10 Questions with arranger Dr. Ed George

Dr. Ed George

Sing Song’s 57th annual musical extravaganza opens Friday night for three shows in Moody Coliseum. Tickets are still available for Friday (7 p.m.) and Saturday (2 p.m.) performances. Saturday night’s show is sold out. Tickets can be purchased online.

A special “preview show” is underway tonight in which patrons simply pay at the door and sit where they please.

One of the longtime music arrangers for Sing Song is Dr. Ed George (’61), professor emeritus of music who has helped bring life to the lyrics of women’s social club Sigma Theta Chi for the past 12 years. The Siggies won the women’s division six straight years and eight of nine years from 2002-10, all with George as their arranger.

Arranger is a crucial role in the performance, bringing together lyrics with pre-determined music that entertains the audience and makes an impression on judges. Their role is highly managed by Sing Song rules, with limited access to coach the group’s participants.

“Song selection is a big deal,” says Tom Craig (’89), director of student productions. “We conduct a random draw, group by group, and each one chooses a song until they have a total of 10. No song can be assigned twice. After the group writes its lyrics, they take them to the arranger, with a list of their approved songs, and the arranger goes to work. Groups try to pick songs that blend with their overall performance concept. Some prefer more familiar songs to the audience, while others choose songs popular to their own generation. The key is to figure out what plays well to the audience and to the judges.”

George plays multiple instruments and taught at ACU from 1969-2001, serving as professor and chair of the Department of Music, and director of the orchestra. In the 1970s he directed the Hilltoppers, a talented group of students who played pop music shows and toured overseas for the USO (United Service Organization) and the U.S. Department of Defense. The Hilltoppers toured seven times, performing for U.S. military deployed in Europe; the Caribbean, Pacific and Mediterranean islands; and the Far East. He conducted the orchestra at ACU Homecoming musicals for 21 years, and composed music for the 1981 inauguration of Dr. William J. Teague (’52), the university’s ninth president, and for Abilene 1906, ACU’s Centennial musical in 2005.

George was longtime conductor of the ACU Orchestra

How have you stayed busy with music in your retirement years?

After my retirement in 2001, I did quite a bit of guest conducting, especially with the Abilene Philharmonic. One year the orchestra was involved in a national search for a conductor, and it did an entire season with different guest conductors. I conducted all the pops concerts that year.

I have written arrangements for several decades, and after retirement I had more time to spend doing that. There are some orchestras in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that still call on me to write for them.

The fall semester after I retired, I was asked to continue teaching the Orchestration and Arranging class as an adjunct professor. That class, and Music History, were always my favorite ones to teach, so I agreed to stay on until the department could find someone else. One of the full-time instructors in the music department will probably teach the class in the fall semester of 2013.

I have been involved with the annual West Texas Rehabilitation Center Telethon since it started in 1971. I performed in the orchestra for many years, I conducted the orchestra for nearly 20 years, and now I help coordinate the music for the telecast. I write all the special music for the show and write for the guest artists who don’t have their own arrangements. I still play one of the saxophone parts in the show.

How were you involved in Sing Song before 2001?

I came to ACC in 1957 as a transfer student from Cisco College. The previous spring semester was the first year for Sing Song. A very young William J. Teague (who later became ACU’s ninth president) was the master of ceremonies, filling in with dialogue while the groups would take their place on the stage of Sewell Auditorium. I have always been impressed with the quality of the vocal performances and the tremendous amount of work that goes into the presentations.

The following year (Spring 1958) I was asked to write an arrangement for the Frater Sodalis men’s social club; they won second place that year. I can’t remember the song I arranged, but I was excited to hear the arrangement, and awed that the group had spent so much time polishing and perfecting something written by some skinny kid from far West Texas who had grown up in a farm/ranch atmosphere.

I did a number of arrangements through the years for different groups; in the 1960s I wrote for GATA women’s social club for several years, and their performances were always superb. Sing Song was much different in those days; the groups would pick two or three popular songs and the arranger would present those songs in a variety of different musical styles. One year I was asked to arrange one song for GATA, “When I’m 64” by the Beatles. For four minutes, dressed as old men, they sang the song in ballad style, Latin style, jazz style, etc. At the end, with final rising chords, they took off their hats and all the girls had fake bald heads over their hair; the audience went crazy. I think that was the first Sing Song in Moody Coliseum.

When I joined the music faculty in 1969 I was the director of the Jazz Ensemble and for the next few years was heavily involved with the show each year. As time progressed I had less to do with the production, but still wrote arrangements, not only for the band, but also for different clubs. Over the years I was asked to help select the hosts and hostesses several times.

 What has made Sing Song such a popular event the past 56 years?

I think the alumni have as much to do with the popularity of Sing Song as current students. After the first few successful years of the show, tradition seems to have taken over and has helped perpetuate it. Limiting the number of rehearsals and being mindful of the number of hours students work on the show has also helped extend the life of the concept. There will always be faculty detractors, and there also will be strong support by some members of the faculty. Sing Song officials will no doubt continue to tweak the event and search for ways to improve it.

While Sing Song performers are largely not trained vocalists, how much does our students’ traditional background in a cappella singing help you as an arranger?

In the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s, public school choral directors sought out students with a background in Churches of Christ because most of these students had grown up reading music and singing different parts (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) out of a hymn book. When churches and youth groups began projecting the words to hymns and camp songs on a screen, music teachers tried to guess how many generations it would take to “untrain” the music-reading skills of our youth. It took only one generation. In my opinion, our “traditional background” of a cappella singing no longer exists. But all is not lost – the students at Abilene Christian have always demonstrated wonderful abilities to “get the job done.” The leadership skills of the student directors have always amazed me, and the students’ ability to learn and sing the complicated arrangements by rote is marvelous. ACU can truly boast about having some of the brightest students in the nation.

What’s the process for arranging music for a social club’s performance?

Tracking the progress of a typical Sing Song arrangement in the “modern era” is as follows: (1) The clubs choose the songs they want to use in their act (parts of as many as 10 songs sung in 3.5 minutes); (2) the clubs select snippets of the songs and change the lyrics to fit their theme; (3) a copy of the snippets and lyrics are given to me; (4) I write the arrangement, keeping the song styles intact (recognizable) while making sure the parts are singable (vocalistic). Probably the most difficult aspect of writing the arrangement is keeping the parts within a rather limited range and still creating an exciting and interesting sound. Another difficult detail of the arrangement is converting the style of the recording (jazz, rock, classical, country) into a vocal style. Also, the arrangement must transition from one song to the next with smooth, unnoticeable modulations.

Sing Song rules say an arranger can only attend one practice with the group, for no more than 2.5 hours. Do you make that visit early or late in the rehearsal process, and why?

I will visit a rehearsal when asked, but I think the directors do a good job of ferreting out the problems as they come up. Because they have spent so much time with the group before I show up, they know a great deal more about the group’s ability and potential than I do. When I do visit a rehearsal I never stand in front of the group and conduct, nor do a quick clinic to try to solve all the problems in a short time. When I give the arrangement to the directors I will point out some things that might save them time in teaching a particular style or rhythm to the group. I usually leave the directors some written suggestions, and they can work on these things over several days rather than trying to take care of all the musical problems then and there.

With your music arrangements, the Siggies won seven straight years (2002-07), and nine of 10 years (2002-10). What’s the secret to their historical success?

I would like to take credit for their success, but it would be “stolen” credit. I think all the arrangers would downplay how much weight the arrangements carry as the groups move forward with their rehearsals. The successful groups are super organized (they can get 65 minutes out of a one-hour rehearsal), and they have delegated lots of authority to capable section leaders who are responsible for most of the part-learning. I would say the director and the section leaders are much more important than the arrangement. A good arrangement can be an aid in time management and save rehearsal hours, but the leaders of the groups deserve the credit when a group succeeds.

George retired in 2001 but maintains a busy schedule as a musician, writer and conductor.

Would you accept an honorary membership in Sigma Theta Chi?

I have never thought about that. Would I have to wear lipstick?

Sing Song performers are now young enough to be your grandchildren. How many more Sing Songs do you have in you?

This doesn’t have a lot to do with physical labor; as long as my mind is still “hitting on all its cylinders,” I could do this for many more years. Speaking of grandchildren, my grandson performed with the sophomore class a couple of years ago, and I have a granddaughter singing in a club this weekend.

One of Sigma Theta Chi’s club colors is yellow. Is there any of that in your wardrobe?

To be honest, I was not aware that yellow is one of their colors; I think I remember working on “Yellow Submarine” for the Siggies about 10 years ago. When I was a student at ACU in the 1950s, I was asked to be in a men’s social club but I turned them down because of their colors – heliotrope and beige!


4 Comments

  1. Marian Piersall
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 9:08 am | Permalink

    Great blog, and your sense of humor really comes through. And for the record, I think that lipstick would really look good on you.

  2. Dan Smith
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:32 am | Permalink

    Great tribute to a great musician and friend. Wonderful memories of the Big Purple. Your ministry to Fessor (Fry) was truly loving. God bless, Ed.

  3. Dwayne Brown
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    Ed, I would like to commend you for what you did for Fessor. I know it was trying and a difficult time for both of you. I called you shortly before Fessor died but didn’t find out when he died for some time after that. I hope ACU is planning on some program to honor him. I certainly enjoyed being in the Big Purple while I was at ACC.

    Again, thanks for helping Fessor.

  4. Kendall Massey
    Posted December 2, 2013 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

    I took orchestration from Dr. George in the 1990s and consider him a good friend. He plays more than just multiple instruments, he plays every instrument in the orchestra. He is an impressive musician on many levels and an even more impressive man. I love this article, love the pictures and love the man. Thank you Dr. George!

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