Michael Row That Boat Ashore - Variation One - quickneasy

Complexity Level: very simple - could be taught by ear

Parts: SAB

Genre: spiritual - verse and refrain

Deets: D Minor  4/4

We've used Michael for pop up choirs at folk festivals and other workshops for a few years now. It's such a great piece because everyone knows the tune and the words and our modal change to the natural minor is easy to feel and fun to sing.  Folks learn it by ear very quickly so we mostly haven't used sheet music to teach it - I only wrote down this quick n easy arrangement a few months ago. 

This week I've been thinking about the things I've learnt over the years writing for community choirs, and I wanted to share some thoughts about how I approached this piece. 

Keys and Passaggio

I often put things in D. D means baritones (the most common male voice) will be able to sing a solid low dominant and subdominant. D also means the men will be able to sing a high tonic without needing to access head voice -which is not always easy for untrained singers. This key also works well for women's voices. In my experience, many women in community choirs are more comfortable in their heavier mechanism. This key means for many songs the tune sits where women can stay in their heavy mechanism. It's a balance. if the key is lower women can be more comfortable but are more likely to sing heavier and pull the pitch down. If the key is higher, and the choir doesn't have time to work on techniques for higher singing, some women can feel uncomfortable and awkward. D feels like a good middle ground to address these things.  


I changed a couple of lyrics. I like "Michael Row THAT Boat" - "That" is punchier than the neutral vowel in "The" so there's more invitation to rhythmic singing in the phrase. I also changed "Allelujah" to "Allelu". Partly my ears just liked the sound better, partly I find the 'oo' vowel keeps singers engaged better, so the ends of the phrases tend to have more energy and the song stays more in tune.

The Lines

I feel like basses understand note 1 and note 5 - that they can always find their way to these two notes. I use these notes as anchors and move by step when I want to get to different notes. I didn't keep the rhythmic bass line Emlyn first sang. It's great, but it isn't quick n easy.

You'll see in this song I've relied on parallel thirds for the altos and sopranos. I feel like most community singers have a good instinct for parallel third harmonising, and that altos feel at ease when they are following the same melodic contour as the sopranos. I have found that the old voice leading rule of don't move if you don't have to - repeat the same note whenever you can, probably comes from writing for congregations singing from hymnals. It makes reading easy, but it doesn't lead to melodic lines. (I've also discovered community singers relish the feeling of singing in parallel fifths and octaves, so I use them without apology..) Community choirs learn fastest, sing best and have the most enjoyment when every part has a tuneful line. When I'm arranging for community choirs I keep singing through each part thinking - can this be more tuneful, can I make a better melody for these singers?

Next week I'll share how I changed this arrangement for a junior high school choir.

See Emlyn's and my original two part version of Michael here.