The workshops here in Japan cover a lot of teaching artist ground, and sometimes we are able to drill down into a specific area of work. One teaching artist function is to collaborate with students in the creation of a new musical work. The students are charged with creating a melody, and the teaching artist fashions an accompaniment, so the piece can be performed. Teaching artists then become harmonizers and arrangers. One of the professors here, Tomomi Ohrui from Senzuko College of Music, asked a question, my responses below:
“...which reminds me of my question for you: do you have a routine work to develop the sense for harmonization just as we performers need to at least be able to maneuver scales and arpeggios at all times? I want to develop the skill to make more interesting accompaniments. I think what you have been doing in your community work is really wonderful.”
Here are a few steps:
1. Analyze the melody for its tonal center. Most often, there will be a tonal center that the participants have used because they are working by ear. Other times they may wander away from the tonal center and return, still other times there may not be a clear tonal center at all. Then you need to decide how you will treat the idea of the scale degree 1. If the work is truly atonal (this is very rare), you can decide on the most important set of intervals to emphasize. The more time you spend getting to know the melody and the harmonies they imply, the easier it will be when you sit down at the piano. My advice here is wait until you are completely versed in the melody before you touch the piano. It can also be useful to analyze the melody's scalar content (is it all pentatonic? diatonic? octatonic? etc.), and notice what it is doing rhythmically.
2. Every melodic phrase can have its direction: will it reaffirm the tonic? Will it move away from the tonic? Is it headed for a modulation? Is it creating harmonic tension or is it relaxing? I usually plan out the harmonic scheme by improvising under the beginning and the end phrases. Once I have the essential sound or progression of those phrases, then the arc between them becomes clearer.
3. These original melodies may not be ideal from a harmonic point of view. But even so, you look for the strength and special characteristics they have and try to bring those out. If there is a specific emotional goal, you try to bring that to the accompaniment, even if the melodic idea might be weak or incomplete. As the teaching artist, you can bring your best artistic self to this work, acknowledging that it is a collaboration.
4. I always bring a draft of the accompaniment to the students, play it for them and then ask them for input. Sometimes they are amazed and love it and have no edits to suggest. Other times they have very strong opinions and want things to be different, and I try my best to accommodate, demonstrating other possibilities and solutions. Sometimes this is the richest learning experience for all of us.
5. Once I have completed the accompaniment I write it out and give it to the students. Sometimes there is a student who already plays piano, and they enjoy learning (or trying to learn) the part. Even if they are not music-readers, I like them to see what the work looks like.
6. The best way to learn how to do this work is to do it. The more pieces you harmonize, the easier it will become, and the more you will recognize your own harmonic tendencies, your own harmonic vocabulary. This is a good thing, and it will probably tell you a lot about the music you know and the music you love - much of it will come out in your accompaniments.
I know this is a big field and it takes many years of compositional training, but maybe you can share what you think is useful to work on.
Compositional training can help, but if you play by ear or practice songwriting, these things can be equally helpful. Sometimes being "up in your head" about the work can be an obstacle rather than a help. Sometimes it is better to try things and use your instinct. (I realize this might seem like it is in conflict with the steps above, but it really isn't. Analysis can take a lot of forms, and sometimes the best way to analyze a melody is to play it, sing it, and memorize it. That will probably tell you a lot.)
I hope this helps! Feel free to ask followups or we can discuss further.
More soon, from Kobe and Kyoto!