Pam Wedgwood is recognised as one of the most successful composers of popular repertoire for performers young and old. In her 61st year, she is still as prolific as ever – producing several new volumes of original repertoire, not to mention fitting in a cycling trip around India. And with Faber Music’s acquisition of International Music Publications in 2005, bringing access to Warner Chappell and EMI’s vast catalogues of pop and jazz copyrights, Pam is turning her hand more and more to arranging. Leigh Rumsey caught up with her to ask about the arranging process…
LR: The new Up-Grade Jazz! books feature jazz classics by the great American songwriters Gershwin and Cole Porter, as well as Disney hits in a jazzy style. Up-Grade Pop! is even more diverse, with Robbie Williams’s ‘Angels’, Queen’s ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ and James Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’. How do you go about choosing which songs to arrange?
PW: First and foremost, they have to be songs that I like! I am much more familiar with the jazz genre than modern pop songs, however I have enjoyed getting to know this genre too. I always listen to the song first on Itunes, and my sons, Olly and Sam (who are both musicians) have given me useful suggestions. You have to be quite careful in the choice of song, as some pop songs don’t really work when they are simplified, as they tend to rely more on the vocals to provide interest rather than the harmony. With jazz there’s the opposite problem, that often the harmony is quite complex. And of course there’s the copyright clearance aspect to take into account too.
LR: Once you’ve chosen which songs to include, how easy is it to arrange them for piano?
PW: The Grade 0-1 books were particularly tricky, as you can imagine! The choice of repertoire is really determined by the difficulty level here. You only have a very small range of notes to play with, and single notes in each hand (though the odd two-note chord does creep in!). With all my arrangements – in After Hours Jazz and It’s Never Too Late to Play Jazz too – it’s about creating a balance between what the original composer intended, and putting my own mark on the piece.
LR: You’re obviously most well-known by piano teachers and pupils as a composer, and have also recently published another volume in the ‘It’s Never Too Late’ series, It’s Never Too Late to Play Pam Wedgwood – a book of your original pieces. Do you enjoy arranging as much as composing? Had you done much arranging in the past?
PW: As a French Horn player I had done some arranging for wind ensembles, and the odd piece for a piano pupil, but otherwise no! The arranging process is quite challenging when you’re used to being less constrained musically. I do find I have to rein myself in sometimes, if I stray too far from the original song! I have to be in the right mindset for arranging – it’s more of a technical challenge for me. The enjoyment tends to come at the end, when I try it out on a pupil and find that it really works. At first I was worried that concentrating on arranging would limit my creative skills when it came to composing, but it hasn’t proven a problem so far! I’m lucky that I can intersperse my composing and arranging work, for variety.
LR: How can arrangements be useful in the teaching process? How do you find pupils respond to playing pieces they know?
PW: Providing repertoire that pupils enjoy is the key to maintaining their enthusiasm, and therefore their improvement. So arrangements of tunes that they know are great for this, as the stimulus comes from them. They can often overcome tricky technical issues in this way too. I had a pupil who was desperate to play ‘Reach’ by S Club 7 (from the Up-Grade! Pop series), and even though it was beyond her usual capability, she managed to learn it perfectly!