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June 1989 Arranged by Merle Isaac, By Alexander Harley

How would you pay tribute to a person who has devoted the better part of 90 years to music education? The friends and admirers of one such person decided to honor their colleague with a birthday party and reception held at the December 1988 Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic. In this case the friends and admirers included members of the National School Orchestra Association and representatives of several music publishers. Several hundred guests from among the 8,000 people who attended the clinic gathered to thank their special colleague, Merle Isaac, for his music, his arrangements, as well as for his years of service as a distinguished music educator.
    I have had the pleasure of knowing Merle since the 1930s, when we were members of the In-and-About Chicago Music Educators Club. By that time he already had worked both as a theater organist and as director of the Marshall High School Orchestra, a 90-piece ensemble that received national recognition.
   Merle’s name is familiar to most music directors because he has composed or arranged hundreds of published works, making significant contributions to the literature available for school bands and orchestras. As chairman of the music department at Maine Township High School, I often performed his compositions and arrangements with my orchestra. On a number of occasions, Merle served as guest conductor. During those and later years he was a clinician and adjudicator for many clinics and contests as well as conductor at festival concerts.
   For his distinguished career in music, Merle has been honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, the American String Teachers Association, the National School Orchestra Association, the VanderCook College of Music Alumni Association, the Tri-M Music Honor Society, and the Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic. He has rightfully become known as the dean of school orchestra arrangers.
   In recent years Merle has been a member of the Garden Street String Ensemble, rehearsing weekly in my home with a group of experienced string players. After one recent rehearsal we talked about his career in music and his outlook on music education. He began by telling about his musical experiences as a boy growing up in Chicago.

What are your first memories of music?
    When I was a boy, I lived in the country attended a one-room school. Later my family moved to Chicago, and I had a fourth-grade teacher whose pupils could read music and sing do-re-mi. This was all very new to me. My parents sent me to a church organist to learn about the syllables. The organist, however, was also a piano teacher. She gave me piano lessons and let me practice on her piano. Some time later my parents bought a piano, and I took lessons until I graduated from the eighth grade.
   In my first year of high school I sang in the glee club, and in my second year I sang a solo part in a production of H.M.S. Pinafore. By my third year I wanted to play in the orchestra. They already had a pianist, so I bought a
 wooden flute from Sears and Roebuck and
 taught myself to play it. Then, for two years, I was the one and only flutist in the Crane High
 School Orchestra.

After you graduated from high school, did you continue to study music?
   After I graduated from high school, I worked in the office of a printing company, took piano lessons, and practiced in the evenings. Somewhat later, I worked at the Western Electric Company and still kept in practice on the piano and the flute.
   Three years after I graduated from high school, I decided to enroll at Crane Junior College. I attended classes in the morning and practiced on a church organ in the afternoon. Some evenings I visited movie theaters and became acquainted with the organists. I learned about the various kinds of music that were used to accompany the silent pictures. I registered with one of the organ companies as a theater organist seeking employment. Then, the day after Christmas, I received a call to report to a theater for work. (Their organist didn’t show up on Christmas Day!)
   After a few months at that theater, which had matinees on weekends only, I changed to a theater closer to my home with matinees every day. At that time I began to study organ, harmony, and counterpoint with J. Lewis Browne. I learned the truth of the saying, “We learn by doing.”

What was it like to play the organ for the silent pictures?
   It was quite an experience. For the serious dramas, one could play excerpts from operas and symphonies. For the comedies, ragtime and jazz were used. Of course, all of the songs that were popular at that time were played. Each feature picture had a cue-sheet that suggested the various kinds of music to be played with the picture, changing every few minutes. When I started to play an accompaniment, I had a variety of pieces on the music rack readily available as needed.
   Pictures usually ran two or three days. On the first day of the matinee, I watched the picture and either improvised suitable music or played from memory. Improvising music to accompany a quiet love scene or a lively chase is quite a valuable experience. One had to provide a suitable melody in the right hand, harmony in the left, and a bass in the pedals. Sometimes I would improvise a countermelody in the left hand along with the harmony. I also controlled the swell pedal, making the music loud or soft, and the registration, imitating a flute, oboe, or one of the other instruments. During those years I began to write down some of the improvised music that I found myself playing from time to time.

What did you think when the silent pictures became talking pictures?
   In 1927 the silent pictures began to change to talking pictures. I went to see one on my dinner hour and decided that the new talking pictures would be successful, that the theaters would not need live musicians, and that I would have to find another way of making a living.
   About this time J. Lewis Browne became director of music for the Chicago Public Schools. He planned to develop the music programs in the schools, and he encouraged me to consider becoming a high school orchestra director. I began to take counterpoint and orchestration lessons from him. I wrote pages and pages of exercises. At one of my lessons he said, “Merle, you are a glutton for work.” I also began studying the violin and trumpet with other private teachers at this time.

Then you took the examination for teachers of instrumental music?
   All too soon, the Chicago Board of Education announced it would give an examination to certify teachers of instrumental music. There would be a written examination, a directing examination with the Lane High School Orchestra, and examinations in playing the various instruments of the orchestra and band. I took the examination, passed, and on Labor Day received an assignment to the Marshall High School on Chicago’s West Side.
   For some reason, the previous orchestra director had quit before the end of the year, and the students did not include orchestra in their September class schedules. During my first week at Marshall, I had no students. I went from room to room and announced that there would be orchestra rehearsals for intermediate and advanced players as well as classes for first-year students in playing the cello and the bass.
   The advanced orchestra met in two parts. Some of the students could adjust their programs to take orchestra in the morning, while others attended an afternoon rehearsal. After a few weeks we put the two parts together for one rehearsal and gave a concert in the assembly hall. Because a new teacher was on probation for three months, I continued to work in the theater every evening with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.

What did you learn when you started to direct the Marshall High School Orchestra?
   A number of the violinists were very good; in fact, some later became members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. However, there were few players on the other string instruments. The school owned four violas, four cellos, and four basses. Fortunately, there were four bass players. Four members of the second violin section offered to play viola, and four other violinists offered to play cello. I worked with these students after school. The wind and percussion players were members of the Marshall Band who attended orchestra rehearsals twice a week.
   I found some published music in the orchestra room, but there was little that I could use. Some was too difficult and some was too easy. Actually, not much of the music published at that time was suitable for school orchestras. I was well acquainted with music that had been arranged for theater orchestras with 10 to 20 professional musicians, but this music was not suitable for school use. The string parts needed editing by teachers who knew their instruments and who knew students. I had to simplify some of the parts and omit others. By selecting, editing, and changing the music to match the abilities and interests of the students, I learned what students could do and what they could not do, and I saw what students like to do and what they don’t like to do.
   During my first year at Marshall, I realized 
that I needed to know more about all of the instruments and about teaching students to play
 them. The orchestra’s wind players were the best
 musicians in the band. However, playing a wind
 instrument in a band and playing that instrument in an orchestra are not exactly the same. I
 needed to know more about this.
   Fortunately, I had heard about the Vander
Cook College of Music, and I began to spend my Saturdays there. In classes, I learned to play all of the instruments (though not well). I played in the band, and I taught piano; During the week I took private lessons and practiced. Some 
evenings I attended classes at Lewis Institute (now the Illinois Institute of Technology). In time, I earned degrees at both institutions.

Did you still find time to write music?
   Yes, I wrote music because I needed certain
 kinds of pieces that were not readily available. I wrote a string class method and arranged a number of pieces, which the orchestra played on various programs. For example, the orchestra
 played daytime concerts at the elementary schools whose graduates came to Marshall. 1 wrote Mummers, a solo for the string bass section, to get students to want to play the string bass.
   Once, when I attended a concert given by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the entire first violin section stood up and played Perpetual Motion by Paganini. I wanted Marshall’s first violin section to do something equally spectacular, but the Paganini was much too difficult. A violin teacher suggested Perpetual Motion by Bohm. I made an arrangement the orchestra played at a national contest. H.T. FitzSimons heard the performance and later said that he would like to publish the piece. The Bohm Perpetual Motion was my first published arrangement and it is still being played today.

Since that time you have made many other arrangements. What factors do you consider when selecting a piece of music to arrange?
   When I select a piece of music to arrange for school use, I ask myself certain questions:
• Is the music copyrighted? If so, permission to use it must be obtained from the copyright owner.
• Are there already some published arrangements of this piece?
• Is the music written in a-key suitable for students? If not, could it be transposed to a more playable key?
• Is the music of suitable length for students, neither too long nor too short?
• Will students be able to play the piece?
• Will students like to play the piece?
• Is the music worth learning? Is it educational, enjoyable, and the kind of music that one remembers?
• Will learning this piece develop skills and understandings applicable to other pieces of music?
• Will the teacher be able to teach the students to play this piece within a reasonable amount of rehearsal time?
• Will the music hold the students’ interest if it has to be rehearsed over and over for weeks?
• Will audiences enjoy hearing the students play the music?
Considering the answers to all of these questions helps me decide whether to make an arrangement.

After you have selected a piece, how do you go about arranging it for string orchestra?
   I usually start by making a pencil sketch on three or four staves. This is especially helpful if the arrangement is to be in a key different from the original. I put the principal melody at the top and the bass, which determines the harmony, at the bottom. Next I add the second violin part, making it a duet with the first violins. Then, I add the viola part to make three-part harmony in the three upper voices. The cello part may be a countermelody or it may double the bass part.
   Then I copy all of the parts into a full score. This score will have five staves for the string parts and two staves for the piano part. I use music paper with 14 staves. Thus, I have a seven-stave score in the upper half of the page, and another in the lower half.
   Next, I go over the score several times at the piano, checking the vertical aspects of the music (the harmony) and the horizontal aspects (voice leading, fingerings, and so forth). Then I extract a set of parts, always keeping in mind the fingerings and the bowings, though not writing them down. I have the parts edited by teachers who know their instruments and who know students. Finally I photocopy a set of parts and have the arrangement played. Often the performance of the music suggests that changes should be made, which involves going back to the drawing board. This is when I remember that an eraser is an arranger’s best friend. Writing is fun, but re-writing is drudgery.

In an arrangement for full orchestra, how do you keep all of the parts interesting?
   All of the parts should be readable, reasonably melodic, and rhythmically interesting. There is some truth in the saying, “If you can’t sing it, you can’t play it.” Of course, what is melodic for the flute and what is melodic for the tuba are not the same.
   When I write a trombone part, I try to consider how I would feel if I were a trombonist playing that part. I would not care to have 64 measures of rest. Neither would I care to be playing all of the time, as the strings often do.
   Every part should be difficult enough to be challenging, but should not be so difficult as to be discouraging. Each player in the orchestra needs to feel that he is a member of the team and that he is making an essential contribution.
   By the way, I tried to explain and illustrate these principles in a book that I wrote several years ago called Practical Orchestration, published by Robbins Music.

How important is editing?
   Music to be played by school orchestras must be edited. It is of vital importance that the published parts include some bowings, fingerings, valve combinations, and slide positions. Young string players need to be instructed and reminded when to slur and when not to, when and where to shift positions, and whether to use an open string or the fourth finger.
   Brass players need to be reminded how to finger some of the notes in the sharp keys because they are more accustomed to playing in flat keys in band. It is just as important to remind woodwind players, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to indicate woodwind fingerings in the parts.
   There are times when the orchestra director may wish to change some of the markings in the music. However, a busy director just doesn’t have the time to fully edit all of the parts. Skillful editing, by editors who know students, helps the busy orchestra teacher. It is a must!

When you start to make an arrangement, do you know what the grade of difficulty will be?
   In an arrangement for string orchestra, the principal melody (usually in the first violin part) determines the overall grade of difficulty for the piece. All of the other parts should be written according to the standard set by the principal melody.
   If the first violin part is playable in the first position, the cello part shouldn’t include a tenor clef. The second violin part should be less difficult than the first violin part. In works written for professional musicians, however, this is often not the case. Some second violin parts are more difficult and less interesting than the first violin parts.

Many arrangements of music in the standard repertoire are considered to be watered down or seriously compromised. Are there ways of avoiding this problem?
   Simplified versions of the classics help both players and audiences become acquainted with the standard orchestral literature. For these arrangements, the parts need to be within the technical and musical capabilities of the students and within the teaching time and capabilities of the teacher. All of the parts have to be readable, playable, interesting, and understandable.
   When arranging a well-known classic, the melody and the harmony must not be changed, though the inside voices may be altered to make them easier to play. Sometimes a change of key is advisable. For example, if the original work is in the key of A, many string players would have difficulties playing in that key. By lowering the key a half-step to G, the music becomes much easier for the string players, though not for the winds. Whether in A   or G, the music sounds the same to the listeners.
   Some slow movements of the classics are written in I meter. This requires many eighth notes and sixteenth notes, making the printed music look dark and difficult. When this music is written in 1 meter, it is much easier to read, though it sounds just the same.
   Sometimes an arrangement is shorter than the original. For example, a movement of a symphony may consist of several sections: introduction, exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda. When the selection is shortened, ideally all of these sections are shortened proportionately.
   An arranger has to study students, instruments, and music to be able to change the notation and the grade of difficulty without changing the beauty and the effectiveness of the music. An arrangement of a well-known classic, even though simplified and abridged, should be just as beautiful and just as musically satisfying as the original.

What kinds of music do students enjoy most and how do they benefit by playing in an orchestra?
   Students, as a rule, enjoy playing music that is loud and fast, lively and rhythmic. They don’t like to play easy music or slow music. String players like to play fast, but they don’t play very loud. Brass players can play loud, but they don’t play very fast. A person can enjoy playing an instrument by himself, but it is much more enjoyable to make music as a member of a group.
   Students derive many benefits from playing in an orchestra. The intellectual outcomes include knowledge and understanding about music and musicians, about musical instruments, about how organizations function, and about working with other people to achieve a common goal.
   Members of an orchestra experience feelings and emotions through the music they play. They develop interests, attitudes, and appreciations. They learn about teamwork (cooperation) and about accepting responsibilities. They learn to be at the right place at the right time. They learn about life!
   Students of instrumental music use fingers, hands, arms, and tongues to develop motor skills needed for fingerings, bowings, and articulations. Schools work to develop the human brain, but neglect to develop the human hand. Without the hand to write, there would be nothing for the brain to read. Playing in an orchestra develops the head, the heart, and the hands. Music is important because it does things for people.

What is the most important responsibility of the director of a school orchestra?
   The most important responsibility of any teacher is to further the education of the students. In the case of the teacher who directs a school orchestra, selecting the right music — at the right time — is an important part of this responsibility.
   Selecting the right music involves the likes and dislikes of the teacher, the students, the parents, and the community. For the teacher, it involves his own abilities as well as those of his students. To be considered are the purpose, the grade of difficulty, the interest level, the instrumentation, the availability of the music, and the budget.
   The purpose of a school orchestra is to provide students with the best musical experiences possible so that they may learn and grow. Students should experience success rather than failure. As music directors, it is our job to guide young people in successful performances and to help them enjoy the kind of music that we enjoy.
   It is our job, also, to teach young 
people that it is more fun to play music than merely to listen to it, and that
 the better we can play the more fun it
 is. Simply stated, the more you put in to it, the more you get out of it.           

Since 1923 Alexander M. Harley has had a notable career as a pioneer in the field of music education. In 1936 he and his wife, Frances, founded Modern Music Masters, now known worldwide as Tri-M Music Honor Society for student musicians. In 1986 Harley was the first recipient of M.E.N.C.’s Music Educator of the Year award.