Everything Books
Writing and reading and books, books, books (and anything that might relate)

August 30, 2013

When a character steps off the page and goes places you never imagined


Briana Harley is an über-talented musician, singer, songwriter, and devoted reader of Velva Jean Learns to Drive.  In 2010, she wrote to say that she’d written a song inspired by Velva Jean and her story.  We’ve since become great friends.  She has also written music for the lyrics that appear at the end of each Velva Jean book, recorded a CD of Velva Jean songs, and, most recently, chosen Velva Jean’s favorite hymn as her project for her Choral Arranging class at Vanguard University.  It’s hard to describe just how cool it is to have your story and characters take on a new life outside of the book, and just how lovely a feeling it is when someone really gets (and is affected by) a story you wrote. 

Arranging “The Unclouded Day” by Briana Harley

As a music composition major I had to take Choral Arranging, which I was  excited about. However, I was the only one who registered for the class so it turned into private choral arranging lessons. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to do “The Unclouded Day,” because I’m always thinking of Velva Jean (haha). As my professor and I went over the syllabus on my first lesson, he explained to me what the project requirements were– I could choose to arrange for mixed choir, men’s chorus, or women’s chorus.  It could be any song I wanted.  He told me that people have done the Beatles before or even current pop songs, but explained that hymns usually turn out the best.

So from that moment I was set on arranging “The Unclouded Day.”

I chose to arrange it for Women’s Chorus for a few reasons:  being a female, I would be able to arrange for female voices better, and I used to be in Women’s Chorus so I just had more knowledge about how I could arrange it.  And also because I wanted to capture Velva Jean in the arrangement (I couldn’t for the life of me hear low male bass voices singing and think of Velva Jean).  booksoup3

I knew the form of the piece from the beginning. It starts out with the first verse being a solo.  My goal was to represent 10-year-old Velva Jean from the first book, before her mother died, while she was still innocent.  The first chorus starts with two voices and adds more voices with each line until it grows to be the full choir.  This reminds me of when young Velva Jean was baptized in the river. When I picture a good ol’ fashioned baptism, I always imagine one person singing and then slowly the entire church joining them, which is where my idea came from.

After that I take each verse and chorus and add a little bit more to it each time. It started off simple and straightforward, but then I started adding more tricky descants and blue-note harmonies to give it more flavor. This is supposed to show Velva Jean’s learning and growing, how even when times get tough Velva Jean still pushes through with grace and spunk! She learns from everything she’s been through and is ready for the next battle.

There’s a section where I decided to throw in “one-liners” from other recognizable hymns. These are hymns from my “Velva Jean playlist”– even though they aren’t mentioned in the book and some of them were written after Velva Jean’s time, they still remind me of her. Anytime I hear them I think that Velva Jean could sing the heck out of them.  Also I’ve always been a fan of medleys, which was my first idea.  But there were too many hymns I wanted to feature, plus I still wanted it to be “The Unclouded Day” arrangement.  I didn’t want to have to change the title to “The Unclouded Day & other hymns,” which is what gave me the idea to just use a line from the other hymns while “The Unclouded Day” was still being sung by other voices.  Honestly, my choral arranging professor wasn’t too fond of the idea, but when I presented it to the Women’s Chorus director she loved it!  The last verse is a solo as well but with the choir singing back-up.  To me this represented Velva Jean all grown up– she still has a young spirit but she’s lived a bit, so this solo is a little slower and more heartfelt.

And then it once again ends with the choir singing “The Unclouded Day” (and other hymns) just to show all that Velva Jean has been through– but at the end of the day her heart still lies at “home where no storm clouds rise.”


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