Apr 12, 2011

Children's Opera, Part IV, Composing the Accompaniment

Note:  This portion of the series assumes that you have some basic piano and composition skills.  If not, you may want to hire or otherwise enlist the help of a pianist or composer.

At first the prospect of composing an accompaniment part for your melody may seem daunting, but you have a couple of things going for you.
  1. A simple accompaniment is the best. 
  2. You should reinforce the melody in your accompaniment.
Simple Accompaniment
It is not just convenient, it is imperative that you follow these two steps.  The younger your cast, the more you need to follow these rules.  If the accompaniment is too busy, it will distract the children, and maybe even the audience.  The emphasis during the performance needs to be the children, not the pianist.  But a simple piano part that reinforces the melody will give the children support, comfort, and even courage.

In this sample the right hand plays the melody and the left hand supports it with simple chords.  If this is all you feel comfortable doing, it is enough.  You really don’t need to do more, and the opera will be a big hit.  Remember that the primary goal for this experience is to give the children an opportunity to create their own masterpiece.  It is an exercise for them.  If you want to stretch yourself as a composer, this is a fantastic exercise, but it is not necessary for the success of your opera.

Give them a little bit of a prelude to springboard them into the opera.  I simply built a repeat into the score at the beginning.  It sounds obvious, but don’t forget this important step!

Bells and Whistles
What you do with your work is up to you, and of course it will vary with your characters, the scenery, and the time period.  Providing a plethora of examples for varying circumstances is beyond the scope of this article, so I am going to stick with my example and share some of the things that I did to dress it up.  Each character in my small cast had their own style that served as a cue to remind them that it was their turn to sing.

Themes for each character
If one of your characters has a well known musical theme, you may wish to incorporate Musical Quotation when the character is singing.

Rapunzel featured arpeggiated chords like a harp.

Sleeping Beauty featured broken chords. 
The girl who played Sleeping Beauty was the most musically advanced in my cast.  The melodies that she sang when we were recording were the most complex, and I had a lot of fun playing with her accompaniment to let her shine.  For myself, the most memorable line in the opera is “I’m homeschooled because I want to learn to be more like a princess.”  I love it!

For our Ninja I used parallel fifths and pentatonic motives for an Asian feel.  Spider-man and the Ninja were the youngest members of my cast, and both greatly benefited from having a distinct accompaniment to tell them that it was their turn.  They loved having their own theme!

If the cast has some action to perform, the accompaniment can reflect that movement or task, as in the crawling music.
As you play with the score, you may have some silly ideas as your creative juices star flowing.  Have fun with them!  If you think something is funny, chances are the children and your audience will too, so find a musical way to express the idea.  For example, when the children expressed how much they love to play the computer when they are done with their school, I thought of the old-school computer games that were around when I was a kid.  The first time they heard the robotic computer sound in this excerpt, squeals of laughter filled the room.

Curtain Music
With or without a curtain, you need to come up with something for the children to bow to.  My curtain music is not written in the sample score, but I simply played each child’s theme song for their personal bow and the main theme for a final bow at the end.  After all of their hard work, children need a chance to say, “Ta-da!”

Final Notes
When you finish your accompaniment, make a recording of it for the children to practice with ASAP.  Not only will it help them practice, it will build their confidence in the music and give them a springboard to help them if they lose their place.  However, during the performance, the accompaniment should be live because it gives you the flexibility to improvise and follow the children.  I have accompanied two children’s operas where disasters were averted because the I have a brain where a recording does not.  Trust me, you need that flexibility in a performance with small children.  Good luck, and have fun with this one part of the opera that is truly your chance to shine!

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