on our recordings, you may prefer to experiment with new chords, reassign solo and ensemble parts, speed up, slow down, add or eliminate instrumental accompaniment—whatever strikes your fancy. We do this ourselves. As I said earlier, Finest Kind’s recordings don’t always reflect the numbers we wrote down many years ago. The same can be said of our current live performances vis à vis our recordings. There’s a great new chord Ann made one night by changing one of the notes she had sung on the recorded version of “Gower Wassail.” It has brightened all our performances of that song since. You may wish to be bolder and farther reaching.
Whatever your approach, we thank you for thinking enough of our music to want to sing it yourself. We look forward some day to hearing how you’ve done with it.